Monthly Archives: November 2013

When Your Life is in the Toilet, What Do You Say About God? (November 17, 2013)

Luke 21:5-19

I started a new medication a couple of weeks ago. My doctor told me that while this medicine is building up in my system there may be some side effects, like headaches.

Sure enough, after several days on this medication I woke up with a pounding headache that lasted the entire day. I was grateful for my doctor explaining the possible side effects, because the headache was an opportunity to recognize that the medication was beginning to work.

Jesus is letting us know in this gospel text that the headaches we face in our lives aren’t just bad news. They are opportunities to speak of the presence of God with us.

Here’s what’s going on in this reading. Jesus has been teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. People are marveling at the elegance and extravagance of this center of Jewish life and faith. It was truly magnificent. It is said the outer court could hold 400,000 people. It was not only huge, but ornate. Precious metals, jewels, elaborate carvings throughout. And in a structure that size, that amounts to a building the grandeur of which is difficult to imagine.

The temple was not only elaborate, but vital. It was more than just a church building, it was the very house of God. God lived there. As long as the temple stood, the people knew God was present with them.

Now, Luke wrote this gospel several years after the Roman siege on Jerusalem in 70 A.D., during which the temple was destroyed. So when Luke’s original audience was hearing this gospel read for the first time, the glory of God’s presence in this building was already just a memory. So for these hearers, the question wasn’t, “When will this happen?” but, “Now what do we do?”

It’s pretty easy for us to believe in God when everything is easy and comfortable. Good job, health, nice home, secure income, and sunshiny days make it pretty easy to speak of the goodness of God.

But what do we do when that isn’t the case? What do we do when our loved ones are sick; when our basements flood; when our government does things we believe are wrong; when our church experiences conflict and people leave; When people condone evil in Jesus’ name? What will we say about God then?
How do we continue praising God when all the signs of God’s presence are gone? How will all those grieving, starving, helpless people in the Philippines ever be able to speak of the goodness of God after the experience of the worst typhoon to ever hit land? When the little they had to begin with is completely gone. What will they say about God now?

Living in a broken world means that bad things will happen to us. Guaranteed. This doesn’t mean God has deserted us or that doesn’t care about us–because horrible things happen to everyone. From the most righteous to the most evil. Everyone.

But for followers of Jesus, these are more than merely times to be miserable. These are opportunities, he says. These are the times to speak up, he says. These are the times to reveal your faith, he says. These are times when we can powerfully bear witness to the God of hope and life; the God who brings life out of death, strength out of weakness, forgiveness out of brokenness, healing out of pain.

This is why we gather, learn, practice, encourage. Not for times when everything is fine, but so that we can be a light when others see only darkness.
Some of you here are experiencing great joy and contentment today. Wonderful! Enjoy it! Use this time to grow in your faith and in your ability to speak it. But know that you need to be here in order to encourage those who are struggling today.

Because some of you here are discouraged today. Some of you feel like there is only darkness, that God is nowhere to be found. You are hurting and lost. You also need to be here to be reminded that no matter how hard things are today, that there is a God of hope and new life with you. You need to be encouraged so that you might be able to speak about that in the midst of the hard things going on.

The God who raised Jesus from the dead is present for each of us. Watch for the opportunities to share this hope. When things are hard, when our lives  are difficult, when we are in the midst of conflict, that’s when we will be listened to. When this happens, what will we say?

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Posted by on November 18, 2013 in Sermon


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Obedience Is Never Enough (25 Pentecost — November 10, 2013)

Luke 20:27-38

 Sometimes, no matter how good our intentions are, that just isn’t enough.

Laws were passed after 9/11 in an effort to keep travelers safe. One of those laws involves placing all liquids in a quart-sized Ziploc baggie and taking them out of any carry-on luggage at security. Someone told me once that instead of bringing their liquids in a quart-size Ziploc baggie, they placed them in a sandwich sized baggie, and couldn’t get them through security. Because the law says “quart-sized.” Well intentioned law, but easily misused.

On a larger scale, U.S. Immigration laws were put in place to protect this country from disease, crime, and to maintain job security. As good as those intentions are, recent research shows that “Immigrants were more than twice as likely to start businesses each month in 2010 than were the native born,” according to a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation report in March of that year. The report went on to say that “Immigrants founded 25 percent of U.S. high-tech startups between 1995 and 2005. Immigrants have much higher rates of business creation than natives.” New jobs come from new businesses. Well-intentioned laws, but racism and fear can get in the way.

The Sadducees in this gospel text are dealing with the same thing. “Moses wrote for us” this well-intentioned law. If a woman is widowed with no children, she is vulnerable, impoverished, and cannot protect her husband’s possessions. So to protect her, her husband’s brother must marry her and provide children.

But the Sadducees aren’t talking about the good intentions of this law. They are talking about this law as keeping women as property, and then using that in an attempt to trick Jesus. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? They are making all kinds of mistakes, but the one relevant here is their assumption that rules and laws can accomplish God’s will. If only we obey the laws, all will be well, we think. If everyone would just follow the 10 commandments, life would be the way God intends, we think.

But laws and rules and policies–regardless of their good intentions–will always be misinterpreted or abused for our own ends. We have rules and laws, not to exhibit the reign of God, but because we are broken people who cannot do any better than show glimmers of God’s will. Good intentions, no matter how well regulated, can never take the place of loving God and loving neighbor. And Jesus, using the Sadducees own scripture, points that out by revealing that this age/this life, prior to the resurrection is incomparable to that age/that life after the resurrection. The laws, rules, and policies that are necessary today because of our moral brokenness, are irrelevant in the resurrection from the dead. Because then, God’s loving presence is all that’s necessary. There will be then only love, only peace, only grace.

So for now, we need laws and rules. Especially good-intentioned ones. But never make the mistake of trusting that God’s reign can be accomplished by following those laws. God’s reign cannot be bought by expensive attorneys who can manipulate those laws in our favor, but in God’s love and mercy apart from any laws.

We try to be good citizens, sure. Obeying laws keeps some order in society. But keeping laws cannot ever be compared to the goodness of God. For that comes through Jesus. And when obedience fails you, Jesus brings God’s love to you. When good intentions aren’t enough, Jesus comes to you with God’s peace. And when following the rules cannot provide security, Jesus comes to you with a new life that rises up above our broken world. “Indeed, you cannot die anymore, because you are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” That is good news. Amen.

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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Sermon


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What Does God Call You? (22 Pentecost — October 20, 2013)

Genesis 32:22-31

 Have you seen any of those obnoxious TV commercial for attorneys? The ones that give themselves nicknames, like “The Bulldog” and “The Strong Arm.” They had to have given themselves those nicknames . And that just doesn’t work. You can’t give yourself a nickname. If you could, then I would have all of you call me “Pastor-Always-Right.” . . . See? You just can’t give yourself a nickname. It has to be given to you based on something others actually recognize about you.

Anyone have a nickname that you’ve been given? I don’t mean your name is Robert and people call you Rob. I mean a nickname that people started calling you because of something you did or some personality trait you have. Sometimes a nickname can be complimentary, from something people like about you. Sometimes they can be hurtful based on a mistake you made once or something others find peculiar about you. But regardless, once people give you a nickname, it tends to stick.

That’s close to the idea of names in the Bible. Someone’s name means something significant about who they are, what they are like. If you know someone’s name in the Bible, you know something deep and authentic about them.

Keep that in mind, the significance of names, as we quickly review this story in Genesis.

The main character here is Jacob, whose name meant in his day, “cheater.” He was actually born a cheater, conning his twin brother Esau out of his inheritance. He cheated his father, Isaac, out of the family birthright. Just before this story, he had–yet again–cheated his uncle Laban out of a huge amount of money and livestock.

So now he’s on the run. He can’t go back home because he’s afraid of Laban and he just got word that his brother Esau is coming after him with an army of 400 men. So Jacob, the cheater, hides half of his stolen goods so he’ll have something left if he survives. He prays the prayer so many of us pray when we’re stuck: Oh, God, I’ll be good if you get me out of this!

Now he’s walking around by the river at night, nervous, pacing, trying to see if there’s some way to con his way out of this predicament. He crosses the river by himself, figuring he could think better without the distractions of his wives, children, and livestock. In the night he is approached by what appears to be a man, but not a man. They end up fighting all night, with neither one winning. Jacob realizes that he’s wrestling with either an angel or a demon, who proceeds to whack him in the leg, dislocating his hip.

Have you experienced that moment when all your work, all your effort, all your planning, all your experience can’t help you? That moment when you become desperate? When you’ve run out of options and have no idea which way to turn? When it feels like God has even turned on you?

That’s Jacob right here. Not only has he run out of options to save his life, but God himself is fighting with him. It seems that God not only hasn’t come to help him, but is making his situation worse.

All Jacob can do is hang on. He can’t win, so he clings with desperation to this man, this God, who seems intent on doing him harm.

Then comes the final blow. This angel/demon/God/man demands to know Jacob’s name. If Jacob gives up his name, it will be like a confession of a life of lying, cheating, usurping, taking advantage of everyone around him. And if this angel/demon actually is God–which Jacob is thinking is the case by now–then God will have every right to him what he deserves: at best, throw him to Esau and his army; at worst kill him here and now.

But he’s got no choice. He is powerless in the grasp of this supreme being. He has no choice. He has to surrender. Even his desperation has run out. He has nothing. No strength, no plan, no options.

“Jacob,” he confesses. Then he waits for the sentencing.

Then the man opens his mouth and says to him, “Maybe you have been Jacob all your life. Maybe you have been a liar and a cheat up until now. But as of this moment you are a new person. You shall now be named Israel, which means someone who has fought God and people, and lived to tell about it.”

It doesn’t matter what his parents had named him. It doesn’t matter what everyone had called him every day of his life. It doesn’t even matter that he actually was a liar and a cheat all his life. The only thing that matters is that God calls him by his new name–giving him a new life. He is Israel, one who has fought with God and with people, and lived to tell about it. He is a new person–Israel.

We’re talking about money this month. When you look at your attitude toward money, what would people be calling you? When you consider how you use your finances, what would your name be? Tight? Pincher? Grubber? Perhaps Careless? Loose? Irresponsible?

It doesn’t matter today. God is giving you a new name. From now on, you will be called “Child of God,” “Forgiven,” “Loved.” Now the question is: What will you do with your new identity?

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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Sermon


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When Secrets Become Public (21 Pentecost — Oct 13, 2013)

Luke 17:11-19

 “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 someone might have mercy and help them. To everyone their illness is public knowledge; and so by everyone they are judged as insufficient, lacking, unworthy, even sinful.

These ten lepers have to live this way–separated, isolated, humiliated–and have to do so publicly. They are considered broken and flawed people, and these inadequacies are revealed publicly every day.

Can you imagine if our brokenness and our inadequacies were made public? Can you imagine if your deepest flaws and failings were out in the open for everyone to see and judge? We all want to hide our frailites, keep them private, but we all have them. Make no mistake, everyone in this room has the fear that comes from knowing we don’t measure up. And we all live with the terror that our deep fractures will become known.

That which the lepers longed to be private has become public. However, when their flaws became known to Jesus, they are made clean. They are restored. They are shown mercy. This is what Jesus does. He makes us clean, restores us. Jesus meets us in those areas of our lives we desperately want to remain hidden and shows us mercy. It’s in the hidden parts of our lives–those parts we desperately want to keep private–that Jesus knows us most deeply. It’s there that his love for us makes the biggest difference.

I think many of us would agree to that in theory. Jesus knows the innermost, private pieces of our lives, meets us there, and redeems us. Day by day, Jesus continues to save us. That’s how forgiveness works. That’s how mercy works. That’s how all the gifts of God work. Jesus does his most loving and gracious redemption in the hidden, private aspects of our lives.

And, for the most part, we’re fine with that. As long as Jesus heals us, redeems us, saves us privately.

But we have a universal terror: that our private deficiencies will become public. Can you imagine how that which you never talk about became known to everyone? Take a simple example: can you imagine, for instance, if your checkbook became available for anyone to examine? Can you imagine if we were categorized according to our credit card debt? Can you imagine if we were judged according to the percentage of our income that we give away? Like the lepers, can you imagine keeping your distance from everyone because you made too many extravagant purchases?

If the private, hidden aspects of our lives–such as our finances–became public, it would be humiliating. Yet it’s in the secrecy of our finances that Jesus comes and makes us clean, makes us whole, saves us. Just like all our flaws, we keep our finances hidden. But Jesus comes among us to save our financial selves too. That doesn’t mean more money–it has nothing to do with amounts of money. Like every other part of who we are, Jesus meets us and cleanses us, save us, so that we can be part of God’s salvation in the world.

Imagine your hidden, secret money life being redeemed by Jesus. Imagine how differently we would live if we understood our money’s primary purpose as revealing mercy and grace in the world. The more secretive we are about our money, the more Jesus meets us there to heal us.

In the gospel reading, one leper–a Samaritan–returns and falls at Jesus’ feet giving thanks to God. But all ten are made clean. One recognized the gift of salvation he had received. But all ten were made new by Jesus.

Your response to Jesus’ salvation in up to you. Your response won’t change how Jesus feels about you. It won’t change your forgiveness. It won’t change your worth as a child of God. Regardless, Jesus is present for you. Even now he’s meeting you in the hidden and secret parts of your life–including your money. He is cleansing you. He is making you whole. He is saving you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Sermon


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Don’t Trust Your Faith (20 Pentecost — Oct 6, 2013 at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Fremont, CA)

Luke 17:5-10

 5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”

I bring you greetings from the new lakefront property in Colorado; from my own congregation—Lutheran Church of the Master of Lakewood, CO; and from your full communion denominational partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I am so pleased to be here with you this morning. Thank you for letting me be part of your life and your ministry this weekend. A bunch of us were here yesterday and had a great time in conversation around this amazing congregation and your ministry in the world. I’m grateful to you for your boldness, your partnership, and your faith.

Which happens to be the point of this gospel text in Luke. For those of you who’ve been here the last several weeks as we’ve journeyed through Luke’s gospel, Jesus seems to be a little bit cranky, demanding, impatient. We’ve lately just taken to calling him “Grumpy Jesus.” In recent weeks he’s told us that if we’re really his disciples we will hate our families, carry a cross, get serious about what it will cost, and we have to give up all our possessions.

I can’t blame the disciples for asking him to increase their faith! Frankly, I’m amazed they’re still hanging with him. But, in grumpy Jesus style, he doesn’t try to soothe their anxiety or assure them, he seems to just twist the knife a little bit more. They are trying, they ask him to increase their faith so they can do the crazy stuff he’s demanding, and his response is to tell them that if they had faith even the size of a tiny mustard seed they could tell a big old mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.

Thanks, Jesus. Apparently we don’t even have that small amount of faith. Even though we’re asking you for it, you just keep telling us how inadequate we are.

I don’t know about you, but I’m with the disciples here. I know I’m not the greatest disciple. I see homeless people at intersections holding cardboard signs asking for food and ignore them. I have time to volunteer at our local food pantry but don’t do it that often. I sometimes hold grudges longer than I should. I’m not the most ardent pray-er.  When our 15 year old Bassett Hound would have to go out in the middle of the night, I’d accidentally nudge my wife awake while pretending I was still asleep, hoping she’d get up and do it.

But c’mon, Jesus, I’m trying. And if I need a little help, you gotta do better than slamming me for my lack of faith which I already know is less than perfect.

But here’s the thing about faith. Like pretty much everything else, we make it about us. We think of faith as a possession, a commodity, something we can work up and bolster in order to do more spiritual things. I don’t think we trust God, I think we trust our faith in God. That’s different.

A friend told me a story that makes sense of this for me. During a flood, a mother and her little boy were soon to be trapped by the rising river. The mother knew they had to get across the river now if they were to have a chance of surviving. So she said to her son, “Hold on to my hand while we go across.” The little boy answered, “No, mommy. You hold onto my hand.”

That’s the difference. We tend to think of faith as holding onto God’s hand. As long as we have the strength to hold on, we think we’re OK. But I think Jesus is telling us here that faith isn’t proportionate to the difficulties. It’s not like the more faith we have the greater things we can do. No. It seems Jesus is saying the amount of faith doesn’t matter, because it’s not about us. It’s not trusting our ability to hold onto God, it’s about trusting that God is holding onto us. That’s different, right?

If we trust God to hold our hand, we can go across a river that is stronger than our grip. Because it isn’t our strength, it’s God’s. So even a tiny bit of faith is more than enough, because all faith needs to do is recognize we are in God’s hands. God does the rest. God takes us where we need to go, even if it’s in places we wouldn’t trust ourselves to go. You don’t have to hang on to God when you go out of this place, just recognize that God is hanging on to you.

Think of the difference that makes. Yesterday we came up with lots of different ways to live as disciples in a public way–in the world around us. Does that scare you? Sometimes the thought of that simply exhausts me. What if I goof it up? What if I get laughed at? What if I get called a Bible thumper or say something wrong? I simply don’t have enough faith to do that. And Grumpy Jesus says, It’s not about how much faith you have or what you think you can do. It’s about God holding you, never letting you go, always with you. Even if you’re crossing a rising river. Even if you’re going to work, or to school, or to your weekly Bridge Club. Even just the tiniest bit of faith, a willingness to take a risk that God’s got a grip on you, is more than enough.

Don’t worry about whether or not you have enough faith. Instead, watch what God does around you, through you, and in you. God will not let go of St. James’. And God will not let go of you. If you’re willing to even begin testing the possibility that that might be true, you have more than enough faith. Amen.

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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Sermon


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It’s “Their” Fault (19th Pentecost — Luke 16:19-31)

Each person here has gifts and unique qualities that make them valuable. Each one of us has been created by God in love, and therefore have special characteristics that reveal the image of God.

Biblically, that is all revealed through one’s name. Our character, our values, the essence of who we are, are all depicted in a person’ name.

If you know someone’s name, you know something significant about them. If you know their name, they can no longer be devalued as just one more part of some generalized group that can then easily be dismissed or disregarded. You can ignore, hate, or blame a general group of people who have no names: welfare recipients, illegal immigrants, Muslims, liberals, conservatives, homosexuals, blacks, the poor, the rich, the elderly, the youth, the clergy, the laity, labor, management. “Well, you know that ‘they’ are like”—whoever “they” are.

But when you know someone’s name, when you know who they are, it’s amazing how they no longer fit into a simple category: “Maria is different—she’s not like the rest of them.” When you know someone’s name, they become a real-life human being with real life joys and sorrows, celebrations and pain, gifts and failings. They become valued people that god loves enough to die for.

This is the only parable where a character is given a name; and it’s the poor man who is named. Lazarus. “God helps.” When you hear this parable you suddenly come face to face with the poor, the unworthy, those unfortunates God refused to bless. This man has a name, Lazarus, and the chasm between us and them suddenly disappears.

The rich man being rich isn’t the problem. Lazarus being poor isn’t the problem. It’s the chasm between them that separates them is the problem. The major difference between the rich man and Lazarus is that the rich man can take care of himself and provide for himself. He needs no one. Lazarus is unable to do so. He needs help. He has no means of feeding himself; he doesn’t even have the strength to shoo away the dogs that come licking his sores. The rich man can. Lazarus can’t. That’s the huge chasm between them.

It’s funny, but while they live on this earth, that chasm is merely the gate at the edge of the rich man’s property. Lazarus longs to bridge that chasm at the gate but he cannot. The rich man is able to bridge the chasm but is too absorbed in his daily feasting to even notice.

It seems to me that both Lazarus and the rich man need that chasm bridged. One way or another, now or later, neither one can truly be happy, neither can be truly whole unless the separation between them is removed. In the parable, Lazarus suffers now and the rich man suffers later. But both are suffering as a result of the great divide between them. When there is a chasm, a separation, somebody on one side or the other is suffering. Sooner or later, those on both sides of the chasm suffer. The chasm between us, the separations that keep us apart, have to be bridged for the sake of all of us.

Sometimes, the divide can only be bridged from one side.

~~The rich man, who had all he needed and could take care of himself, is the only one who can cross over his gat to Lazarus. But he didn’t.

~~God, who has all righteousness and holiness, is the only one who can cross over to us. And in Jesus he does.

~~And we, who’ve been given all things, who’ve received forgiveness, who generally have more than we need, are the ones who can cross over to those separated from us.

The poor, the undocumented, the gay, the homeless, the non-Christians,  the picked-on, all who feel separated from mainstream society suffer. And those who fit in and have what they need can never be whole unless they bridge the chasm that separates them from those others. Unless the suffering stops. Those we are separated from are precious, valuable. They have names. For their sake, for our sake, bridge the chasm that separates us. Reach across the gate. Find one person you are separated from—by economics, by race, by national status, by sexual identity, by religion, by politics, by disagreement. Reach out, reach across, know their name. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.

It is what God does for us. It is who we are in Christ. It is what will end our suffering. It is what will make us whole.

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Posted by on November 12, 2013 in Sermon


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