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Hearing Voices (Feb 23, 2020)

Matthew 17:1-9

A number of years ago, I was invited to consult with a Lutheran Church in Arizona. That involved leading a workshop, being a member on a panel, and then preaching on a Sunday.

Listen to the story of this congregation . . .

20 years old, planted in area scheduled to boom – didn’t happen. They were almost like an island in the fields. Survived for 20 years, some leadership issues, no missional imagination. As they moved deeper into trouble, tried making adjustments, tweaking, trying to cut expenses, lots of meetings where they listened to one another talk about what they needed to do differently. Everyone had an opinion. No matter what they tried, the downward spiral continued. 20 years. Started asking, “Where are you, God? How can you let this happen to us? We’re good people, we love you, we believe in you.” But they never stopped to listen to God’s answer.

They’ve lost their imagination, they’ve lost their focus on God’s call. They have been so busy keeping the doors open they’ve forgotten why they opened their doors in the first place.

So busy listening to each other, they’ve forgotten to listen to God.

Matthew 17. Right before this text, Peter has just made his great confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the one God has sent to save the world. Yes! says Jesus, who then explains how this will happen: Jesus will be turned over, beaten and killed. And on the 3rd day, rise again.

Then Peter says, “Never!” He means well, but he has his own vision in mind for how Jesus ought to save the world. Includes wars, demonstrations of power, defeating enemies, etc.

Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan. You are listening to the voice of the world, not the voice of God. If you want to be my followers, deny yourself, give up listening to the world, and follow me. Listen to the voice of God, which means pick up your cross and follow me to Calvary. That’s how you find life.

Six days later, Jesus takes James, John, and Peter up a mountain by themselves. Transfigured, there with Moses and Elijah (law and prophets). Vs. 4, Peter, not knowing what else to do, starts talking, “Let’s build three dwellings . . .”

Look what happens. Vs. 5, While he was still speaking, a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from heaven interrupted Peter, “This is my Son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Jesus is the voice of life. The transfiguration affirms it, the voice from the heavens affirms it, the resurrection affirms it. You can’t get so busy talking, and listening to everybody else that we forget to listen to God.

That church in Arizona, after 20 years, began listening to God. They started taking seriously what God is doing in their neighborhood. No other voice would now take precedence. Over their history of survival, they had been listening to constitutions and bylaws, Robert’s Rules of Order, personal preference, opinions. They read books and talked to other churches. But then, they made a huge change. They decided to put aside any other voice that contradicts the voice of this Jesus, the beloved Son. They were determined to hear the voice of Jesus in the middle of it. They committed to love, help, be merciful to, and hospitable to those who were part of their neighborhood. And no other voice would get in their way. If their old constitution is a different voice, they’ll disregard it. If a committee isn’t listening to the Spirit of Jesus, they’ll disband it.

They were absolutely serious about listening, following, participating with God in their community. Their council role is now primarily listening to the voice of Jesus and lining up the congregation with that. It’s as if they’ve seen the transfigured Christ amongst them, and a voice came from the cloud saying, This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.

I wonder if we are that serious at LCM? Do we put highest priority on hearing the voice of God? Are there any voices that are taking precedence? Are we training ourselves to listen, or are we merely following comfortable voices and not paying attention any more? Are we listening to a voice only because it seems to make sense whether or not it’s God? Because, for me, I’d much prefer to listen to those voices that affirm what I already think, voices that tell me what I want to hear, voices that keep me comfortable, voices that agree with me. Those voices can be a lot easier to listen to than the voice of Jesus, who calls me to show mercy, compassion, love, grace, and forgiveness in the midst of situations where it’s really hard to do that.

We should remember that our primary job is not to keep us members happy. It’s not to keep the rules. It’s not even to make sure these doors stay open. Our first priority is to listen for the voice of Jesus and follow him.

The Spirit of God is on the move. LCM is invited to move right along too. Jesus has been revealed as Lord of creation. The voice of God is coming even now from the clouds. This is my son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2020 in Sermon

 

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New Life Will Surprise You (Mar 29, 2020)

John 11:1-45

How many of you in these last few weeks have asked God, “How long, O God? Why don’t you step in and fix this coronavirus pandemic? Why don’t you do something?”

All of you? Yeah, me too. In my overwhelmed moments, I’ll admit I get frustrated with God, and wonder what God could possibly be up to in all this. Just when I was beginning to think I might have the beginnings of an inkling of some grasp on what God may be doing among us, a virus turns the whole world upside down.

I do believe God is present with us in adversity, but right now I don’t have much of a clue as to what God may be doing. Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t what I’ve come to expect God to be doing.

So I understand Mary, Martha, and the whole village of Bethany who express their frustration when Jesus didn’t get there in time to save Lazarus. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We know you can do amazing things, Jesus, but your delay cost our brother his life. Why didn’t you get here sooner? You’re here now, but what good is that? He’s already dead.

I get their frustration, don’t you?

But we know what happened. Beyond anyone’s expectations, beyond anyone’s prayers, beyond anyone’s imagination, Jesus does something completely new and unexpected. He raises Lazarus from the grave. When Jesus first arrives in town, they believe it’s too late for anything to be done. When they are gathered at the opening of the tomb, no one has a clue as to what Jesus is about to do. Then when he tells them to remove the stone from the entrance to the tomb, they can’t imagine why he would think that was in any way a good idea. “He’s been dead four days, Jesus. There’s going to be a pretty strong odor in there.” And then when Jesus calls into the tomb for Lazarus to come out, I only wonder whether they kind of felt sorry for Jesus right about then. Poor guy. The pressure’s gotten to him.

They have no idea what’s about to happen. So can you imagine how surprised they were when Lazarus comes strolling out of his grave all wrapped up in grave cloths? No one had a clue that this was even possible! Life coming from the grave? Unbelievable! With new life now among them, Jesus tells the people, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

In the same way, no one has a clue what God is up to in the midst of this pandemic threat. None of us can even imagine what God will accomplish among us. Who can begin to understand how life will emerge from this coronavirus grave?

The photo on the screen is a young tree in my backyard. It’s only been planted there three years ago. Every year I wonder if it will survive the winter. It is so small and looks so spindly. Each winter it certainly looks dead.

And every year these buds start to grow. Even now, even with snow, even in a pandemic, God is bringing life out of death.

It feels like winter for us right now. It feels like we’re still with Mary and Martha, asking, “Lord, why didn’t you get here sooner?” It feels like we’re still in the act of following Jesus to the tomb without knowing why. It feels like we still don’t have a clue about what he’s going to do in the face of this disease.

But soon, just like then, Jesus will do the completely unexpected. Soon, just like then, Jesus will surprise us with the new life that we will experience. Soon, just like then, the new life won’t be what we think, won’t be what we’ve prayed for, and it certainly won’t be what we expect. But it will be a new life for us. Brought about by the love, grace, and compassion of Christ.

Jesus is ready to call out, “Lazarus, come out!” When that happens, be ready to unbind one another from our grave cloths. There’s new life soon to come.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2020 in Sermon

 

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Sometimes You Just Need to Rejoice (Mar 22, 2020)

John 9:1-41

I just need to say, first of all, how much I miss you. Gathering here for worship each week is something, quite honestly, I’ve taken for granted. Every week some of you are here. The next week it can be whole different bunch. But it’s us, together. I didn’t realize how important that is.

I’ve spent too much time trying to figure out how to increase those Sunday morning worship numbers. Rather than rejoicing with those of you who are here, celebrating God’s presence among us, I would at times focus more on the numbers. How can we raise them? How can we get more people to show up? How can we reach new people and include them?

But not today. Today I just wish any of you could gather here. Today I’m imagining the celebration we’ll have the first Sunday we can sit together. Today, I want to pray and sing with you in person. Today I long to share the Lord’s Supper with you and look you in the eye as the bread and wine are shared. Today, I’m realizing my priorities haven’t been great when it comes to worshiping together with this community I love.

Instead of asking “how can we increase worship attendance?” I should simply have been rejoicing that we actually could worship and gather together in the presence of God. I should have quit asking “how?” and started rejoicing that Jesus showed up with whoever was here.

All that makes me read this gospel text differently. Jesus healed a man born blind. No one had ever even heard of that being done before. It was an absolutely astonishing feat, totally and completely marvelous.

But instead of celebrating and rejoicing that Jesus showed up, both the man’s neighbors and the Church leaders kept asking, “How? How did this happen? How did this Jesus character make you see? Are you sure he did it? Are you sure you were actually blind? Are you really the same person who used to beg?”

Jesus has done an amazing thing here. Right in their midst. They are in the presence of God, yet instead of rejoicing that God’s grace and mercy have been revealed, they are only interested in asking “how?”

Our world is different right now. Our lives are turned upside down these days. It’s easy to become despondent or angry. I know I find myself irritable and grumpy. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Why can’t things get back to normal? How much longer will this virus keep us penned in our homes like zoo animals?

Which, again, makes me read this gospel text differently. Jesus is doing amazing things all around us. Have you seen how people all over the place are reaching out by phone or email or online connections? We’ve opened a Zoom account, which is an online videoconferencing program. They’re indicating that requests for accounts with them have skyrocketed. Watch your email for Zoom meetings and gatherings, because that’s how we’ll be connecting for the time being. Have you seen how creative people are becoming in establishing some kind of community?

I saw a guy in Italy standing on his balcony in the middle of a huge apartment complex singing opera to his neighbors.

I saw another person leading an exercise class on his roof so his neighbors could join in.

Some food delivery services have quit charging the restaurants they deliver from so the restaurants have a chance of making payroll.

One of our music copyright suppliers, who permits us to print songs in bulletins and on the screens, has given us one month of free permission to play and sing their songs online—which is how we’re able to sing together.

Celebrities reading stories to kids online.

Those with the means to do so are donating large sums of money to help food banks and food pantries around the country.

Jesus is doing miraculous things right here, right now.

Even though Jesus is moving people in new ways of compassion and care, there will be people who will only ask the “how?” questions. “How much toilet paper can I horde?” “How can I clean out the grocery store even if that means some homebound people get nothing?” And in focusing on the “how,” they’re missing the miracles, the new things that Jesus is doing right here in our very midst.

Yes, I’m reading this gospel text differently. And I’m celebrating that even though we are not gathered in the same room at the same time, Jesus still shows up with us. Whether we’re together in person or in virtual space, we are still in the presence of God together. We are not alone. Jesus still shows up. In that, we can rejoice together.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2020 in Sermon

 

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These Days Are Full of Barriers (Mar 15, 2020)

John 4:5-42

It occurs to me that the well in this gospel text is a powerful symbol of the barriers this woman sees between her and Jesus, and between her and her community. The well was a community gathering place, yet she comes alone. So consider the symbolism of the well as barriers we experience.

These are days of barriers: social distancing, no handshaking, disinfecting, quarantining. We video’d worship for today because viral barriers keep us from gathering together in common worship space (For a fuller worship experience with LCM for Sunday, March 15, 2020, here are the YouTube links!
Part 1 of 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzGKnt-tNvU
Part 2 of 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYAlzMsnlyA )

That said, I just love this woman at the well! Especially since she comes right after Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus (which was our text last week). Though the conversations Jesus has with each one have some similarities, the differences between these two people are striking.

Like Jesus, Nicodemus is male, he has a name, he’s Jewish, a respected leader of his people. He seems like the kind of person that could have a pretty easy conversation with Jesus. Yet he comes to Jesus in the darkness.

The woman at the well is the opposite. Unlike Jesus, she is female, no name is given, she’s an enemy of the Jews, has no position. She seems like the kind of person who has too many barriers between her and Jesus to overcome. Yet she comes to Jesus in full daylight.

Nicodemus, with all his advantages, cannot understand what Jesus is telling him, that Jesus is sent by God to save the whole world. The last thing he says is, “How can these things be?”

The woman at the well, even with all her disadvantages, and even in her uncertainty, becomes a witness to the whole town that the savior of the world, sent by God, may have come. The last thing she says is, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

Everything gets turned upside down here. The one who should be open to Jesus is not. The one who is open to Jesus is the one no one would have ever expected. Even Jesus’ disciples, when they saw Jesus talking to her their first thoughts were, “Why is he speaking with her?”

The best information about who Jesus is may not be coming from the most religious people. It may be from those who we think are the least likely to know anything about him. It may be coming from those who we think are least qualified to do so.

I met with a man a couple of weeks ago who came in asking for some help. He had a job, but because of some rather unfortunate circumstances, including some previous prison time, wasn’t able to find adequate housing for himself and his daughter. He’d been struggling with housing for about twelve years, he said, and sometimes it’s really discouraging. “I’ve been clean and sober since I got out of prison,” he told me. “I walk the straight and narrow; I have to—I have a daughter. So I’ll line up a place, but then the landlord finds out I have a criminal record and pulls the plug. It’s been really hard,” he said.

I found some housing resources that in a file we keep on hand that he said might be helpful. Then we talked a bit. He wasn’t a church-goer, never had been, he told me. He prayed sometimes, he said, but what most churches seem to teach about God didn’t match his experience.

“Well, tell me your experience of God,” I asked. So he did.

Now, I was pretty sure this was going to be a waste of time. I was really just being polite. If I was one of Jesus’ original disciples I would be asking right along with them, “Why would Jesus speak to this guy?” Yet one thing he said was, “I don’t think God plays favorites. I think God sees me as someone who is just as worthwhile as a CEO of a big company. I try real hard, and too often I fail, but I don’t believe God sees me as a failure—even though most of the Christians I meet do.

“There are a lot of things I don’t know or understand. And sometimes I question whether there is a God or if there is, if God is actually helping me. But that usually doesn’t last too long. Even now, I really think God is at work trying to find me an apartment. All I need to do is keep looking. It’ll happen.”

My view of this man changed. That kind of faith came from this man’s experience with God, not what he was taught about God. An uneducated ex-con on the verge of homelessness understands something pretty significant about God. I have to admit, I was a bit surprised. Apparently, Jesus had met him at the well.

Who would you be surprised to find out they were listening to Jesus? What kind of person do you think is too far removed from Jesus to be able to hear him? Who do you think would have nothing to teach us about Jesus? Who are the people who seem to have too many barriers between them and Jesus? Barriers like the woman at the well has. She’s definitely not the Jesus type: wrong nationality, wrong religion, wrong beliefs, wrong gender, wrong status. Or barriers like the ex-con in my office has. He’s definitely not the Jesus type either: no church, no education, no money, no credentials. What are the barriers that we think get between someone and Jesus? Because we all believe they exist. Is it that they aren’t Christian? Is it their sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, immigration status, race, gender or age? Who is it that would cause you to say, “Why is Jesus speaking to them?”

The barriers aren’t between them and Jesus, they’re between them and us. Jesus, apparently, doesn’t see any of those barriers. Jesus steps right through whatever barriers we believe exist; he ignores whatever obstacles we think are in the way.

Because he’s the one sent from God. He’s the one that reveals to us what God is really like. He’s the one that comes to us, meets us at our well, whatever that may be for us. Though we can’t physically be together, Christ holds us as one, because he can ignore the threat of a virus. He hold us together and treats all of us with the dignity, respect, and love that God has for us. He’s the one who tells us everything we’ve ever done, who just might be the Christ, the savior.

He’s also the one who, showing us how loved and worthwhile we are in God’s eyes, then empowers us to follow him and show that same love and dignity to all the people we meet. Especially those who seem like they’re not really the Jesus type. They might just be the ones who reveal Jesus to us.

 
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Posted by on March 15, 2020 in Sermon

 

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Quit Telling People What to Believe and Begin Helping Them Recognize the Divine Presence That’s Already There (Mar 8, 2020)

John 3:1-17

I’m not really an ethereal kind of person, and I’m certainly no mystic. But there have been a few different times when I think I’ve experienced eternity—or at least some kind of connection to the Divine. It wasn’t anything I did or created or made happen, but it was a sense of the eternal-ness of God present in and holding/connecting everything. Those few times during church it was like I was aware of every person at worship as revealing the image of God, every person reflecting God’s love, all of us expressions of the Divine. One time watching someone’s cigar smoke dissipate into the sky, there was this awareness that the smoke is still there, it’s just part of the entire atmosphere of the whole planet. And that is made up of the same stuff–in different proportions–as the rest of creation. I knew in that moment that I was star dust, that there is one creator of all that exists and who holds it all together.

I’ve heard of other people having similar experiences. Someone told me that God touched them in an art gallery, where suddenly they were overwhelmed by the connection they had not just to the painting, but the artist (who is long dead).

Another person has talked to me about having an experience like this when they were dancing. Others during prayer or meditation. Others in the mountains. Lots of people have had, for lack of a better term, an experience where the eternal God came and touched them. We just don’t talk about them.

Every time, it was unexpected. No one prepared for it, made it happen, controlled it, or was able to repeat it. For those with the vocabulary for it, they describe it as a deeply spiritual experience, like being in the presence of the kingdom of God. Kind of like being born, it’s something that happens to you, not something you create or decide.

Then I read this story of Nicodemus again. The conversation Jesus has with him is describing this kind of thing, this kind of experience. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit.” “The wind blows where it chooses . . . so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

There’s a difference between what we can control and what we can’t. The Spirit of God, the kingdom of God, the reign of God are things we cannot control at all. We can’t choose to enter or even see it. It comes to us.

We’ve tried to turn the kingdom of God into something we can control or even manipulate. That’s what’s happened with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Have you heard it used in a manipulative way? “You better believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, because if you don’t, it’s eternal hellfire for you. So you better make a decision today.”

That seems so contrary to where Jesus is going in this conversation with Nicodemus. He’s saying the kingdom of God comes to you, not the other way around. The Spirit comes into your life without you choosing her. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from of where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” That’s where life with God is found. That’s where our lives are shaped according to God’s vision. That’s where spiritual birth comes from.

Nicodemus can’t understand that. He is a teacher of Israel, a leader of religious people. His whole orientation is toward what we need to do to come to God. He represents the best that religion has to offer. He helps people with their knowledge about God, their practices toward God and toward one another. Which are good things, and helpful things. But that’s not the same as entering the kingdom of God.

My friend who was encountered by God at the art gallery could study painting techniques, use of color, style and context until he was blue in the face. He could learn everything there was to know about the artist. And those things would add to his appreciation of that painting. But that is entirely different than having an encounter with God through the painting. His knowledge and awareness he can control, but the Spirit of God is beyond his control. That was a moment of divine grace, a gift, of being born from above, born of the Spirit. An encounter with the divine comes from God, not from us.

So, what do we do if we long to see God and encounter God and have experiences of God’s loving presence and grace? Are we limited to just sitting around, hoping the Divine Spirit happens to blow our way?

No. Because here’s the thing. Just like Nicodemus, we’re conditioned to focus on the things we can do, that we can control. OK, there’s a lot we can do and a lot we should do. “Love God, love your neighbor.” But one byproduct if that is our exclusive emphasis is that we tend to disregard those times when the Spirit blows our way. We don’t pay attention to this spiritual rebirth Jesus reveals to Nicodemus. Ask someone about their religious practices and they can likely rattle them off. But ask someone to share an encounter they’ve had with God, and chances are they don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s not that it hasn’t happened, it’s that we don’t recognize it when it does. We really need to quit yelling at people about what to believe and begin helping them recognize the wind of the Spirit that’s already blowing through their lives.

We cannot manufacture the wind of the Spirit. But we can watch for it, can learn to recognize it, and be made new by it. Ask yourself what feeds your soul, what brings you joy, what makes your heart sing? Spend some deliberate time this Lent in those things. You can’t make God appear, but you’re much more likely to recognize that encounter and therefore be made new by it. “Very truly, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” The wind of the Spirit is blowing. May we recognize that it blows to us.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2020 in Sermon

 

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On Trusting God (Mar 1, 2020)

Matthew 4:1-11

For the first Sunday in Lent Jesus gets led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he’s tempted. I think we need to start with this “wilderness.” Most of us have had an experience of being in the wilderness. It’s a lonely and helpless place. A place where everything you thought you could trust fail. St. John of the Cross called it “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Others have referred to it as feeling abandoned by God. When in the wilderness, you can relate to feelings of being lost, alone, helpless. It’s easy to question everything in the wilderness, because you are powerless there.

Which is why many people, when in the wilderness, come to believe that somehow they are being punished for something they’ve done wrong. They can come to question the existence of God because begin to wonder why God would let this happen to them. But that is not the case at all.

Wilderness experiences aren’t punishments, and they aren’t abandonments. They are simply part of what it means to be alive, to be human, to exist in a world that is far from perfect.

Rather than doubting the existence of God, the wilderness offers a unique opportunity to watch for the reality of God to be revealed. It’s unique because, quite honestly, there’s no other hope there. If you can hope in something other than the grace and mercy of God, it’s not really the wilderness. Your own strength doesn’t work, your ability to pull yourself up doesn’t work, your talents and intelligence and even your faith don’t really work. In the wilderness all of that is stripped away—which leaves us open to see God in ways we never could otherwise.

That’s the situation for Jesus in this gospel text. Right after he’s baptized by John in the Jordan River, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Even Jesus has wilderness experiences, dark nights of the soul. Matthew says he’s there for 40 days—which is Bible-speak for a very long time.

Look at how he’s tempted. Whether you believe in an actual devil or not, these temptations are very real. Three are recorded here. Each one is a different way away from what God has called him to do. Each one is a different way to try something other than God, to trust something other than God. And each time, Jesus recognizes the grace and purpose of God in ways he couldn’t do if he wasn’t in the wilderness.

He’s tempted to trust in his own abilities, his own determination of how to take care of himself—turn stones into bread. If you are the Son of God, you don’t need to wait to see what God is doing. You can take care of this yourself. You have the ability. God has abandoned you anyway, so what difference does it make? Eat!

Jesus’ response is to trust God. Food isn’t everything, and certainly not right now. The most important thing is to listen for God’s voice, which he’s better able to hear in the wilderness.

No, in the wilderness, Jesus will hear more clearly God’s voice, God’s call, and God’s intentions. The wilderness is where you can listen more carefully to God.

Then he’s tempted to shortcut that voice of God with a quick, shallow, literal interpretation of scripture. Throw yourself down from the highest point of the temple, because scripture says that God’s angels will catch you, “they will bear you up,” Psalm 91:12 says, “so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” If you are the Son of God, don’t you believe the Bible is true? Don’t you have enough faith?

Jesus’ response again is to trust God. God is not to be trifled with. Especially not by some shallow test of trying to coerce God into some miraculous feat, sending angels swooping down to catch him. That isn’t about trusting God, it’s about putting on a show. Watch this. I can make God do tricks. Watch the angels fly down and catch me. And God has to do it, because it’s in the Bible.

No, in the wilderness Jesus will discover more deeply what God about and what God has called him to do on God’s terms, not his own. The wilderness is a time to know God, not to get God to hurry up and do what I want.

Finally, Jesus is tempted to attain power. If you are the Son of God, why not take control of things? You would certainly do a better job than those in power now. Why not take over and run things yourself. Imagine how good the world could be if you did.

Jesus’ response, again, is to trust God. He will serve God on God’s terms, not on the world’s terms. Power and might and political coercion are the ways this world runs—and they are not the ways of God.

No, in the wilderness Jesus will find out the actual ways of God. In the wilderness he will come to know what his role is in these purposes of God.

In these temptations in wilderness, Jesus comes to a place of deeper, more significant trust in God. And that trust is exhibited over and over again as he goes about his ministry. He trusts God even though doing so costs him his life. But that trust also leads him to resurrection.

When we find ourselves in the wilderness, it’s not fun or enjoyable. It’s awful. But it does provide that unique opportunity to hear God more clearly, to know God more intimately, and to know our role in God’s work with more trust. And that clarity is what allows us to follow God beyond the wilderness.

I don’t pray for anyone to enter the wilderness, but I do pray that when you find yourself there, you will eventually trust God more deeply in your life. The wilderness ends, but the hope and life God provides lasts forever.

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2020 in Sermon

 

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Butterfly Effect and the Law (Feb 16, 2020)

Matthew 5:21-37

We are suffering from a cultural delusion. This deception is so deeply embedded into our collective understanding that to challenge it doesn’t necessarily make sense. This big lie is that we believe we can act as individuals, independent of other people. That what we choose to do doesn’t affect anyone else. That we can be somehow autonomous, that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, that don’t need anyone and can fully take care of ourselves. You see, we cannot ever act alone. Never. Because everything we do affects everyone around us. Everything anyone else does affects us.

The worlds of philosophy and physics have both known this for over 200 years. More recently this awareness that everything affects everything else has been made popular in the weather example of  the so-called “Butterfly Effect.” It’s complicated and usually misunderstood, but basically goes like this: “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas.”[1] A butterfly obviously doesn’t cause a tornado, but what this reveals that the universe is a complex, interconnected web. Everything is affected by everything else. This is not new to us in the church. We have referred to this as God who is the creator of all things, who holds all of creation in divine hands.

If this is true for inanimate parts of creation, it is even more true for humanity, we who are created in the image of God.

Believe it or not, that’s really what this part of the Sermon on the Mount is about.

Jesus continues in this third week by taking the Law of Moses and calling to our attention that we affect other people. He’s saying that how we see others and think about others and relate to others matters, because it has an effect. The reality is that as we try to do the right thing and so forth, we are not just working for our own righteousness individually and independently. No, we are affecting the flow of God’s purposes in the people around us. And likely well beyond that.

Instead of feeling righteous as an individual because I haven’t murdered anyone this week, Jesus understands the Law to be about how we live together, because everything we do affect everyone else. So it’s not just that I haven’t committed murder, and therefore I’m fine—regardless of how you’re doing—but that my choices affect your well-being also—like an interconnected web of creation. So if I take out my anger on you, or call you a name, or hold a grudge, or look with lust, or lie to you, I’m affecting you. Whether I’ve committed murder or not. Jesus is pointing out the reality that we simply are not living just for ourselves, and that if we aren’t lifting up those around us, we ourselves are sinking too.

So when he uses these powerful and dramatic hyperboles to say things like cut your hand off if it’s causing you to sin, he’s not literally telling us to remove a limb. He’s saying that the hand affects the entire body. He’s not literally telling us to pluck out an eyeball. He’s saying that an eye affects the entire body. The way we think about someone else has an effect well beyond that person. Even an offering given in church is affected by our relationships with other people. It’s that understanding that we cannot be righteous independently that he’s bringing into the conversation about marriage and divorce and adultery. Jesus points out that women can’t be disregarded or disrespected just because a man thinks he can justify it. If women aren’t respected, no one is. It isn’t just about our individual righteousness, but that we’re all connected to and affected by each other. Jesus isn’t giving a morality checklist. Everything we do affects everyone else. So there’s no such thing as just looking out for ourselves and our own righteousness. No such thing as justifying my behavior and attitudes apart from anyone else. Jesus calls out that it actually doesn’t work that way.

It makes sense, then, that God is constantly calling us to care for the least, the lost, the victims, the helpless, those pushed to the edges. It’s easy to treat those higher up or those who are like us with kindness. But the effect of how we treat those at the bottom is just as significant. As God’s children, how we treat each other matters. If we disregard one person or a category of people, it affects more than just them, it affects all of us. If there are people that we don’t recognize as God’s beloved ones, created by God in love, that has a widespread affect in the world.

And therefore it’s also true that whenever we show compassion, it affects more than just the person receiving it. It affects everyone. Whenever we show mercy and reconciliation and forgiveness and love, it impacts the world. Since we are all held in God’s love and connected together in God’s love, we impact the world with that reality of love.

Since we are all God’s children, all interconnected, all interdependent, it doesn’t matter who’s more righteous and who’s less. It doesn’t matter who is from what country or what color their skin is or who they love or what their income is. I can claim nothing just because I haven’t murdered someone. According to Jesus, I don’t have the luxury of ignoring refugees, and the poor, and Blacks and Hispanics, and the LGBTQ community, anyone who does not have a place at the table. We literally change the world when we are compassionate and merciful, when we listen and seek to understand.

If a butterfly in Brazil can affect a tornado in Texas, then our acts of love and grace in the name of Jesus can alter the trajectory of the whole world.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2020 in Sermon

 

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The Law: God’s Intention for the World (Feb 9, 2019)

Matthew 5:13-20

Last week, this congregation’s youth did an amazing job of making very clear who we are: each one of us is a beloved child of God, dearly loved, holy, and precious. Even in the worst times, we are blessed—not because we deserve it, but because that’s who God is. We are blessed children of God all the time. That’s who Jesus tells us we are in the Beatitudes.

This week, Jesus builds on that. Having established who we are in the Beatitudes, now he begins to tell us that living that identity gives life because it is God’s intention. And he does this by talking about salt, about light, about good works, and about God’s law. Yes, we are light, and the purpose of light is to illuminate a room or even a city. Yes, we are salt, and the purpose of salt is for preserving and flavoring food. Knowing we are salt and light is great and necessary– not for it’s own sake, but so we can shine and flavor the world with God’s intention for it.

I’m going to invite you to struggle in this with me for a minute. The church I grew up in had a basement with a maze of classrooms and hallways in it. There were no windows at all in the entire basement, so it was really fun for us after Confirmation to turn off all the lights and run around and get lost in this maze of hallways and rooms in absolute darkness.

It was incredibly fun until one of the littler kids got disoriented, then scared. You could always tell that a light was going to come on soon when you heard a kid starting to cry. They were fumbling around for a light switch.

For us back then, the light coming on meant the end of the game. But, of course, it had to happen sooner or later. At some point, no matter how long before a kid got scared and started to cry, or we got bored, or just ran out of time, we would have to leave the basement, and go home. Though we were middle schoolers, we had our real lives after all.

When Jesus talks about light, salt, and especially about fulfilling the law and the prophets and not abolishing them, he’s talking about turning on a light in a dark basement in order to live our lives. Hear me out on this.

We assumed people viewed all the Old Testament laws, e.g., the Ten Commandments and the rest, and the voices of a bunch of crabby prophets as the way to become righteous. We assumed people always thought that if they obeyed the law, they were good to go. The closer they followed the law, the better off they were with God. Right? That’s why we assumed the Old Testament law either doesn’t work, or it’s not all that important, because following the law doesn’t make us righteous before God. So that’s where we thought Jesus came in, to tell us we can forget all that legalistic Old Testament stuff and just believe he died for our sins and then we’re good to go. Right? We don’t need the law because we have Jesus.

But if we say the law isn’t all that important and that we really don’t need it, isn’t that abolishing the law? And Jesus is clearly saying here that that is the opposite of what he came to do. Rather than separating himself from the OT law, Jesus stands right in the midst of it.

Jesus is saying that the point of the law was not to give us a way to become individually righteous. If that’s all it was for, then as we have been given a new life in Christ we could simply get rid of the law. That’s not it. The law is much more. The law is not just a means for individual righteousness, but it is a declaration of the intention of God for the world.

Most of the Old Testament law has to do with loving God and loving the neighbor. It can get pretty specific about ways to do that. Sabbath, prayer, farming, how to treat foreigners, food, marriage and children. But it’s not that if we follow the law by, e.g., seeking justice for the poor, God will reward us. That’s not it. No, the law reveals that justice for the poor is God’s intention for the world. The law is a way for us to begin to understand God’s intention for the world, so we can go live it. Not to become more righteous, but because that is our life.

A light coming on in the dark church basement is a reminder to begin getting ready to go into our real life so we can live it. Not so we can see in a basement, but because that is our life.

The law in the Old Testament is like turning on a light switch in a dark basement. Light in the basement isn’t the aim for our lives, but calls us to go live our lives beyond the church basement. The law isn’t the aim, but calls us to go live our lives in God’s intention for the world.

Jesus doesn’t abolish the law; he affirms it as God’s intention for the world. The law reminds us that as salt and light, our real lives are found in living God’s intention for the world.

We don’t turn on a light in a dark church basement just to end a game after Confirmation. We do it so we can leave the basement and go live our real lives.

We don’t ignore the Old Testament law because we think we no longer need it. We see it as fulfilled in Jesus who continues God’s intention for the world.

We don’t follow Jesus so we get to heaven when we die. We follow him to shine and flavor the world with God’s intention for it.

We are beloved. We are loved. We are blessed. We are forgiven. We are salt and we are light. That is our identity. And now that the light has been turned on, now that the law is fulfilled, now that Jesus has come, now that our identity has been clarified, we go and live it in the world. We shine, we flavor, we love, we show mercy, we work for peace, we strive for justice. Not because it gets us higher in God’s favor, but because it is God’s intention for the world. Light shines, salt flavors, and God’s blessed ones show the people of the world what God has in mind for them. That’s where life is found.

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2020 in Sermon

 

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It’s More Important than Ever that We Love the World (Jan 26, 2020)

Matthew 4:12-23

Normally when this text comes up, we talk about Simon and Andrew, James and John, and Jesus calling them away from their nets to fish for people.

I’m actually going to look elsewhere in this text. Specifically, the first two verses of it. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum”.

So what? What’s that about? Jesus heard John the Baptist had been arrested, so he moved. Why does that matter, and what does it have to do with us?

In this text, Jesus has just been baptized and tempted in the wilderness. This move to Capernaum is, in fact, his first act as the announced “Son of God.” And so, in this gospel, moving the 30 miles from Nazareth in Judea to Capernaum in Galilee makes a major statement about the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Here are some things that would catch people’s attention when they heard that:

Capernaum was in the region of Galilee, which was about as far from Jerusalem as you could get in Israel — way on the north end. Away from the political power, away from the religious center. It was largely ignored by the rulers and the priests. Moving away from Jerusalem to Capernaum is like moving from NYC or Washington DC to Jackson Hole, WY

Galilee was surrounded by Gentiles and pagans. Phoenicians on the west. Syrians on the northeast, Samaritans on the south, and the sea of Galilee on the southeast. No good God-fearing people anywhere nearby. Kind of irreligious.

Unlike Jerusalem and other cities in Judea, Capernaum was a crossroads for major foreign trade and travel. It had been invaded and conquered over and over. Different people, ideas, ways of thinking, cultures were constantly being introduced. Foreigners had flowed in and sometimes even took over. If there was anything weird going on in Israel, it probably started somewhere in Galilee. Pretty rowdy and radical place.

Although Galilee was Jewish, it was a forced Judaism. It had been in all kinds of different Gentile hands for about 600 years, but in a previous war the Jews had revolted and all the residents had been converted at the point of a sword. So their loyalty to the established religion in Jerusalem had always been questionable.

To bring God’s vision and reveal the reign of God, the first thing Jesus does is move from his hometown, not to the religious center of Jerusalem that everyone knew, but to a place completely different and far away from the Jewish Bible Belt. A place surrounded by people who didn’t know God, or even want to. A place whose culture was anything but ethical, and a place about as outside of God’s vision of peace and mercy as was possible.

I guess it’s like someone said to me a couple of weeks ago, “If you want to heal people, go where the sick people are.” That’s what Jesus did. In a place where the vision was God was most lacking, it became more important than ever that he reveal it. He went to a place where the reign of God would be seen because it was so different.

As declining church attendance around the country is revealing, fewer and fewer people in our country actually follow Jesus. Therefore, it’s more important than ever that we do.

As fewer people take seriously Christ’s example of showing compassion, of sowing mercy, and of striving for peace, it’s more important than ever that we do.

As fewer and fewer people exhibit Christ’s love for all people, regardless of history, background, identity, or expression, it’s more important than ever that we do.

Jesus deliberately moved to Capernaum because that’s where the signs of God’s justice and grace would be most visible. The good news for us is that we don’t have to move anywhere. We don’t have to move to Capernaum because Capernaum has come to us.

There are people right outside our doors who need to know they are loved for who they authentically are. We’re here to love them with Christ’s love. It’s more important than ever that we do.

There are people right here in our neighborhoods who are feeling unwelcomed and unwanted. We’re here to include them with Christ’s welcome. It’s more important than ever that we do.

There are people in our schools and workplaces who are frightened for their safety because of the color of their skin or their place of birth. We’re here to stand with them with Christ’s justice. It’s more important than ever that we do.

If you want to heal people, go to where the sick people are. If you want to reveal the ways of Christ, go to where it isn’t always visible. If you want to follow Jesus, you end up in Capernaum. In our world, in our neighborhoods, in our culture today, it’s more important than ever that we make Christ visible. Perhaps that’s what Jesus means when tells these first disciples that if they follow him, they will fish for people.

God’s love in Christ is captivating, it catches us and holds us. Now, being caught by that love, we love with that same love, share with that same generosity, stand up with that same sense of justice. If you want to heal people, go to where the sick people are. Follow Jesus there, reveal his love to people who don’t know unconditional love. Show his grace to people who’ve given up on grace. Show his compassion to people who are in desperate need of compassion. Follow Jesus there, and we can’t help but catch people.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2020 in Sermon

 

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“What are You Looking For?” (Jan 19, 2020)

John 1:29-42

Jesus asks the two people following him, “What are you looking for?” It’s a great question and I wonder how seriously we take it? What are we looking for? Are we just looking for a comfortable life? Is that all? Are we just looking to stay busy, to keep our calendars full of some kind of activity so we don’t feel we’re wasting our time? Is that all? Are we just looking for love? Are we just looking for acceptance and respect? Is that the core of what we’re really looking for? Or is it something bigger? More substantial than an easier life for ourselves.

In 1845 a British Arctic expedition set sail to chart the Northwest Passage around the Canadian Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. Neither of the two ships and none of the 138 men aboard returned.

Captain Sir John Franklin prepared according to what he was really looking for. This expedition was likely to be a two to three-year grueling journey through one of earth’s most hostile environments. His packing list reveals what he was—and what he wasn’t—looking for.

He packed a 1,200-volume library, a hand-organ, china place settings, cut-glass wine goblets and sterling silver flatware. What does it sound like he was actually looking for? Perhaps he was looking to impress his friends back in England. Years later, some of these place settings would be found near a clump of frozen bodies.

The ships sailed into frigid waters and became trapped in ice. It coated the decks, the spars and the rigging. Then water froze around the rudders and the ships became hopelessly locked in the frozen sea.

Sailors set out to search for help, but soon died of exposure. The crew was not prepared for the cold or for the possibility of the ships becoming ice-locked. On a voyage which was to last two to three years, they packed only their Navy-issue uniforms and just a 12-day supply of coal for the auxiliary steam engines. The frozen body of an officer was eventually found wearing his uniform of fine blue cloth, edged with silk braid, a blue greatcoat and a silk neckerchief — clothing which was noble and respectful, if that’s what he was looking for, but wholly inadequate for the reality of their situation.

I think that most people actually see what they’re really looking for. Can you imagine how, for instance, our government would be different if we were truly looking for ways to lift people out of poverty? Can you imagine what the church in the US would look like if we were really looking to include those left out as Jesus did?

The answer to that question matters, which means we really need a good answer to that question. “What are you looking for?” Because whatever it is, that’s what we’re likely to see.

Jesus asks two of John the Baptist’s disciples that very question. He notices they are following him after John makes a pretty big deal about Jesus being the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the Son of God, the Lamb of God. So when Jesus sees them following him, he asks them that really important question, “What are you looking for?”

There’s more at stake in our answer than just getting a bigger house, a promotion, acing a test, getting into a better college. There’s more at stake in our answer than just winning elections or making sure “our people” get into power. Because if that’s as far as we’re looking, then that’s about all we’ll see.

Don’t you think that the answer to that question ought to at least brush up against the priorities of the One who created us in the first place? Shouldn’t the vision of God at least be on the table when we consider how we’ll answer Jesus’ question? Doesn’t it make sense that we should be looking for a world not centered around me and my priorities, but God’s?

That’s the whole point of spiritual practices: worship, prayer, scripture, holy conversation. It’s so we can grow in our awareness of what God is actually up to, so we can be looking for that.

This text in the gospel of John points us to an answer that is fairly significant. “What’re you looking for” Jesus asks the two followers? They answer, “Where are you staying?”

Could the answer be that simple? Just looking for where Jesus is staying? Just looking for where Jesus is spending their time? What would we be seeing if Jesus is what we were looking for?

We’d see Jesus hanging out with those he always hung out with: the homeless, the victims of abuse, refugees and immigrants, those pushed out of power, those on the margins. On this Martin Luther King weekend, and as the whitest denomination in America, we need to acknowledge those we’ve historically excluded in a variety of ways.

We’d see Jesus doing what he always did: working for peace, seeking justice for all people, calling out the abuse of those in power. On this Martin Luther King weekend, we need to recognize Jesus present with those who’ve been short on justice for 400 years of American history.

We’d see Jesus living as he always lived: generously, prayerfully, compassionately, showing mercy to all.

What are we looking for? If we’re looking to follow Jesus, that’s probably who we’re going see. And it’s probably where we’re going to go. And it’s probably what we’re going to do. And it’s probably going to change our lives. And looking for the presence of Jesus is probably going to change the church.

What are you looking for? How we answer that question makes all the difference in the world.

“Where are you staying,” they asked? “Come and see,” Jesus said. Look for Jesus, come and see where he is.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2020 in Sermon

 

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