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Religion for Division or for Unity? (June 3, 2018)

Mark 2:23—3:6

One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

A number of years ago I was visiting my mom and went to church with her. She belonged to a different branch of Christianity and the doctrines around communion were rather strict. Knowing this, I had planned to not participate until the pastor, who knew what I do for a living, looked me square in the eye during the sermon and said, “Holy Communion is for the entire body of Christ.” I figured he was telling me it was OK to come to communion.

So I did.

Apparently, I had misunderstood what he was saying in the sermon. Because when I got to the front, he simply stood there. No bread, no blessing, he just stood still, quietly looking at the floor.

I felt I needed to add to the awkwardness of the moment too, so I chose to stand there and wait also.

There were two lines coming forward for communion, and the other line kept moving. My line was now stopped and the pastor and I shared this moment together. Finally, he said to me, “Uhmm, we don’t normally do this.” So I continued on my way, making my way past the wine chalice back around to the pew where my mom had long since returned. She was aghast. I was simply embarrassed.

After the service, the pastor was waiting for me. He had run into his office and retrieved the documentation that prohibited him from giving me communion. He showed me the section—he even underlined it—that said I, by virtue of being of a different Christian tradition, wasn’t to be included.

The pastor correctly followed his tradition’s doctrine. But his use of that doctrine itself wasn’t good discipleship. It segregated people and ranked them. There became insiders and outsiders. It was religion at its worst.

Religion can be the worst thing we do or it can be the best. It can be used for separation, judgment, and division or it can be used for compassion, forgiveness, and unity. Division happens when our religions become an end unto themselves. When we are led by ideologies and doctrines instead of the Spirit of God.

Unity happens when our religions point us toward the Divine. When we

are opened to the loving nature and character of God that come to us and make us new.

We can look to our religious preferences and doctrines to justify ourselves, or we can use our religious traditions and practices as ways to open us to the presence of God.

Both happen in this text in Mark today. There seems to be a disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians about keeping Sabbath laws. And it’s quite a disagreement! Except the thing is the Pharisees and Herodians (who rarely agreed with each other) didn’t really disagree with Jesus’ interpretation of Sabbath law here. All three would agree that compassion takes precedence over Sabbath. That was long understood and accepted.

What’s at stake here isn’t the doctrine itself, but the role of their religion. The Pharisees and Herodians are using the Sabbath laws to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s unrighteous. And, surprise, surprise, using their argument they come out better than everyone else. The Jewish doctrine around Sabbath became for them an end unto itself. It took on a life of its own. The Pharisees and Herodians correctly followed their tradition’s doctrine. But their use of that doctrine itself wasn’t good discipleship. It segregated people and ranked them. There became insiders and outsiders. It was religion at its worst.

Jesus, on the other hand, understood Sabbath laws as means to emphasize God’s compassion. Sabbath is about restoring, about giving life. More than just “not working,” but all people being refreshed and restored.

Of course you restore a man on the Sabbath! Now not only is his hand fixed, but he can go back to work and take care of his family. His dignity and his position within the community are restored. For Jesus, the Sabbath is about restoring life for everyone, not righteousness for yourself. For Jesus, the Sabbath is for everyone. It is a chance for all things to be restored and renewed. The doctrine of Sabbath points to God’s desire to restore everyone, God’s desire for life for everyone. Sabbath law is a way to make sure all can be renewed. For Jesus it cannot be a way to rank or divide or exclude. For Jesus, Sabbath law was religion at its best.

Hearing that your religion doesn’t make you more righteous than anyone else can be hard to listen to. Hearing that the dividing line that separates us from them, good from bad, orthodox from heretical is not what religion is about can make a person angry. That’s what got the Pharisees and Herodians plotting against Jesus. Religion at its worst destroys life.

But hearing through your religion that even at your worst times, even at your lowest, even at your weakest and most vulnerable places, you matter to God as much as the best, highest, and strongest can be liberating—exhilarating! Inclusivity and unconditional love are the nature—the essence—of God. Religion that opens us up to this nature of God gives life. That is religion at its best.

Christianity, even Lutheranism, isn’t an end unto itself. There are devout Lutherans who use their religion to judge, to divide, and to proclaim their own righteousness. But there are others, some who aren’t even Lutheran(!), who recognize their faith as a way to be open to God’s unconditional love and grace, and who then show that same compassion to all that God loves. We Lutherans have a helpful way of looking at that. But whether Lutheran or not, that is religion at its best.

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Posted by on June 3, 2018 in Sermon

 

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Forgiveness Has a Purpose (May 27, 2018)

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah was a professional prophet. He was a temple employee in Jerusalem as one who speaks for God in service to the king. His ministry was during the 8th century BC at a time when Judah was actually doing well. King Uzziah had built new wells for the fields and watchtowers to be alert to invaders. The army was strong and things had finally turned around after a series of pretty bad kings. So Isaiah’s life wasn’t too bad.

Before this text, however, King Uzziah had made a mistake. His pride had gotten the better of him, apparently, and he decided he didn’t need the temple priests—even though their role was specifically designated by God. So, against God’s law, he went into the temple and was about to make an offering on his own. He was confronted by the priests and, as the story goes, was stricken with leprosy for this grievous infraction.

He had to live apart from everyone else and couldn’t rule that way. So he had to hand over the kingdom of Judah to his son Jotham.

Anyway, after suffering with leprosy for about 11 years, king Uzziah died. And Isaiah’s life was turned upside down. Not because Uzziah died—it actually had nothing to do with that—but because God, out of the blue, called Isaiah to a very specific prophetic ministry. A ministry he neither asked for nor wanted.

He had this bizarre vision of the greatness of God: the majesty, the awesomeness, the sovereignty of God were so vast that just the edge of God’s robe filled the entirety of the temple. Creatures were swirling around shouting about the holiness of God. And in the presence of the majesty of God’s glory, Isaiah suddenly realized how lowly and pathetic he, and all of Judah, really were.

But Isaiah’s sad condition didn’t stop God. One of the heavenly creatures took a hot coal from the altar and touched Isaiah’s mouth with it. Then this creature shouted, Now you’re forgiven. All’s good.

At that point Isaiah heard God ask, I’ve got a message for my people. Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

Newly forgiven Isaiah rises up, Here am I; send me.

That’s where the text ends. Which is really unfortunate. Because we don’t get to hear what Isaiah was sent to do. Let me tell you, it wasn’t great. His call by God was very specific, very clear. He was called by God to tell the people that God says they’re never going to get it, they’ll never understand. No matter how hard they try, they will never see what God is about, never hear it, never know it. That was his God-appointed message. Can you imagine being the one sent to tell people that?

It’s at that point that Isaiah realizes this new prophet gig isn’t what he thought it would be, and says, Uhmm, so how long do I have to do this?

A couple of things to note that are relevant for us. 1) Forgiveness is about removing barriers. Isaiah was forgiven (with the live coal) not to get into heaven when he died, but forgiveness was actually removing barriers between Isaiah and God so that he could be with God to say these hard things in God’s name. And, 2) A call from God is always specific to the context. Isaiah was called by God to do this because it is what God needed at that time and in that place.

In the same tone as Isaiah, we are forgiven and called. Both individually and congregationally. We are forgiven and called.

Re: Forgiveness: It’s important that we grow beyond the preschool notion that Jesus died on the cross so I can be forgiven and go to heaven when I die. Forgiveness has a purpose in God’s work in the world. Forgiveness removes the barriers between us and God so that we are no longer separated from God but are with God in God’s mission in the world of love, compassion, mercy, and grace. Forgiveness is not an end in itself. Forgiveness allows us to join God in loving the world.

Re: Being Called: Our call to join God is probably more specific than we assume. It’s one thing to say, “Love the world in Jesus’s name.” But it’s another thing to say, “God calls me to show love in the world that looks like this particular thing.”

God is active in this time and in this place. And God’s love for the world meets the world as it is now. Our call is to show God’s love in this part of the world. What gifts, what passions do you have that allow you to show love? That’s probably God’s call to you!

Let me give you a personal example. I grew up in Ogden, UT as the only non-Mormon family in the neighborhood, so I was already on the outside looking in. I was the smart, nerdy, insecure kid who wasn’t good at sports and played the clarinet in the band. I got beat up more days than I didn’t. Got the picture? I was never the “popular” kid.

But as painful as parts of that were, I have a heart—a passion—for those people who get left out, pushed away, not included. Part of my “Isaiah-type” call from God is to welcome the unwelcomed, include the excluded. Which is why you hear me preach so often about racism, sexism, LGBTQ, poverty. In our context today, these are among the people who have historically been excluded from privilege and power. God has called me to speak of God’s call to love these.

And God keeps removing the barriers that are in the way of me doing this. More and more. Day after day. Sometimes the same barriers have to keep being removed. Sometimes I discover God is removing a new one. But that removal of barriers is forgiveness, so that I can follow God’s call.

Isaiah wasn’t called to change the world. Isaiah was called to follow God’s call in a specific time and in a specific place.

Pause in silence for a minute. . . . Think about the world in which you live. Your context. . . . Where is there a lack of compassion that bothers you? . . . Where are you aware of hatred or violence or exclusion being shown? . . . God sees it too.

This is why you are forgiven. This is why barriers between you and God have been removed. You are forgiven.  And God now asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Who can show my love and grace and compassion in that situation?

Newly forgiven and called people of God, now we rise up and say, “Here we are; send us.”

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2018 in Sermon

 

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We’re Moving From Acts 1 to Acts 2 (May 20, 2018)

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

  1. Church in North America in decline for 40+ years.
    1. LCM
      1. Decline last 10 years
      2. Gained 15 years prior
      3. Steady now
    2. Even with “flash in the pan” churches, reality is that fewer people are part of a church in Lakewood, and that number continues to decrease. Shows no sign of letting up.
    3. Everyone’s got a “Quick Fix!”
      1. More of this, less of that.
      2. Give people what they want to hear.
      3. Make people happy. Don’t make them uncomfortable.
    4. IT’s NOT YOUR FAULT!
      1. Not because we’re slacking off or caring less.
      2. Not because we aren’t putting in enough energy or commitment.
      3. Many of you are worn out from working so hard for the sake of Christ’s church.
    5. Reality is that the culture has simply changed too fast. Faster and faster. Church isn’t able to change as quickly. No let-up in sight.
      1. Our best efforts are not going to be enough.
      2. We can feel lost and helpless.
    6. Knowing we are baptized into Christ’s mission of loving the world as God loves it, knowing how important the purpose of the church is, yet realizing we can’t do it, we pray, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the church?” Take us back to our glory years?
  2. Acts and Pentecost
    1. Acts 2. (Pentecost text today) we know: fire, wind, HS, other languages, 3000 baptized. “Wow! Holy Spirit, do that!”
    2. Acts 1. Worth backing up just a bit to put this all into context:
      1. Jesus has been dead 6-7 weeks.
      2. Rumors that some have seen him alive, but no one claims to have seen him for several weeks now.
      3. He’s gone. And with him went all hope of God’s justice and God’s kingdom.
        1. Knowing how important this mission is, their best efforts are not going to be enough.
        2. They feel lost and helpless.
      4. Then, when all are together, he appears and speaks to them.
        • Hope restored! We can’t, but Jesus can! Knowing how important God’s mission through God’s chosen people is, they ask Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore Israel?”
  1. Sound familiar? Take us back to our glory years?
  1. Then he disappears again, so . . . they replace Judas.
  • Today!
    1. Doesn’t it feel like we’re living in Acts 1 sometimes?
      1. We know how important this work is.
      2. Excited and hopeful, then nothing happens.
      3. Jesus shows up, and then seems to disappear.
      4. We don’t exactly what to do, so we hunker down, form committees, and have meetings.
    2. But if today can feel like Acts 1, guess what’s next? Acts 2!
      1. Holy Spirit is on the move! Nothing will be like it was before! . . . Nothing.
      2. Further parallels in Acts 2 à
        1. The job of the disciples changed from keeping order to keeping up! They couldn’t see the Spirit, but they could see what the Spirit was doing.
          1. When we pray, “Wow! Holy Spirit, do that!” we’re praying that even if we can’t see the Spirit, that we could keep up with what the Spirit is doing.
        2. The responses to what the disciples were doing were mixed, at best. Bewildered, Amazed, Astonished, Perplexed, Sneered and made fun of them, Made false accusations. These were fellow Jews!
          1. When we pray, “Wow! Holy Spirit, do that!” we’re recognizing the responses will be mixed at best. These from fellow Christians—maybe even LCM members.
  • Peter pointed out from scripture (Joel) that all that was happening was not unusual for God. The Hebrew scriptures are full of images of fire and wind and Spirit moving through diverse people. Young/old, male/female, slave/free.
    1. When we pray, “Wow! Holy Spirit, do that!” we’re praying that we would be prepared for the Spirit to do anything—through anyone! What matters is that we know God, and can recognize God’s movement anywhere and anytime. God loves and God saves!
  1. It might feel like we’re living in Acts 1 sometimes, but we’re really living in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit is on the move—now! Nothing is like it was before. nothing. The Holy Spirit will surprise us, so hang on. It’s gonna get a little windy and a little firey. Ready or not, the Spirit’s got this.
 
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Posted by on May 22, 2018 in Sermon

 

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The Fierce Love of a Mama God (May 13, 2018)

John 17:6-19

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

You know what’s the most ferocious animal in all of creation? It’s any mama animal whose babies are being threatened. I’d rather face male black bear than a mama possum if I got too close to the babies.

There’s a fierce natural sense of protection by mamas. They will, without batting an eye, attack anything no matter how big, if they think their babies are in danger. This is generally true for human mamas too. Think about that image on this Mothers’ Day.

Biblical gender language aside, since God really isn’t male (we all know this, right?) I think that’s the kind of maternal protection that Jesus is praying about in this text. He’s praying that God would protect Jesus’s disciples with that kind of ferocity. Like a mama protecting her babies.

Mamas don’t fiercely protect their babies so the babies can sleep in their cave the rest of their lives. Mamas protect their babies so they can learn to be OK in this world, to take care of themselves, become big bears, raccoons, sparrows, humans, whatever. It’s not just protection for its own sake, but protection with a purpose. It’s protection so that the baby can grow up and be what it is intended to be.

That’s what Jesus is praying for in this text from John. He prays that the Father (the Mama?) would protect disciples in God’s own name so they may be one in the same way Jesus and this Mama God are one. Then he prays they would be protected from evil as they go into the world.

Whenever there’s something in the Bible about “names,” it’s more than what you tell people to call you. “Name” has to do with character, the essence of the person. So protecting us disciples in God’s name has to do with protecting us in the very nature of God—Jesus’s prayer is that we be protected in this Mama God’s fierce love, mercy, grace, and compassion. That love in all its ferocity would surround us and hold us and keep us in unity with God, but also so we can venture out into this difficult world knowing we are protected in love the whole time.

This Mama God’s protection is not so we can sleep in our caves the rest of our lives. It’s not so we can be safe inside our church buildings. It’s not so we can feel safe because we know the right things or believe the right things or understand the right things. Being protected in God’s love is so we can love with this fierce Mama-love as we were created to do—as full human beings in the image of God. Lives full of love and joy and compassion and grace.

And now, protected in this love that keeps Jesus and this Mama God together in unity, we are sent into the world. Because that’s what the Mama God’s love for Jesus has done. Sent him into the world, protected in love, in order to be free to love. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? That being protected in love, Jesus was free to love us with that same fierceness.

And good thing, too. Because protected in the ferocity of the Mama God’s love, Jesus was free to love us with that same intensity. He would take on anyone, anything, if he thought it would endanger our unity with him. Even if it cost him his life, he was protected in love so he could show that love.

And since we are now united with him in that same ferocious love, we have that same protection in order to love the world the same way. We, too, are sent into the world, protected in love, and set free to love just like Jesus. We don’t have to worry about who deserves it, or who will love us back, or who is like us or unlike us, who’s right or who’s wrong. We are always protected, like a Mama’s babies, so that we can love just as ferociously.

It’s a Mothers’ Day image that is rather compelling for me. A Mama God protecting her babies with love. Jesus, united in this Mama God with love, is sent to include us in that love. So now we too, as Jesus prayed, are brought in, united in this fierce Mama God’s protection of love. And we too, knowing we are fiercely protected in love by this Mama God and Jesus, are free to venture into the world to show that same love.

Nothing can prevent this Mama God from loving us. Nothing better try, because there’s nothing in all creation as fierce as a mama whose babies are being threatened. That’s how fiercely we are loved. That’s how fiercely we are protected. And that’s how fiercely we are set free to love the rest of the world.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2018 in Sermon

 

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There Are Other Sheep To Be Loved (April 22, 2018)

John  10:11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Want to hear something ironic? What people really need in our culture is to be to be in aSee the source image community where they are loved and valued for who they really are. And yet, often out of fear of rejection we have a hard time letting people know who we really are. So we tend to fake it, fearing to reveal any aspect of ourselves that is vulnerable or broken. Because if people really knew what we were like—how unworthy or incompetent we feel —there’s a lot higher chance they wouldn’t want much to do with us.

Sometimes we even fool ourselves into thinking we’re someone we’re really not. Our façade, our pretense is so good and we’ve been putting that out front for so long that we begin to believe it ourselves. Sometimes we feel like the only way we can like ourselves is if we pretend to be the person we show everyone else.

Think how wonderful it would be if everyone had a community of people that surrounded them and held them in love. No matter what. Knowing their deepest secrets and worst faults, a community of people that recognizes they are wonderful nonetheless.

If you’re one of those people who can be authentically who you are and still trust that you are valued, you are fortunate indeed. If you are part of a community that would go to bat for you, stand up with you, defend you, back you up—not because you’re perfect, but for no other reason that you are you, cling to it with everything you’ve got. Communities like that are, unfortunately, really rare.

Even though that’s the image scripture uses to describe the church. As the body of Christ, that’s who we are and what we’re supposed to reveal to the world—this is what an unconditionally loving community looks like. For whatever reason, we have a hard time claiming our identity.

When Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd, he’s describing himself, of course. And yet he’s also describing what those who follow him are like after he’s no longer physically present as an individual person. We are the body of Christ, we lay down our lives for the sheep. That’s why Jesus sent his Spirit to his followers after his resurrection. Not so we can behave like the hired hand who runs away when things are tough, but so that we can reveal who Jesus, the good shepherd, is. Filled with his Spirit, that’s who we are.

Jesus says the good shepherd cares so much that he’s willing to lay down his life for the sheep. He’s describing the community he’s setting up as well. This is the attitude of those who follow him. Willing to set aside our own discomforts, our own agendas, our own priorities, in order to show another how valuable, how loved they are.

Jesus takes this to a global scale when he talks about other sheep, not of this fold. The good shepherd cares just as much for them and brings them. The goal is one flock, with all the sheep knowing that no matter what, there are others who know them, love them, value them.

People of God, he’s talking about us. We’re the ones that get to know them, then love them and value them no matter what. That’s who the good shepherd is. That’s who we are as the church, the body of Christ, too.

All of which means something today on Earth Day. We are called to care for and to love those most vulnerable, those whose frailties and weaknesses are known to us.

Earth Day makes it clear who those are. When we care for the earth we are actually caring for those most vulnerable to climate change. For us here with every advantage, we have the luxury of continuing on with our lives, almost unchanged, even though the world is fundamentally changing around us. But there are other sheep who don’t have the resources we have, who are extremely vulnerable to the danger of climate change. There are those, largely living in poverty, who simple aren’t equipped to deal with the flooding that’s happening—which brings disease and unsanitary conditions. They are at risk from the drought—which brings hunger and an inability to make a living which continues the cycle of poverty.

What these people living in danger need is a community of people that will surround them and hold them in love. No matter what. Knowing their situation, a community of people who considers them worthwhile and valuable nonetheless.

They need to see what the good shepherd looks like. People who, because we follow Christ, are willing to put aside our own prejudices and even our lifestyles for their sake. People who, unlike the hired hand, won’t run away from them or ignore them or pretend their plight isn’t real. People who recognize the value of these other sheep, and take seriously the work needed to restore Creation in a way that helps people living in poverty.

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Some of us experience a good shepherd kind of community, one that knows us and loves us will stand with us. But there are other sheep on this Earth Day who are suffering alone and vulnerable. It’s necessary to help these impoverished now, but it’s also necessary to eliminate a serious cause of their poverty.

At the back today is some information and resources to help us be part of this holy work of restoring Creation. Even though we have the privilege of ignoring this crisis, we don’t. The good shepherd, out of love for us, has laid down his life for us, and invites us to follow him in showing those most vulnerable, those other sheep, how loved they are too. Happy Earth Day.

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2018 in Sermon

 

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Resurrection Life: No Longer Fighting for Scraps (Easter Day, April 1, 2018)

Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

This is it! The big day! The day of resurrection! The day we celebrate with joy Jesus being raised from the dead! We sing, we shout Alleluia! We proclaim victory! Jesus has triumphed over the grave, he is vindicated, the powers of this world ultimately couldn’t hold him down!

This is great news. It is central to Christian faith. For those of us raised in the church, we have been taught about this from our very earliest days. The resurrection of Jesus is a cornerstone of our life in the church.

What’s interesting, though, is that as I listen to Christian people who are willing to be honest, not everyone agrees on all points of Jesus’s resurrection. There’s a rather wide spectrum of views about it. Like it or don’t, but it’s true. We’ve got this foundational pillar of faith, and, quite a bit of diversity as to what Christ’s resurrection from the dead actually means, what it’s actually about, and, quite honestly, what actually happened that first Easter morning. Right, wrong, or indifferent, that is the reality of faithful people in Christ’s church.

I’m actually grateful for the richness of interpretation on this. Because with each person I listen to who shares their perspective on resurrection, I gain a fuller awareness of God’s gift of new life that scripture describes. This is about what God does, and not so much about what we believe about it. It’s become clear to me that resurrection life isn’t just going to heaven after we die. The scriptural witness is that resurrection life is God’s gift to us here and now. It is the assurance through Christ that God has the last word for us. That word isn’t death, it is life. It is new life. And it begins now.

Resurrection life means we are no longer tied to our own self-serving attitudes. We are new in God’s gift of resurrection life to serve the other.

Resurrection life means we are no longer dominated by the powers that try to dictate who we ought to fear. We are new in God’s gift of resurrection life to love the other.

Resurrection life means we are no longer isolated, struggling to make sure we get ahead—even if it’s at the expense of another. We are new in God’s gift of resurrection life to reach down and lift up the lowest.

Jesus came to show us this new life. He came to reveal what God’s gift of new life looks like. And when he faced the powers of this world—that keep us oppressed in our fear, they arrested him.

And when he faced the forces that keep us separated from each other in mistrust, they tortured him.

And when he faced the violent tendencies of our world that keep us killing each other, they killed him.

And when he faced the powers of death itself, God’s gift of resurrection life still couldn’t be stopped.

That’s the gift that is for us today. Resurrection life isn’t a retooling of an old life of selfishness and isolation. It’s not just protection from things that cause us fear. It’s not just reducing violence to manageable level. Resurrection life is a completely new way of being in this world. It is freedom from the forces that keep us from loving and serving and showing compassion to all. We are made new, and this new resurrection life doesn’t look at all like the old life. It looks like Christ.

Take a look at these little scraps of material. You can do a lot of different things with each one, but they remain torn scraps. Wash each one, iron each one, dye each one a different color if you want. It’s still just a different version of an old scrap. You can use them to clean up a small mess, or to plug a hole in drywall. They can do some good things, make some adjustments, try harder. But no matter what, they are still small scraps of material.

Until they are given a new life.

Marilyn Karsten took a bunch of old worthless scraps like these that were not much good for anything and gave them a new life. Look at this beautiful quilt made from throwaway scraps of material!

These are no longer little scraps. They are now beautiful! They are no longer old, but completely new. No longer torn, but re-created. No longer separate, but whole.

This quilt is something new. This is God’s gift of resurrection life. It’s nothing like the old life that the powers of this world can offer. The best the forces of our culture can do for us are ways to be better scraps. As scraps, we can improve, try hard, we can even be useful and do good things. But we remain separate. And as individual pieces, we will always be ruled by fear: fear of not having enough, of not being good enough, of not being safe enough, of someone taking what belongs to me.

Resurrection life cannot even be compared with that. With this new life we are set free from fear, We recognize the value of every other scrap of material and know we are bound together with them. The beauty of this new life comes from giving away our identity as scraps because we are remade into the body of Christ. We are new, we are free to love and be loved, We live Christ’s compassion for others—not because we try harder, but because it is now who we are.

And the best thing of all is that this new, resurrected, whole life has already been given to us. We are already joined with Christ in a new life. Today is the day we get to let go of the scraps. Today is the day we get to see the beauty of what we now are. Today we get to love the unlovable because they are part of this new creation. Today we get to live Christ’s compassion because Christ lives in us. Today we get this new life. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2018 in Sermon

 

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Power, Strength, and Might vs. forgiveness, compassion, and humility (Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018)

Mark 11:1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples 2and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” 4They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, 5some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. 7Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. 8Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.9Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!” 11Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

Adults have those familiar formulas too. How many of you have ever watched a Hallmark movie? I hesitantly admit that I’ve watched more than my share. But in watching, there are certain things that are consistent: the main character is engaged but to the wrong person; the main character meets the right person but just doesn’t get along with them; the main character’s best friend is black; there is a straight-talking wise elder who advises the main character to follow her/his heart. It doesn’t matter how many story lines follow that pattern, people keep watching them.

This isn’t new. Every good little Jewish girl and boy knew how the story went. The Hebrew army, against incredible odds, pulls off an amazing victory against a godless nation. In recognition that God has given the victory, the commander—often a king—leads the victorious army into Jerusalem and, riding upon his mighty war stallion, is met with adoring crowds who throw their coats onto the road ahead of him and shout “All hail the king! Thanks be to God for this great ruler!”

Then the victorious king rides directly to the temple and offers sacrifices of thanks to the faithful God who has, once again, shown the might of his arm and saved the good people of God from defeat! Just read 1 and 2 Maccabees in the Apocrypha and various parts of the Hebrew scriptures to hear it for yourself.

It was a familiar formula. And it taught kids a lesson: God is mightier than our enemies and stronger than other gods. And as long as you are faithful to this God you too can be granted mighty victories.

Don’t we still kind of like the formula for that story and expect life to work that way? As long as we love God and confess Jesus, we are supposed to be granted victories in health, in wealth, in power. There are preachers on TV who swear by this. And they attempt to prove it with huge houses and luxurious cars. If you give them money—because you love God, of course—you can receive these same rewards. A mighty victory for the faithful!

Unfortunately, there’s Jesus. Including Palm Sunday. The way gospel-writer Mark tells it, this same beloved formula is followed, but opposite. Jesus is really kind of making fun of it here. It’s satire. Instead of a mighty military victory over godless foes, Jesus has been merciful to beggars, the sick, the demon-possessed, and the blind.

Instead of coming into Jerusalem on a mighty war stallion, Jesus comes in on a young donkey. Greeted with shouts reminiscent of hailing a mighty and victorious king, here the poor cut branches from the fields in the countryside to throw down before him. And instead of offering a sacrifice of thanks in the temple to the God of might, Jesus, kind of irreverently, walks into the temple, looks around, and leaves.

A familiar formula, but a completely different message. The kingdom of God isn’t like that. It isn’t about might and strength and power and victory in war. No, God’s reign is pretty much the opposite of that. It’s about humility and generosity and compassion and mercy. Rather than overcoming enemies, Jesus loves them. Rather than intimidating your foes, Jesus forgives them. Rather than being more righteous than those who believe differently, Jesus cares for them. Rather than putting sinners to death, Jesus dies standing up for them.

Make no mistake, Jesus shows us on Palm Sunday, these two kingdoms are not the same. These two world views are not complementary. They are opposites. One based on overpowering, intimidating, ruthlessly beating your opponents. The other based on mercy, compassion, even loving those who oppose you. As we will find out a week from now, one of these ways leads to death, the other overcomes it.

This is all well and good, and certainly fascinating! But as Christ’s church, the body of Christ, it’s more than that. The kingdom that Jesus reveals so clearly on Palm Sunday is the way of Christ. To follow Jesus includes embracing what he shows us about God’s way. A show of force and intimidating power only leads to death. It opposes God’s way. Jesus mocks it, ridicules these displays of strength.

To the very end, Jesus stands firm in forgiveness, grace, compassion, humility as the way that overcomes death. It is love that leads to life, and Jesus stakes everything on that.

To the very end, Jesus brushes aside our versions of power. Even though that power put him to death, he faced it with forgiveness and compassion, and he was vindicated on the third day.

The worst that our world’s power could throw at him, execution and death, was not enough to overcome the power of love and mercy. It is what Jesus shows us on Palm Sunday and the week following. It is the way of life.

How do we, as a congregation bearing Christ’s name, deal with our world’s versions of power which leads to death? It’s tempting to buy into it, to trust the might, the show of force, the power. It’s easier to follow the old formula of God’s might overcoming evil. But as Jesus shows us, it is God’s grace that does that. It is God’s love that saves us. It is God’s mercy that gives us life. And the power of this world can never touch that. We follow Jesus into compassion, mercy, and love. Because that is the reign of God, it is what Jesus shows us on Palm Sunday, and it is the way to life.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2018 in Sermon

 

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