Of Dickens and Jesus

My sermon from September 29, 2019.

Texts:  Amos 6:1, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31  Lessons for 16 Pentecost

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Dear people of God, grace to you and peace this day through God in Christ.  Amen.

Income inequality.

This is an issue that is hotly debated in our country, and indeed around the world.  It’s an issue that we would term “political.”

I’d like to defuse that word a little bit.  We tend to use the word “political” as a substitute for “partisan.”

But one of the definitions of “political” in the Merriam Webster dictionary is this:

the total complex of relations between people living in society

I find this to be very helpful.  It’s based on the Greek and Latin root words poly and polis which mean “of the people.”

And throughout all of scripture, the Divine is deeply and intimately involved with “the total complex of relations between people living in society.”

Our lessons today, all four of them, dive into income inequality, which is by no means only a modern issue.  It’s an issue that God directs the prophet Amos to call out.  That Paul warns Timothy about.  That the Psalmist reminds us of, with God’s attention to the marginalized and oppressed.  And that Jesus makes brutally clear with the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

That is a story full of intense images – images that we see all too often.  Just a couple of weeks ago, in our public national discourse, comments were made about rich investors being turned off to a building because of the homeless folks sheltering themselves in the doorway.

Issues of housing affordability and income inequality collide and are lived in the houseless population of the United States.

But in order to really consider this issue, it’s important to remember that Jesus is not condemning the rich man for being rich.

Rather, the issue is that the rich man doesn’t even see Lazarus.

When we see one another, that is when relationship begins.

There is a phrase that’s used a lot right now:  “I see you.”  It’s a phrase that offers affirmation and validation, letting a person know that they matter and that their concerns are also our concerns, because we are all in this together – whether that’s as citizens of this country, members of the same group, or as children of God.

I believe this is what Jesus finds lacking with the rich man.  He doesn’t see Lazarus, and so he doesn’t respond to him.  The rich man has the means to respond, but is so self-absorbed that he doesn’t.

The prophet Amos calls out Israel in our first lesson.  Amos lived in the time when Israel was at its most prosperous.  Jeroboam was on the throne, and the surrounding nations were weak; Jeroboam used that reality to greatly expand the kingdom of Israel.

As tends to happen in times of great prosperity, the income inequality and disparity of living conditions became quite severe.  Amos describes people living in outrageous extravagance while ignoring the “ruin of Joseph”, another name for Israel.  The “ruin” is the large swath of people who’ve been left out of the prosperity.  God has gifted some people with great wealth, says Amos, and the reason for that is so they can participate in God’s kingdom by sharing that wealth.

Let me say that again: participate in God’s kingdom by sharing the wealth.

In my few short weeks here, I’ve observed that you do this well.  What God has entrusted to you, you share with your neighbors.

But as I thought about these stories, I was reminded that not only are we called to serve the neighbor who is poor, but also the neighbor who is rich.  As Paul writes to Timothy in our second lesson, “to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

With our neighbor who is poor, we work to free them from poverty, oppression, marginalization.  What about our neighbor who is wealthy?

Perhaps we are called to free them from greed.  From self-absorption.  From an uncaring attitude.

In my lifetime, I’ve observed that the most profound changes of heart come as a result of getting to know someone.  In other words – relationship.  When SOTH journeyed through the RIC process, forming relationships with LGBTQ folks provided the opportunity to be opened to new ideas and new possibilities around peoples’ sexuality, and realizing that “all are welcome” really means all.

Likewise, when someone of means is provided the opportunity to share their wealth, the door is opened to the possibility that their heart will be forever changed.  Many people are just waiting to be asked.  I’ve been told by colleagues that the best way to engage donors in the work you’re doing is to introduce them to a beneficiary of their giving.  Let them hear the story of the person their dollars helped.  Let them get to know that person.

It’s about relationship.  Human interaction.

The work of literature that best illustrates this set of lessons is hands-down Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  You know the story.  Ebeneezer Scrooge is a bitter, grumpy miser with no family, no friends, and no patience for compassion towards anyone or anything.

He is visited by the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley.  Marley informs him that he will be visited by “three spirits” over the course of the next few days, for the purpose of helping Scrooge to avoid Marley’s fate.

Note the parallel between Dickens and Jesus’ story: Abraham tells the rich man that even if his brothers were to behold someone risen from the dead, they wouldn’t believe him.

Certainly that is the situation with Scrooge.  You may notice that Marley doesn’t give him a choice.  The three spirits are coming, like it or not.  Scrooge is agitated, but his heart has not yet been moved.

And that is, of course, the point of the story.  For it is in the revisiting of his life, the re-experiencing of old relationships, that Scrooge begins to see through new eyes.

But only a bit.  In the fourth stave when Scrooge is led by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to his own gravestone, Scrooge reacts out of terror and promises that he will keep Christmas.  We still do not see Scrooge’s experience of metanoia, of turning and going a new way.  Not yet.

That doesn’t happen until the fifth and final stave of the story.

In that fifth and final stave, Scrooge is brought back to the here and now.  It is Christmas Day!  He hasn’t missed it!

Contrary to his former behavior, Scrooge develops a relationship with everyone he encounters.  Scrooge not only develops new relationships, but re-forms and deepens old ones.

And he is thereby changed.  He has been given an opportunity to share what he has, and in the wake of his newly opened heart, he discovers the joy that generosity brings.

Joy like his silly chuckling while plotting to send an enormous turkey to Bob Cratchit’s house.  His running into the gentlemen who’d been raising money for the poor the day before, and pledging to them today far more than they could even believe.  His appearance at his nephew Fred’s house today, after basically throwing Fred out of the office the day before.

And of course, his complete surprise for Bob Cratchit the next morning, even as Bob thought he ought to call for Scrooge to be taken to hospital:

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

 

Scrooge has discovered the unparalleled joy of generosity.  He has found that greed is about getting, but Gospel is about giving.  And ultimately it is gospel living that brings us great joy and fulfillment.  Not because we expect to receive something, but because it is the right thing to do.  Luther put it this way: “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.”

The numbers around income inequality in this country – and indeed, in the world – are so staggering as to be paralyzing.  It’s important for us to be mindful of the scripture we’ve heard today.  And I think it’s also helpful to remember that when we reach out, when we actually see the person we are helping, it makes all the difference.

From Dickens:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them….. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.  …..and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

Dear friends, what we do today, matters.

How we are moved to respond to need with generosity, matters.

That we open our lives and our hearts to God’s transformative love, matters.

And that we live that transformative love in serving others, matters too.

Shepherd of the Hills does an extraordinary job in this realm.  I would encourage us all to invite others to join us in this work that connects us all to one another and to God in Christ.

It is not easy work.

But it is desperately needed, by so many.

“God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does.”

May we continue to live by that reminder from Luther, so that all may know Christ’s love.

Amen.

The Dawn From on High

Today, for the 25th year, my congregation observed Native American Sunday.  We are honored to have Native members in our congregation of many ages, and are blessed with their wisdom and generosity.  We heard words today of legend and vision, as well as pain and hardship.  This is the basic outline of how I wrapped up the time of native words and reflection.

Text:  Luke 1:68-79  (Song of Zechariah – Contemporary English Version)

68 Praise the Lord,

    the God of Israel!
He has come
    to save his people.
69 Our God has given us
    a mighty Savior[a]
from the family
    of David his servant.
70 Long ago the Lord promised
by the words
    of his holy prophets
71 to save us from our enemies
and from everyone
    who hates us.
72 God said he would be kind
to our people
and keep
    his sacred promise.
73 He told our ancestor Abraham
74 that he would rescue us
    from our enemies.
Then we could serve him
    without fear,
75 by being holy and good
    as long as we live.

76 You, my son, will be called
a prophet of God
    in heaven above.
You will go ahead of the Lord
to get everything ready
    for him.
77 You will tell his people
    that they can be saved
when their sins
    are forgiven.
78 God’s love and kindness
    will shine upon us
like the sun that rises
    in the sky.[b]
79 On us who live
in the dark shadow
    of death
this light will shine
to guide us
    into a life of peace.

 

In the tender compassion of our God,

The dawn from on high shall break upon us.

 We’ve heard from native writers and native voices

So what does it mean for us?

This gospel text from Luke is the Song of Zechariah

You may recall Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, would become

pregnant with the child who would be John the Baptist

Her husband, Zechariah, was visited by an angel

who told him what was going to happen

He didn’t believe the angel, and his speech was gone until the baby was born

When John was born, his father sang this song

It’s now the gospel passage that is traditionally sung in morning prayer

And I think about the native voices we’ve heard today,

and this passage sounds like something I would hear in a native context

Because the Great Creator loves us,

the sun will bring light and warmth to us once more

I think some of you are familiar with Father Richard Rohr

(If you aren’t, his work is worth your time)

In his online devotion, Father Richard explored this week

the concept of peacemaking

And that echoes for me in the story Ole told us about the two wolves, in the words from Black Elk that Dave read, and the words Marva shared from Richard Twist

Will we work towards peace, or towards conflict

There is much conflict in our world now

And peace will not come about with a new day,

But as the result of the hard work of people of peace, together with God’s tender compassion

Richard Twist’s words about the need for reconciliation remind me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s distinction between cheap grace – grace without repentance – and costly grace, which is the grace that comes about with true repentance

The Greek word is metanoia, to turn a go a new direction

You may have read this week of Greta Thunberg,

The 16-yr-old Swedish young woman who sailed

Across the Atlantic to the US for a UN event,

to address Congress, and to lead the general strike

on the topic of climate change

The 13 Indigenous Grandmothers have spoken of this too

They are a group of indigenous women organized in 2004 from around the world

to address the issues of climate change and harm to Mother Earth

One of them is Agnes Baker Pilgrim, a relative of Marva’s

Today, they are gathered together in upstate New York

talking and praying around issues of water and land

and working on the preservation of the planet for

the generations to come

We had no idea this was happening until we looked up Grandmother Agnes yesterday

So what does all this have to do with God?  With Jesus?

It’s actually all intertwined

As Lutheran Christians, we understand that in Christ

We are freed to serve the neighbor in thanksgiving to God

And that means that our relationship with God and Christ

takes precedence over our allegiance to anything else

This is difficult for us in many ways

But it really is the key to the inbreaking peaceable realm of God

For if we are more than anything devoted to God

then we can imagine a gathering of the peoples of the earth

There is no vetting of what anyone is wearing, or doing

But simply a sense of gratitude for people gathered to give praise to the Creator

It might look different from what we are used to

but that itself is what gives us a sense of the breadth of God’s love and grace

Encompassing all peoples, all times, and all places

Drawing us all together under the shelter of the Creator

So that we might understand that we are all related

Not only to one another, but to the earth

And that God calls us to live in a peaceable rhythm

With one another, and with all the earth

That is when the dawn from on high shall indeed break upon us.

Amen.

 

Discipleship and Cruise Ships

My sermon from September 8, 2019.  Not the easiest text.  I’m still pondering Jesus’ words.

Luke 14.25-33

25Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our gracious God, through Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

Welcome this morning to the world of hyperbole Jesus.  Where he says outrageous things to get our attention.

In our day and age, one could say that Scripture is almost imitating life here.

But is what Jesus saying hyperbole, or does he actually mean it?  It’s so off-base for him that it does indeed get our attention.

He follows that up with a story about construction project estimating, and a second story that seems like an excerpt from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”

And then he ends with “if you can’t give up your possessions you can’t be my disciple.”

Whether this is hyperbole Jesus or whiplash Jesus is anyone’s guess.  Bottom line, there’s a lot to think about here, as we explore what might be Jesus’ core message in this particular passage.

The beginning portion that discusses hating family is the strangest part.  But let’s consider when Luke’s gospel was written – likely around 80-90 CE.  This is after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  Christians are being persecuted across the empire in a variety of ways.  The author of this gospel is speaking to people who have very possibly suffered the loss of family because of their choice to follow the Jesus movement – at that time, it was called “the Way.”

So what Jesus is saying might be something of a reflection of the ostracizing that Luke’s audience may have already encountered.  It could easily be a word of comfort to his audience – albeit one spoken in a kind of code.

But this is a good place to remember that we read all of Scripture through the lens of Christ.  I think Jesus is emphasizing to us here that our allegiances can get divided and distracted very easily – but it is to God alone that we owe ultimate allegiance.  So maybe a way to consider this part of the text is to think not that you would “hate” your family, but that you would love the elderly around you as much as your own parents.  That you would love the children around you as much as your own young relatives or children.  That you would love the stranger as much as you would love your own sibling.

It’s a way of shifting our thinking about family from solely that of our immediate family, to the family of God.  A shift that forces us to go bigger.

The word translated as “hate” is more accurately translated, within Jesus’ Jewish context, as “turn away from.”  Perhaps we are called to turn away from a definition of “family” that is limited only to our own folk and embrace a definition that is set by God.  A definition that includes all.

And let’s be honest: doing that can get you hated by both family and friend.

Let’s hold that for a moment, this broader definition of “family.”  Let’s turn to the examples Jesus uses: construction estimation and preparation for war.

What are these about?

Discipleship is not a pleasure cruise.  Discipleship is not something that you sign up for to just get some little goodie for free in the mail.

Discipleship is something that not only rewards, but requires.

We have a number of sayings along these lines: “to those whom much is given, much is required.”  And “no pain, no gain.”

But even those don’t quite capture the depth that Jesus is trying to impart here.

You see, being a faithful disciple of Jesus – now, I think, just as much as then – means that you are taking a risk.

Risks that run the gamut from being shunned to your life being endangered.

When you are a follower of Jesus, you are part of a movement that works to usher in the peaceable realm of God.  And that peaceable realm is one that stands over against the evils that plague the earth, and the bad behavior of those who perpetuate those evils.

This is why Jesus uses the two examples: to emphasize the gravity of what he’s saying.

With the first example, it’s more personal: did you run the numbers properly so you know whether or not you can afford to build this thing?  The price that would be paid for failing to do so would be ridicule, and likely repossession of the property by some authority at some point.

But the example he uses of war carries far greater stakes: if the king with an army of 10,000 goes into battle against one of 20,000 it is highly likely that wholesale slaughter will occur.

This is one of the most unethical moves a military commander can make.

In the musical “Hamilton” George Washington recalls an ill-advised move he made early in his career that cost the lives of several of his soldiers.  He is haunted by that memory for the rest of his life.

Jesus uses the example to make the point that if you are going to make a momentous decision, get informed.  Look at the big picture.  Consider what the cost might be.

So what does Jesus mean next when he talks about “you can only be my disciple if you give up all your possessions”?

The obvious thing to consider is the literal question: does he mean, like, get rid of all my STUFF?

Which begs a question in return: how much does your stuff own you?

And the two examples he just gave might break that open.  If your calculations about following Jesus get hopelessly bogged down in the details of dealing with the complications of your life, then there is some food for thought.

In stories throughout this gospel, starting last Advent, we’ve heard over and over how Jesus makes it clear that allegiance to God is the ONLY allegiance that matters.  For us, as it was for his followers then, that presents a challenge.

Are we Christians first, or (fill in the blank) first?  And if we are Christians first, what does that mean in our daily life?

Dear friends, here is what I think is the good news in the midst of these very serious and difficult questions:

GOD. LOVES. YOU.

God loves you before you even blink an eye.

And that means that these questions, these existential quandaries we find ourselves wrestling with, are perpetual.  I don’t believe we are called to solve them in the next five minutes or so.  I do believe that we struggle with this throughout our lives, and from time to time make some progress in one way or another.

And I wonder: could THAT be the cross Jesus speaks of to this crowd?

Is the cross he mentions the one of the journey – the one that represents the continuing struggle, the daily quest to discern God’s call in our lives?

The cross that reminds us that we are not there yet – but we are on the way.  We know the cross to be both an instrument of torture of the Roman empire, and the symbol of resurrection for all who follow Christ.

In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, these themes ring loud and true throughout.  The hobbit Frodo is charged with carrying the ring to Mordor so its evil power can be subsumed.  That is his cross, something he carries so that the world might be saved.

But it is Frodo’s friend, the hobbit Samwise Gamgee, whose cross stands out here.  Sam has determined not to leave his friend, and accompanies him on his journey.

At the end of the second part, The Two Towers, things are embroiled in struggle, in battles both at Isengard and Helm’s Deep.  Frodo and Sam are seeking the strength to keep going, to make the final leg of the journey to Mordor.  With destruction all around them, Frodo tells Sam he can’t keep going, but Sam encourages him, reminding him:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered…..Those were the stories that stayed with you.  They meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.  But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand.  I know now.  Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t.  They kept going.  Because they were holding onto something.”

Frodo asks, “what are we holding onto, Sam?”

And Sam replies, “that there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo…and it’s worth fighting for.”

The struggle we find ourselves in these days – is an eternal one.  It is the struggle of good and evil.  God has called us to this, but with a promise that God walks every step with us.

It is a struggle that is filled throughout with sorrow and difficulty – but also with moments and days of joy and celebration.  Time for reflection.  Things that remind us that there’s some good in this world.

You may have heard this week, of the pleasure cruise that became anything but.

Folks on a Caribbean cruise were informed that their ship would be rerouting in order to bring relief and supplies to folks in the Bahamas, where Hurricane Dorian wreaked unspeakable havoc this week.

Instead of being irate that their vacation was interrupted, the passengers pitched in to help make lunches for those impacted by the hurricane.  The children on board made cards to let folks know they were in folks’ thoughts and prayers for relief.

A pleasure cruise that embodied discipleship.  There’s a Lutheran paradox if ever I heard one.

Jesus reminds us in this story of the things that can distract us from the journey that gives us not only life, but life’s meaning.

May we continue to discern those things, and may we always be reminded that there IS good in this world.

And it’s worth fighting for, even in ways as simple as a sandwich from a cruise ship.

Amen.

Blessing is an active word

My sermon today reflected on the difference between seeking a blessing, and being one.

Luke 14:1-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Dear people of God, grace and peace be yours from our loving and welcoming God, through Christ our redeemer.  Amen.

Do we not find ourselves challenged – again – by Jesus’ actions in a well-known situation?

Pretty much everything he says and does at this particular event are the things my mother told me never EVER to do when invited to someone’s house for dinner.

Jesus calls out those in attendance as they jockey for position at the table.  Awkward.

Then he proceeds to tell his host who he SHOULD have invited.  Rude.

Not exactly the poster boy for either Emily Post’s “Etiquette”, or Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.

Is this the kingdom of God??

Well, let’s take a closer look.

In Luke’s gospel, there’s an overriding theme of “who’s in and who’s out.”  In so many episodes throughout this book, this is the center of gravity.  The main question being explored.  And this episode is no different.

In first-century, Roman-occupied Palestine, there were many sets of rules that governed the answer to that question.  The Roman system of patronage, roughly the equivalent of quid pro quo or even exchange, ruled civil life.  The Jewish temple laws told you how to live your religious side.  And both of them were transactional.  If you did a particular thing, you received another thing.  You pay a denarii, you get an item or service of that worth.  When you come to the temple, you bring an offering in order to receive God’s blessing.

What Jesus is laying out in this story is nothing less than the dismantling of BOTH systems.

Jesus proclaims a peaceable realm of God that is not at all transactional, but rather transformational, with its anchor in the lavish love and grace of the Creator.

Think of how he describes the seating arrangement.

He urges his hearers to willingly take the “lowest” seat, observing that perhaps the host might call them up to a more prestigious seat.

But I wonder if maybe Jesus is upending the whole idea of what constitutes a “prestigious” seat.

Think again about the suggestion he makes: take the lowest seat available.

No matter who you are, when you come to the table, there are no place cards.  And so you simply take a seat, not trying to sit next to the host.

What might happen?

Well, it is certainly possible that the host might invite you to take another seat.  But what if the host has done this deliberately, so that his guests might get to know each other over a meal?

Suddenly instead of seeking a blessing by being seated near or next to the host, the guests might become blessings to one another as they get to know one another.  As they begin to form relationships.

And suddenly all those seats that were seen as lowly or worthless before, are now just the same as all the others.  Filled with people who are conversing over a good meal, enjoying one another’s company, not sulking because they’re not sitting by the host but rather grateful that they’re having a great time.  This is a transformational experience.

Power and prestige – the building blocks of societies across history – don’t count in the kingdom of God.  Because in God’s kingdom, it’s about how God sees us, not about how we see one another.

Now, in all fairness, this would not be difficult to achieve at a dinner party at all.  The host could announce that there are no place cards this evening, and they hope that you will all find a seat near someone you don’t know well, and maybe get to know one another a little better.  Entirely do-able.

And perhaps Jesus has suggested that action first, precisely because it’s more do-able.  Now let’s look at the second half of Jesus’ outrageous behavior and remarks, which are not at all as do-able.

His instructions can be boiled down to two words:  “Invite THEM.”

You know – THEM.  THOSE people.  The guy who wanders around town muttering to himself.  The woman with the shopping cart full of all her stuff.  The addict.  The gang member.  The family from THAT area.

And here’s where the transformation can be the most profound, and the most difficult for us to experience.

This is the place where stuff gets real, sometimes TOO real.  But that is also where God meets us – in the real.  In the highs, yes – but most profoundly in the lows.

I want to share with you a story of the first time I really experienced what Jesus is suggesting in this parable.

In San Bernardino, east of Los Angeles, there is a neighborhood that is the poorest per-capita zip code in the United States.  That statistic allows not only for income, but for other factors including food desert likelihood, housing availability and costs, and so on.

This neighborhood, and most of the city, was deeply impacted by the closure of a nearby military base right on the heels of the closure of the Kaiser aluminum plant in the early 90s.  Jobs evaporated quicker than puddles on a hot summer day.  Unemployment skyrocketed, and despair set in.

In this area, five Lutheran churches combined forces and began the Central City Lutheran Mission in 1995.  One of the churches became the physical home for the mission, known widely as CCLM.

I attended an ELCA Global Mission music event there in 2012.  The final event of the weekend was Sunday worship at 5 PM, followed by a shared meal.

As we gathered in the sanctuary, I noticed that the congregation was not just “diverse” but a true reflection of these words of Jesus.  There were folks there from the surrounding, mainly Hispanic community; there were the homeless gentlemen who would sleep in the sanctuary that night; there were lots of other homeless folks; and there were a number of young folks who were likely gang members.

And there were us white people, including the church members who had come that afternoon to prepare and serve the meal.

The pastor reminded everyone that the font was filled with the water of life, and served as a reminder that each one of us was a beloved child of God.  “And if you ever doubt that,” he said, “if you need to remember that – you come right up here and dip your fingers in the water and make the sign of the cross on your forehead to remind yourself.”

As the service progressed, I noticed how this very diverse group of people found a way to worship together, allowing for all kinds of folks to be themselves.

After worship, everyone headed over to the hall for a hot meal.  We had gathered around Christ’s table together; and now everyone sat down together at the dinner tables – no groups or cliques.  I sat with one of the homeless gentlemen and another lady from the community, and we shared a meal and conversation.

And I realized, as I looked around the room – this was the kingdom of God.

In a somewhat run-down fellowship hall, in an area where the police hesitated to go, where gang violence is rampant – here was the kingdom of God.  The poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled – and so many more – were all seated at dinner together, welcomed by Christ the host.

I think Jesus tells these stories as a way for us to think more deeply about how we live our lives: are we moving through life seeking blessings, or are we moving through life seeking to BE a blessing?

Martin Luther put it this way: “God doesn’t need your good works – but your neighbor does.”  We are freed by grace to serve the neighbor.

When we pursue the path of being a blessing, we move towards that place where all possibility of self-promotion and leverage has been ruled out of our interactions with one another.  That’s when we glimpse the kingdom.  That’s what I saw that day in San Bernardino.  No one was trying to be better than anyone else, and every person was accepted and respected for who they were – a beloved child of God.

But when we obsess over our power, our prestige, or our position, we ultimately alienate ourselves from each other; from our relationships with one another and with God.

Dorothy Day, the Catholic social justice activist, wrote:

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”

This is the life to which Jesus invites us.  The life that comes with community, that is not without struggle, and that is ultimately realized in the breaking of the bread.

Come to the feast.

Amen.