All posts by Pastor Karl Hanf

Everyone Belongs

The text for this sermon is Leviticus 19:30-36

Have you ever felt like an alien? Like you just didn’t belong? Those moments when you are made to feel unwelcome. Being 16 and shopping with your friends and walking into that expensive store where the clerk makes it clear that unless you have daddy’s credit card in your pocket there is nothing here for you. Agreeing to golf with some new acquaintances only to realize after their first swings that you are way out of your league. Or being new to Columbus and accepting a Saturday invitation from your neighbor to watch football thinking it would be kind of funny to wear your U of M sweatshirt. OSU fans are a serious bunch.

My encounters with not belonging always have to do with picking the wrong thing to wear. I once wore a nice suit and tie to an interview. A great choice if it was a stockbroker job but it was for a youth minister position. The guy with long red hair, holy jeans and a t-shirt got the job. A few years ago I went to my good friend’s annual Halloween party dressed as a fairy God mother. I had a wand, a long blonde wig, white tights, pink tutu and a form fitting white shirt with two pink and silver hearts on my chest. I grew out my beard just to complete the look. I looked cute. Of course I get to the party and not one other guy is in any costume at all, unless you count the unimaginative red sweater vests with white shirts. Buckeye fans, so predictable. Even worse was when I was introduced to some very conservative Christians friends of the host as Pastor Karl. That was an awkward conversation.

It is no fun to feel like you don’t belong. It is as though you are an alien and everyone is staring at you. Or there is an inside joke that no one has let you in on. Or that the whispering by the groups around you is about you and not the weather. I know this happens for all us sometimes, but it disturbs me when it happens in our churches. If there is anything we can be sure about the God who created us in God’s image, as far as God is concerned everyone belongs. There should never be anyone who feels like an alien in God’s church.

Yet, when people visit a church, they often feel like an alien. This could be because of clothes. Every church has a different dress code. Wearing a suit in one would make you stand out in another. The color of your skin or the quality of your car can make you feel like an alien in our churches too. The rituals that everyone seems to know but you, can make you feel like you stand out like a sore thumb. Many visitors tell me that they didn’t take communion, even though I said aloud that everyone was welcome, because they didn’t want to do it “wrong”. Even doing something as innocuous as carrying in a coffee cup to a worship service can cause all eyes in the room. to pierce you. Every church wants new members. They just want new members that look like them and come knowing the unwritten rules of their congregation. This is a problem.

In the center of chapter 19 of Leviticus is this command to treat the resident alien as you would any other neighbor, with love. Scholars call chapter 19 the holiness code. The rules and commands are how the community of Israel is to live so that they are holy, which means close to God. Israel believed that they were expected to act as much like God as they were able. Some of what this meant to them sounds a little odd to us. Leviticus 19:19 tells them not to wear leather with cotton. Who knows. However, most of it is about being fair, honest and loving, especially to the orphans, the widows and the aliens. Aliens are signaled out because no one likes not belonging. And to God, who made us all in God’s image, everyone belongs. To be holy, like God means treating aliens as if they were a neighbor we knew well.

The church believes that God resides with us, just as God resides with Israel. We want to make God’s home, which are our communities as holy as possible. The details of that will look different today than three thousand years ago. It is okay now to wear leather with cotton, but still not okay to wear polyester with wool. Just don’t do it. God’s love is for everyone, not just people that look like us. We need a commitment to be as loving and inviting to the aliens as the neighbors we know.

Last summer I attended a small white clapboard church in Homerville, Ohio for the first time. I came in shorts and sandals and was immediately aware that I was way underdressed. Plus, the way the fifty or so people were talking before their service began made it clear that everyone knew everyone else,but me. It could have been a moment when I felt like an alien, like a 210 pound bearded guy wearing a pink tutu.

It could have been, but it wasn’t. Just two people was all it took to make me feel welcome. I had come without my reading glasses so I didn’t even bother to open a hymnal. Before the first verse of the first song was sung, an old guy across the aisle had handed me his hymnal, turned to the right page, with a big, welcoming smile on his face. When the song was over and we moved into liturgy, he walked across the aisle again with another hymnal and pointed to where we were now. When we got ready to sing the sermon hymn, I opened the book to the hymn myself and smiled at him, letting him know I was okay now.

The other incident I told you about in a sermon in the fall but it is too good not to share again. When I came up for communion, I mistook the intinction cup, the only one they offered, with the common cup. When I took a big swig of that cup, the woman’s eyes got large and I knew immediately, my church faux pas. I whispered sorry. Her smile was warm and she said, honey, it’s all good.

Surely, this church had identified me as an alien. This didn’t mean that I was to be dealt with cautiously or with suspicion. Rather, it meant that they had an obligation to make sure I was comfortable and welcome. Treating me well didn’t just mean smiling awkwardly if caught staring, as all us church regulars can’t help but do when new people visit our pews. It meant attending to my needs. Loving the alien as they would their neighbor was in their DNA. They understood, as far as God is concerned everyone belongs.

Each and everyone of us has had a moment where we have felt like an alien. It is up to us when we are part of the established group that we make sure the aliens among us know they are welcome. God’s hope is for this to be true throughout the creation, but for that to happen it must be witnessed in our churches. The strangers among us need to be loved, fully with the same affection we have for each other, already. This might mean helping them navigate the service or inviting them to come up for communion with you or engaging them in conversation after the service with genuine interest at what brought them to this holy place today.

God’s hope for Israel in Leviticus 19 is the same as God’s hope for the church is the same as God’s hope for the world. God hopes that we will be holy communities,. Holy communities where the alien that wanders in will be reminded that they are just like us, made in God’s image. Where all believe that to God everyone belongs. Amen

A Church Should Expect Some Stormy Waters

The scripture for this sermon is Matthew 14:22-31.
Like last week, we have another familiar scripture from Matthew for our gospel. I thought we would read it carefully this morning to hear anything we might have missed because of our familiarity. Let’s start, at the beginning.

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. This story follows immediately after the miracle feeding of the 5000. The disciples and Jesus had just fed this hungry group and Jesus wants the disciples to leave, so he can be alone with the crowd and dismiss them himself. The disciples don’t want to leave, so scripture tells us that Jesus made them, forced them into the boat. Keep in mind, too, that whenever boats show up in Matthew, and they do in a few places, the story is usually about the church. The ancient image of the church is a ship, full of God’s people, moving together through the waters of life. This is why the inside of our sanctuary looks like it does. The disciples and the church’s comfort zone is right here, in this place, next to Jesus so to speak. Maybe, every now and then, we all need to be pushed out into the world, the chaotic sea.

23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. Like a parent luxuriating in the quiet without their kids, before they pick them up at the babysitter, Jesus took advantage of his aloneness to have some quiet time with the Father. In Matthew as in most of the Old Testament, when someone want’s to talk with God they go up a mountain. If hell is here, we’re here and heaven is here, it only makes sense that a mountain gets you closer to God. While Jesus is praying on the mountain, a storm starts on the Sea of Galilee. This sea is still known for these quick but powerful wind storms that can kick up. The point of telling us about the storm here in the story might be that if the disciples were still within earshot he could have called out to them to come back and pick him up. The storm has made this impossible. It is still evening. The crowds are gone, Jesus is done praying and he can’t get a hold of the disciples. Maybe, he just finds a place to sleep out of the way of the storm.

25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. Now, this is what got interesting for me as I reread this story carefully. Jesus was done praying in the evening, but it wasn’t until almost six in the morning that he decides to go to the disciples on the boat. The disciples still have not made it across the lake. They are still out there struggling. Yet, it does not say they are terrified of the storm. It certainly doesn’t sound like Jesus was that worried about them or else he would have come to them hours ago. There is a similar story in chapter 8. The disciples are out on a boat and a storm happens but Jesus is asleep in the stern, not on shore. In that story, the disciples are terrified. Here, their terror is not mentioned. Maybe, they grew from that last experience. Jesus won’t let anything happen to us, in the boat, God’s people in the church, even if he is not right next to us, he is surely aware of what is going on.
However, brave they were during the storm, they end up getting spooked about the ghost they see on the water. A first century person would have seen any powerful storm as the work of evil. So, it would only make sense that you would see an evil ghost in the midst of the storm. It is the ghost not the storm that scares them.

27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ When I read this line this week, it made me think of when you startle someone from behind. Poor Erni will be playing the organ in our sanctuary with all the lights off by herself and I will come out of the dark and say, “Hey, Erni.” You can only imagine how far I can get her to jump every time. After I laugh, because it is kind of funny, I always feel bad about it. This is what I heard from Jesus, this time. “Hey, whoa, guys it’s me, don’t wet your pants.” Interesting, Jesus still does not stop the storm.

The book of Mark and the book of John tell nearly the identical story. But they end here. If the story ends here, I think the meaning for us in the church might be that Jesus will send us out, force us out if necessary to do the work we have been prepared to do. The work will be hard, a struggle even, but Jesus has got his eye on us. He will show up when we tire, to encourage us and give us strength.
The work of the church can be like entering a storm. We are called to feed, clothe and care for the people that surround us. This can be exhausting, emotionally and physically. This week I worked with many Messiah volunteers at the produce market we sponsored on Tuesday where we served 187 families and the First English meal that we cooked and served on Thursday for over 100 clients on Main Street near Parsons. Both days, I went home and sat, tired physically because let’s face it, I don’t do a lot of physical work in my job and troubled emotionally by all the people that need so much and how little we have to offer them.
Serving the least the lost and least is not just about handing out food. We are to tell the story of Jesus, his grace and forgiveness for all people, even when that message might be unpopular. This can be stormy, too. Presiding Bishop Liz Eaton has been outspoken this last month that we need to give shelter and safety to immigrant children arriving alone from Central America. Regardless of what we believe about the policies or politics that surround them, they are vulnerable and in need of our care. This is not a popular stance in many communities across the country, but it is the storm we are called to enter.
Two close pastor friends entered the storm of controversy last week by travelling to Cincinnati to be visible symbols of the church. They wore their clerical collars in a large demonstration outside a courthouse in support of the legal right to marry the person one chooses regardless of gender. They thought it important to counter another demonstration that day by Christian groups opposed to expanding the legal understanding of marriage. They wanted it known that Christians do not speak with one voice on this issue.
Don’t expect life in a church to be quiet and easy. There will be storms if we are loving passionately the least and the lost and those the world has turned their back on. A quiet church is a dead church. A church that is not serving and engaging their world has stopped being the church. It is like those fake boats you find in tourist areas that are always docked. They look like boats but because they cannot leave the shore, they have stopped being a boat.
In struggle and stormy seas, we are not alone. Jesus is watching us and will come to us. We can count on that presence of Jesus every week, when we gather in this church, this sanctuary built to look like a boat, to worship. This is how this scene in Matthew ends, with all on board kneeling to worship Jesus. Notice, it was when they worshipped Jesus, the storm stopped. Though our work is hard throughout the week, we can count on peace in the midst of worship together. Amen

This next part was not preached, but was prepared.
Matthew doesn’t end the story here, but adds this scene with Peter. 28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ It appears that Peter isn’t sure whether Jesus is Jesus or if that is truly a ghost outside their boat in the midst of the storm. So what does Peter do? He tests Jesus. In fact, he uses nearly the identical language that Satan uses in the when he tests Jesus. Peter is sounding like Satan. We know right here that this is not going to go well.

29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’
Jesus doesn’t rebuke him, yell at him, or correct him. I picture him shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Come.” If you have kids, sometimes you say, hey it’s your mistake to make. Dad, I want to take out a loan to buy that expensive, fancy car even though I am just working at Burger King. Dad, I want to change my major from Chemical Engineering to Medieval English Literature, I think there are great jobs I can do with that degree. Dad, I am going camping all weekend with my friends, but don’t worry about my exams on Monday, I will just pull an all nighter. You can’t stop your kids from these dumb decisions, so you let them fail, hoping to catch them before their mistake drowns them.
The only one that can walk on water is God. There are tons of biblical references of seeing God on the water like that. None of people. God walks on water and since Jesus is full of God in a whole and special way, then he could walk on water, too. You, me, Peter, probably not. I hear Jesus saying, Hey, you are the one that didn’t trust that I would show up while you were struggling in the boat. So, come. maybe getting a little wet will be a learning experience. And Peter, sinks, pretty much right after he steps out. Think of those Road Runner, Coyote cartoons where the coyote is about four feet off of the cliff and realizes, uh, oh. Peter yells save me.

31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?And Jesus reaches out and saves him. Why? Because that is what Jesus does. Jesus is the good shepherd, who is watching God’s sheep, as they struggle in the work they should be about, the storm the church is called to not just endure but to enter. Even when they take foolish actions, like getting out of a perfectly good boat in the midst of a storm, Jesus saves.
Jesus tells Peter that he has little faith and asks why he doubted. He didn’t tell Peter he had no faith, just a faith like all of us that ebbs and flows. It is hard to trust Jesus with our life, especially when it sometimes feels like we are fighting these storms all by ourselves. It is hard to trust Jesus when so many people say the most vile things claiming to be speaking for Jesus. It is hard, even when we are staring Jesus right in the face, to trust that it is really him.
I have preached on this text a few times that Peter sinks because he does not trust Jesus enough to walk on water. I have said if only we keep our eyes on Jesus,we can do anything. This week, that is not what I heard. Maybe, at fifty now, humility tells me that I am not likely ever to walk on water. I will leave that to God.

The Surprising Kingdom of Heaven

The text for this sermon is Matthew 13:31-33.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. Just a tiny little thing. You can’t hardly see it, but once it takes root in our garden, it becomes a big, thick spread out bush. Unexpectedly, this tiny seed creates a space for birds to build a nest and live abundantly.
In fact, few farmers in Jesus’ day planted mustard seeds. Instead they treated it like a weed, getting rid of it whenever they saw it. A few years back I fired my lawn care company and decided to do it myself. I couldn’t do it any worse, right? You know what happened, a little bit of crabgrass in the corner of the yard took over my entire lawn. This is not what a good looking yard in Pickerington looks like. In Southern Florida though, this is what all the lawns look like. I got to thinking, it is green after all, and takes a lot less care and costs a lot less money. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a little piece of crabgrass that takes over a yard surprising the homeowner because he never knew that is exactly what he needed all along.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny bit of yeast that is hidden in three measures of flour by a baker. That tiny bit of yeast turned fifty pounds of flour and water from a wet, heavy mess to something light, fluffy and ready to bake. The baker made enough bread to feed 150 people, not just a little but abundantly.
In fact, Jesus wasn’t the first rabbi to use yeast as a metaphor. Yeast showed up in scripture and in teachings by rabbis as evidence of the power of corruption. Just a little bit of yeast changes everything. Kind of the one bad apple ruins the whole bushel metaphor. Jesus isn’t using yeast as a bad apple metaphor though. He is suggesting that we can be surprised by just how good and delicious a little change can be. A good jug of cider begins with one bad apple.
My wife makes big pots of soup in the winter nearly every weekend. In those that start with chicken or turkey, she puts a few spoonfuls of horseradish after they are cooked. Now, I wouldn’t use horseradish to clean my shoes let alone spice up my food. I can’t hardly stand to open a jar of the stuff. However, when it is dolloped in a huge pot of chicken noodle soup, it gives it a zest, and a zing that is delicious. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a vat of soup that the sly wife hid a spoonful of horseradish and when her husband ate it he declared it was the best bowl of soup he had ever had.
Usually when we talk about these two parables, we emphasize the slow but steady and positive change of a mustard seed transforming into a tree or yeast transforming flat dough into fluffy dough. Great things come from little beginnings. Don’t judge the potential of something based on the size it begins. Congregations see themselves in this parable all of the time. We might not be big, but all we need is a mustard seed of faith and watch out what God can do. The church can even sound triumphant when they talk about these parables. Paul planted a few churches along the Mediterranean and before you know it, 2000 years later, a billion Christians in the world. Just a little mustard seed in Corinth, is all it took.
Not judging something by its current size might be wise words to live by, but not the point being made by Jesus in these parables. His focus was not on the plodding growth of a seed or the invasive ability of yeast. His focus was on the surprise. A little seed can overtake your garden, giving you something beautiful you never expected. A little bit of yeast can make fifty pounds of flour puff up into enough delicious dough to feed 150 hungry men. Jesus was comparing God’s promised Kingdom not to something grand and glorious but to an obstinate weed and a corrupting bacteria. Yet, that weed and bacteria overtake and transform wherever they are planted and hidden creating something wonderful from what had been something predictable.
Weeds overtake gardens when you don’t notice them or you underestimate their ability. Yeast works invisibly on the flour changing it so it can become bread. The surprise is because you didn’t know this was going to be the result. Remember the baker hid the yeast in the flour. The Kingdom of Heaven is like this too. God is at work in our world in exactly those moments when we think God has taken a cigarette break and not paying any attention at all.
Where is God in the midst of tragedy? Where is God when my spouse dies? The Kingdom of Heaven is working within our world in surprising ways that might be hidden if you aren’t paying attention. The Kingdom of Heaven can be seen in the weeds that prepared and served the funeral dinner, the yeast that sent cards of condolences, the branches that enveloped her in the grief group, the risen worship on All Saints Sunday.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a first year teacher that was assigned a failing classroom and by the end of the year all the students had passed their standardized test. How could one teacher make that kind of difference? The Kingdom of Heaven is like the funeral of an 80 year old bachelor who had lived in the same apartment for sixty years and at his funeral 500 people attended. Who knew this quiet guy had intersected with all of those lives? The Kingdom of Heaven is like Mel Tillis who stuttered all of his life and became a beloved country singer. How could his source of frusration become his greatest gift? The Kingdom of Heaven is like a former atheist, a former promiscuous alcoholic, with tattoos covering her six foot lanky frame and a mouth that seems unable to avoid cursing every third word becoming the most popular Lutheran pastor in America today for her radical ideas on what the Kingdom of Heaven might look like.
Right when we think we got God figured out, God surprises us with something we never expected. Trust God who planted a weed on the edge of the lawn of the Roman Empire and changed all of creation. Trust God that introduced a little yeast in the religious establishment that preached law, judgment and death and gave them a new song of grace, forgiveness and life. From the weeds and the yeast of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven surrounds us today in great and unexpected ways.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a dying church that fought closing their doors for years then one day trusted the resurrection and let death happen. They sold their property and used the money to go on a mad spending spree, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars joyfully away to ministries around them. The Kingdom of Heaven is the woman with Job like losses that catch your breath when you hear them. She joins a congregation in the midst of her grief and because of her generous spirit, her willingness to be vulnerable and honest in her pain, her smile and grace becomes a source not of pity, but inspiration and healing for others. The Kingdom of Heaven is the former client of a food pantry when she was a young single mother in need who ends up running a food pantry forty years later returning the smiles, grace and support she relied upon once herself. We can’t make this stuff up. The Kingdom of Heaven changes everything, maybe not in ways we expect, but always in ways that bring abundance and life to the creation. Amen