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Following the God of the Living is Complicated (Nov 10, 2019)

Resurrection. Life after death. Like so many other aspects of faith, there are lots of differing opinions on what happens to us after life on this earth is done. The Sadducees, for instance, like many people today, didn’t believe in any version of heaven, hell, or life after death. And some people think that though their body may die, their soul never dies but simply goes to heaven. Others believe that when you die, you are dead until the last day—the day of resurrection when all are raised. Still others believe that upon death, our essence rejoins the elemental cosmos in universality. Some believe in a place, while others believe in a state of being. We all think about what happens after we die, but we certainly don’t agree on it.

Sometimes our beliefs are based on hope, sometimes on some scriptural references, sometimes on logic or reason, sometimes even on experiences. But the bottom line is that we really don’t know. So we can look at passages like this one and go, “ok. so?”

But let’s not write this off just yet. There are a couple of things that we can make a difference in our lives here and now.

One is Jesus seems to believe that whatever happens after death, it will be different than what we know here and now. So the Sadducees question in that sense doesn’t matter, because he says there is no marriage after you die.

But the other thing that Jesus points out, and that everything turns on, is when he says, “Now [God] is God not of the dead, but of the living.”

If our faith is based primarily on what happens to us after we die, that’s a faith based on dying, not living. If it’s based on doing things, saying things, or believing things to make sure we “get to heaven” when we die, that takes priority away from what God is doing with the living here and now. If our faith and our theology fail to prioritize living people, real people, what use is it?

As believers in the God of the living, as followers of the risen Christ, we are by definition about those things that bring life. Our emphasis is on lifting up life, improving life, helping the living—because God is a God not of the dead, but of the living. This isn’t easy, and it is not simple When we try to take a very complicated issue like lifting up, improving life for very present people, and pretend it’s a simple black-and-white issue, we become like the Sadducees—justifying ourselves through self-righteousness.

Lifting up life is not easy, and it’s not simple. For example, when my daughter was in college, she worked for a short time for an organization called, “The Feminist Majority Foundation.” Part of her job included working at a booth on campus where she would hand out information about women’s issues to anyone interested. Part of that information included abortion—the legalities, the emotional affects, and where to find help and support and counseling. The policy of the Feminist Majority Foundation was that if a woman, particularly a woman living in poverty, finds herself in the heart-wrenching situation of needing to terminate a pregnancy, she should be able to do it with care, with safety, and with awareness. Emily agreed with that position, and was happy to provide that information.

One night, after she finished her shift and had packed up her material and closed her booth, she started to walk across campus to her dorm. A group of young men began shouting at her, calling her a baby-killer and yelling at her that she was evil. She ignored them and kept walking, so they began throwing rocks at her while angrily shouting and cursing at her.

All alone, and facing a group of very angry men, she was terrified. Her life was potentially in danger. Fortunately, by this time she was close enough to her dorm that she could run for the security door and get inside. Who knows what could have happened?

On that night, in that situation, who was about those things that bring life? One was coming from a place of compassion and a desire to lift up women in poverty who find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. The others were coming from a place of anger and violence and self-justification.

I wonder, on that night, who was taking a stand for life? Who was actually lifting up life, making life better for very present and real people?

God is the God not of the dead, but of the living. And as we trust in this God for life not only after we die, but life right here and now, we are called to lift up all those who are living, not just the ones we like. And that’s not always easy, and certainly not always simple. We share a common desire to follow the God of the living, but don’t always agree on what that looks like. Which is why, as a community, we ought to be listening to one another, sharing our insights together, and learning together.

Not just when it comes to life issues like abortion, but capital punishment, not to mention poverty, disease, hunger, education. All issues that have consequences of life and death. And on this Veterans Day weekend, we consider also the issue of war—certainly an issue with life and death consequences. Again, these aren’t easy, and not simple. So we are compelled to wrestle together with these life and death issues, and together seek the guidance and the forgiveness of the God of the living.

So what happens when we die? We still don’t know. But because God is the God of the living, the God who raised Christ to new life, we live here and now with that promise of new life. We live to lift up the lives of all those God loves. And ultimately, we simply have to trust in the words of Jesus today, that we will somehow be raised to new life where, as he says, “we cannot die, because [we] are like angels and are children of God, being children of resurrection.”

God is God not of the dead, but of the living. That will always include us.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2019 in Sermon

 

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A Success Story for All Saints Sunday (Nov 3, 2019)

Luke 6:20-31

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

What do we do with this text? Is Jesus saying that God only blesses those who are destitute and curses the rest of us? That God only blesses those who have nothing to eat and curses all of us who had breakfast this morning? That God only blesses those with no place to sleep and curses us because we have our own beds?

Look at the “woes” in Luke’s beatitudes: Rich, Full, Joyful, Respected! Aren’t these what we are all striving for? If we achieve these, aren’t we considered successful?

I think Jesus is telling us that God’s measures of success are significantly different than ours. Even sometimes in the church.

Here’s what I mean. We talk about successful congregations as those with increasing numbers of people and dollars. And then, being envious, we spend considerable time and energy figuring out the secret to their success. In the ELCA, based only on those numbers, congregations that hold steady in members and worship attendance over the last five years are referred to as “stagnant.” And those whose numbers are more than five percent lower are “in decline.” These are not terms associated with “success.” Even in the church, we assume bigger equals more successful, so our effort and energy go into the numbers of attendees, members, and dollars received. Good, tangible, measurable numbers.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you believe that God measures success the same way we do. But is a spreadsheet the best way to measure God’s reign? Is God’s vision for creation counted in such detached terms?

Let’s face it; bigger is the culturally accepted measure of success for pretty much everything. Sales, clients, market shares, bank accounts, properties, listeners, viewers, revenue streams, billable hours, and yes, even church members. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to nestle into Jesus’ life, ministry, or teaching quite as comfortably as I would like. Look at this text, among so many others that reveal God works differently than we do. Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the long-awaited reign of God. Which is fine except it doesn’t fit with what we think success ought to be.

God’s reign is revealed when people are loved. God is successful when grace and mercy and compassion are shown. That’s why all the blessings and woes in this text are followed by the “love your enemies” stuff, the “turn the other cheek” stuff, the “give away your stuff” stuff. Success in the kingdom of God is different. It’s totally different view of reality. It starts in a different place and points in an entirely different direction.

What groups of people tend to get looked down upon, that we might call unsuccessful? Homeless, unemployed, poor, uneducated, can’t speak English? Those are the people who, when God is successful, are lifted up as equal to the wealthy, the CEOs, the PhDs, the powerful, the famous.

Jesus’ point is that this is how God measures success, and it clashes with our assumptions of success in the world.

I have a friend who I’ve come to realize reveals God’s success to me. He’d probably argue with me if he knew I thought that because he’s an avowed atheist with absolutely no use for God at all. Yet, he isn’t my friend because I’m good or smart or believe the same as him. He’s my friend because even though he knows a lot of my weaknesses and the pieces of me that are broken, he still values me and respects me. Not because of what I can do, but because of who I am. He calls me successful, not because of my work or my ability to change the world, but because of me.

There’s such a difference between the way he thinks of success and the way most of us—sometimes even the church—think of success. Most of what we consider to be our successes in life have to do with our accomplishments: work promotions, educational degrees, income, the size of our homes, number of first-place trophies. But God sees way beyond than that. God sees all the way down to the broken pieces of our lives, our failures, the things we are ashamed of, all the parts of who we are that—if known—would make others think less of us. And then, sitting with us in the middle of all of that, God says, I’m so proud of you. I love you so much. You are one of my best success stories.

On All Saints Sunday we celebrate the people through whom we get a glimpse of God’s measure of success. The people who have known us and nonetheless have loved us. The people who somehow, and in some way, by their lives have shown us a glimpse of God’s love, grace, and compassion. Who’ve shown us that we matter, that we are worthwhile, that we are successful because we are who we are.

Who has shown you God’s version of success? Who has shown you that you are loved by God, and therefore are God’s successes. Think a minute. Picture them, be ready to name them. Then all together, we will name those saints out loud. Ready?

. . . . . .

On All Saints Sunday, we recognize that God does view success differently. And it clashes with our assumptions about success. Yet we just named a whole bunch of people who have revealed God’s perspective, God’s love in the world. We are grateful for these saints, especially those who’ve gone before us. We can also be grateful for those who are revealing the success of God’s love today. And we need to be aware that God will continue to find ways to be successful in the world, and do so through us.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Make No Mistake, the Church is Being Reformed (October 27, 2019)

Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 8:31-36

Reformation Sunday is a festival Sunday unique to Lutherans. As the last Sunday in October, it’s a celebration of the day Martin Luther called out the church on it’s need to reform. He began a movement that resulted in what we call the Lutheran Church, but is more than that. Martin Luther helped us recognize that the work of the Holy Spirit through the church is ongoing. Reforming isn’t a one-time thing from in the 16th century, but never ends. As long as there is a church, there will be a need for reformation.

That said, I wonder what the Rev. Dr. Luther would think of the Lutheran Church today? Personally, I think he’d be somewhat confused. There’d be a few things he’d think were pretty stellar, e.g., our emphasis on grace, our understanding of scripture both in terms of law and gospel, our acceptance of the priesthood of all believers. But I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t be so happy about some other things. I think he’d be sorely disappointed with the role the Lutheran Church plays in our culture. Or rather, the lack of the church’s role.

I think he’d be annoyed at the casual attitude we have around Christian and Biblical education—for adults, primarily.

I think he’d be upset about our general lack of effort regarding supporting the poor and most vulnerable among us.

But mostly, I think the fact that the Lutheran church just can’t seem to share the gospel effectively would absolutely shock him. Granted, he lived in a different time, culture, and political system. But one thing he never had to worry about was the Church’s message being communicated. That’s part of why his protests mattered so much. The church DID communicate with the rest of the world, and, in his biblical opinion, was communicating the wrong things. That was a problem because the world actually heard the message of the church. We had to get it right, because the gospel of Christ was at stake.

How offensive it would be to him today that really bad, harmful, even dangerous theology is being proclaimed in Jesus’ name in our world, and we Lutherans remain pretty quiet about it. It’s as if we don’t think it matters all that much, which Luther would never accept nor understand. Christ’s message is one of hope, of forgiveness, of grace, of life itself. Luther almost lost his life proclaiming that. On the one hand, this gospel is being dangerously distorted by those on the religious right for power and for personal gain. And on the other hand the gospel of life is being casually taken for granted by those on the religious left.

If Martin Luther understood the state of the church today, I’m pretty sure he’d call for another Reformation.

And I think he’d get it.

Not because Luther would be outraged, but because it’s what the Holy Spirit already seems to be doing. The church that came after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century looked way different than the church that preceded it.

And it will be so in the Reformation we are already in the midst of today.

Reformation itself isn’t a new thing, nor is it a one-time thing. About 2600 years ago, Jeremiah wrote in our OT text today, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors . . . says the Lord.”

In the gospel of John today, Jesus talks about the truth setting us free. Apparently, there was a denial of the truth about Jesus that would change everything. That’s reformation talk. Jesus brought reformation. The funny thing is, the Judeans who heard this Reformation talk didn’t like it because they disagreed with it. Jesus says that not being set free by truth is bondage to the lie. It’s that important. We’ve gotten into a bad habit of deciding that if we don’t like something, it isn’t true. That’s what Jesus is calling out here.

The truth is, the church that’s coming will not look like the church that currently exists. The sooner we accept this reformation, the sooner we’ll be set free to be part of it. Although I’m no expert or futurist, I believe the church that’s coming:

  • will be more focused on following Jesus and less on following doctrine.
  • will be more about compassion and less about conversion.
  • will be more about what we do on Monday and less about what we do on Sunday.
  • will be more about loving others and less about labeling them.
  • will be more about celebrating diversity of beliefs and less about policing uniformity of them.

And the truth is, here at LCM we are making every effort to be part of that future, reforming church. Trusting in the guidance and movement of the Holy Spirit, we want to be part of God’s new reformation.

The truth is that if the changes that are coming in the church are hard, it’s because every reformation is always hard. We will all be challenged in our faith, our spiritual lives, even our daily priorities. If we are hoping for a church that makes us comfortable, we’re hoping for a dying church. If we’re hoping for a church that affirms what we already think and believe, we’re hoping for a dying church. Reformation means that God is up to something new. And how exciting that we get to witness the beginnings of this new thing God is doing!

What would the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther say to us about the Lutheran church today? I think he’d tell us that as uncomfortable as reformation might be, God is behind it, so it will be fine. And finally, in the midst of upheaval reformation can bring, in the midst of the uncertainty of not knowing what we can cling to in this time of change, I think he’d point to his wife Katie’s last words spoken on her deathbed, “I will cling to Christ as a burr clings to a coat!”

Welcome to the Reformation.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Truth Found in Community (October 20, 2019)

Luke 18:1-8; Genesis 32:22-31

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Have you noticed? There seems to be a growing crisis of anxiety and depression in our culture. More and more people are experiencing hopelessness and despair, and the reasons are all around us. Increasing gun violence, separating refugee families and caging children, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and fear-inducing rhetoric about the perceived dangers that are all around us. We hear these words day in and day out. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.

All of these words constitute an actual spiritual assault on our collective soul. The words of injustice and hatred and fear that are constantly being heaped on us are having an effect. There is a correlation between the hateful voices we’re continually hearing and the deep sense of gloom we’re experiencing as a culture.

We’re not alone. These texts today speak to this cultural despair. One aspect of depression and anxiety is the belief that the hopelessness, the injustice, the anxiety of today is the way it will be from now on.

That is a lie and we cannot believe the lie. One of the reasons we fall prey to that lie is that far too often it’s the only voice we hear.

In both of these texts, the main characters are dealing with hopeless, anxiety-causing situations, but doing so all alone. The widow in the gospel is alone because she has no one to advocate for her, no one to speak encouragement and hope to her. Where is her community? She has to face this unjust judge all alone. The only voice she hears is one that says there will be no justice for you. There will never be justice for you.

In the Genesis text, Jacob is worried about his pending meeting with his twin brother Esau. And he has reason to be. Jacob cheated Esau out of both a birthright and a blessing. All his life Jacob has been a scoundrel and a cheat. As he returns to his homeland for a reunion with Esau in this chapter, he’s still trying to trick his brother. He divides his property into two camps, hoping Esau and his men will attack one camp and not the other. He then, in an attempt to soften up his brother, divides the tribute he’s bringing among three different groups of his servants. Jacob deals with his situation alone because he keeps dividing his property and household into smaller and smaller camps until he ends up alone. And alone, the only voice Jacob hears is one that says your brother wants to kill you and steal you fortune. So there will be no peace for you. There will never be peace for you.

Can’t we relate to these stories? It seems the only voices we hear are voices of hopelessness, injustice, despair, cruelty, division. It’s wearing us down. We’re starting to believe that what these voices are saying is true.

But there’s the word of hope for us. Somehow in both of these texts there is another voice that counters the lie. For the widow in the gospel, there is a voice that tells her that the injustice she is currently living with is not the only outcome. It doesn’t have to be a permanent reality. That little sliver of hope—that the lie of injustice she keeps hearing isn’t the way it will always be—is something she clings to. As she hears this other voice of hope and then boldly repeats it herself, she wears out even an unjust judge and a new reality emerges. The hopeless injustice of today gives way to the newness of tomorrow.

For Jacob too, another voice is heard. In his situation it is the voice of God who comes in human form during the night. The voice of God who is vulnerable enough and persistent enough to wrestle with him all night long. The voice of God who keeps offering the possibility of another outcome. The voice of God who winds up blessing him. The voice of God who wrestles the lie away from Jacob and as a result leaves him changed, scarred, tired, but with a new voice and a new purpose for his life. Jacob limps away from his encounter with God, but having heard God’s voice he begins a new life with a new name.

These are timely stories for us. Dark nights of the soul are now part of our daily human experience. What matters is that when we’re in the struggles of these dark nights, there is another voice we can listen to. There is a voice other than the one telling us there will only hate, only fear, that there will never be any hope, that there is no future. There is another voice that we can cling to. And what’s more, we can echo that voice right into the heart of that hateful, hopeless abyss.

What we know about God, what Jesus reveals to us about Gods, is that God speaks something different than the injustice and anxiety we see and endure. What these two texts tell us is to cling to that voice of God. Rather than struggle alone, we can speak together of God’s promise of justice; to encourage each other to never let go of God no matter how dark the night gets or how long the night lasts. We must not believe the lie that is spoken in the night. We must wrestle, cling, and continue to repeat the voice of God. Dawn is coming. Justice will be delivered.

The voices of hate and fear seem real in the night, but they are shown to be lies when the dawn comes. God comes to us and whispers words of truth, words of love, hope, and new life into our ears. It’s these words we cling to, these words we repeat, these words we remind each other. The dawn is coming. Hear the voice of hope, of justice, of peace, and of joy.

Hear them. Because they are words of truth.

Repeat them. Because they are words of encouragement.

Shout them. Because they are words of hope.

The hateful, frightening voices of the night will not win today. Speak words of truth to the person next to you: they are loved, they are worthwhile, the dark nighttime of injustice and despair is coming to an end. Together we can endure. God has spoken it.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Fear Doesn’t Make Our Decisions — Thank You! (October 13, 2019)

Luke 17:11-19

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

One of my deepest fears is public ridicule. The thought of people seeing some embarrassing flaw or insufficiency in me, judging me for that, and then pointing and laughing (because in my fearful heart, that’s what always happens) strikes terror in my soul. I don’t think anyone enjoys that, but for me this fear hits the level of irrational.

Which is why December of 2011 was terrible month for me. It was that month that someone nominated me for the office of bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod.

As it turned out, I was among the group of “pre-nominees.” In order to remain on the list of actual nominees, these “pre-nominees” were asked to submit information about why you’d make a good bishop in an online form. This information would then be publicized throughout the entire Rocky Mountain Synod.

It wasn’t official, and wouldn’t be until I filled out a 3-page form telling why I thought I’d make a good bishop. That form would be would go to every pastor, deacon, and voting member in the RMS. That caused flashbacks from when I tried out for my Middle School basketball team. “Hahaha! Moss thinks he can play basketball!” That public ridicule is my version of hell. It was in front of me again. I knew, however, that I could avoid it by simply not filling out that online form.

Up until now all this had been someone else’s doing. I hadn’t sought this out; someone else had given my name to the synod office. But if I submitted that form, I was saying in a very public way that I was open to being considered for the office of bishop. I could already hear the sneers and the laughter echoing from all corners of the four states and part of a fifth that make up this synod. Junior High basketball terror again, only now swelled to a multiple state level.

“I can’t do this,” I told my family after several sleepless nights. “This whole thing simply terrifies me. I can’t sleep, I can’t think, I have knots in my stomach. I stewed on this for a couple more weeks.

But finally, if for no other reason than avoiding accusations of hypocrisy from my three adult children (I always told them that “fear doesn’t make our decisions), I quickly filled out the form and, with trembling hand and churning stomach, I hit the enter button and submitted it the last day it could be accepted. Then I went and threw up.

My name, picture, and hastily drafted information were thrust out into uncontrolled internet space where I could already hear the mocking and laughter. “Hahaha! Moss thinks he can be a bishop!” Every molecule of self-doubt and inadequacy was rising up. There was, from this point on, no place to hide.

“As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.'”

Because of their illness, these lepers couldn’t come near to Jesus to ask for help privately. Culturally and legally. They had to stand far away and yell, hoping Jesus might have mercy and help them. Their illness was then public knowledge; and so they were seen by everyone as insufficient, lacking, unworthy, laughable. Shouting in public, they were vulnerable to ridicule.

These ten lepers have to live this way–separated, isolated, humiliated—but at least they could do that privately. They were considered broken and flawed people, and asking for help from Jesus pushed them out into the public view. The broadcasting of their embarrassing insufficiency had to be terrifying.

We all want to hide our frailties and our failures. We all want to keep them private. Lots of us have a fear of publicly exposing all the ways we don’t measure up. We want to keep our inadequacies private, thank you.

What the lepers longed to remain private was now public. But it was when their flaws became known to Jesus, they were made clean. They were restored. They were loved. This is what Jesus does. He meets us in those areas of our lives that we desperately want to remain hidden and shows us mercy there. It’s in those parts we desperately want to keep private that Jesus comes and loves us with unconditional love.

Jesus knows the deepest, most humiliating pieces of our lives, meets us there, and loves us. Day by day, Jesus continues to save us. That’s how love works. That’s how mercy works. Jesus does his most loving and gracious redemption in those parts of our lives that we desperately hope no one ever finds out about.

I didn’t win the bishop election. I didn’t make it past the first couple of rounds. But something changed for me. In the midst of my terror, the risen Christ met me. It was through that experience that I saw the presence of God as love, grace, mercy, redemption, and—yes—healing.

In the gospel reading, one leper–a Samaritan–returns and falls at Jesus’ feet giving thanks to God. One recognized the gift of salvation he had received. One saw the presence of God in love, grace, mercy, redemption, and—yes—healing.

Our response to the presence of Christ’s love and grace is up to us. Our response won’t change how God feels about us. It won’t change our forgiveness. It won’t change our worth as children of God. Regardless, Jesus is present for you. Even now he’s meeting you in the hidden and secret parts of your life. He is cleansing you. He is making you whole. He is saving you. We can recognize the risen Christ’s love and mercy that’s there. And we can give thanks to God. Amen.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2019 in Sermon

 

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In God’s Reign, All Gates are Open–if They Exist at All (Sept 29, 2019)

Luke 16:19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ “

In this parable, Jesus tells about a poor man named Lazarus and a rich man. There was a barrier that kept them separated into different categories as well as different lives while they were alive: the gate at the edge of the rich man’s property. It was this gate that separated them. Lazarus lay on one side of that gate day after day, hungry, bleeding, and broken. And day after day, the rich man stayed on his side of the gate where it was easy to ignore Lazarus. It was the gate that separated one from the other.

Lazarus was powerless to do anything in that situation, but the rich man could do something. He’s the one who could have opened the gate to offer Lazarus some help. If he had opened the gate, the rich man would have seen Lazarus. If he had opened the gate, the rich man would have seen someone God loves, a real life human being, someone with a story, with a history. If he had opened the gate, the rich man would have seen someone worthy of respect and who is truly valued by God as part of God’s creation. But he kept the gate closed. And the parable goes on to follow both these men after they die where everything is reversed. The point Jesus is making is that in the vision of God, that gate separating these two people should be open.

I’m ashamed to say that no matter how hard I try, I still put people into categories and label them accordingly. When I do that, I close a gate on people.

I see someone wearing a cowboy hat, boots, and a giant belt buckle and I automatically label them as heading to a bar with straw one the floor to line dance to music about a horse dying in the back of a pickup. So I close the gate on them.

I get on the light rail and see a teenage boy with pants hanging too low and a baseball cap worn off center and I label them as having nothing in common with me. So I close the gate on them.

I see a white person carrying a Bible and I don’t walk to talk to them because label them as thinking about Jesus differently than I do. So I close the gate on them.

As long as I continue to make these quick judgments and stereotype people, I feel justified in separating myself, closing a gate on them. I’m the one putting up barriers between me and them. I’m closing the gate.

And since I’m the one closing the gate, I can be the one to open it. I can recognize that all the people on the other side of my gates are real human beings. They are loved by God. They are valuable. They are gifted. They have real stories and real lives. They are worth opening the gate for.

We all categorize people. We all close gates. Who do you close the gate on? Who do you put under one label and see as separate from you? People here who aren’t US citizens are labeled “illegals”? People of Islamic faith labeled as “terrorists”? People who hold cardboard signs on corners labeled as “lazy” or “bums”? Any time we label people, we are shutting a gate on them.

What would be different if we saw those on the other side of that closed gate, not as others, separated from us with labels, but as valuable human beings with a story and a life. What if we saw them first as people God loves? Because here’s the deal: Jesus says, not just here, but over and over again, that to see the face of God, we have to see the faces of those on the other side of the gate we’ve closed.

In this parable, the rich man could easily have opened his gate and gotten to know Lazarus. He could have used some of his wealth to benefit Lazarus.

We have that same opportunity. Together as a congregation, we open gates right and left. A bunch of our ministries are all about opening these gates: HEART Ministry, GMES Refugee Ministry, Molholm Ministry, Samaritan Ministry, Blanket Outreach Ministry, weekly donations to The Action Center, the list goes on and on. When we use our finances to open a gate to show love and care to anyone who we are separated from, we are also opening the gate to God.

Lazarus needed the rich man. But the rich man also needed Lazarus. He needed to open his gate to Lazarus so that he could see God.

We need to open the gate to those who are different: in their looks, speech, orientation, expression, background, and income to recognize God. We need to open the gate to them in order see God.

Our finances are one important way we open that gate that keeps us separated from those others God loves. We have a perfect opportunity next week which is our “Commitment Sunday.” We get to show up. We get to open the gate a little wider. We get to give some of our wealth to Lazarus and those like him. We get to make their lives better. When we fill out both parts of our Estimate of Giving card next week—both for the general fund and Building to Share—we open the gate a little more for those in our neighborhood who we are still separated from. We get to see God a little more clearly.

Yeah, Jesus has something to say about all this. So we will continue to pray for Lazarus and those like him, and we will come together next week and make our financial commitments. We will open the gate a little wider. Because there’s room in the reign of God for all of us. Especially those who need us to open the gate for them. Amen.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2019 in Sermon

 

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A Very Secure Investment (September 22, 2019)

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?’ He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Let’s cut to the chase here. This is a hard parable. Jesus is saying that if the priority of our lives attaining money makes for a more fragile and more vulnerable life than most of us realize. If our lives are centered on making sure we are financially secure in order to provide a good life, what happens if we discover an inoperable tumor? All that wealth doesn’t change that. We may have money for retirement, but what if there are no golden years to enjoy? Ultimately, our finances can’t be trusted.

I don’t mean to be a downer, but since that’s true, then there has to be something deeper to life than finances. “Success” has to be defined by something other than economics.

One of cruelest lessons of life is that our economy doesn’t care about us, the quality of our lives, our sick children, or our leaky roofs. The bottom line of our economic world is that the bottom line is the only line that matters. From an economic perspective, every one of us is expendable.

Yet, it is still the way we approach our world; still the primary view we have. We center our lives on being able to take care of our own individual financial security. That is the lens through which we see life. That’s how we measure our success: do we have enough wealth to believe we are secure? And this perspective, this way we look at our lives, this approach we have to living is impersonal, sometimes cruel, and pits us against one as we compete for financial resources. What’s more, seeing our world from this economic definition disconnects us from each other because it encourages me to take care of myself and, well, good luck to you. I hope you do OK. If you need help, maybe there’s some charity for you or someone with some extra cash that feels sorry for you. But really, in this worldview, we’re each on our own. Securing our individual security through wealth is the opposite of how Jesus reveals God’s intention for our lives.

That view of individual financial security is exactly the perspective of this dishonest manager in Jesus’ parable today. He was using his position as manager of a wealthy master’s estate to take care of himself financially; though it was at the expense of others in the community. He was doing it dishonestly somehow—we don’t have the details of that. But he got caught by his master, the rich man in the parable.

Without his economic security, his means of making a living, his economic worldview is revealed as lacking. He realizes that he isn’t equipped to secure his financial future any other way than the way he’s been doing it. He can’t do physical labor. He ashamed to beg from his neighbors. He’s at a loss as to what to do.

This is the turning point of this parable. Though he was stealing from his master, what he does next is commended by the rich man. He turns to those in the community who owe his master money. He reduces their debt. His master commends his shrewdness, better translated as wisdom.

What was so wise about that? The lens through which he had been viewing the world shattered. He could no longer accomplish the primary goal of securing wealth for himself—provide for himself and his family. That is no longer possible.

So because he can no longer invest in his own financial security, by reducing their debt he invests in his neighbors’ financial security. That’s the wisdom, that’s the shift in thinking. That’s the new perspective. He will no longer be able to survive if he’s only out for himself. In order to live he now has to throw his lot in with his neighbors. His worldview has been forced away from “taking care of myself and good luck to you” and instead he’s realized “we’re in this thing together. As a community, we sink or swim together. My fate, my security, is actually tied to yours.” That is the wisdom Jesus lifts up. Though dishonest, this slave now understands security—God’s way. Not through taking care of himself, but taking care of others.

Now remember, this isn’t an historical event. It’s a parable, so Jesus is making a point here. He’s exposing the fallacy of believing that we can secure our lives through our finances. I heard someone say that the big lie of 400 years of American Christianity is that we believe we can serve both God and wealth. We cannot. We cannot serve a Triune God whose very nature is interdependent community while at the same time separating ourselves for our own security. We can’t do both. We still try, but Jesus calls us out on it.

He points out the truth that security-from-wealth is an illusion. Genuine security comes from trusting and connecting to a community. That’s the wisdom this dishonest manager now understands. The best way to achieve security is to work for the wellbeing of our neighbors, to recognize that when life takes us beyond our financial ability to fix it, the relationships we’ve invested in are what will hold us. If we are only looking out for ourselves and our own security while our neighbors are being hurt, being detained, being separated from family, being oppressed, and being shot, we are setting ourselves up for misery. Because according to the very nature of God, our fates are tied together—the richest and the poorest together. If one part of our body has cancer, the whole body is in danger. If one part of our human community is suffering, all of us are at risk.

So, yeah, this is a hard parable. Not because we can’t understand it, but because we can. We either trust in our ability to gain wealth to save us or we trust in God. Money is fine—even necessary. Let’s use it to invest in each other, in our neighborhood, in the human community. For in each other is where our security truly lies.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2019 in Sermon

 

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