Posts in Category: Sermons

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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