I was invited to preach this past weekend by my wife, Pastor Allison Siburg, at our congregation, Salem Lutheran Church in Fontanelle, Nebraska. When I was invited weeks ago, I was excited because the lectionary readings (Epiphany 4A) included a few of my favorites. That invitation, however, came before the refugee ban. In the midst of this, I shared what was on my heart. I have to admit, I was more nervous to preach this past weekend than I often am. But here is what I came up with and preached on Sunday January 29, 2017.
The following sermon was based on the readings of Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12. Included at the beginning of the manuscript is a poem that I found on Sunday January 29th. When I preached I did not include it in its entirety, just the final stanza. For the purpose of the blog, however, I have included it in full.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Grace and peace from the one who knows you, claims you, and loves you. Amen.
I would like to start with a poem I read on Facebook this morning that has been with me ever since. It’s called, “Heaven Has No Borders,” and was written by Minnesota pastor Luke Stevens-Royer.
Where was it, where we first fell
into the delusion of our separateness.
Of our “other-ness”?
Was it somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates,
or at the Rio Grande –
or near the Mississippi.
Somewhere down from the tower of babel,
we fell into the first sin –
of fearing difference.
And we began to build walls.
And the walls that we place
to seemingly protect ourselves
we soon realize are prison walls
isolating us from the fabric of life
from our kindred –
which is all people.
We’ve built walls of prejudice, fear,
and a delusional false sense
of rightful ownership –
as if we all aren’t guests
on any land we inhabit.
Heaven has no borders.
When we forget this,
we set up the gates of hell.
But something happens.
When the hard heart
is watered with empathy
and the closed soul
soaked in compassion
the rigid borders dissolve.
when the people remember they are family
and we have the tools we need
like Joshua at Jericho
to dance down the wall –
the walls come tumbling down
crumble to dust from the dancing rhythm
of the songs, the poems, the common work
of love made flesh – enough love to save us all.
the question from ancient scripture
echoes in our moral conscience –
behold, says the stranger,
the immigrant, the refugee,
I stand at the door and knock –
will you lift up your gates? – Luke Stevens-Royer
Most of you know that, though I’m most importantly your pastor’s spouse, I am also a deacon in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America- one called to preach, teach, and serve. In this, I’m the Director for Stewardship of the Nebraska Synod. As the days grow longer, there’ll be about two weekends a month that you won’t see me, as I’ll be preaching in Kearney, Holdrege, Filley, Wahoo, and many other places in between.
Since coming to Nebraska, I have been to Scottsbluff, North Platte, Aurora, Wakefield, Nebraska City, and so many other places. I have heard stories of ministry in action, of communities loving their neighbors in unique ways. From supporting the work of Mosaic, to starting a care closet that has taken over an entire church basement, to congregations who have partnered with Lutheran Family Services to sponsor refugee families. And congregations, like this, who understand Jesus’ welcome and love at a deep, deep level- the welcome Jesus talks about when he says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” like in the poem I opened with.
Looking at Today’s Words of God
That’s partly why it took me all week to be able to sit down and write a sermon. Today’s lectionary passages are some of the most well known in our faith- at least for describing who we are and what our character is called to be in our identity as Children of God, and the many vocations we serve as Children of God.
Psalm 15 asks, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” These are questions which lead to a list of some of the marks of character- of what it means and looks like to be a Child of God.
In this tumultuous time, a time of change, fake news, irrational fears, and fear driven decision making, Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
The prophet Micah asks and declares in one of my absolute favorite Bible verses, “O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you God?”
And then of course, there is today’s gospel- commonly called the “Beatitudes,” or blessings, the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus paints a vast picture of the changes and reversal only possible through God, a glimpse of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, and a description of just what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like and might be.
This is Good News. But it can also drive us all to our knees, when we see just how far we have yet to go as people, society, and Children of God. It can drive us to prayer, confession, repentance, and Kyrie’s or songs of “Lord have mercy.”
God’s vision is big. God’s children are many, if not all. Because, think about it, if God creates all people, then aren’t we all, God’s children?
The Relationship of being a Child of God and our Neighbors
Martin Luther famously wrote about this in his work, The Freedom of a Christian. Luther wrote basically that, “We are all perfectly free people, bound to none.”
We are freed through the gifts and promises of God. Yet at the same time, “We are all servants, bound to our neighbors.” We exist, for the sake of our neighbor.
But, just who is our neighbor? Fred Rogers, or Mister Rogers as you probably know him, made a career out of this question. As a Presbyterian pastor, he knew the depth and complexity of it. We like to narrow our answer to who is our neighbor, to just a few people we like and can see, and certain groups of people we identify or agree with. The problem is, we can’t do this. We can’t narrow the definition of neighbor. If God creates all, if we’re all God’s children, we are then all neighbors to one another.
Think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. If the Samaritan man had given into societal norms, there would have been no “good Samaritan.” But the Samaritan saw across boundaries, walls, societal norms, and our human nature to group and judge people. He showed mercy to his neighbor in need. He did as Jesus preached on the mount, “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy.”
Think of the Holy Family in the gospel story we heard earlier this month on New Year’s Day. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape the power thirsty murderer, Herod, who felt threatened by the prospect of a possible king in the form of an infant. The Holy Family fled as refugees to the land, generations earlier, which had enslaved their ancestors.
This story convicts me as I think of the world around me, and remember the work of our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Christ who responded to the refugee crisis of World War II by creating the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Today, it is the second largest refugee resettlement organization in the country. It is a serving arm of the church responding to the largest refugee crisis now since World War II, with the help of organizations like Lutheran Family Services here in Nebraska.
A Nebraska Immigrant’s Story
This past week I heard the story of Afghan refugee Feroz Mohmand here in the local news. Now a permanent resident in Omaha with his wife, for Mohmand, being a refugee and fleeing Afghanistan in 2012 was a matter of life or death. “The reason I became a refugee was not my choice,” he said. He said that he received a phone call saying that he would have less than 24 hours to leave his country if he wanted to stay alive.
Mohmand and his wife worked alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai to protect education and abolish terrorist groups like the Taliban. Because of their work, extremist groups made them targets for attack. One day, kidnappers almost took his son. He said that, every morning when he left home he would hug his family, and think this might be the last hug.
His family was relocated to the United States in 2013, but Mohmand says the process typically takes much longer– even years. It’s not uncommon, especially in the case of Syrian refugees now, to be in refugee camps for upwards of 3-4 years. Can you imagine not knowing where you’ll live for 3, 4, or more years?
Lutheran Bishop Michael Rinehart from Houston, put it this way in light of the Beatitudes,
“Blessed are the refugees. Blessed are all 65 million people, those who are victims of war and poverty; those who have been evicted; those who cannot return home; those who seek a safe place for their children; those who are feared and despised; those hated by both sides of the conflict; those for whom nobody seems to care. You are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”
We could add any numbers of needs here. For example,
“Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are the 48 million hungry Americans, those who are ridiculed; those who work multiple jobs, just to give their kids a chance; those who rely on food stamps and credits to provide a safe home for orphans and foster children; those with homes, and those without; those for whom nobody seems to care. You are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who serve and have served, to bring freedom, hope, and a new day; those who resist the sinful ways to meet violence with violence; those who resist the sinful feelings of supremacy and power; those who some people fear are too soft, and others who think they don’t do enough; those who do not receive the care and support that they so greatly deserve. You servants are children of God. And the people of God care about you.”
I could keep going, but I don’t think I need to, because I deeply believe you feel this call too- this call to respond to God’s promises and blessings.
I have seen it- in the warm welcome you give and have given. I have seen it in the way that this congregation serves, listens, and dreams about what God might be calling us to be. In the great capacity to grow, teach, and serve; and how I have heard from many of you wondering about, what are some new ways we might be being called to serve today? What are some new projects that we might be being called to be part of?
God’s Promises Today
Today may seem uncertain. The news may excite or terrify us. But in-spite of this, and through this, we are called, created, and loved by a God who came into this world as one of us.
A God who walked alongside us, and taught us, like in his Sermon on the Mount; who challenged the powers that be, overturned the money tables in the Temple, and who always showed up with the people that common sense and society had seemingly marginalized and pushed aside; who, for us, faced death and the grave… And not only faced them, Jesus beat them at their own game, once and for all.
God in Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, is a gift- a free gift we can do nothing to earn. A gift of the promise of salvation- abundant life eternal, and thanks be to God for that.
But that begs the question. What will you do in response to this pure gift? Or, as I like to say when preaching on stewardship, what will your joyful response be?
For all that God has done for you, and promises to do, what will you be so caught up in joy for the goodness of God that you will do in love and gratitude for your neighbor? How will you serve your neighbor? Meet them, and join them? How will you welcome your neighbor, the refugee? How will your life and story show God’s love in the world around you?
In worship this year, we’ll continue to journey through the Gospel of Matthew. And not to steal any of my wife’s thunder, or to flip to the last page of the book, but the Gospel of Matthew ends with the Great Commission- a call to baptize and teach. A call to share the Good News of a God who has come near, and who is for all.
There are stories to tell- stories of God at work in and through all our lives. Stories of blessings and woes, joys and sorrows. Stories of how God has shown up and continues to show up. Stories of how God calls us each into our various roles, daily lives, and vocations to serve our neighbors.
Tell your stories. Live your stories. And please, go about the work of what it means and looks like to be a Child of God. For all of this- all of you- are part of God’s on-going story of promise and redemption. A story of the Kingdom of Heaven in our world- yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Amen.
Citations and References:
 Based on Psalm 19:14.
 “Heaven Has No Borders,” Luke Stevens-Royer, shared on Facebook, 28 January, 2017.
 Matthew 25:35, NRSV.
 Psalm 15:1, NRSV.
 1 Corinthians 1:31, NRSV.
 Micah 6:8, NRSV.
 Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, (1520), trans. Mark D. Tranvik, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008).
 Luke 10:25-37, NRSV.
 Matthew 2:13-23, NRSV.
 If we turn our back on refugees, and all our neighbors in need, it’s not hard to imagine Jesus saying as Nebraska Bishop Brian Maas pointedly pondered this past week, “Depart from me… because I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me.” From Bishop Brian Maas, Facebook post, 27 January, 2017, quoting and reminding of Matthew 25:43, NRSV.
 Bishop Michael Rinehart, Facebook post, 26 January, 2017.
 Matthew 28:18-20, NRSV.