Friday, September 26, 2014

ELCA Approval Essay Part 3: Proclamation and Content

Part 3: Proclamation and Content

This is a sermon that was preached November 10th, 2013 at First Lutheran Church in Bothell, WA.  I had been invited to do pulpit supply since their pastor was going out of town, with the help of Ryan Marsh presiding.  The text was from Matthew 25, where Jesus tells us that all of the things that you do for others, you do also for him.  The context of the day was Radical Hospitality Sunday.  First Lutheran was in the midst of discerning if they were going to be an R.I.C. congregation, and it was November - just before Thanksgiving and the Christmas shopping/charitable season.   Pr. Berg had told me that he was clear about asking me, a Deaconess candidate, to preach on this particular text and Sunday, because he wanted the congregation to be able to hear a call to radical hospitality from the margins, and from a non-traditional voice.   I wanted to be able to define a bit about who I was and where I came from, as well as give them comforting yet bold reasons to be radically hospitable.  I found the text to offer a solid amount of challenge and grace, because while it calls us to service, is also reminds us of the times we have already done it.   I found it to be a clear text and context to preach law and gospel together, in a relatively clear way.  
This was my very first sermon ever preached.  I believe that God was active in the preparation, because it was so clearly contextual for both myself and the Bothell First Lutheran community.  I found myself writing it and not really thinking too much about it.  I was absolutely nervous, because I was not a part of this community.  I only knew their theme of the day, and I had never met Pr. Berg before he asked me to preach.  But my nerves weren't in the writing of the message, only in the thought of presenting it.   Once I began, I could feel the anxiety lifting as I realized that I was standing firmly in my own space as a missional leader.  
I wanted the community to hear my words as liberating.  As a missional Deaconess, I clearly feel called to proclaim freedom from fear, and the message of God’s love through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  I wanted the listeners to believe that they are freed to act, to engage, and to be radically hospitable.  Nothing stands in their way - not even themselves.  God uses the gifts they bring even when we don’t completely know we are willing to offer them.  And in the feedback I received, I absolutely believe that this happened.  For many, formative and radically hospitable changes have occurred at First Lutheran since the preaching of this sermon - not because of it at all, but perhaps in the larger scheme of things,  some of the freedom needed for these changes was sparked here.  
Sermon Preached at First Lutheran in Bothell on November 10, 2013 - 
Gospel Text was Matthew 25:34-40

“It’s so good to be here with you on this Radical Hospitality Sunday.  I am especially excited, because this kind of passage is what drives me as a candidate for rostered leadership in the church.  My name is Sister Liz Colver, I am an invested ELCA Deaconess.  You’ve likely never heard of a Lutheran sister or Deaconess before, and that’s ok.  I am the only one so far in our Synod.  The call of a Sister is a call to be the bridge between the world and the church.   She brings the concerns of culture and society to the church, and equips the people of God to meet the needs of their neighborhoods.  ELCA Deaconesses are known as Sisters, a title that encourages people to engage in relationship with them differently and more openly than a power title would.   The ELCA Deaconess Community is also an intentional community of women who offer vision, encouragement, and guidance to one another as we are all called to be prophetic voices in church and society. 
It’s the season we begin to really look at what it means to be hospitable, isn’t it?  As we prepare to hunker down and be thankful for our lives and our families, we can often become acutely aware of those who are without.  So it’s the season of sock drives, and food drives.  Many churches host giving trees – my own sending congregation has 5 different trees every year scattered all over the church!  Those of us who are parents begin to wonder how we might pare down so that our kids don’t grow selfish, and perhaps encourage the little ones to choose a few old toys to give away before they get inundated with new ones.   Many of us already give to charities, or purchase gifts at alternative giving fairs, and on and on.  I know I LOVE my TOMs shoes, and I have a really cute hat made by crochet kids that empowers Ugandan women to provide for their families and make a living wage.  
All these things are good – great even.  We are aware of our blessings, and want to bless others.  But I want to ask you a potentially agitational question.  What truly drives us to do these things?  
I don’t know about you all, but as a life-long Lutheran, I have heard this gospel passage many times and felt as though I was being told to be kind to every stranger I meet because they might be Jesus in “disguise.”  And you know what, that’s true.  But what is also true is this:  
Jesus tells us that WE are now the body of Christ here in the world.  
It is not enough to care for others just in case they are secretly special, or might pass the stories of our graciousness on up the ladder, but we ourselves are the body of Jesus, living out his incarnational, living nature here with and for the kingdom of God – which is yet to come, but is also already here.  
And we kinda suck at it.  
Our culture teaches us to do so that we can get.  
Give to receive.  
Share to be thanked. 
Say yes to that overly involved volunteer position so that you might run into that other influential so-and-so that could offer you “real” work.  
We want to feel good about ourselves – as though we are Lord and Lady Bountiful, showering the less fortunate with our abundance, and pretending to be humble about it.  You know this stance – when someone holds up a halting hand and says, “oh no no no, I do this because it’s right, not to get praise…” while the other hand invites the continued praise with a come here finger wiggle…
And this is not ridiculous – we DO live in this culture that affirms such things, and I’m convinced that God wants us to find joy and pleasure in our living, which calls for us to find the ways and means to subscribe to the culture.   
Our friend Martin Luther acknowledged that – culture is to be lived in, not avoided.  Jesus did too.  He lived into the culture and the non-traditional places the religious avoided because the kingdom of God is bigger than what we think about on a Sunday morning.  And Jesus was present in all the places and spaces that the people of God could dwell. 
What is it about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the marginalized that makes us uncomfortable?  When I was in seminary, the professors required each student to name as many of their unearned privileges they could list before they would speak in class for the first 3 weeks.   Mine went like this: white woman, in a heterosexual marriage, highly educated, American citizen, home owner, business owner, upper middle class, parent of 2 living children, 401k, etc.  I soon began to realize that these privileges, when un-noticed, had set up walls around me, and kept me separated from the realities of homelessness, hunger, poverty, racial inequities, and various discriminations.  And it was really easy to safely stay behind those walls, peeking over once in a while to see what might be needed, and tossing the “others” a few bucks or a pair of gloves.  
I can’t claim that I know why I felt so comfortable looking the other way, but I can tell you that this passage demands me to get over it.  Jesus challenges us here to see the neighbor with fresh and new eyes.  To leap over the walls and accompany them, open the gates and welcome them in.  
I am currently serving on my Deaconess internship in 2 different places – Church of the Beloved in Edmonds, and Trinity Lutheran College in Everett.  A few weeks ago, Trinity hosted an event called Socktoberfest.  A large community party where food was served, kegs of root beer tapped, live music played, and there were socks.  Literally hundreds of pairs of socks had been collected all over downtown Everett, along with about 250 pairs of shoes.  Guests came in and if they had brought socks, they dropped them off, and if they needed socks, they picked them up.  There was no distinction between persons of means and persons without.  All were welcome and all were guests.  I mention this because one of the pieces I got to do for internship was organize volunteers.  Community members from various places, and about 25 Trinity students who were offered some form of extra credit opportunity came to help out.  They gathered beforehand and sorted socks, set up tables, got things ready.  But nothing really prepared them for the impact it would have on them to engage in this celebration of sorts without being able to truly know who needed and who offered.  It was what I would imagine the kingdom of God truly looking like – a diverse and slightly unmanageable party with abundant joy and enough food and socks for all.
I wonder if this passage in Matthew is one of the ways  Jesus reminds us that his incarnation would lead to a new resurrected embodiment of the body of Christ – US.  
And it is our job to be what Jesus was himself when culture dictates otherwise.  

What excites me – as a Sister, about this passage is the unique clarity that appears around it when I consider the nature of our holy meal leading us into service.  In communion, we believe that we are engaging in a unique relationship with the body and blood of Jesus. 
We are gifted a regular encounter with Jesus that is baffling, startling, and challenging.  Christ calls us to remember him and all that he did and was and is whenever we eat the bread and wine in community.  Not only do we eat the body of Christ – we actively become the body of Christ.  
We are pulled into a community, a circle, a family ever wider and ever called to be free as Jesus was free.  Bold as Jesus was bold.  Loved as Jesus was loved, and lover as Jesus was lover.  What happens at the table when we take this body into us is that we BECOME the ACTIVE, ACTUAL, LIVING BODY of Christ in the world, and to the world.  
Therefore, when Christ tells us in this story that whenever we care for another who is hungry or thirsty or naked or imprisoned, we care for Jesus himself, we are also BEING Jesus as we are called to in the care of the other!  The understanding of serving others so that we might accidentally serve Jesus is completely irrelevant after communing at this table, because we ARE Jesus to that person, and that person is Jesus to us.  
We believe in an incarnate and resurrected Savior who is living and acting in the world, and who boldly calls us to join him on his campaign for compassion and wholeness, unity and salvation.  And you know what?  Any time you do these things, you are furthering the kingdom of God right here and now.  It doesn’t even matter if you are trying to – because Jesus claims us and uses us as co-creators with God in the kingdom both on earth and in heaven.  

So go ahead and serve others for thanks, because God will use it just as beautifully and marvelously as God uses the ones being served.  God’s love is so big, and Christ’s welcome so wide that both are unavoidable.  And when you eat this bread and drink this wine, you will be forever changed – for your eyes become the eyes of Christ, and when we see through God’s eyes, we too see Jesus in everyone we meet.” 

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