Posts in Category: Sermons

Reformation Sunday

Lutheran Heritage and the world

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras                       Reformation Sunday

October 27, 2019

 

On April 17, 1521, Emperor Charles V, summoned Martin Luther to the imperial Diet that was to be held at the German city of Worms. Diet in English means assembly or in our context, the Congress. Johann Eck, a papal theologian, represented Pope Leo X to debate with Luther concerning his theology and writings. The Diet of Worms expected from Luther to renounce his faith and recant his writings. Luther’s response is often quoted:

 “I cannot choose but adhere to the word of God, which has possession of my conscience; nor can I possibly, nor will I even make any recantation, since it is neither safe nor honest to act contrary to conscience! Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God! Amen.”

 

On May 25, 1521, as a result of Luther's refusal, Emperor Charles V issued an edict, well known as the Edict of Worms, condemning Luther for crimes of heresy and called to burn his books. Luther could not contradict the word of God. He firmly believed in what Jesus says: “if you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).

The word of God is the foundation of our faith. It is enough to guide us and to help us to know God’s will for us. The word of God assisted Martin Luther to stand firm against the authority of Pope Leo X and the Emperor Charles V. The word of God inspired the Lutheran reformation and changed the course of religious and cultural history in the West. The word of God is very powerful. The word of God liberated the 16th-century Christians from the oppressing church that controlled every aspect of their life. The word of God gives hope to the hopeless and brings down tyrants from their thrones.

 

 

Luther relied on the word of God to challenge rulers and Pope Leo X to improve the state affair of the poor. Germans were hardly able to survive from day-to-day. They had to pay taxes, which were used to serve the pope’s projects and interests. Poor Germans found hope for their suffering and struggle through buying indulgences.  As a result, Luther wrote his 95 theses to correct the theology of his time. The word of God inspired Martin Luther to spread his reform to reach all parts of the church and society, and to call everyone to action. For Luther, the gospel of the Lord aims to lift up Christians' life, not to abuse and take advantage of them.

 Luther did not separate Christians' spiritual life from earthly life. He engaged in the world and encouraged Christians to engage, too. His reformation advocated for good education to children and women, welfare for the poor, and to improve public health services. The word of God relates and speaks to every aspect of our life here on earth.

 

Luther used the word of God to open the eyes of secular authorities and papacy to the dire situation of the poor Germans. His writings are filled with biblical counsel for rulers.  For example, he sent a letter to Prince John Frederick, Duke of Saxony, introducing his commentary on the Magnificat, the song of Mary in the gospel of Luke. He explained that God cared about the destitute like virgin Mary. Luther used the Magnificat to encourage the prince to help the poor and to administer justice. Luther blamed economic and social disruption on the papacy and rulers’ injustice and called them to administrate justice; otherwise, they become beasts.

 

Lutheran theology and tradition are full of examples of Lutherans challenging unjust secular and religious authorities. The most famous Lutheran of the 20th century is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who opposed Nazi propaganda and criticized the church’s complicity in Nazism. He believed in the word of God that gives life to people. He relied on the word of God and the Lutheran tradition to resist Hitler. Bonhoeffer was executed because he refused to compromise with the evil that opposed the word of God.

 

Another example is the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Do you know that Lutherans played an essential role in destroying the Berlin wall and resisting the Communists?

 

The peaceful protest moment began in a Lutheran gathering for “prayer and politics” in Leipzig. Faithfully assembling for worship, lingering after service for prayer and mutual support, and meeting again on Mondays, sometimes with only a few people present, to talk about things that matter, Lutheran worshipers created the space for the largest peaceful demonstration in German history to occur. After nearly a decade of small meetings, on the evening of October 9, 1989, eight thousand people flocked to the church, and between seventy thousand and one hundred thousand joined for a candle-lit walk through the city, in resistance to Communist tyranny and standing bravely for freedom at the risk of personal injury and imprisonment. The police “joined” the walk by not shooting a single shot. (Ryan P. Cumming. The Forgotten Luther II (pp. 28-29). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition).

 

Lutherans' act of resistance destroyed the Berlin wall. What shall I say more? I wish I have enough time to talk about Palestinian Lutherans resisting the Israeli military occupation of West Bank and Gaza. Or to speak about ELCA sending missionaries to war zones to help the oppressed and to provide shelter, food, and medicine to the victims of war. This is who Lutherans are. This is our Lutheran tradition that we should celebrate every single day, not once a year.

 

The Grateful Samaritan Leper.

Luke 17

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Luke 17, The Grateful Samaritan Leper.

October 13, 2019

Recently I have been reading a historical novel called Echo by Pam Ryan. This novel is about a German boy Fredrick. He was born with a birthmark and had genetic disease. The setting of the novel is Nazi Germany. On July 14, 1933, the Nazis issued a law for the prevention of progeny with genetic disease. His family was against Hitler's fanatic policies, which endangered their lives. Fredrick was afraid to get sterilized or send to orphanage Nazi institutions. Nazis believed that Aryan race must remain healthy. Epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism were considered an offense against German society. The Nazis treated children and adults like Fredrick as subhuman. They did not want them to be part of their community. Nazis considered them to be a burden on Germany. So, they considered them unworthy of life. As a result of this law, thousands were murdered through starvation or lethal overdose of medication.

 

In antiquity, Jews treated lepers as dangerous to the safety and well-being of the Jewish community. The evangelist Luke tells us that 10 lepers begged Jesus to heal them. These lepers did not live among Jewish community or Samaritan community. They were social outcasts and had to live in isolated places. The Jews perceived lepers as unclean and cursed by God. A leper had to cover his upper lip and cry, “unclean, unclean” so that nobody comes close to them.

 

Those who are shunned by their society, Jesus healed and welcomed them. What is interesting about that 10 lepers is that one of them was a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans were bitter rivals. They did not interact with each other. In Jesus’ time, hostility towards Samaritans was strong. However, the nine Jews accepted a Samaritan leper among them. They shared their lives with him. Above all, Jesus praises the Samaritan leper’s faith not the nine Jews.

 

The evangelist Luke presents Samaritans positively. In his gospel, he tells us about the parable of The Good Samaritan and The Grateful Samaritan Leper. In the book of Acts, Luke shows that the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit after believing in Jesus Christ. According to Luke, the grateful Samaritan leper is a model of a person who is a subject of godly love. Despite being a Jew, Jesus healed a Samaritan leper. He saw them as equally important in the eyes of God.

 

The Jewish audience of the gospel of Luke (Luke wrote to Gentiles, but I believe that Jews also heard his gospel, too) was shocked to hear about Jesus praising and healing a Samaritan. Let me explain what I mean using a contemporary example. Imagine 10 persons living with HIV. They meet Jesus and beg him to heal them. Nine of them are American Christians, and one of them is Iranian Muslim. Jesus heals all of them, and only the Iranian Muslim comes back, and he prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet and thanks him. Jesus praises the Iranian man’s faith and questions the nine American Christians' behavior. How are you going to feel?

 

Through this story, the evangelist “Luke is building a case for indiscriminate love and radical inclusion” (Ira Brent Driggers, Luke 17:11-19, working preacher). In like manner, the author of 2 Kings 5 presents Naaman, the commander of the army of the king of Aram—Syria today and enemy of Israel as a subject of God’s love. The grateful Samaritan leper and Naaman, the leper, are subject of God’s grace. God’s love and grace are available for everybody even those we might think do not deserve it.

 

As the story of the grateful Samaritan leper provokes the Jewish audience, the story of Naaman, the leper, provokes the Israelites. Remember when Jesus preached in a synagogue in Nazareth that Naaman was subject of God’s grace and the Jewish worshipers were angry and tried to throw him off of the cliff (Luke 4). It is hard on any person or any group who is prejudice against another group to believe that the disliked group is part of God’s grace and love.

 

Us versus them creates barriers between people. Prejudice and discrimination prevent us from seeing our neighbor as a subject of God’s love and grace. The story of the grateful Samaritan leper and Naaman, the leper, invites us to look on the inside of a person whom we believe is fallen from God’s grace. God does not think as we do. God’s plan is different than ours. We look on the outside of a person, but God is looking on the inside. A person whom we think has fallen from God’s grace is subject of God’s grace and love.

 

Prejudice against any person is part of our sinful nature that we need to resist. Jesus’ ministry was revolutionary. He pours out the love and grace of God abundantly on the most unworthy people. Being a Christian, white, and American does not qualify you to sit at the Lord’s table in heaven. Only your faith in Jesus and sharing his love with your neighbor, particularly the one whom you do not like, will grant you a free ticket to his heavenly feast. None of us is worthy of God’s grace. None of us is worthy of God’s love because all of us are sinners. But Jesus Christ made the unworthy worthy of God’s love and grace. We are only made worthy in God's sight by Jesus' sacrificial act of love on the cross.

 

 

 

Faith and Mulberry Tree‎

Luke 17:5-10 and Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4‎

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Luke 17:5-10 and Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

October 6, 2019

My father was about ten years old when he planted a mulberry tree. Now this tree is big, and its fruit is very delicious. My parents share its fruit with family, friends, and neighbors, and even the passersby. Everybody loves our mulberry tree except my mother. She enjoys the fruit but not the tree itself because not only people enjoy our mulberry tree, but also flies and ants. When its fruit fall, my family must clean immediately to avoid flies and insects. One day, my mother complained a lot about the mulberry tree and flies. My father teased her by quoting Jesus’ words: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (v.6).

 

My father was teasing my mother. He was not serious. What if Jesus was teasing his disciples, too. Or what if Jesus uses metaphorical language? This verse is often taken literally, which has distorted Christians' faith into the kind of magic. Many Christians became victims of misleading or incorrect interpretation of this verse. Some Christians troubled with their faith because their faith does not enable them to uproot a mulberry tree. Some of you might think if we just had more faith, then God could do miracles through us.

 

We need to understand that the example Jesus is using is random in this story. “Jesus apparently points to the nearest object and dreams up the most fantastic of scenarios. He could just as easily have said ‘turn this tree into a rabbit’” (Ira Brent Driggers, Commentary on Luke 17:5-10, Working preacher). Previously, Jesus was teaching his disciples about forgiveness. His disciples shift the conversation from forgiveness to faith. The disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith.

 

From Jesus' perspective, his disciples asked the wrong question. Jesus uses figurative language to explain to them that those with mustard seed faith will be able to forgive those who sin against them. They can do the impossible with little faith. A mustard seed faith is enough for our discipleship.

 

Mulberry tree can be a symbol of a problem in your life and the life of our community. For the prophet Habakkuk the mulberry tree is disguised in injustice, tragedy, violence, and destruction all over Israel. He wanted God to uproot the mulberry tree and planted in the sea. He questions God's goodness. He wanted God to give him an explanation for the pointless violence. Do not we ask God the same questions about injustice and violence, particularly questioning the senseless shooting and death of innocent people of the Pine Grove Cemetery office in Wausau?

 

 

God reminds Habakkuk and us that God will deal with evil in God’s time and that we need to have faith, “the righteous live by their faith” (2:4).  God will uproot mulberry tree that causes destruction and violence in our community.  We need to have faith. This faith would help Habakkuk to see hope and restoration and will help us. A mustard seed faith can give us hope in working together to uproot the mulberry tree that represents gun violence in our country. This mustard seed faith encourages us to leave our homes to go to the world to advance the kingdom of God on earth and to speaks boldly against gun violence. A little faith in the Son of God is enough to help you with any problem you are facing in your life. The extraordinary faith is not the one that literally uproots the mulberry tree and plants it in the sea, but the remarkable faith is the one that helps you to believe that Jesus Christ is with you when you feel your world is falling apart. The mustard seed faith is enough to help you to face any crisis and can save you from falling into despair.

 

The Dishonest Manager

Luke 16

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Luke 16 the Dishonest Manager[1]

September 22, 2019

 

Is Jesus celebrating dishonesty? What is the positive lesson Jesus might draw out of sinful behavior? Let us paraphrase the parable.

 

The master heard a rumor about his manager that he is dishonest. He made a judgment without having an account on his stewardship. He told his manager “you are no longer be my steward, so give me an account.” The manager is already accused by gossip and condemned. He is done. He is fired on hear saying.

 

The steward said all I know is to be a manager/an accountant. “I cannot do labor work and I am ashamed to beg.” “I am in a situation of having been accused of fraud. I may just do it because I am already condemned to it.”

 

He calls debtors in and makes the book matches the accusation fraud. There is no evidence of wasting his master’s goods. So, he makes the evidence fit the accusation. He calls each debtor in and asks “what is your bill? Hundred? Write down 50, write down 80.”

When it comes to gossip. When those debtors go back out into the community and they hear that he has been put out of the stewardship, each one is going to think, “because of me; because of our hidden interaction, he was fired. What I am going to do?”

 

This manager has an honored claim on each one participated in the fraud. The manager will say, “I am fired because of the favor I did to you.”

What he does, he in involves everyone who has been gossiping in the problem in a way that each one will think,

“I do not want to be exposed as the cause of this problem because everyone knows that the master is my friend or worker in the business. If it comes out, then the master is going to know that I defrauded him.”

 

The manager silences everyone gossip by involving everyone in the accusation. When he is kicked out, he can just say to the debtor,

“you know, my master kicked me out of my work for fraud. Do you remember that fraud? I do not want what happened to that fraud to come out.” “I need a job.”

Everyone is obliged to take him in his own house to cover him and silence him. This commercial situation is about gossip and accusation of fraud.

 

That dishonest manager uses his intelligence to figure out a way to manipulate money to secure his future. When the master found out how shrewd his manager was, he praised him.

 

What Jesus was impressed by? The answer is in verse eight and nine.

Jesus says, “for the children of this age [unbelievers in Christ] are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (v. 8). Jesus is saying, “it might be true, you Christians do not know how to be smart in this world affair, but this is insignificant compared to the wisdom I am about to teach you about how to use the money to secure your eternal future.” In other words, maybe you are not shrewd when it comes to the stock market, but who cares. Jesus says, “do you think that is shrewd? Let me tell you the real shrewdness.”

 

Here it comes verse nine. Jesus says “ And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Jesus is telling the disciples not just to secure their earthly future that all what the dishonest manager can do. He hoped to get help when he becomes jobless. This is Jesus’ way of saying, “you need help with your jobless in eternity and I am telling you how to have a place to live, security and joy in fellowship with God’s people forever.”

 

All the shrewdness of this dishonest manager will come to nothing because it based on wealth that will fail. Jesus shows us the way you use your money to secure your eternity. Jesus says, “Use your money, the unrighteous mammon and wealth.” He means this is part of the unrighteous world in which you live. Take hold of it and use it for eternal and spiritual purposes namely to help the poor. In this way, you secure eternal place with friends in heaven.

 

Jesus’ statement triggers Luke 12:33 “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” Making friends with money means using your money to meet people’s needs. That is the way you lay up treasures in heaven that does not fail. Some of these people will believe in Christ and go before you into heaven and welcome you in great joy to join them in eternity.

 

Do not worry about being a shrewd investor in this age where you only can provide a future that will fail. Instead, be a really shrewd investor in people’s lives by using your resources to do as much good as you can for the glory of God and the eternal good of others who will go before you into heaven and welcome you into an eternal home.

 

[1] This sermon is based on reflections by Adam Ayers, “Is Jesus Praising Someone for Dishonesty? Luke 16: Bible Walkthrough,” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aq6Z-H4t0ko&t=435s (accessed on September 21, 2019; John Piper, “Does Jesus Commend Dishonesty in Luke 16?” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7mgOXUYOjjw (accessed on September 21, 2019).

 

 

Luke 14:25-33‎

The Cost of Discipleship

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

September 8, 2019

Luke 14:25-33, The Cost of Discipleship

 

Jim Elliot was an evangelical Christian who was killed while evangelizing the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador. This tribe was well known for being dangerous and hostile to outsiders. Elliot left Portland, Oregon, and his wife and daughter to share the good news with the Huaorani tribe. He went with his four friends. As soon as they encountered the Huaorani people, the warriors attacked and killed them.

Elliot and his friends knew that their mission was dangerous. They knew that they might be killed. Elliot thought genuinely of his calling and counted the cost of following Jesus Christ and be his disciple. Later, the Huaorani people believed in Jesus, and Elliot’s wife baptized the man who killed Elliot. It is easier to follow Christ, but it is not easy to be his disciple. Jim Elliot was a disciple of Jesus Christ and fully committed to him alone much more than his commitment to his wife and daughter.

 

The evangelist Luke talks about Jesus teaching on the cost of discipleship. Luke describes large crowds were traveling with Jesus. Jesus turns and challenges their commitment to him. He asks them to consider the cost of following him and be his disciples. He gives them two parables to illustrates his point: The first is of a man who estimates the cost to build a tower and a king estimates the cost of engaging in a war against his enemy.  Many follow Jesus, but not many are his disciples. Many enter through the wide gate, but few enter through the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13). Many are interested in cheap grace, and few are interested in costly grace. When Jesus says who do not hate their family and even their lives cannot be his disciple, he does not mean to dislike or despise your family and yourself. “We can never be His disciples as long we allow other attachments to hold us back” (Hardgrove, The Cost of Discipleship, 2006). Jesus invites us to lay aside all earthly attachments like clinging to family or possessions, or personal interests that hold us back from being his disciples.

 

Jesus challenges the large crowds who were following him to go a little deeper in their commitment. He requires full devotion to him. No one should be ahead of Jesus. We live in a godless world where Christianity relates discipleship to health, wealth, and success rather than a commitment to Christ and suffering for his name sake. Dietrich Bonhoeffer teaches in his book The Cost of Discipleship (kindle 1276), “When Christ calls a man/woman, he bids them come and die.”

Jesus requires us to carry the cross or our cross, according to the evangelist Matthew’s version. That said, Christ invites us to endure life’s hardships and challenges for the sake of his name. The cross is a symbol of death, suffering, and sacrifice. As Jesus carried his cross and died for us, the church is also called to carry her cross and be willing to die for her faith. Discipleship means the cross, and the cross means suffering. The church is called to suffer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains the deep meaning of suffering,

It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ” (Bonhoeffer, kindle 1236).

 

 

Discipleship means we need to be ready to die for Christ. It also involves living for Jesus, not for ourselves. Discipleship means casting our wishes, ambitious, and even our rights before the feet of Christ. The church is called to let go of everything that takes her from Christ. Jesus also says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Hence, discipleship is not for those who put their hands to the plow and look back, but it is for those who found a great treasure hidden in a field, and they sold all they have and bought that field (Matthew 13:44). Discipleship means that Jesus is number one in your life. He is first, and all other things are subject to the decision to be his disciples.

 

 

Humility and Hospitality.

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Luke 14:1, 7-14.

September 1, 2019

Today, Jesus gives us a lesson on humility and hospitality. He invites us to be humble and not to strive for a place of honor, prestige, and admiration because humility brings us these things. In other words, humility brings you to the place of honor. Jesus was concerned about the troubling of his popularity following his miracles, particularly the miracle of Transfiguration and feeding the multitudes. He refused to become a king or to seek authority or prestige. He is an excellent example of a humble person who lived his life, not for himself but for us. “Following Jesus Christ is not about positions of honor or authority in his kingdom; it is about embracing a life dedicated to loving one another as he has loved us.”

 

Humility and hospitality go hand in hand. Hospitality always requires humility. When we are humble, we open our hearts to share our resources with the poor, strangers, blind, and lame. Humility opens our mind and soul to our struggling neighbor. Humility is God's gift to those who ask for it. It is a divine gift that helps us to walk side by side with our neighbor who is struggling to put food on the table and care for their kids when they may be working three jobs.

 

Many people in this world whose lives and hope to find a small amount of happiness are intertwined with what we think, say, and do. God did not create us to live for ourselves. God did not create me to live for Niveen and only Niveen. God created us to be responsible for each other.

 

The poor and the disadvantage need the leader of the Pharisees to provide them a meal to survive. His wealthy guests did not need his food. The poor need the rich to work with them to eliminate poverty. And the rich need to remember not to take their privileges and resources for granted.

 

We need each other. This is a fact that we cannot ignore. We need each other not only when we face financial crisis, but also when we question our relationship with somebody who is dear to us, or when a member of our family or a friend is sick or is living in an abusive relationship, or when a friend cannot handle the stress at their workplace. There are more and more examples. But the point is that your humility is key to your relationships. Your humility helps you to practice hospitality to your neighbors and friends.

 

Hospitality entails opening your heart to your friends. It also involves listening to your neighbor, their struggles, their pains in every place the Lord Jesus sends you. This act of hospitality is an act of grace. It is an act of love and care. A touch of kindness can make a difference in your neighbor’s life.

 

The 8-year old boy Christian Moore has inspired me with his touch of kindness. This little boy comforts his classmate with autism on the first day of school. His humility and hospitality were very significant. No wonder that his heartwarming photo was all over the news. That little boy Christian teaches us to practice gracious hospitality to those who are in need.

 

Jesus touches our hearts every day. His gracious hospitality is for you every single day. His gracious hospitality is available to you in breaking the bread and drinking the wine. His humility opens to you a great banquet where everybody is welcome to join. Jesus also practices his gracious hospitality at every moment when you go to him to throw yourself into his arms because you know he is the one who is gladly willing to carry you when the road is rough, and your burden is heavy.

 

 

Law and Gospel

Luke 10 and Deuteronomy 30‎

How many of you would attend a Bible study on the law of Moses? How many of you are interested in studying the 613 commandments of the Torah? I believe that very few of you would attend. Christians are not interested in the law because we believe salvation is through Jesus Christ alone. That is very true, but we have a misunderstanding of the law.

 

We overlook the fact that “By nature we are law-oriented creatures because of the Law written on the heart. But the corruption of our nature means that we often will invent laws which we can keep in order to prove our righteousness.”[1] By nature, we know homicide is sin, and by nature, we know stealing is a sin. Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17). That said, Jesus revered the word of God, and he fulfilled the demands of the law.

 

God gave the gift of the law to Israel not to make their life difficult, but because God loves them and wants them to live a holy life. Observing the law becomes a big issue in Israel. Pharisees added rules to the law calling it the oral law.  They believed that Moses received the Oral Law and Written Law on Mount Sinai. As a result, keeping the law becomes a heavy burden on the Jews. Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and the teachers of the law for breaking the law of God for the sake of their tradition. He says in Matthew 15: 8-9

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

 

According to the evangelist Luke, a teacher of the law wants to engage in scholarly conversation with Jesus regarding the law and eternal life. Jesus asks him to share his understanding of the law. The teacher of the law combines two commandments from the book of Deuteronomy and Leviticus to summarize his knowledge of the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

 

Leviticus 19:18
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against any of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Deuteronomy 6:5

 

Jesus affirms his answer. He also responses to the second question, “who is my neighbor” (v. 25) by giving the parable of the good Samaritan. Jesus does not reject the law of Moses; to the contrary, he affirms it and gives it a more profound meaning. His explanation of Leviticus 19:18 “love your neighbor as yourself,” is very thoughtful and contrary to the stereotype the Jews had of the Samaritans. Through this parable, Jesus blows up this stereotype.

 A neighbor is an individual whom we see not as a stereotype, but as a human being uniquely created according to God’s image.

 

The teacher of the law summarized the 613 commandments into one command: love God and love your neighbor. The purpose of the law is to help us to be in right relationship with God and our neighbor. Jesus requires from the teacher of the law to follow this command, and he shall live (v. 28). Notice that Jesus does not tell the teacher of the law that believing in him is the way to inherit eternal life. For Jesus, believing in him leads to salvation and observing the command to love becomes the fruit of our faith in Jesus.

 

Jesus introduces us to both law and gospel. The law reveals our sin and drives us to repent. It also functions as guidance to show us how to live a sanctified life.

 

 

To say that the Law guides us to a sanctified life doesn’t imply that it has the power to provide the sanctified life. If the Law remains alone, then it has no power to cause us to do what it demands. Only the Gospel provides the power to do with the Law expects us to do.[2]

 

Furthermore, “The Gospel doesn’t eliminate the Law. Jesus isn’t a free pass to sin more in order to get more forgiveness. The Law remains because we still sin.”[3]

 

It is not difficult or impossible to keep the law. Moses, in Deuteronomy 30, assures the Israelites that the commandments are not too hard to follow (v. 11). The law is not in heaven or beyond the sea, but the word of God is in your mouth and heart (v. 13-14). “The language of heart can suggest a yearning to do what God has asked. When it is in their heart to keep God’s law, what may have seemed impossible becomes not only possible but desired.”[4]

When you love Jesus of all your heart and mind, the Holy Spirit will give you the desire to follow him and to keep his commandments. The law requires us to love God and our neighbor, and the gospel helps us to do so. We need both law and gospel to have a sincere relationship with God and our neighbor.

 

 

[1] Jacob W Ehrhard, “The Art of Making Distinctions – Three Uses of the Law,” March 29, 2017
Trinity Lutheran Church,  
http://www.trinitynewhaven.com/2017/03/three-uses-of-the-law/

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sara Koenig, “Deuteronomy 30: 9-14 Commentary,” Working Preacher, accessed July 13, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1726.

The Feast of Pentecost

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

The Feast of Pentecost, June 9, 2019.

 

 

Please join me in prayer. Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of life: come and abide in us, cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good One.

 

The Jewish festival of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks in English started in the evening of Saturday, June 8 and will end in the evening of Monday, June 10. Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks after Passover. “Shavuot has a double significance. It marks the all-important wheat harvest in Israel (Exodus 34:22), and it commemorates the anniversary of the day when God gave the Torah to the nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai.”[1] The alternative name for Shavuot is Pentecost in the ancient Greek language. Pentecost is set up a day to seven weeks after Easter. It means 50 because (7×7=49).

 

According to the book of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:15), the disciples, the Virgin Mary, and other women, along with 120 followers of Jesus gathered to celebrate God’s gift of the Torah and the gift of harvest. They were unaware that another gift was coming. This new gift is the Holy Spirit, which led them to leave their gathering house and go to the world to preach the good news. Pentecost marks the birthday of the church. Today our church becomes more than 2000 years old.

 

The feast of Pentecost is one of the ancient feasts in the church. The book of Acts 20:16 records that the apostle Paul celebrated the feast of Pentecost. It also means that Paul wanted to celebrate the feast of Shavuot. In the time of the apostle Paul, the church was part of the Jewish community and celebrated Jewish feasts.

Someone might ask, didn’t Jesus, according to John 20, give the Holy Spirit to his disciples immediately after his resurrection? “21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The answer is yes. But remember that the gospel of John is not interested so much in chronology (when things happen). Instead, he is interested in linking resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost closely together.

Pentecost teaches us that we need one another. Pouring out the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost expresses the need to appreciate our neighbor who is different than us. “Pentecost is celebration of unity in diversity,” says Pope Francis.[2] All languages are appreciated. The many languages that the apostles spoke indicate a new era of unity and equality but not sameness. All cultures and ethnicities are equally important and precious in the eyes of God. The barriers and privileges that divided people on a personal and national level have been destroyed. The feast of Pentecost teaches us that the time of Pentecost is the time when war, argument, division and discrimination decrease, and love, and unity, along with diversity increase.

 

 

The apostle Paul teaching on our new identity in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17).

 

 

As the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples and the 120 followers of Jesus Christ to preach and live the gospel, the same Holy Spirit empowers us to do the same. Each one of you received the Holy Spirit in your baptism. You have the power of the Holy Spirit to do the impossible. Jesus says 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17-18). You can perform these kinds of miracles and even more because you have the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

Happy Birthday to the Church of Christ all over the world! Happy birthday to you, who are the body of the Church!

 

 

[1] Wikipedia. “Shavuot.” Accessed June 7, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shavuot.

[2] Pentecost is a celebration of unity in diversity, pope says By Cindy Wooden Catholic News Service 6.4.2017 6:06 AM ET. http://www.cbn.com/700club/pentecost_diversity.pdf

The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord‎

What does it matter?

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord.[1] June 2, 2019

 

 

Peace be with you from God, our father and Jesus Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit our Sanctifier.

 

What has to do with you the ascension of our Lord? Is it important? There are very significant events in Jesus earthly life. For example, the birth of Jesus is very significant because God became a human being, one of us. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ saved me from sin, and his resurrection saved me from death. How the feast of the ascension effects my faith and life. Today many Christians look at the ascension of our Lord as fiction or unrealistic. We need to uncover the Jewish understanding of heaven and earth to understand the significant meaning of the ascension.

 

Our world today is impacted by ancient Greek philosophy. We tend to believe that heaven and earth are worlds apart. Greek philosophy teaches that the world is a prison, and our body is a prison; our soul is longing to escape this body. Death is a beautiful moment because it liberates the soul from the body. Salvation, according to ancient Greek philosophy, means getting out on this world to heaven. Do not we think in this way?

 

The Jews do not think that way.  The first century Jews understood heaven to be the realm of God and angels, and the earth is the realm of God’s creatures. Heaven and earth are not radically separate, but they are linked. The purpose of salvation, according to the Jewish faith, is not about escaping this sinful world and go to heaven, but rather the transformation of this earth by heaven.

 

For instance, after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells him “19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19). The Lord’s prayer comes out of deeply Jewish sensibility. “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This prayer is about heaven and the earth are coming together. When we pray this prayer, we invite God to reign on earth as God reigns in heaven. Another example is from our Eucharist/Holy Communion liturgy. We sing the heavenly song that is recorded in the book of Isaiah, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). God does not distance Godself from our world.

 

In terms of Jesus resurrection, the Jewish understanding of heaven and earth are the context of the resurrection. The resurrection is not about Jesus escaping his body. The resurrected body of Jesus is very emphasized in the Gospels. Jesus tells his disciples that he is not a ghost because he has a body. To prove that he is not a ghost, he asks to eat, and his disciples offer him fish. The purpose of stressing on Jesus resurrected body is to underline that his soul is not in a distant place.  The descriptions of Jesus resurrected body reflect the Jewish sensibility.

 

In terms of Jesus ascension, his ascension is not like NASA rocket trip to space. It does mean the translation of this earthly reality into the heavenly dimension. Furthermore, the ascension of Jesus is collocated with the Pentecost. A something of earth goes up into the heavenly realm, and something from heaven comes down to the earthly realm. It is the meeting of heaven and earth; the transformation of earth by heaven.

 

Let us go back to my first question. What has to do with you the ascension of our Lord? The church is the mystical body of Jesus. In our baptism, we are transformed by Christ and his heavenly power. Our calling is to continue his work of bringing heaven and earth together. Jesus gives us his Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20

 

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

The ascension of Christ is significant to the church because his ascension commands us to be his witnesses on earth.  Our calling is to go to the world and do what we can to bring heaven and earth together. Our Christian vocation is to help those who live in darkness to taste heaven here on earth. Our calling is to bring heaven down to earth.

 

 

[1] This sermon was inspired by

Bishop Robert Barron, “Why the Ascension of the Lord Matters,” Word on Fire, May 27, 2011, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/why-the-ascension-of-the-lord-matters/22310/.

Memorial Day, May 26, 2019‎

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Memorial Day, May 26, 2019

 

Christians all over the world worship Jesus Christ on Sunday. Sunday is observed as a day of worship and rest to commemorate the day of Christ's resurrection. Most of the Lutheran churches celebrate communion every Sunday. Sunday becomes a memorial day where Christians remember the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to save us and remember his resurrection. Tomorrow Monday is called Memorial Day. It is designated for remembering and honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military.

The two celebrations, one specifically Christian and one national, may seem to have little relationship with each other. However, “they are united by the common principle of calling for us to participate with the heroic sacrifices of old, renewed today.”[1]

 

Celebrating the Holy Communion invites us to remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the past and his presence with us today. Jesus in the Last Supper commands us to "do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:23–25). The Holy Communion is a visible sign of Jesus’ presence in his church. The martyrs and saints are also present with Jesus as we celebrate the Holy Communion.

 

On Memorial Day, we celebrate and remember who laid down their lives to protect the citizens of the United States and the oppressed in the world. Their memory reminds us of our past and helps us to think of our future. Memorial Day is not about a recounting of the past, but in remembering the sacrifice of our dead soldiers, we make them present.

Jesus’ blood and body remind us of his love and of his new commandment to love one another. Remembering his death and resurrection becomes a way of loving our neighbors and proclaiming that the grave is empty. On Sunday, we remember Jesus victory over death. We remember that sin has no longer power over us. Likewise, we remember the sacrifice of our soldiers and their love for the nation and for us. For the dead were witnesses: witnesses to the violent repression caused by war. Their death invites us to review our understanding of war and our involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Their sacrifice invites us to reflect on our participation in war and working for peace now and the coming future. Their sacrifice gives us hope that the future would be better.

 

Memorial Day is not the same as Veteran’s Day or a day for supporting our troops. It is a day to remember all those men and women who gave up their lives, so we may live. We remember those who “didn't get the chance to bring up their children or grow old with their spouses or have careers. All they have is their names on the Wall or another memorial like it.”[2] Tomorrow is a day of mourning and self-reflection. Memorial Day should not be treated as an extra day off or a day of kicking off summer activities. It “means something much more profound than a long weekend”[3] or a picnic or shopping. Memorial Day, wrote A historian Conrad Cherry, “is an American sacred ceremony, a religious ritual, a modern cult of the dead… it is a high holy day of the American ceremonial calendar . . . a sacred day when the war dead are mourned, the spirit of redemptive sacrifice is extolled and pledges to American ideals are renewed.”[4] In other words, “Memorial Day is a festival of our nation’s civil religion, one of the many “constellations of rituals, ceremonies.”[5] Therefore, my friends, “Christians should first embrace it as a reminder of our commemorative calling and treat it with respect and honor.”[6]

We live in an era where forgetfulness is tempting. We are tempted to focus on the present time and the future. But if we forget the lessons of our past, it will be difficult to direct our future in a much more thoughtful way. Learning from the past to help us to make sense of our present and future is a dominant theme in Scripture. In the New Testament, we are called to remember the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. In the Old Testament, the Lord commands the Israelites to remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, “be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live” (Deut. 4:9).

Memorial Day might teach a measured love of country that neither displaces the love of God nor distorts love of (all our) neighbors. Every Holy Communion celebration is a memorial. Partaking in the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation unites us with Christ and makes us in communion with the saints and martyrs. We are united with Jesus Christ and saints in resisting sin and death. Similarly, when we remember the sacrifice of our dead soldiers “we sense a call to be united with them in their struggles now and always.”[7] we are united with them in making this world a better place to live.

May their memory be eternal!

 

 

[1] “The Eucharist and Memorial Day,” Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church, May 24, 2016, https://ourladyofthevalleyluray.org/reflections/the-eucharist-and-memorial-day/.

 

[2] Minda Zetlin, “Please Stop Honoring Veterans On Memorial Day--a Request from My Veteran Husband,” Inc., May 24, 2018, https://www.inc.com/minda-zetlin/memorial-day-veterans-day-honoring-dead-fallen-soldiers.html.

[3] Bill Morgan, “Memorial Day Is so Much More Than a Long Weekend,” National Veterans Foundation, May 28, 2017, https://nvf.org/memorial-day-is-so-much-more-than-a-long-weekend/.

[4] Chris Gehrz, “Do This in Remembrance,” Christian Today, MAY 29, 2017. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/may-web-only/memorial-day-do-this-in-remembrance.html

 

[5] Chris Gehrz, “Do This in Remembrance,” Christian Today, MAY 29, 2017. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/may-web-only/memorial-day-do-this-in-remembrance.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] “The Eucharist and Memorial Day,” Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church, May 24, 2016, https://ourladyofthevalleyluray.org/reflections/the-eucharist-and-memorial-day/.