Posts in Category: Sermons

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.

 

Sermon January 13, 2019: Water

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

Water is very precious. Who can live without water? Imagine that you don’t have access to water ‎for two or three months. Israelis deny Palestinians an equitable share of the shared water ‎resources. So, Palestinians end up living for a few months without water. They only buy water to ‎drink. People and countries fight over water. Countries that are enemies end up setting in one ‎room to talk. “In parts of Africa and the Middle East, water is contaminated…In California and ‎parts of the Middle East, water is scarce… In Ethiopia and Egypt, Florida and Georgia, water is ‎contested.” Water crisis divides nations but also unite them and bring even enemies together. ‎

The three states: Georgia, Florida, and Alabama struggle over access and control of their shared ‎waters. This problem forced their governors to talk to resolve the conflict. You heard about ‎California four-year drought. Lack of water created ecological and political water crisis and ‎conflict between southern and northern California. I lived in California in 2015, in a city called ‎Morgan Hill. The city imposed restrictions on water use. I could not have my garden. ‎

ELCA World Hunger published a video tells the story of a 14-year-old girl, DIKO Marie, in the ‎village of Niem, in the Central African Republic. DIKO Marie goes to the water source and fills ‎a 5-gallon bucket with water for the day. Fetching water is her daily work struggle. Let us watch ‎her story. ‎

How the story of DIKO Marie and water crisis help us to have a new understanding of our ‎baptism. How can our baptism help us to recognize water as a sacred gift instead of a commercial ‎commodity? ‎

Our faith story begins with water. The narratives of the creation, the flood, crossing the Red Sea ‎and the Jordan into the Promised Land, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, the waters of eternal ‎life promised by Jesus are central to our faith. ‎

Baptism is a symbol of life and death. We immerse into Christ’s death, and we rise with him into ‎eternal life. As the apostle, Paul says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into ‎death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we ‎too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). In our baptism, we meet life and death. Freshwater gives ‎life, but contaminated water brings death. In baptism, we become in contact with the vital element ‎for our lives. ‎

The water of baptism is not merely H2O, but it is a visible sign of an invisible Grace of God. ‎Baptism is not our work. It is not ours, but baptism is God's gift to us. We become children of ‎God through our baptism. We do not belong to ourselves, but God's owns us forever. “Water is a ‎sign and instrument of God’s saving work in the world. In multiple ways, baptism shows us that ‎water is not our commodity, but a vital gift of God. Therefore we should not protect and defend ‎water as if it belonged to us, but recognize that it is a gift for all.” ‎

Christian calling starts at our baptism. Jesus calls us to follow him and be his witnesses to the ‎world. “Baptism is a costly calling, not just a cultural rite.” Baptism turns our eyes to the world ‎water crisis and invites us to help our neighbor like Diko Marie to have access to fresh water. ‎baptism invites us to be in solidarity with wounded creation like contaminated water. ‎

God’s gift of water is for the whole world. It is for all God’s creatures. Water is not meant to be ‎treated as a commercial commodity or to serve our vested interest, but water intended for ‎the common good. Thousands of activists from 30 countries gathered in the winter of 2018 in Brazil for ‎the Alternative World Water Forum (FAMA). Their statement states that “We declare that the ‎waters are sacred beings. All waters are one water in permanent movement and transformation. ‎Water is a living entity and deserves to be respected.”‎

Water is God's gift, and it is sacred. I will leave you with a question to consider. What are some ‎ways you can reduce your water consumption? Have you thought to shut the water off while ‎brushing your teeth? Or to take a shower over a bath or to use eco-friendly instead of chemical ‎cleaning supplies? Think of my question. ‎

Christ the King Sunday

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

In 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted a new liturgical observance, the Feast of Christ the King.

He felt that Christians were being tempted by the increasing secularism of the world. Christians were choosing to live in the “kingdom” of the world rather than in the kingdom of God.[1] Jesus’ trial before Pilate in the gospel of John focuses on Jesus’ kingship and Kingdom. The first question Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus doesn’t respond to Pilate immediately.

Initially, Pilate does not want to deal with Jesus because he assumes that Jesus' crime had to do with the law of the Jews. He asks the Jews to judge him according to their law. But the Jews claim that Jesus’ crime calls for the death penalty. Only the Roman governor had the power to administer capital punishment. John does not explicitly explain how Pilate got the idea about Jesus kingship. The kingship of Jesus is important in the gospel of John. At the beginning of the gospel of John, the apostle Nathanael calls Jesus “the King of Israel” (1: 49), after feeding the 5000, the crowd wants to make Jesus a King (6:15), when Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowd welcomes him shouting: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!” (12:13).

It is highly possible that Pilate was aware of Jesus identity as the King of Israel. If Jesus admits being a king, Pilate will consider him as a threat to Rome. “Anyone claiming on his own to be king would be a rival to the emperor and thus an affront or threat to Roman imperial rule.”[2]

Jesus responds to Pilate’s question “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Jesus' statement is the most misunderstood and misused statement about our duty to our country and relation to it as Christians. Some Christians interpret Jesus statement “to suggest that Christ's gift of life and freedom does not have implications for the quality of life here on earth.”[3]

Jesus’ statement “My kingdom is not from this world” does not mean that we should ignore our duty toward our country. The purpose of Jesus' statement is to assure Pilate that Jesus rejects the role of political Messiah. His kingdom is not from this world, which means he will not rule like the Emperor of Rome. Jesus distinguishes his Kingship from the emperor’s. He does not establish his kingdom through violence and invasion of other countries. While Rome expanded its hegemony through warfare, Jesus’ kingdom expands through peace and righteousness. His kingdom operates in a manner that cannot be understood in earthly kingdoms or governments’ terms. “Jesus is not saying that his kingdom is absent from the world or has no bearing on worldly realities. Rather, John’s Gospel teaches that heavenly realities, such as communion with God, are genuinely enjoyed by believers, who live presently in the world.”[4]

There is a considerable difference between the Kingdom of God and earthly governments. “The incompatibility between the operations of Christ’s kingdom and those of an evil world continue to produce opposition and misunderstandings to this day.”[5] Faithful Christians live both in the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of earth. Since Jesus is our King, our loyalty is to him alone not to earthly king or president. The apostle Paul advises us “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Our calling is to transform our world to be the Kingdom of God on earth, where Jesus rules over his followers. Christ’s Kingdom is "not of this world," though it is in this world, through you and me. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21). This kingdom does not mean politics, laws, or boarders but righteousness and peace. The kingdom of God does not expect us to form a Christian political party, but it about discipleship. Jesus Kingdom is the treasure found in the field. It is the pearl the merchant gets by selling all his property (Matthew 13:46). The Kingdom of Jesus is so valuable that losing everything on earth, but getting his kingdom, is a joyful trade. It is worth to leave everything behind you for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It is worth having Christ rule over you, for you, and over everything else because he is the righteous King or in our contemporary terms, Jesus is the only righteous President.

 

[1] Lucy Lind Hogan, “Commentary On John 18: 33-37,” Working Preacher, November 25, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3885.

[2] Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015),303

[3] Charles Villa-Vicencio, “Christianity and Human Rights,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics 4, no. 3 (March 2004), https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/776.

[4] Francis Martin and William M. Wright IV, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 304.

[5] Alastair Roberts, “The Politics of a Misunderstood Kingdom—john 18: 28-38,” Political Theology Network (March 24, 2014), https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-a-misunderstood-kingdom-john-1828-38/.

No one likes to talk about taxes. Right?

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

No one likes to talk about taxes. Right? Jews in the First-century hated taxation. There were plenty of taxes in ancient Judea: religious and secular. Annual Temple: Males over the age of twenty were responsible for yearly paying a temple tax that supported the functioning of the Jewish temple. They had to pay two-drachma or half-shekel worth about two days' wages. “In addition to the temple tax, Jews were expected to tithe on all crops to support the priests.” A secular tax was imposed on the Jews by Rome. Taxation was a heavy burden on the Jews. They could not avoid it.

Taking this into account, the narratives of the poor widow's contribution and prediction of temple destruction are strongly related to unjust taxation. The traditional interpretation of the window’s story sees her as the antithesis of the scribes. She demonstrates true piety, unlike the scribes who show fake piety. Reading her story in its context, we come up with a different interpretation. Jesus condemns scribes before he notices the poor widow.

38 As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40).

Immediately Mark narrates the poor women’s story. Jesus criticizes the unjust priests and scribes who establish a temple system that routinely oppresses the poor and widows. The system manipulated the poor widow to give money to the temple. Priests and scribes do so along of the guise of piety. The widow put into the offering box two tiny coins, which are worth a penny. Jesus does not prise the poor woman for being generous, but he laments her. “The story is not so much appalled the window’s generosity as a corrupt religious system that asks of her all she has to live on.”

The evangelist Mark narrates that as Jesus comes out of the temple following the episode of the poor widow, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1). Jesus is not impressed by the temple structure. For Jesus, the temple represents a corrupt and oppressive system. So, Jesus predicts its destruction in 70 CE. The temple that steals the poor of their all they have to live on in the name of piety and religion. Consequently, it does not deserve to survive. The temple must fall down.

Joel Marcus summarizes the text. “ That [the] institution is barren, corrupt, and headed for judgment and ruin… so whatever is contributed to it is at best a waste and at worst a prop for a rotten, oppressive and doomed system.” [1] In other words, the temple exploits the poor and consequently, the temple deserves destruction. The widow's story is a condemnation of the temple. Every unjust system or every systemic sin is doomed to destruction. Any corrupt system that exploits the poor and the marginalized is doomed to destruction.

Systemic sin is deeply rooted in our society and every society. How many of you have to postpone your health treatment because you cannot afford it? How many are health insurance companies robbing their customers? They take their money and offer them little. It is shocking to see many seniors are living on fixed incomes that often force them to choose between paying for health care or buying groceries. You know that getting sick or become disabled put you at risk to lose your life savings. This corrupt system must fall down.

Any corrupt system that punishes the poor and rewards the rich, or marginalizes the elderly and favors the young is doomed to destruction. A corrupt system that discriminates against race, gender, age and people with disability is doomed to destruction.

We do not need to wait for the Romans to destroy the systematic sin in our society. Christians are responsible for transforming their society and for working to advance the Kingdom of God. Jesus does not want us to wait for him to come back to change our world. This work falls on you and me. We are called to challenge systemic sin that traps people in poverty, isolation, and sickness. We cannot do this work alone.

For this reason, we need to hold on our faith, and Jesus promises to be with us. He promises you to walk with you. The Holy Spirit inspires and leads you to transform your world. Jesus will be a very present help to you. He will guide you through any challenging circumstance. “You don’t have to fear, wonder, or worry about your situation because God will be faithful to you.”

Jesus wants to walk with you on your journey through life and help you to challenge the oppressive system that makes your life difficult. The promise Jesus makes to you is his continued presence through the Holy Spirit that gives you comfort and strength in any tough circumstances.

 

[1] Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 861.

Was Martin Luther anti-Semitic?

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

Nazis used Luther’s writings against the Jews to justify their anti-Semitism and nationalism. Martin Luther has been accused of being anti-Semitic. Lutherans for many years tried to hide Luther anti-Jewish literature, but we couldn’t keep his negative attitude toward the Jews secret. The Christian world knows about Luther anti-Jewish teaching. As we are celebrating the Reformation of Martin Luther, the question that I’m going to answer in this sermon is whether Martin Luther was anti-Semitic. Martin Sasse, the pro-Nazi Lutheran bishop advised Lutherans the following: “The German people must hear the words of this man [Martin Luther], the greatest anti-Semite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews.”[1] During the time November 9 to November 10, 1938, in an incident known as “Kristallnacht,” Nazis in Germany set fire to Jewish synagogues and schools and killed many Jews. Kristallnacht took place on Luther’s birthday.

Martin Luther wrote influential book against the Jews titled “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Nazis used this particular book to justify the Holocaust. In his book, Luther advises Christians to carry out sixth remedial actions. These are as follows:

First, Luther told Christians to “set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn.”

Second, he recommended that “their houses also be razed and destroyed.”

Third, he advised that “all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”

Fourth, he declared that “rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.”

Fifth, he urged that “safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews.”

Sixth, he wrote that “usury should be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.”

This teaching is disturbing. How can Luther’s attitude toward the Jews be justified?

First, we need to look at the broader context of Luther. In his first initial writing, Luther advocated for better treatment of the Jews. In his 1523 essay That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, Luther condemned the cruel act against the Jews and urged Christians to treat them kindly. He hoped that the Jews would convert to Christianity if they received better treatment.

Second, one of the most significant issues that disturbed Luther was exploitation of the people by major banking houses of Europe. The banking system involved in a shameful level of usury: the exploitative level of interest rate. German Jews controlled that industry. Martin Luther was against the Jews who were taking advantage of the poor Christians.

Third, the hostile and negative rhetoric that Luther employed in his book, the Jews and their lies, are used all over his writings to attack the Papacy, Anabaptist, and nominal Christians. Luther was wrong in using harsh and abusive language. However, we cannot say that this is anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a 20-century phenomenon. Luther was following the approach of the New Testament that describes the Jews as the betrayal of Christ and the gospel, and as failure to recognize Jesus as the coming Messiah. It was not an ethnic motivation that led Luther to this, but it was theological motivation.

Throughout his life, Luther wanted the Jews to convert and join the church, but Hitler never wanted them to join the church or Nazi party. That is the difference between anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish. Luther was not opposed to the Jews because of their race and blood, but he was opposed to the Jews because of their religion as he was opposed to the Muslims because of Islam. If you are anti-Semitic, you are against the Jews because of their blood and race, and the Jews cannot do anything to change their blood or race. Luther attacked and offended the Jews with a purpose to convert them to Christianity. But the Nazi exploited Martin Luther’s writings during the Third Reich.

It is dangerous to assume that some Christian writers were not sinners. Luther as a human being was a sinful man. He thought, said, and did sinful things, so are we. It is ridiculous that people dismiss Luther, Augustine, Calvin or Aquinas because they found issues in their lives, but they do not disqualify themselves for things they say and do. God never used a sinless person to guide or write stuff for us. As Martin Luther said, all of us are sinners, and all of us are in need of God’s grace. All of us are sinners, and because of Jesus Christ, we are also righteous.

[1] Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (New York: Vintage, 1997), 265.

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Hebrews 5:1-10

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

Many Christians have the impression that the clergy have a higher calling than other workers. By the Middle Ages, “religious” life — as a monk or nun — was widely considered holier than ordinary life, until Martin Luther challenged this thinking.

Your pastor is not perfect, but many assume she should be close, right? That is why when we hear of pastors or priests fall from grace we are so shocked by their behavior. They were the closest thing to Jesus we could see. We just expected more.

The author of the epistle to Hebrews explains that although the high priest enjoyed high status among Jews, he was weak like any Jew. “He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people” (v.2-3).

In ancient Israel, the high priest had to offer sacrifices for his own sins in addition to those made for the sins of the people. No one is immune from sin. When you confess your sins, you receive absolution. Since your pastor is a human being, she is a sinner in need of God’s grace. I need to confess my sin, too. I need to receive absolution. You noticed recently when we confess our sins, I confess my sin, too, and you offer me forgiveness. Your pastor provides you the means of grace, also she needs to receive Holy Communion, and needs your prayer.

The author of the epistle explains that the role of the high priest was to be mediator between God and people. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest offered sacrifices on behalf of his people’s sins. He also offered prayers and supplications asking God to forgive his people. He also drew near to people on God’s behalf in order to offer them guidance and assistance. He was able to sympathize with his people because he was a sinner just like them. If your pastor were 100% perfect, then she cannot sympathize with your weaknesses. Congregation is often-overlook the fact that pastors are, in fact, both human and sinful just like the people they are trying to lead.

Jesus Christ is the only person and high priest without any sin. The author of the epistle to Hebrews states that “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). The author in chapter 5 distinguishes between high priests and Jesus. The high priest is guilty of sin but Jesus without sin.

However, Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses not because he is a sinner but because of his obedience and suffering. Christ’s compassion came from his profound experience of vulnerability through suffering. “In every respect” he has been tested as we are. Jesus becomes like his sisters and brothers in every respect so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest. Our Savior Jesus Christ has passed through all suffering and shame, and he knows our weaknesses very well.

God appointed Jesus to be the high priest for our salvation. He acts as a mediator between God and us. For Jesus to be high priest and mediator, he had to share in the experiences of those he represents-- hence he had to suffer.

The human high priest was a sinner and disobeyed God. “In actuality, the history of the high priesthood was an inglorious one, the office having become highly politicized, especially in the Maccabean and Roman periods that led into the time of Jesus. Opposition to the corrupt priesthood was one of the factors that led to the formation of the dissident ديسيدنت Qumran community, locus of the Dead Sea Scrolls.”[1]

Jesus Christ learned to be obedient through his suffering. Jesus Become the source of salvation for all who obey him, following his own perfection (v.9). You are invited to draw near the throne of our Lord Jesus Christ with confidence knowing that he understands your weaknesses and your needs. Jesus is a sympathetic priest who is ready to forgive you your sin. He also sympathizes with people who live in the shadow of death and sorrow. No one can understand you as much as Jesus does.

[1] Scott Shauf, “Commentary On Hebrews 5: 1-10,” Working Preacher, accessed October 21, 2018, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1414.

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