Posts in Category: Sermons

Sermon: May 12, 2019 John 10:22-30, the Good Shepherdess/Good Mother

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Today is the Good Shepherd Sunday. We celebrate Jesus, the Good Shepherd. We live in an urban area far from the countryside where livestock is raised. Most of us lost direct contact with cattle and sheep. Some of you owned or worked on a farm but not anymore. Shepherding is no longer an attractive job. In Jesus time, shepherding was a noble occupation. People made their livings through agriculture and raising livestock. Shepherding was a prevalent occupation in antiquity. A shepherd tends, herds, feeds and protects sheep. Shepherd also plays the flute with sheep to while away the time as he tends his flock.

 

We assume that shepherding is a male-dominated occupation. Scripture tells us stories about shepherdess (a female Shepherd); for example, Rachel as a shepherdess: “Rachel came with her father’s sheep for she was their shepherd” (Gen. 29:6, 9).

 

Scripture introduces us to Zipporah (the wife of Moses) as a shepherdess: “Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock” (Exod. 2:16).

 

Shepherding is like mothering. The good Shepherd is like a good mother. Jesus says that “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Good Shepherd is selfless as a good mother is selfless and is willing to lay down her life for her children. Today we are celebrating Mother’s Day. All women have been mothered in some way. Aunt, pastor, godmother, and teacher are mothers. Jesus demonstrates how good shepherd should be or how good mother/good parent should be. Since today is Mother’s Day, I invite you to envision another image of Jesus not only as of the Good Shepherd but also a good mother. Since today is Mother’s Day, I am going to address Jesus as The Good Shepherdess or Good Mother. In the gospel reading today, Jesus gives us four qualifications of Good Mother.

 

Firstly, Jesus saysMy sheep hear my voice.” Jesus the Good Mother spends time with his sheep to the point that sheep recognize his voice. Good mother recognizes her children’s voice. Children can distinguish the voice of their mothers from many voices. I love to video chat with my family. I noticed that my little niece Joelle enjoys playing with my family, but the moment she hears her mother’s voice, she cries until her mom holds her in her arms. Then Joelle stops crying and begins to touch her mom’s face and put her little hand in her mom’s mouth. Joelle turns her tears into joy and laughter.

 

Secondly, Jesus says, I know them, and they follow me.” Jesus teaches us that a good shepherd knows his sheep. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus teaches that “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (v.3). The good shepherdess develops a personal relationship with each sheep. Likewise, a good mother knows her children. She knows their habits and characters. She knows what they like and dislike.

 

My niece Joelle was born on May 25, 2018. My sister loves to share Joelle’s pictures with the family. One day, I put Joelle’s picture next to the picture of my older niece Jezel when she was a baby. I made the two photos to look like one picture. I wanted to compare them to one another when they were at the same age. I shared the picture with my parents who assumed that the two girls in the picture are one girl and that is Joelle. Even though my parents have been spending lots of time with Gisele since she was born, they did not remember her picture when she was a baby. I was surprised and decided to show the picture to my sister who immediately noticed the difference. I asked her how she recognized the difference. She was surprised by my question and replied, “These are my daughters. I know my daughters!”

 

Thirdly, Jesus says,I give them eternal life. and they will never perish.” The Lord Jesus, our Good Mother, knows the name and voice of each one of you. Like a good mother, Jesus shepherds us gently and disciplines us. He demonstrates tender love and tough love to transform us to be more like him. He does not want to harm us. He disciplines us because he wants to give us eternal life.

 

Finally, Jesus says,No one will snatch them out of my hand.” The last character of the good shepherd is protector and preserver. Jesus protects his sheep from the wolf. Jesus lays down his life for us, and as a good mother, he will not allow anyone to snatch us out of his hand. If somebody tries to kidnap or snatch your child or grandchild, how you handle this situation. I believe you will fight to keep your child. Good mothers will do anything to protect their children. They will not let anyone snatch their children from their hand. A good mother will fight for her child. She will kick and scream to protect her child from abduction. She will do anything to keep her child safe.

"I know my own and my own know me," says Jesus the Good Mother and Good Shepherdess. Jesus, the one who knows the sound of our voices and knows our names. Jesus, the Good Mother, loves us unconditionally, and out of love and compassion, he disciplines us. Blessed be the name of Jesus Christ henceforth and forevermore.

 

Sermon: May 5, 2019 John 21 - Martyrdom

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Martyrdom is a big part of Christians identity. Christian Martyrdom is ongoing and not limited to the early centuries of Christianity. Christians have endured persecution because of their faith in Jesus Christ. What does it mean to be a martyr? The word martyr comes from the Greek word, μάρτυς, mártys, "witness." A martyr is the Christian who bears witness to Christ.

“The reason why this word became synonymous with dying for one’s religious beliefs is that the early Christian witnesses were often persecuted and/or killed for their witness.”[1]

All of us are martyrs when we bear witness to the risen Lord Jesus Christ and bear the fruit of faith. Let me talk about the martyrdom that leads to death.

 

The early church was built on the blood of the first martyr Jesus Christ and the early martyrs. The Christian martyrs accepted death for the sake of their faith. Since the beginning of the Christian movement until this present day, Christians have been slaughtered.

 

Our Lord Jesus in John chapter 21 predicts the martyrdom of the apostle Peter (vs. 18-19), and then he asks Peter to “Follow him.” In July 19, 64 AD, the great fire of Rome broke out, Nero blamed Christians and ordered to destroy them. He also ordered to execute the apostle Peter. The early Christian historian, Jerome, wrote that Peter was crucified with his head down and his feet up because he thought himself unworthy to be crucified in the same form and manner as the Lord.[2] The apostle Peter knew that he would suffer for the sake of Jesus; however, he followed him to the end. Nero tortured Christians brutally. “During gladiator matches, he would feed Christians to lions, and he often lit his garden parties with the burning carcasses of Christian human torches.[3]

In 250 AD, Emperor Decius issued an edict demanding all of the citizens of the Roman empire to offer sacrifices to the gods and to pray for the well-being of the Emperor.” The sacrifices had to be performed in the presence of a Roman magistrate, and a signed and witnessed certificate be issued to that effect.”[4] Christians refused to offer sacrifices. It is like refusing to pledge allegiance to the state. In this case, you become a potential traitor. Christians accepted to be sewn up in skins of wild beasts and thrown to the dogs rather than to deny Christ. Some Christians accepted to be burned alive. This persecution increased the devotion and commitment of Christians to the lord Jesus Christ.

 

In 1915 AD a group called The Young Turks persecuted Armenians by deporting them from the Ottoman Empire and let them die of thirst and hunger.

The Young Turks also crucified Armenian women. They exterminated 1.5 million Armenian Christian martyrs, who decided to follow Christ no matter what. Finally, you know about ISIS killing 21 Egyptian Christian Coptic men in Libya on February 12, 2015. Those Christians followed Christ and laid down their lives for him

 

Those Christian martyrs could live and enjoy privileges if they had renounced their faith in the risen Lord. Some Christians were like the apostle Peter. They denied Christ, and after the persecution was over, they came back to their faith. Some Christians accepted martyrdom rather than to worship false gods. Our martyrs accepted martyrdom because they were confident that Christ rose from the dead and they would rise, too. They believed that Jesus is worth to lose everything they had, even their life. They joined the choir of angels and creatures in heaven singing:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”

 

You might find yourself in circumstances where your faith in Jesus Christ is tested. You might accept martyrdom rather than denying him. Alternatively, you might become a refugee like my big sister and her husband who escaped Christian persecution in Gaza, Palestine and went to Belgium. They accepted to live in a foreign land and to learn a new language and to stay in refugees center for three years to keep their faith. They considered Jesus worthy of their suffering. You might deny Jesus Christ to avoid persecution as Peter did. However, later you repent and jump off the boat naked and swim fast to meet him and to profess your love. Jesus forgives those who deny him but pay attention that Peter accepted to lay down his life for Jesus rather than denying him again.

Pray to Jesus to give you the strength to keep your faith. Teach your children and grandchildren that Christ is worthy of our suffering and struggle. Teach them that Christ is more valuable than their life. He is the most valuable pearl among many pearls that a merchant sold everything he had and bought it.

 

[2] Foxe John 1516-1587, Fox's Book Of Martyrs: Or, A History Of The Lives, Sufferings, And Triumphant Deaths Of Many Of The Primitive As Well As Protestant Martyrs Hardcover (Andesite Press, 2005), 5.

[4]

Sermon: Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

In the middle of the 20th century, Cyprus revolted against British military occupation. Every Eastern Orthodox priest was considered a nationalist politician and churches became a place where freedom fighters gathered. On one of the Sundays, a priest started his sermon saying “this evening, my people, we have come to proclaim the revolution! Long live the revolution!” He said it two or three times. All the worshipers were clapping and shouting. The police came forward with orders to arrest the priest. As they got close, the priest added: “we have come to proclaim the revolution against sin.”[1] Then the police froze. They stopped and withdrew, and the priest continued to preach against sin.

Easter Sunday is the beginning of the Christians revolution because Christ won the victory over sin and death. Jesus’ resurrection was not a happy ending, but the glorious beginning of a revolution in the name of Christ who defeated sin and death and offered amnesty to all the prisoners of sin.

We learned since we were children that Jesus died on the cross so that who believes in him will go to heaven. Evangelism becomes a mission to save people’s souls from hell. We grew up thinking that the purpose of the cross and resurrection is to keep our eyes fixed on heaven and discount this world. We learned since Sunday school days to wait for the second coming of Christ to destroy this sinful world and to start a new one.

Early Christians understood cross and resurrection differently. They related them to the coming of the kingdom of God. They believed that the purpose of the cross and resurrection is to destroy sin that deprived the poor of access to food and dehumanized the marginalized. The early Christians understood Jesus crucifixion and resurrection as the beginning of the revolution against the imperial powers of their time.

Rome imperial power thrived on practicing injustice and oppression. The early church recognized the cross and resurrection as the beginning of replacing the imperial power with the kingdom of God on earth. They understood their true vocation to be “image-bearers,” reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.”[2]

The church fathers like John Chrysostom, Clement of Rome and Origen of Alexandria believed that the cross and resurrection made them citizens of heaven, but they have work to do on earth. Their mission was revolutionary because they focused on implementing the victory of Jesus Christ here and now.

The early church understood its vocation to be Christ's voice in this world. They believed that the victory of Jesus over sin and death is the beginning of a new life, “new way of being human in the world and for the world.”[3] Consequently, the church became a refuge for the poor, oppressed and marginalized.

What does the resurrection mean to you? Is your hope to reserve a place for you in heaven? Joining Jesus’ revolution against sin and death means understanding your vocation in this world. Your vocation is to be Christ’s voice in every place. Christ already won the victory and granted you forgiveness. All you need to do is to implement this victory on earth.[4] Implementing Jesus’ cross and resurrection entails speaking up against economic inequality and the war industry. Joining Christ revolution means to speak truth to power, to advocate for peace, to feed the hungry, to release the unjustly convicted prisoners and to rescue our children and women from sex trafficking. In other words, we are called to transform this world and make it a better place. Christians are standing between heaven and earth.[5] We are citizens of heaven and Christ’s ambassadors on Earth. Our vocation is to help the disadvantaged to foretaste the kingdom of God on earth. We have work to do here on earth. Jesus offered you forgiveness. Enjoy Jesus' forgiveness but remember you are called to carry your cross and follow him every single day.

Do you know that you joined Christ’ revolution in your baptism? Do you know that every time you partake in his body and blood, you affirm your membership in his movement to transform the world? Jesus calls each one of us for a particular vocation, but all of us share one vocation that this “to embody the story of Jesus death and resurrection in this world.”[6]

The Anglican Bishop Nicholas Thomas Wright Invites us to “Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now.”[7] I have already joined this revolution. How about you?

 

[2] Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began (p. 357). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid., 362.

[4] Ibid., IV.

[5] Ibid.,

[6] Ibid.,

[7] Wright, N. T.. The Day the Revolution Began (p. 416). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

 

Sermon: Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019, John 13:1-17, 31-35

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

This is the night of love and betrayal.

This is the night of a new commandment.

This is the night of humility and of service.

This is the night of water, bread, and wine.

The apostle John does not mention the institution of the Holy Communion. Instead, he is the only one who narrates the feet-washing story. John ties it with Jesus suffering on the cross and his ultimate love to his disciples. Jesus sets an example before his disciples on how to love and serve one another.

My mother suffers from continuous swollen feet. She can’t walk for a long distance. I always imagine myself bringing a basin with warm water and soaking her feet in a combination of lavender and Epsom salt and massaging them. Taking care of my mother’s feet is a sign of love and care. Jesus loved his disciples to the point of acting as a slave by washing their feet. In antiquity, women or slaves washed the feet of the guests, but never the host.

Jesus washed all his disciples’ feet. It is highly possible that women attended the Last Supper and Jesus washed the feet of his female disciples. But the most interesting point is that Jesus washed Judas Iscariot’s feet.

Jesus knew that Judas was planning to betray him. Despite Judas’ unfaithfulness, Jesus washed his feet. Jesus loves the unlovable, and he does not exclude anyone of his love.

Jesus accepted and loved Judas, who betrayed him, and gave him another chance. Jesus loved Judas and washed his feet even though he referred to him as an unclean person.

Imagine Jesus bending down and doing the dirty work. Imagine he comes closer to Judas and touches his feet. Give yourself a minute to imagine how they look into each other’s eyes. Imagine what they were thinking of at that moment. Jesus’ eyes were full of love, but Judas’ eyes were full of betrayal. It takes a perfect love to wash the feet of a person like Judas. Jesus is love incarnate.

By washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus set to them an example of love and humility. Jesus teaches his disciples to love one another and to be humble. He says in v.15 “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus did not say, “you also should think or should believe as I have done to you.” No, he said, “you should do.” We should love our neighbor as Jesus loves us. He wasn’t talking about having warm fuzzy feelings. Instead, Jesus is talking about Agape love, the divine love. Agape means whatever you do will have your best interests in mind toward your neighbor. “Jesus is showing us that we are not to be selective with our love. We have received in abundance the boundless love of God, and so we are to shower that love on others. Regardless of what a person says or does we are to love them, never to hold back.”[1]

On this night, Jesus gives us an example on how to live as Christians and how leaders should lead. Jesus calls us to love and to be humble. Jesus’ love moved him to humble himself and serve his enemy, Judas. Each one of us is potentially a Judas. We deceive Christ in our lives one way or another. We allow our passion to control us. We allow our passion to develop from a passion to betrayal. Jesus knows your heart. Jesus knows that you are sinner, but righteous at the same time. Jesus wants to wash your feet to cleanse you from all impurity. Jesus loves the repentant. Jesus wants to be close to you and touch your hands and feet. He wants to be very close to you. He wants to touch you and feel you because you are precious in his eyes and he loves you.

Tonight, Jesus also teaches us that even our enemies are deserving of Jesus’ love and your love. Jesus sets an example for us to love our enemy, not through words but through our actions. Jesus shows us how to love one another, and he commands us to “go and do likewise.”

 

Sermon Luke 13:1-9: March 24, 2019

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

I have been meditating on the book of Job since the beginning of Lenten season. This book focuses on the theme of retribution, which states that the good person will receive blessings and the evil person will receive evil. It is about punishment and reward. Job considered himself as an upright and righteous man. Despite his righteousness, God inflicted him with disease and the death of his children. Job accused God of being unjust and not operating the world according to the doctrine of retribution. God supposed to make Job happy ever after because he was a righteous man. Job’s wife and friends believe that Job's sin caused his suffering. God is just in punishing a sinner like Job. Job kept defending himself and spoke to God directly asking for an explanation about his suffering. Finally, God spoke to Job, but without answering his questions. God assures Job that God was in control and God alone knew the reason behind Job’s suffering. God taught Job that: It is better to know God than to know all the answers. Job repented, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (42: 5-6). God rewarded Job because he repented. The relationship between God and Job was restored.

Lent is a season of preparation and repentance. ELCA gospel readings for Sundays during Lent center on repentance. Repentance is a strong theme in the gospel of Luke. John the Baptist called people to repent. Jesus ministry also invited people to live a life of repentance. Jesus emphasizes that repentance is a necessary step to enter the kingdom of God. According to Luke 13, Jesus teaches that the end of time is coming, and his followers need to be prepared through living a life of repentance. In the previous chapter, Jesus exhorts his disciples that through repentance they can be ready for the apocalypse.

“Jesus uses the example of settling a legal case before the case gets to court to encourage the disciples to take actions necessary to be part of the Realm [the kingdom of God]. If they do not, they will pay the apocalyptic price (12:57-59).”[1] In chapter 13, the evangelist Luke narrates that “at that very time there was some present” referred to Jesus the massacre of a group of Galilean pilgrims in Jerusalem (v.1). Scholar Ronald J. Allen explains their question:

Their implied question is: Were those Galileans so much worse sinners than other Galileans that they were beyond the possibility of preparing for the Realm [kingdom of God] in the way Jesus had described in Luke 12:1-56? Jesus gives a straight forward answer: ‘No.’ They were not killed because of their sin. They were brutally murdered by the Romans. But Jesus uses the deaths of the Galileans to make a point. To expand slightly: Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did when the apocalypse occurs.[2]

Those who asked Jesus about the violent death of Galileans believed in the doctrine of retribution: God punishes the sinners and rewards the righteous. Jesus did not discuss the principle of retribution. It was not something necessary for Jesus. Repentance is more important than retribution. Jesus gives them another example of those who died at Siloam. The purpose of these two is examples “is to stress the importance of repentance as a decisive step on the journey to the Realm [the kingdom of God].”[3]

Let me give you a more contemporary example. Imagine that Jesus is teaching on repentance as a way to prepare for the kingdom of God and one of you asks him about those who were killed in shootings at two mosques in New Zealand. And Jesus responds, do you think that because these Muslims suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other New Zealanders? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.

Jesus elaborates his teaching through the parable of the fig tree. Jesus’ parable implies that “ A cultivated yet unproductive tree may continue to live even without bearing fruit, only because it has been granted additional time to do what it is supposed to do. Unless it begins to bear fruit (an image of repentance, according to Luke 3:8), the result will be its just and swift destruction.”[4]

God is patient with sinners, and will give them an opportunity to repent. God forgives those who sincerely repent.

Jesus teaches that life is short and full of suffering. Life is unpredictable, and death might come unexpectedly. Accordingly, we always need to be ready to meet the Lord. Many Christians confess their sins, but very few repent. Repentance does not mean to feel bad over your behavior for a short period of time and then return to your sinful manner. Repentance means shifting your thinking, behavior, and heart toward God. Repentance might be a long process. Sometimes this process is painful, but it will lead to forgiveness and peace. Jesus’ teaching on repentance and judgment make many of us uncomfortable. We prefer to hear about God’s forgiveness and love but not about God’s judgment. But God’s judgment is real. Christ’s grace is not cheap grace. It cost him his life.

In this Lenten season, remind yourself that your life is a gift and fragile. Remind yourself of your vulnerability as a human being living in a broken world. You need Christ’s grace and mercy every single moment in your life. You might suffer or die unexpectedly because bad things happen to the righteous. So, live a life of repentance. I want to share with you a hymn chanted during the Great Lent in Eastern Orthodox. Let us read this hymn together in the spirit of confession.

Open to me the doors of repentance, O Life-giver,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards thy holy temple.
Bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But in Thy compassion, purify me by the loving-kindness of Thy mercy.
Now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen
Have mercy on me O God, according to Thy great mercy,
and according to the multitude of Thy compassions,
blot out my transgressions.
When I think of the many evil things I have done, wretch that I am,
I tremble at the fearful day of judgment.
But trusting in Thy living kindness, like David I cry to Thee:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy.

 

[1] Ronald J. Allen, “Commentary On Luke 13: 1-9,” Working Preacher, accessed March 22, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3991.

[2] Ibid,.

[3] Ibid,.

[4] Matt Skinner, “Commentary On Luke 13: 1-9,” Working Preacher, accessed March 22, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=530.

Sermon: Luke 13: 31-35 - March 17, 2019

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

 

 

My parents love animals. They raised ducks, hens, roosters, cats, dogs, goats, and one donkey. It was hard for them to keep the ducks, hens, and roosters safe. They tried their best to keep the coop secure. But foxes found a way to attack the hens at the throat. My parents fed up with the foxes and decided not to continue raising poultry. In Middle Eastern culture, the fox is perceived as cunning, devious, and intelligent. No wonder, foxes made my parents stop raising poultry.

That Fox! Jesus called Herod. Some Pharisees told Jesus he had better hide, Herod was after him. Herod who wants to kill Jesus is called Herod Antipas. He is the same Herod who killed John the Baptist. Herod thought that John the Baptist came back from the dead. ‎ Luke tells us in chapter 9 that "Herod said, “John, I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he tried to see him [Jesus]. In chapter 13, Luke tells us that Herod wants to kill Jesus.

In response to Herod threat, Jesus gives two metaphors of animals—a fox and a hen. Our Lord calls Herod “that fox.” This statement is harsh and implies that he is a cunning and devious person. Jesus was attacking Herod verbally. Jesus determines to continue his ministry despite Herod threat.   He states that he will work “today and tomorrow, and on the third day, I [he] finish my [his] work” (v. 32).  Jesus was referring to his death and resurrection in Jerusalem. Because Jesus’ ministry is part of God's plan, Herod cannot kill him. Jesus also emphasizes the impossibility for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.

We can conclude that the purpose of Jesus calling Herod “that fox” is to tell him that he is like a fox who lacks great status and thus cannot carry out his threat.[1] Jesus enjoys greater status than Herod who represents the imperial power of Rome.

After Jesus called Herod “that fox”, he turned his face to Jerusalem and mourns the city. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! (v.34).” Jesus, like a mother, laments Jerusalem and its inhabitants. He does not mourn himself, but he laments over the tragedy of a lost opportunity in accepting him as the Messiah. Jesus’ lamentation indicates that he is fulfilling his destiny as a prophet. He will be killed in Jerusalem. In killing Jesus, Jerusalem, the holy city of God, turns against God’s mission. 

Jesus continues speaking for God, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (v. 34).”  Jesus relates himself to a mother hen who wants to protect her chicks under her wings, but her chicks reject their mother’s protection. Jesus draws upon the feminine image of a hen to reveal his motherly love. This metaphor implies that Jesus as a mother is willing to give his own life to save his children.

While Jesus refers to Herod as a fox, he refers to himself as a hen, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has captured the way Jesus felt when he mourned Jerusalem:

If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world—wings spread, breast exposed.[2]

After 2000 years, Jesus prophetic message still speaks to the church today. The church needs to choose between the fox and the hen. The church needs to decide whether to continue Christ mission or to fear the rules of this world. In other words, are we going to follow Christ to the cross? A fox will always threaten the church that accepts to be a hen. The church history proves that the church of Jesus has encountered many foxes. But Jesus assures us that mother hen is not afraid of the fox; to the contrary, she is willing to fight for her children. This is the ultimate love of Jesus Christ. When we refuse to come under his protection, he will never give us up. Jesus Christ accepted his death on the cross even though Jerusalem rejected him. This story is important for us as we are walking on our Lenten journey. Jesus is determined to love you. No matter what you will face in your life, you are under Jesus’ maternal wings.

 

[1] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1997), 536.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood,” The Christian Century, February 25, 1998, page 201.

Deuteronomy 26 - March 10, 2019

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

In 2002, I went down to Egypt to study at Presbyterian seminary in Cairo. I had to escape the war in Palestine to continue my seminary education. My seminary promised to grant me a student visa upon my arrival. But the Egyptian government refused to grant me a visa because of my religious background. The immigration department gave me two weeks to leave Egypt. I asked the Palestinian Embassy to intervene, but the Egyptian government rejected their appeal. However, they made a deal with the Palestinian Embassy to keep my visa application pending until I finished my studies. I was unable to go back to Palestine because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. As a result, I became an illegal immigrant in Egypt. I avoided any contact with the police. Deportation became my nightmare. One of my colleagues stole my money. Neither I was able to prove his sinful behavior to my seminary, nor I reported to the police because I was afraid of deportation. However, God blessed me in miraculous ways in Egypt. Jesus provided me everything I needed. God’s faithfulness followed me wherever I went. I have experienced God’s faithfulness that flows out of God unchanging nature and love for me.

 

In his final speech, Moses reminds the Israelites of God’s faithfulness to God’s promise to redeem them from their slavery in Egypt. To express their gratitude to God who brought them to the Promised Land, Moses commands them to celebrate the first harvest in June “by giving a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you” (16:10 NRSV). “Now, in chapter 26, Moses provides the actual liturgy for that first-fruits celebration ritual.”[1]

 

Moses commands the Israelites to bring the first fruit of the gifted land to the altar. The fruit is not a gift to the temple, but it should be shared among the Levites, the oppressed, the afflicted resident aliens. The alien identity of Israel is the center of their faith. They always need to remember their alien identity in Egypt. Moses needs them to remind themselves of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love when they were oppressed and afflicted resident aliens in Egypt. He commands them to offer a liturgical recitation along with their first fruits. “The recitation is confession of faith similar in form to the Christian creeds, which are also structured as narratives.”[2]

Because the Israelites were oppressed and afflicted resident aliens in Egypt, Moses commanded them to sympathize with the resident aliens and the Levites by sharing the bounty of the land with them. The Levites were landless Israelite tribe. They did not inherit land because God was their portion. They were dedicated priests of God. The Israelites were obligated to take care of the Levites. They also needed to support the resident aliens among them. The Israelites shared a common story with the resident aliens because they were resident aliens in Egypt. An alien in Hebrew is (gēr); Scholar K. J. Tromp summarizes the use of gēr in the Old Testament as the following:

An alien (gēr) being, ‘a man who (alone or with his family) leaves village and tribe because of war, famine, epidemic, or blood guilt and seeks shelter and residence at another place, where his right of landed property, marriage, and taking part in jurisdiction, cult and war has been curtailed.[3]

 

All of us are immigrants to this country. All of us share a common story with the new coming immigrants. All of us resonate one way or another with the story of the immigrants. This Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent. We focus on fasting and meditation. We come to worship services on Sundays and Wednesdays to be fed spiritually and contemplate on the passion of Christ. But the question is, what do you do for your afflicted neighbor when you leave the church? What do you do for the resident alien in your neighborhood after you finish meditating on the word of God? How do you express your faith? Giving up food is not the only answer. The answer is to take care of those who are powerless and disadvantaged. The Levites and the resident aliens are all over our country. How do you share the love of Jesus Christ with them? The book of Deuteronomy reminds the Israelites and us that God acts on behalf of the disadvantaged and blesses them with abundance. But God also invites us who experienced hardship and redeemed by God to act on behalf of the disadvantaged in the same way that God has acted. Jesus is inviting us to bless the afflicted resident aliens and the marginalized with abundance. This is the kind of fasting that God enjoys. Let us become agents of Jesus Christ in the world by redeeming the vulnerable and blessing the marginalized among us.

 


Oppressed [1] William Yarchin, “Commentary On Deuteronomy 26: 1-11,” Working Preacher, accessed March 8, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2761.

[2] Brian C. Jones, “Commentary On Deuteronomy 26: 1-11,” Working Preacher, accessed March 8, 2019, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3989.

[3] K. J. Tromp, “Aliens and Strangers in the Old Testament,” Vox Reformata (2011): 23.

Luke 9 Transfiguration - March 3, 2019

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Once upon a time, an Orthodox Romanian monk was trying to find God. But he could not find God. One day he realized “I must find myself!” He tried to find himself in prayers, in work, in books, but he could not. After a while, he said: “I must find my neighbor!” At that moment he found all three. He found God and himself by looking for his neighbor.

The three disciples Peter and John and James encountered Jesus as a divine person. They found God standing before them. They were able to glimpse his divinity. The transfiguration story concludes the epiphany season by revealing the divinity of Jesus Christ and calling us to listen to him. The three disciples saw Jesus’ glory. In the Old Testament, glory refers to the presence of God. The evangelist Luke employs the Greek term. δόξαν, doxan, “glory.” The Septuagint or the Greek translation of the Old Testament doxan is equivalent to יְהוָה כְּבוד kavod God. The apostle Peter in his second letter gives us a testimony about the divinity of Jesus.

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:17-18)

 

Besides the glory of Jesus, the apostle Peter witnesses Jesus' honor and majesty. These three terms are ascribed to God in the Old Testament and to the kingly majesty of the Messiah. Honor and glory and majesty belong to Christ. His honor refers to his exalted status, and his glory and majesty refer to the splendor of his outward appearance.

Moses and Elijah also appeared in glorious splendor δόξῃ to talk with Jesus about his departure. But Jesus has a higher status than both of them. Luke reports a cloud appeared and covered the apostles. “A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (v. 35). In the book of Exodus, cloud refers to the presence of God. A cloud covered the Mt. Sinai when God came down to give Moses the 10 Commandments (Exodus 24). Elijah also encountered God on the same mountain (1 Kings 19:11-13). The evangelist Luke and the apostle Peter attribute to Jesus the same honor, glory, and majesty that belong to God the Father. Scholar Howard McPhee explains the purpose of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ.

The transfiguration pointed to the future glory of the incarnate Son in terms of his whole person, both his divinity and his humanity. Just as the Son’s taking the form of a servant veiled his deity, the glorification of his humanity unveils and displays his deity and majestic splendour, for his glorified humanity is designed for that purpose. The transfiguration glory is Jesus’ hope and proclaims hope for perishing sinners, for attached by faith to the exalted Jesus. “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt 13:43).[1]

Transfiguration was common events in antiquity. Greek and Roman gods transfigured. Myths about goddess Demeter and Athena and god Zeus’s transfiguration confirm their divinity. Usually, these gods disappeared after their transfiguration. But Jesus Christ’s transfiguration is not a myth as the apostle Peter emphasizes. After his transfiguration, Jesus Christ remained with his disciples and went down the mountain to heal a sick boy.

Jesus Christ, our Lord, is with us and is walking among us. You can find him not at the top of the mountains because he did not remain there. He came down to continue to take care of us. Jesus is glorified in each one of us, and he gives us the hope that we will be glorified just like him. We find and see Jesus every day even though we do not see him in the same way that Peter, John, and James did.

You can recognize the face of Christ in the face of your neighbors. Jesus gives you the opportunity to find and see him face to face when you take care of your neighbor. Jesus calls us to exhibit the grace of God, with which we have been blessed, to all of those around us. When you do so, you will find the glorious splendor of Jesus Christ in your life. You will be able to see your neighbor in the same way Jesus sees them. Take a moment to look at each other's faces. What do you see? I hope you see the face of Jesus Christ shining in your neighbor’s face.

 

[1]Howard McPhee, “The Transfiguration of Jesus Matthew 17:1-8 - Mark 9:1-8 - Luke 9:28-36 In Defense of Jesus’ Humanity,” (July 20, 2015), https://www.academia.edu/14259777/The_Transfiguration_of_Jesus

 

Sermon February 17, 2019 - Luke 6 Beatitudes and Martyrdom

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Martyrdom and sainthood are not an everyday language for us Lutherans. We believe that all of us are sinners and saints. Our Lutheran theology does not exclude any Christian from sainthood. We do not call Martin Luther, Saint Luther, but we have martyrs in our history. For instance, Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes were the first two Lutheran martyrs were executed for their adherence to reformation. They were burned at the stake in Brussels on 1 July 1523. Sir Patrick Hamilton was also burned at the stake on 29 February 1528. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging on 9 April 1945 at the hand of the Nazi. These four men and I believe we have more martyrs suffered because of their faith in Christ Jesus and their commitment to the gospel. You might feel pity for them because they underwent brutal execution, but the gospel of Luke calls them blessed.

 

The word blessed in ancient Greek is “Makarios” it was used in the three ways.

“The ‘blessed’ ones lived in a higher plane than the rest of us. They were gods. They were humans who had gone to the world of the gods. They were the wealthy, upper crust. They were those with many possessions. The blessed were those people and beings who lived above the normal cares, problems, and worries of normal people.”[1]

 

Jesus reversed the usage of Makarios and employed it to refer to the disadvantaged. According to Jesus, those who are blessed are not the wealthy or the dead, or gods but those who endure persecution, including physical, mental, and social ramifications.

 

Let us imagine the scene of Luke chapter 6. The “disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed” (vs. 17-18). Jesus looks at his disciples whom he has chosen earlier in this chapter and calls them blessed, and the crowd was witnesses.

 

Jesus uses the second person rather than the third person throughout his beatitude. The beatitudes are concerned about the present time of the disciples and the crowd. The disciples possess the Kingdome now. It is not a future event, but it is present now. To you now is the kingdom of God.

 

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

 

The disciples are blessed because they left everything and followed Jesus. “Now they are living in want and privation, the poorest of the poor, the sorest afflicted, and the hungriest of the hungry. They have only him, and with him they have nothing, literally.”[2]

Luke says “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,”

But

Matthew says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

We might think that the evangelist Luke might refer to the economically impoverished person whereas the "poor in spirit" in Matthew's gospel refers to the pious person. The answer is no. Both Luke and Matthew are talking about pious poor who for the sake of Jesus Christ lost everything.

Social and economic oppression are attendant to a faith commitment. Jesus wanted his followers to know that they were getting into a situation of oppression for the duration of their earthly sojourn; he was not instructing them on how to get out of oppression. The only way out is up.[3]

Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets (v. 23).

I summarize the beatitudes in one statement: following Jesus Christ means suffering. The world teaches us that prosperity, success, and peace are signs of God’s blessing, but Jesus teaches us that God blesses those who become destitute, hungry, bearer of sorrow, and persecuted on account of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ.

 

The Lutheran martyrs like Esch, Voes, Hamilton, and Bonhoeffer are blessed because they renounced the world and all its false promises to follow Jesus. They faced execution with courage and faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his prison in Tegel, Germany, a few months before his execution, he wrote a hymn “By Gracious Powers” that expresses his trust and total submission to Jesus Christ, despite his torment. We are going to sing his hymn shortly.

I like to end with the testimony of a camp doctor H. Fischer-Hüllstrung, who witnessed Bonhoeffer's execution.

"The prisoners … were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."[4]

 

[1] Brian P. Stoffregen, “The History Of The Word 'Makarios' ('BLESSED'),” Cross Marks Christian resources, accessed February 15, 2019, http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/allsaintb.htm; Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, s.v. “Makarios.”

 

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship (SCM Classics). Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition. 1485.

 

[3] Gary T. Meadors, “The 'Poor' In The Beatitudes Of Matthew And Luke,” Grace Theological Journal 6, no. 2 (1985): 315, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6481/11318032e0fb5e0436e23716486d8b2ecb51.pdf

[4] H. Fischer-Hüllstrung, Bericht aus Flossenbürg, in: W. Zimmermann,(Hg.), Begegnungen mit Dietrich Bonhoeffer, München 1964, S. 170-171.

Sermon February 10, 2019 - Isaiah 6 Costly Calling

Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras
Rev. Dr. Niveen Sarras

Isaiah 6 Costly Calling

I was worshiping at that immaculate of conception Catholic Church in Bethlehem when I ‎strongly felt the Lord calling me to the ministry of word and sacrament. The moment the priest ‎concentrated the Holy Communion was the moment God called me. My journey to fulfill God’s ‎call was tough and challenging. It took me almost 16 years to become a pastor. My Palestinian ‎and Egyptian friends and professors did not believe that God calls a woman to be a pastor. ‎Coming to the United States was not easier. I am still following God’s call, and I learned no ‎matter what God’s call is, it will always be challenging.

After the death of King Uzziah, the ‎Judeans were under kingship transition and experienced a military crisis. The Assyrian Empire ‎threatened to invade Judea. At the time of Isaiah 6, the Assyrians were militarily advanced and ‎had a strong economy‎. “In contrast, Jerusalem was a city with hastily erected defenses filled with refugees from the countryside and other captured cities.[1]

God called Isaiah in a very critical moment in the life of Juda. The Judeans were afraid of the Assyrians. They expected invasion at any moment. Unlike my call, Isaiah’s call was dramatic. He saw the heavenly court and heard the seraphim singing in Hebrew:

קָדֹ֛ושׁ קָדֹ֖ושׁ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָאֹ֑ות מְלֹ֥א כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ כְּבֹודֹֽו קָדֹ֛ושׁ

“Kadosh kadosh kadosh adonai tseva'ot. Melo kol ha'aretz k'vodo.”

 

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

 

We sing this hymn when we celebrate the Holy Communion. We declare that God is holy and ‎powerful and mighty. The Hebrew text describes God as God of ‎צְבָאֹ֑ות , hosts. Have you ever ‎thought of the meaning of hosts or Sabaoth? It means army forces. God is the God of army forces. ‎The Judeans were afraid of Assyrian army forces, but Isaiah's vision emphasizes that God is the ‎God of the heavenly army forces that will defend Judah.‎

Isaiah accepted God’s call by saying “here I am, send me.” The seraphim purified his mouth with ‎a goal. Who were the Seraphim? We usually think that Seraphim have a human face and six ‎wings.

The seraphim are snakes (Num. 21:6) with wings. They are also fiery.‎

Isaiah followed God’s call by preaching the message of judgment on Judah if the Judeans do not ‎repent. Isaiah struggled with his people who rejected ‎his message. He is often called the naked prophet because God asked him to walk naked and ‎barefoot for three years as a symbol of the victory of the Assyrians over Egypt and Ethiopia, and ‎make all prisoners march into captivity naked and barefoot (Isaiah 20:3 - 4)! ‎

Isaiah was persecuted, but the Bible does not report his death. However, “The Talmud ‎‎[Yevamot 49b] says that he suffered martyrdom by being sawn in two under the orders of ‎Manasseh[2] To follow God’s call for your life is difficult. God calls each person for a special vocation: religious or nonreligious vocation. God calls you to be a teacher or nurse or plumber. Jesus still calling us to follow ‎him. To follow Jesus Christ means to suffer. Suffering is not limited to persecution or ‎martyrdom for the sake of Christ or have physical pain. Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains how suffering accompanies ‎Christ call to you: ‎

I have no doubt that when Christ calls a man [or a woman], he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. [3]

 

The apostle Peter in his letter teaches that God calls us to suffer for doing good.

If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:20-21.

A staff accountant who refuses to commit fraud because of her/ his faith in Christ might suffer the ‎consequences of losing his/her job. A lawyer who wants to be faithful despite facing ‎professional and governmental regulations that may conflict with the requirements of his or her ‎faith may struggle and suffering for the sake of Christ. Christian parents and grandparents are fearful and concerned that they cannot properly rear their children to trust Christ in this lawless and wicked age. Their fear and concern can make them suffer. ‎They are suffering for Christ. Resisting evil and doing good for Christ can make you suffer. ‎

Many people in the world believe in Jesus Christ, The Son of God, but not all Christians are his ‎disciples. Not all Christians are willing to follow God’s call for their lives. Not every Christian ‎response to God as Isaiah did by saying “here I am, send me,” or like Peter, James and John who left ‎everything and followed Jesus. Discipleship is difficult and tough. Many Christians are not ‎willing to pay the price of discipleship. Being the disciple of Christ means you are called to ‎suffer. I will end with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:‎

“Salvation is free, but discipleship can cost you your life.”

 

[1] Roger Nam, “Commentary On Isaiah 6: 1-8,” Working Preacher, November 13, 2016, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2989.

[2] John F A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 47.

[3] Bonhoeffer,. The Cost of Discipleship (SCM Classics) (Kindle Locations 1279-1281). Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd. Kindle Edition.