• Baptism on the Beach

    20170319 183134 001A friend and I attended worship on the beach during spring break in Destin.

    Worshipping outside, it’s harder to pretend that we are the masters of our own destiny and determiners of our fate. We are surrounded by the powers of creation that existed millennia before we got here and will be here eons after we’re gone. We don’t need to think about our smallness in the grand scheme of the universe. We are small, sitting in beach chairs while waves crashed before us.

    How awesome that the Creator of all the incredible wonders around us, wants a relationship with each one of us personally. What kind of God is that? A relational God. A Trinitarian God. A God who became like us to show us eternal love, our ultimate destiny, and how to live until we get there.

    Our ritual that marks that God desires this relationship with us is the Sacrament of Baptism. I’d never seen a Baptism in the ocean before and it moved me to tears. After the sermon and Communion, about 80 of us worshipping made a circle, held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer. Then we all moved to the shoreline for the Baptism. A girl about 9 or 10 years old went forward with her dad and they joined the pastor in the waves. She folded her arms across her chest, plugged her nose, and they dipped her back in the water and up she came as we all clapped and whooped. Her dad wrapped her in a big towel and hugged her tight.

    The pastor was about to give the Benediction and send us on our way, when a man came forward. He looked like he’d had a hard life, but he experienced something that evening on the beach that told him hardship wasn’t all of who he was, nor the end of his story. He was ready to commit his life to God, to follow Jesus, and enter a relationship with the Creator who could be felt in the wind, seen in the sunset, tasted in the bread and grape juice, and held in the people beside us. The pastor went back into the waves with a church leader. The man folded his arms across his chest, plugged his nose and down he went, backwards into the waves as the water God made washed over him, a sign of pure love and forgiveness, of dying and rising with Christ. The pastor and his assistant lifted him back up. And we all clapped and hollered for him, too. What a remarkable way to begin one's faith journey. Baptism is done to you, even as an adult. The man didn't dip himself back, he was dunked by two others, by love, by God. And he was raised up again. God uses us to claim others.

    I had never seen so clearly how in Baptism, we not only belong to God and to the faith community, but also to the whole creation. That’s why faith is made up of the stuff of the earth—water and grains and grapes and people seeking to understand and order our lives in relationship with the Divine mystery hidden in all things. 

  • Discipleship Defined: The Tortoise and the Hare

    blogpics thetortoiseandthehareI shared this message on 4/10/16 with Zion Lutheran Church in Ferguson, MO as they enter a pastoral transition.

    When our children were little, we loved to show them Living Books on the computer. This was early in the tech era and these books came on a CD. We could click on different parts of the page for some action to happen, like birds singing, the doorbell ringing, and so on. Our favorite Living Book was based on Aesop’s Fable, The Tortoise and the Hare.

    You know the fable, the Tortoise and the Hare engage in a race. The Hare is over-confident in his speed and he gets distracted during the race. He forgot to eat, so he stops to eat breakfast, he takes a nap, and he stops to tell on-lookers how great he is. Of course he’s so distracted and full of himself that the Tortoise crosses the finish line while the Hare is racing to catch up. At the end the narrator asks the crowd around the finish line, What is the moral of the story? The crowd pipes up with
    The journey is the reward?
    • Don’t act like such a big shot?
    • Always eat a good breakfast?
    No, says the narrator, Slow and steady wins the race!

    I think the disciples in Jesus' third resurrection appearance described in John 20:19-31, are learning some of the same lessons as the Hare in Aesop’s Fable.

    Peter and the disciples are at a loss; they don’t know what to do. The resurrected Lord has appeared to them 2 times, Jesus has breathed on them the Holy Spirit and sends them out—As the Father sends me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins any, they are forgiven, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

    There it is. There’s the call. The disciples are sent out, scars and all, with a Gospel to proclaim, sins to forgive, peace to offer, and a church to build—the only problem is they don’t seem to know how to get started. They’re at a loss for what to do, exactly. Following Peter’s lead, the disciples go fishing.

    Ironic, isn’t it? It was not long ago that Jesus called them away from their boats to fish for people. But now, despite the miraculous resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the disciples have returned to their old way of life. They’re almost like the Hare in the fable—the disciples are easily distracted from the path that Jesus has set them on. Instead of sharing the incredible news of God’s power over death, they stayed hang up a sign that says, “Gone Fishing.”

    As a congregation, you may feel like the disciples in this passage. You have a mission and ministry in this community, but now you’ve entered a time of pastoral transition, and you are still grieving the loss of a very beloved and key member. You may feel at loose ends—at a loss for what to do, what’s going to come next, what the future holds. What’s the next step and how do we take it?

    We can feel this way in our personal lives as well. This last year, I have been unsure myself of what God wants me to do. My husband and I were working very hard at new mission development and we had to stop due my chronic migraines. I was at loose ends—I was not sure what to do, what was going to come next, and what the future was going to hold.

    Our temptation in these situations of uncertainty is to join the disciples in going backwards—to re-tread the past—to go back to what we were doing before, rather pay attention to what new thing God might be doing. I would encourage you to resist this temptation because you’ll notice that this did not work for the disciples. They were experts at fishing –and they fished all night and caught nothing! They’re totally flunking. Going backward hardly ever moves us forward. We can learn lessons from our past, but our future is not there.

    But then the story in John shows four practical ways to move forward on the path in front of us, even when we don’t know what to do, nor what the future holds.

    1. Jesus gets the disciples set back on the right path by appearing on the beach that morning. He invites them to cast their net on the other side of the boat—we know that the sides of the boat are port and starboard, but I might call this the forward side instead of the backward side of the boat. And they caught 153 fish—it strained the net, but it didn’t break!

    It’s an odd number- 153. It doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible, so why 153? One hundred fifty three is the known number of species of fish during the first century! Jesus did call them to fish for people, so perhaps this is John’s way of foreshadowing that the good news of Jesus is to be proclaimed to all “species” of people to the ends of the earth. Everybody’s in! The net won’t break because God can hold us all! You are in! Ferguson is in! The journey is the reward—and being part of God’s great plan to love and redeem the world is blessing enough! You may be in transition, or at a crossroads, but the mission is the same—reach everyone with God’s love no matter what. The journey is the reward.

    2. Then the funniest part of the story comes—Peter is fishing naked, and when he sees Jesus, he puts on his clothes to jump in the lake and swim ashore. Don’t we usually work while clothed and strip down to jump in the lake? (In the first century the one who saw someone naked was dishonored, so Peter is actually honoring Jesus by putting on his clothes, but it seems all backward to us!) But the point is, Peter is naked. John wants us to see Peter in all his vulnerability. He denied Jesus three times, and even though Jesus has given him a new mission since the resurrection, Peter has reverted back to his old profession and he’s failing miserably at it.

    Jesus sees right through Peter—he can put his clothes back on, but none of us can hide ourselves from God. Jesus sees us and knows us in all of our failings, fears and falling backwards. So stop trying to hide. Don’t act like such a big shot. You’re not so bad God can’t love you and you’re not so good you don’t need Jesus! Peter gets to Jesus as fast as he can—he got this part right! Come to God in prayer, talk with Jesus throughout your day—rant and rave if you need to, cry if you feel it, dance when you’re moved—just don’t run the other way from Jesus because he already knows all of who you are and all of what you need and all of what you’re capable of. Don’t be such a big shot—join Peter and come to Jesus as fast as you can. Take it all to the Lord in prayer.

    3. In the midst of this complete, stark-naked-knowing, Jesus invites Peter and the disciples to join him for breakfast on the beach. Jesus feeds them, body and soul with the physical food and the spiritual relationship they need to run with perseverance the race he has set before them—to carry the good news of God’s love throughout the world. Always eat a good breakfast. We can’t survive on this journey of faith, this mission of good news without proper nourishment. We need to be fed and loved at this table, where Jesus appears to us in Communion—our breakfast on the beach—to be loved, forgiven and strengthened for the day, even and especially when we don’t know what’s coming next. Always eat a good breakfast physically as well. We can’t carry out the mission of peace and love when we do violence to our own bodies by over-functioning as if the kingdom depended on us while not taking care of ourselves! This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.

    4. Jesus re-establishes a relationship with Peter and all the disciples based not on their good behavior, not on getting everything right, but based on love. Peter’s 3-fold denial is redeemed when he affirms that he loves Jesus 3 times–which he can do only because Jesus has already loved and nourished and forgiven and blessed him. It’s not just about how much Jesus loves us, it’s about how much we love Jesus! Slow and steady wins the race. Take time to experience Jesus’ love and let Jesus know you love him! Slow and steady wins the race. You don’t have to rush to prove yourself. You don’t have to rush to find an interim. You don’t have to race and around and make sure everything is done just so. It’s about love; it’s about being as much as doing. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Order your life around love: love of God, love of each other, love of all 153 species of God’s people, love of your community, love of Ferguson.

    Even when we don’t know what to do, our faith gives us the daily and weekly practices we need to remain faithful in the in-between times of transition. I was off work for a year—but I knew I wasn’t forgotten, because like all of us, I ‘m part of God’s mission in this world, part of the 153 species! I came to Jesus in prayer, I ate a good breakfast and came to worship and Communion, and because church’s like you asked me to preach, I knew God still loved me, so thank you, Zion! Thank you for helping me.

    God loves you Zion as an important and valuable part of God’s mission in this world. The repetition of your faith practices will serve you well as you use them to discern the next task, the next month and the next chapter of your life together! All you have to do is the next right thing. So fear not, Zion! And remember that

    • You are part of the 153 species that God loves, so the journey is the reward!
    • God knows you fully and completely, so come to Jesus in prayer and don’t act like such a big shot!
    • Nourish yourself in worship, Communion and in your physical well-being - always eat a good breakfast!
    • Your mission is all about love-how much God loves you and how much you love God, so remember that slow and steady wins the race!
  • Embracing the Mature Spirituality of The Beatitudes

    blogpic BeatitudesA Sermon preached on Matthew 5:1-12 at St. Mark Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL on January 29, 2017

    “Good for you!” “How fortunate!” “How enviable!” This is what Jesus proclaims in The Beatitudes with the word, “Blessed!” "Good for you when you are poor in spirit! How fortunate that you mourn! How enviable are the meek! Good for you when you are persecuted. How fortunate are the merciful! Blessed!"

    WHAT? What on earth is Jesus saying? He seems to affirm everything we avoid. We could call The Beatitudes, “How to not be an American,” “How not to win friends and influence people.” The Beatitudes will not be found in the Self-Help section of our local Barnes & Noble.

    Our society encourages us to avoid the painful experiences of life. We live in a consumer culture that bombards us with products that can assuage our pain and try to make us happy. We are constantly tempted to avoid all feelings of grief, insecurity, sadness, rejection—if we can just consume enough to fill that empty painful space inside. Some fill this emptiness with shopping, others avoid painful feelings with alcohol or drugs, still others with exerting control over others, some use food and sugar to bring a sense of comfort (my personal favorite) and others, with a feverish pursuit of goals in the race up the ladder of income, status, success, or power. Consumption and Busyness can be great antidotes to feeling any of the hurts that Jesus cheers for in The Beatitudes.

    Yet, we are not getting any happier. A Harris Poll a year ago, reported that only 1/3 of Americans report being “Very Happy” which is a decrease from previous years. Our strategies aren’t working, but relentless consumerism tempts us to try again with the next new and improved party drink, fashion style, sugar-free super snack, or the latest life hack for career success. We never get off the merry-go-round because the emptiness, despair, grief, meekness, fear, or rejection doesn’t go away. It’s the true nature of addiction: once the rush wears off, we need another fix of whatever helps us ignore our pain and temporarily feel a little better.

    If this is where we end up, then how can Jesus call being “poor in spirit, mourning, hungering for justice, being merciful, persecuted, and rejected, “blessed” “enviable,” “fortunate” and “good for us?!”

    Last summer, the director of the childcare center at the church I serve asked me to give a Bible lesson once a week to the kids. She thought maybe I could start with The Beatitudes. So I stood before the elementary aged kids and asked this same question: “why would Jesus say, ‘good for you’ when you are sad, ‘good for you’ when you are grieving or lonely, ‘good for you’ when people reject you?” A third or fourth grade girl shot her hand up in the air and said, “Because then God can help you!” No wonder Jesus said we had to become like a little child to enter God’s kingdom! (I asked if she could come and preach this sermon for me today, but she had to go to Sunday School!)

    Because then God can help you. Isn’t that true? When things are going well, when we’ve got the world by the tail, when we’re planning our work and working our plan as if we were the author of life and creation, and we’re wrapped up in our own ego, we’re not paying attention to God’s presence and love and help in our life.

    But when our plans don’t work, when we’re plunged into crisis or grief, when we’re lonely or rejected, and life just isn’t working, we become open. A space opens up in us that wasn’t there before, for God to enter our lives and bless us, strengthen us, comfort us and help us. When we can remain in that openness when life falls apart—and hold off going on that shopping spree, or pouring that beer, or diving into that bag of chocolate: God can slip in where wouldn’t let him go before. God invites us to really feel the pain in order heal it and have it lose its power over us; God is there to embrace us with deep love (often through another person), fill us with a peace that passes all understanding and surround us with God’s healing presence.

    These gifts are there all the time of course—we’re just not available to receive them often times, until things fall apart. Even psychology affirms this process. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a University of California psychology professor and author of The Myths of Happiness, explains: “It’s often negative experiences that help us grow and learn, which is vital for being happy.” Or in the language of faith, negative events are the doorway for experiencing the blessedness of Jesus and the peace of Christ.

    Franciscan Priest Fr. Richard Rohrsays it this way: “the way down is the way up.” Or he says, you can say it the other way, “the way up is the down.” Rohr writes, “There is a cruciform shape to reality it seems, and loss precedes all renewal, emptiness makes way for every new infilling, every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous “form.” Nothing in the human psyche likes this pattern.” This is why we try so hard to avoid it!

    But we can’t and don’t get to peace, contentment, or blessedness without grappling with whatever form of suffering life gives us. And that is the way of the cross. The way to new life and resurrection is through suffering, where God claims power over all of death, and makes it evidently clear that love consumes and supersedes all of it. Resurrection means that love and life win in the end, no matter what! Richard Rohr continues with, “Love is the energy driving the universe forward.”

    Jesus embodies this all-encompassing love of God which drives the universe forward. Because didn’t Jesus become and embody all of these Beatitudes in his life? Jesus was poor in spirit, for he humbly acknowledged he had nothing and was nothing apart from God—and he inherited the kingdom of heaven. Jesus mourned over Jerusalem and wanted to take them under his wings like a mother hen, and he wept at the death of his friend Lazarus—and he was indeed comforted. Jesus was meek—not weak—in the face of Pilate and his accusers. He grounded his identity in God and in God’s dominion, so he remained calm and centered during the trial and did not shift with the circumstances—and the earth and all that is in it belongs to him. Jesus was merciful, most powerfully seen in his words from the cross when the rest of us might seek vengeance, he uttered, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”—and he did receive mercy.

    We could go on with each of The Beatitudes. Instead of giving in to the limits of human experience and emotion, Jesus embodies for us what it looks like in the midst of hardship, to be at one with and fully defined by God—to be blessed, and enviable and fortunate, no matter what. Retired Theology Professor Sr. Carla Mae Streeter calls the Beatitudes “the revelation of Jesus’ own mature spirituality.” She describes that in Jesus we see the “total life of a person whose consciousness is permeated with God" (from the book, Foundations of Spirituality)

    Jesus begins his ministry with The Beatitudes in Matthew so that the disciples and us, understand from the outset, that Jesus calls us to live with this same consciousness—one that is permeated with God. Jesus calls us to allow the difficulties and grief of this life to push us to seek our own mature spirituality. It’s a spirituality that enjoys the good things and the blessings in this life—like a smooth glass of wine paired with apples and cheese, or a cold beer at the Super Bowl Party, a suit that makes us feel like a million bucks, a dark chocolate truffle after a family meal, a clear plan to meet our goals—without these things becoming hindrances or addictions that get in the way of our deepening relationship with God. Instead, these blessings become celebrations of our spiritual maturity as a person who is permeated with God’s presence and love.

    So, good for you when you are poor in spirit! How fortunate that you mourn! How enviable are the meek! Good for you when you are persecuted. How fortunate are the merciful! For you are open and receiving all the blessings God has for you. Such blessedness is being loved, embraced and consciously living in the peaceful, comforting and empowering presence of God no matter our circumstances. Blessed are you!

  • Following Jesus with a Light Hand

    Following Jesus with a Light HandCandidating Sermon for Lent 2, Sunday, February 25, 2018 on Mark 8:31-38 to become the Pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson Texas

    Nothing like a light and fluffy gospel reading to get us started, together, huh? I was looking for a healing… maybe Jesus’ playing with children…perhaps a miraculous feeding….you know, the Bible’s version of “have a coke and a smile!” But oh no—we’ve got self-denial and suffering, crosses and death, and losing your life in order to save it! And If Peter’s Satan, well, then, I don’t have a prayer. But it is Lent, so, here we go!

    Have you noticed that Peter is so right and so wrong at the same time? Two verses before our passage, Jesus asks the disciples, “who do YOU say that I am, and Peter makes his famous confession—"You are the Messiah, the Christ—You’re the savior we’ve been waiting for!” Peter got it right! But then in the next breath, he’s so wrong about what that means. Jesus says he must undergo great suffering, and be killed. Peter says, “no way, Lord. This can’t be the plan of salvation!”

    “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus says. “You’ve got the right guy, but the wrong mission.” Peter thinks that Messiah will usher in a new age of political freedom and power for Israel. We understand Peter’s desire for a Messiah who will set things straight, for we spend our lives striving for the same things. We too, want peace and security, success and stability, family and faith —it’s our human nature to pursue a life that is prosperous and successful.

    What can be wrong about that? If Peter is both right and wrong about Jesus, maybe we are, too. Jesus clearly says that we must deny ourselves, and take up our crosses in order to follow him—I’m kind of with Peter on this one--it doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? So what does Jesus really mean?

    Perhaps it’s easier to start with what self-denial and suffering are not. To deny ourselves is not to demean ourselves, nor to be treated with humiliation, violence or abuse. In the church’s history women were told that staying with an abusive family member was their cross to bear, and this is an incorrect interpretation of the text. Jesus is not asking us to suffer just for the sake of suffering; Jesus asks us to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.

    There are places in the world, like North Korea, Somalia, and Afghanistan, where it is a crime to attend Christian worship and believers can suffer violence for the sake of their faith. We need to support and pray for those fellow believers, but that does not mean that we get off scot-free. So, how do we apply this passage to our life when we’re not being persecuted for our faith?

    To deny oneself is to dis-own oneself, accepting that all of who we are and all of what we have belong to God. God is the Creator, and we are the creature. It’s a posture of humility, not humiliation. As much as we love the American narrative of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and rugged individualism, self-denial is living in the truth that we are not our own—God is the author and head of our life. This means that all that we have accomplished and accumulated have come to us by God’s grace—yes, we work hard and participate in it, but without God, we are and have nothing.

    And we are intimately connected to one another and the whole creation. None of us got here this morning on our own—someone, somewhere, sewed my clothes, built my home and car, made roads so I could drive here. I do not stand before you as a self-made woman—I’m here because family loved me and raised me, teachers educated me, and congregations trained me. Self-denial is keeping our life and therefore all that we accomplish and own, in the proper perspective.

    When we accept that all of who we are and all of what have belong to God, we freely give it away to save a life or to help another to know God’s love. We hold ourselves and all of the markers of our success—possessions, job, finances, time, traditions, church—with a light hand, so that it can be used by God for the life of the world. We hold what God has given us with the gratitude of an open heart, so that all the stuff of life does not displace God as the source of our identity, and the center of our life and meaning. This is what the Apostle Paul pointed to when he wrote to the Philippians:

    I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

    Any time we become freed from our attachments, whether it’s a house, or money, or control—we become more available for God to use us and our gifts to help others. We can give sacrificially and be willing to do without for the sake of another.

    Martin Luther described this kind of humility toward our life and possessions this way: I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess. It’s the paradox, the irony of the kingdom of God.

    • We have everything we need when we claim nothing as our own.
    • We receive blessings, when we release possessiveness.
    • We experience more life and love not by hoarding, but by sharing.
    • We receive peace and security not by grasping in fear, but by opening our life to God.
    • We receive success and stability, not by pushing harder, but by letting go and letting God’s power work through us.
    • We are strongest when we are weak.
    • We save our life, by losing it.

    It sounds backwards to our rational mind, but we know from our own experience it’s true. How many of you have gone on a mission trip, built a habitat for humanity house, worked in a food pantry, helped someone in need —any kind of service at all—and in the process of giving away yourself—your time, your possessions or your energy, you felt that you received more than you gave?

    Denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus means using that principle, that experience in every area of our life. In taking up our cross, we choose to allow everything we have, to become an instrument for God’s purpose of reaching the most people with love.

    The same is true for us as a congregation as it is for us as individuals. I read a study about Lutheran churches that were growing—they studied different contexts, styles and sizes of congregations. Every growing church held a common attitude: The church exists for those who are not its members.  Every congregation that was growing was invested in giving themselves to those who had not yet come in the door. Those who save their life will lose it and those who lose it for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.

    What does it mean for St. Luke’s to give away its life for the sake of the Gospel? How do we hold what God has given us with a light hand, so that we can be used as a vehicle for life and salvation for others? That’s a question I hope that we will wrestle with together in the coming months and years. Let me highlight three things that will be important as we seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.

    First, we each need to deepen our own spirituality and relationship with God. This is partly why I was interested in St. Luke’s—because you are interested in spiritual growth and depth. I have been training to be a spiritual director, so I can develop skills at helping people deepen their daily walk with God. Peter in our Gospel lesson was engaged in his spiritual life—he was with Jesus, he was listening, wrestling, asking questions and trying to get it. Sometimes he was right, and sometimes he was wrong, and the same will be true for us. What mattered was not that he made mistakes, but that he was in the relationship with Jesus.

    A second thing we need to focus on is listening. It’s easy to assume we know what people need when we want to get them involved in church and what we’re doing before we really learn about them. While living in St. Louis, my husband, Dan and I worked in mission development and we went door to door excited to share about God’s love and this new opportunity. But we found it was important to listen to people first, so instead we asked people how we could pray for them and support them. We learned about a lot of pain and difficulty that people were in, including stories from people who had been judged, hurt or excluded from congregations—congregations across all denominations. It really is true that, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. People are hungry to tell their story and to have someone to really listen to them with love. Through your statement of welcome, that’s a gift St. Luke’s offers people.

    A third thing we will do as we follow Jesus, we will depend on and watch for the Holy Spirit. God will keep surprising us! If you would have told me a year ago that I would be living in Texas I would have laughed in your face. I was happy in St. Louis and I spent the last two years telling God I wasn’t moving! I wasn’t holding my blessings with a light hand, and you can see how well that worked out! But now I live closer to some of my family and then, there’s this inclusive, spiritual church in Richardson, Texas! I’m not saying that it hasn’t been without pain and loss. We’re not going to pretend that change isn’t painful. I still don’t like being this far away from our two younger children who still live in Missouri. But God can always imagine something greater for us, our family and our church than we can imagine for ourselves! When we hold our life and possessions, our worship and traditions with a light hand, we open up avenues for God to use us in ways we couldn’t have imagined!

    Jesus words this morning do not end with suffering, rejection and death! He promises that he will rise again! And Jesus made good on that promise! God is always moving toward, life—and not just eternal life—but abundant life here and now as we open ourselves, our lives, our church, and all that we have, for God’s mission.

    For as we hold these blessings, all of God’s blessings with a light hand, we know that God firmly holds us, and this congregation, and this community, and indeed the whole world, in his hands.

    Image: Bossfight.co

  • Stepping Into Your True Self

    blogpic transformationA sermon preached at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO on June 26, 2016 based on Luke 9:51-60, Galatians 5:1, 13-25

    It sounds like Jesus is having a bad day. First he’s rejected in Samaria, and his disciples want to rain fire on the Samaritans to punish them. Then it sounds like Jesus is taking out his frustrations on the next three people who want to follow him with these three hard sayings. I want to ask, “What gives, Jesus? What’s up with these seemingly snarky comments?”

    Contrary to how it sounds to us, in these three sayings, Jesus invites his disciples and us, into a new kind of freedom. Maybe that’s why they sound harsh. Following Jesus beckons us to allow him to transform us from who we are into who God created us to be. Franciscan priest and author, Richard Rohr, calls this transformation moving from our false self to our True Self and it can be a painful process. Jesus lets us know in no uncertain terms that following him means letting go of what is comfortable, what we think matters, and what’s familiar in order to embrace who we are in the kingdom of God. Each Jesus’ hard sayings, reveal a false way of following Jesus and pushes us toward the freedom of living as our True Self in union with God.

    The first would-be disciple comes up to Jesus with bold assertion, I will follow you wherever you go. Jesus responds with his first challenging statement: Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

    You’re not going to get rich following Jesus. Social climbers and material girls need not apply. Jesus has no sleep number bed, no fluffy pillow, no down comforter. Jesus might be sleeping in a straw bed in a barn one night and the cold hard ground the next. Jesus doesn’t own anything and doesn’t seek creature comforts.

    This is a hard message for us who live a very comfortable life in a consumer culture that entices us to consume more and more—a bigger house, newer car, the latest styles, the most advanced gadget, the best beer, the latest anti-aging miracle cream. Advertisers prey on our anxieties about having enough, being secure, being loved, and successful—relentlessly encouraging us to find peace, happiness, and comfort through stuff that is More! New! and Better!

    Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. Jesus invites us to stop looking to material comforts and outward success to assuaghhe our anxiety, and instead, to draw near to Jesus who offers us an inner peace and comfort that no amount of money can buy. In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul says it this way: I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty…I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In Chapter 26, the prophet Isaiah says it this way: Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.

    No matter what our physical circumstances, the God-sized hole inside that drives our anxiety can only be filled with presence of Jesus Christ. Jesus invites us to let go of the false self who looks to the material world for peace, and to step into our True Self, who trusts that all I need comes from Jesus Christ. Jesus’ first hard saying, invites us into this deep freedom from anxiety.

    A second would-be follower says to Jesus, Lord, first let me go and bury my father. But Jesus said to him, Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.

    This response from Jesus sounds particularly harsh. Surely the commandment to honor our Father and Mother includes giving them a proper burial. So what is Jesus getting at?

    In ancient Israel, there were strict Temple rules, requirements and rituals about burial. These requirements were so important that those who were tending to burial tasks were relieved of saying their morning and evening prayers in order to make sure their duty to bury was properly fulfilled. Until the proper burial had taken place, the one responsible for burial was considered ritually unclean. They could not enter the Temple; they could not attend worship, or participate in any religious activity.

    If this would-be disciple followed Jesus without attending to these ritual requirements of burial, he would forever be ostracized from the Temple, like a leper or other outcast. They had to get the rituals right—they had to follow the letter of the law. By saying, Let the dead bury their own dead, Jesus dismantles the rigid requirements of the law. Jesus sets us free from having to do everything right and perfectly in order to be loved by God and saved for eternity. This is exactly what Paul is talking about in our text from Galatians. For freedom Christ has set us free! We are freed from trying to be perfect and now the standard is not whether you’re doing everything right, but whether you’re doing everything with love. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, as Paul reiterates Jesus:You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Bury your father out of love and not in order to earn your salvation by following the rules perfectly.

    When I was in seminary, Jesus’ invitation to let go of being perfect was driven home to me in a powerful way. There was an Institute for Spiritual Direction down the street from the seminary, and I thought it would be a good idea to give spiritual direction a try. A Spiritual Director is someone you meet with monthly who helps you pay attention to your relationship with God. So I sat across from a Director-in-training, Christine, for my very first session and she asked me to tell her about myself.

    Well I was a Type A, perfectionist, over-achiever who worked very hard at earning everyone’s love and approval through compulsive accomplishment. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do—what God, my parents and everybody else expected of me. I followed the rules. After I told her about all of my accomplishments, Christine looked at me and she held up her index finger. Making spokes in the air coming out from her finger, she said, Here’s Linda and her straight A’s, her speech trophies, and her choirs, and her campus ministry work, and her urban plunge, and her awards.

    Then she held up her finger with a quizzical look on her face as if to say, when I take all of those accomplishments away, who is Linda?

    It was like a building imploding from the inside. My whole life collapsed around me, and there I was covered in dust and dirt in the middle of the rubble. I had done everything right, I followed the rules. I had done everything I thought I was supposed to do, and now I’m 23 years old and I have no idea who I am?

    I was so mad and depressed at the same time. Did I transformation can be painful? It was time to let go of my false self–the one who tried to earn love, approval and salvation, and begin to develop my True Self—For freedom, Christ has set us free.

    The first step was to accept my true identity. Who is Linda? I am a Baptized child of God, I am loved and forgiven through Jesus Christ who calls me to love others as God has loved me. And that’s it. That’s all I need; that’s all you need. No list of accomplishments.

    Jesus says, Let the dead bury their own dead and go proclaim the kingdom of God. Jesus invites us to let go of our false self who earns love and salvation and to step into our True Self whose identity is grounded in God’s love in Jesus Christ. Jesus’ second hard saying, invites us into freedom from perfectionism and the freedom to love as Christ loves us.

    A third would-be disciple approaches and says, I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home. Jesus said to him, No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

    We have all heard the phrase, first made by philosopher George Santayana, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned …to repeat it. And, Hindsight is 20/20. We all understand the importance of learning from the past, so what is Jesus getting at?

    This time Jesus uses a farming metaphor: A plow in Jesus’ time was most likely made of a single blade with 2 handles for the farmer to hold. The blade was strapped to mule or ox and with the 2 handles, the farmer would both steer the animal and cut the furrow. In order to cut a straight furrow, the farmer had to keep her eyes straight ahead, exactly on the edge of the field where she wanted to end up. The second the farmer looks back, looks away, or does not have her undivided attention on her destination across the field, the animal waivers and walks whichever way she looks and the farmer ends up with a wavy, crooked furrow.

    Wavy, crooked furrows make for bad farming and a poor harvest: patches of land will go unused, watering is more difficult, and your harvest will not be as abundant. But when you have straight furrows, everything else that you do becomes easier—watering, irrigation, drainage, and harvesting are all much easier, plus you have used your land most efficiently.

    So the most successful farmer always keeps his eyes on the future—his eyes are always locked on his destination on edge of the field he’s plowing—and that future arrival point, is what determines his plowing in the present moment—not the past, not the last harvest, not what happened ten years ago, and not whether he feels worthy to be a farmer.

    Jesus knows that the problem of living with one eye looking back, is that we use the past to limit us and close down possibilities in the present and future. Haven’t we all created crooked wavy paths out of our life by keeping one eye looking backwards? If only I hadn’t done that. Why did she say that to me? What are they going to think of me now? If only I had made a different choice, if, if, if.

    We rehearse past events, nurse resentments, and let guilt and shame fester. We all have those painful experiences in life—our first broken heart or a time where we put ourselves out there either in a relationship or a project at work and we felt shut-down or rejected. We react by making a decision internally that affects our future: I’ll never put myself out there again, or we create a new negative belief about ourselves—I don’t deserve to be loved,or I’m just not worthy of a good job,or I don’t deserve happiness, or whatever story you’ve told yourself that you’re now living inside of. We live as if the past determines the future, and off we go with a crooked furrow that grows from a crooked and limited self-understanding.

    Jesus’ third hard saying invites us to be defined not by our past, but by our future—a future that is already determined by Jesus, a future that is secured by Jesus’ death, and defined by Jesus’ resurrection. We already know the other side of the field—the other side of the field is life eternal with God through Jesus Christ! It doesn’t get better than that!

    So in the kingdom, we don’t live from the past forward, but rather, like someone holding a plow, we live from the future backward to the present. We keep our eyes on the kingdom of our risen Lord and we plow a straight path in our life, trusting that in his death and resurrection, all of our past with its pain and disappointment is already redeemed! Then our straight furrow produces a rich harvest of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul identifies in Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

    Jesus says, No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

    Jesus invites us let go of the false self that clings to past failures and hurts, and to step into our True Self who lives from God’s promised future. Jesus’ third hard saying, invites us into freedom from the past and to live right now, in the heavenly kingdom that has already been won for us in Christ Jesus.

    Within these hard sayings, Jesus invites us to a spiritual freedom greater than we had imagined. Jesus invites us to live in freedom from anxiety, freedom from perfectionism, and freedom from the past.

    Let the love and power of the risen Lord continue to transform you into your True-Self; your True-Self who completely trusts in God as the source of all you need, the author of who you are, the redeemer of your past, and the future toward which you are living.