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Monthly Archives: September 2014

When Was the Last Time You Had a Change of Heart? (Matthew 21:23-32)

In the parable Jesus tells, one son says the right thing but doesn’t do it. The other says the wrong thing but does what is right. Which is better, words or actions? Apparently, what you end up doing counts more than whether or not you say the right thing.

But this really isn’t a parable about “doing the right thing.” It’s a parable about having a change of heart. The son Jesus lifts up started out having no intention to help out in the vineyard at all. But he had a change of heart and went anyway. It’s that process–having a change of heart–that Jesus is saying is important.

That’s why he tells this parable to the religious people, the chief priests and the elders. Their whole agenda concerns Jesus’ authority. Does your authority come from God or from humans? They are obsessing about it because Jesus’ teaching doesn’t match their understanding. They’re trying to find out where they can get a foothold against him. Jesus won’t get into it with, and instead, he invites them to consider a change of heart.

Have you ever met someone who is convinced they are right even though all evidence contradicts their view? That’s who Jesus is dealing with, so he tells them a parable. One son has a change of heart and does what the father wants. The other uses empty words. One son is like the tax collectors and prostitutes who have a change of heart and reveal God’s love. The other son is like the religious leaders who use good words, but end up withholding God’s love. What Jesus is after is a change of heart, not merely right words or correct actions.

So I’m wondering when the last time was that any of us had a change of heart? When have any of us been convinced we were right, that we were saying or doing what God wanted, and then changed? When have we seen things in a new light, saw God in a new way, or recognized that following Jesus meant going the opposite direction?

I think many of us get to that point in our own lives, and I also think this is the point we are at right now as a congregation. I absolutely believe Jesus is telling us that it no longer matters what time or style our worship is. It no longer matters how big or small our budget is, or how many people are on our membership list. I’m more and more convinced that Jesus is showing us a new way to be church together that requires a change of heart. Less about programs and more about supporting one another. It’s less about doing things correctly and more about forgiving each other. It is no longer about the church meeting our individual needs, but rather as church, we be concerned about others’ needs. It can no longer be about making sure we are taken care of, but must be about making sure the world is taken care of.

We will soon be working on the 2015 congregational budget. How much of it will be about taking care of ourselves, and how much of it will be about taking care of others? Watch that, and hold our council responsible to that! Since we base our budget on how much we expect to receive through your offerings, we can say the same thing about our individual giving. We say the church is important, and we’re right. Our “Sharing Our LIfe Together” emphasis certainly reveals that. Will we share even more of God’s love in 2015 or maintain programs? Will we make forgiveness, grace, and compassion an even higher priority in 2015, or will we simply try to do things correctly? Will we be saying nice religious words in 2015, or will there be an even deeper change of heart?

This congregation is already vibrant, rich in love and care. We’ve shown that yet again, just a couple of day ago, as this time we surrounded the Buffington family with God’s love and compassion. Ask them if that makes a difference. Ask the staff and families at Molholm Elementary or Green Mountain Elementary if this congregation makes a difference in their world. We heard from Karl Feth in a few minutes we’ll hear from Joyce Buscher about how God’s grace and love have come to them through this congregation, embracing them and bringing about a change of heart. God has a hold on this place and refuses to let go. One by one, our hearts are continuing to change. Slowly but surely, our hearts are turning more and more toward the ways of Jesus. Year by year, we are letting go of things that matter less, and turning toward things that matter more.

It doesn’t matter whether we say the right words or not. It doesn’t matter whether all our actions are in accordance with God’s will or not. What matters is that our hearts are continuing to change. Our hearts continue to be turned more and more toward God. As a congregation, our hearts are changing, our minds are changing and we are believing more and more in Christ. That does matter. We won’t be right all the time, but our hearts will continue to be turned more and more to Jesus. That makes all the difference.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Sermon

 

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Some Don’t Deserve Grace (Matthew 20:1-16)

“Nothing you do can make God love you any more. Nothing you do can make God love you any less.” Does that sound about right for a God of grace?

Now, if we can just believe it. Or at least believed it was good news.

In this parable, the landowner pays everyone equally no matter how much work they did. One hour or the heat of the entire day, all of them got what they needed to buy food that day.

Well, isn’t that nice?

Unless you’re the one who worked all day long. And suddenly find yourself paid the same as someone who goofed around all day and showed up for the last hour. That’s hardly fair.

Everyone getting paid the same amount.

Well, isn’t that nice?

Unless you’re the one who worked for an hour. Feeling guilty for getting something you didn’t earn, and putting up with the complaints and the scornful looks of your neighbors who were in the sun all day long.

But that’s what a God of grace is like. Sometimes it’s not fair because others are getting something you’ve worked very hard for, and sometimes you feel like a freeloader receiving something you don’t deserve. I don’t think we really like grace as much as we think we do. At least we don’t act like it.

Some of us feel indignation because we have worked all day, if you will.

For example: We may not like grace when it comes to immigration. Some of us have earned citizenship. We are here legally and therefore deserve the rights and privileges that come with being citizens of the United States. Others who are here haven’t earned it. They have come across the borders without documentation and therefore shouldn’t have what the rest of us have. You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. That’s grace.

Or some may not like grace when it comes to homosexuality and marriage. Some have the legal benefits of marriage while others don’t. When those [who worked for only one hour] came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Grace is hard.

Even something as basic as food can be difficult to accept with grace. Some work hard to be able to buy food for their families. Others have food provided by charities or even the government. I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. A God of grace can be hard to deal with.

God’s grace is hard for us when you get down to it, because God deals with us much differently than we want to deal with each other. In God’s view, every person, regardless of age, height, sex or sexual orientation, race, morality, health, political view, or even faith is loved, forgiven, and shown generosity. All of us. It seems that showing forgiveness and grace to anyone—to everyone—is God’s primary real concern. Who we are and what we do and how we live doesn’t affect at all God’s picture of generosity and grace. And that isn’t likely to change.

What’s more, we, the church, are called to show anyone that same kind of generosity and grace that God shows—without condition. Every person.

Though God does that in us, and through the Holy Spirit empowers us to live that kind of grace and generosity, we are the ones who put up barriers to that. We are the ones who separate ourselves—some groups more deserving and some less.

To live as graciously and generously as we have been called to do, we need to recognize that there are some people we don’t really want to be gracious toward. We need to be able to admit it. When we actually name those that we really don’t want to be generous to, it doesn’t look very pretty. But the only thing worse is pretending we are generous to all, and keeping resentments in the dark.

So who is it that you find it difficult to be gracious to? For some it’s people who speak Spanish. For some it’s those who flamboyantly gay. For others it’s welfare recipients. For some it’s politicians. For me it’s narrow-minded, judgmental fundamentalists. And TV evangelists. And ambulance-chasing attorneys. And white collar criminals. And bullies. And . .

We all have them, right? But God loves those very people, is gracious to those very people, is generous to those very people, and forgives those very people just as much as those who think they are deserving of love and generosity.

Whoever that person or group of people is for you, have them in mind here as I reread two sentences from this text:

And when [those who worked all day] received [their daily pay], they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But [the landowner] replied to one of them . . . “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”

The hard thing is that God is generous to people we don’t think deserve it. The good news is that God is generous to you.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2014 in Sermon

 

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Better With You Than Without You (Matthew 16:13-20)

Matthew 16:13-20

One problem with a text like this one is that there’s so much going on in it. In just a few verses there’s all the speculation about who Jesus is, Simon Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah, Peter’s name change to Rock, the gates of Hades not prevailing, the binding and the loosing, the “don’t tell anyone I’m the Messiah.” Too much to cover in a 90-minute sermon . . . (just seeing if you’re paying attention).
The part that is intriguing to me right now is the second question Jesus asks his disciples, the one Peter answers correctly, “Who do you say that I am?”
Here’s why. It’s an identity question, right? In Jesus’ culture, people found their identity in the people they hung out with. They didn’t get psychological about individual development and self-actualization. They were part of a community, and the identity of the community was the identity of the people in it.
When Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” he’s asking a community question. He’s asking, “Why are you following me? Why are you hanging out with me? Why are you part of this community?” By answering the question of who they think Jesus is, they are answering the question of the purpose of the community of disciples. He’s asking the identity of the church–that community that gets its identity from him.
That’s a great question. Why are we part of the community of disciples? Why do we identify ourselves with the church? Or do we? What is it about bearing the name of Jesus that attracts us? Or does it? Why are we here?
Sometimes our answers to these questions are less than compelling. Sometimes they are deep and rich. But it’s worth struggling with, I think. Why are we here? What is it about a Jesus community that makes us want to be part of it?
The rap sheet on the church is far from spotless. As the church we often say one thing and do the opposite. Sometimes we expect the church to meet our own needs at the expense of everyone else’s. We make time to fight over whether or not we should stand during the Apostles’ Creed but don’t have time to feed the hungry. We buy a new car every year but can’t afford to increase our giving for Christ’s work through the church.
This is not new. Throughout history the church has cared for the institution of the church more than for the Lord whose name she bears. The church has been mean, manipulative, hypocritical, and not always very reflective of Jesus. And we still are. Some of the deepest evil and hatred has had its heart in the church. It would be easy to write off and disassociate from an organization that is so flawed.
But here we are. Why?
If I’m saying this is an important question, I suppose that obliges me to offer an answer. At least my answer. Why am I here? Why a I part of Christ’s Church? My answer is not simple. But it’s honest and it’s mine.
I am part of the church because there isn’t anything better. Nowhere else can people gather and talk openly about the deepest and most significant parts of our lives. No other community will walk with us from birth through death, celebrating and grieving together along the way.
I am part of the church because we offer hope where no one else can. We encourage love for those no one else loves. We consider mercy to be success rather than weakness.
I am part of the church, a community that bears the name of Jesus, because I love the things Jesus stands for. The fact that we don’t do it well all the time is frustrating, but we claim forgiveness not just for the world but for ourselves too. Again, something Jesus stands for.
I’m not part of the church because of the doctrine or the music or the tradition. I’m not part of the church because I think hanging out with you people gets me closer to heaven when I die. I am part of the church because it’s the one community where the values of Jesus are the bottom line. It’s the one community where we can talk freely about forgiveness, peace, making the world a better place, love, mercy, and compassion; in fact, the church is the one community where those things are expected.
I’m part of the church because I believe with all my heart that the ways, the values, the example of Jesus are worth showing to the world. I believe that as long as we’re holding Jesus as our standard, trusting in the forgiveness, mercy, love, compassion and peace that he brings, then the church offers hope to the world.
I’m part of the church because as long as we bear the name of Jesus together, we can hold each other accountable to his values.
I’m part of the church because I can live those values better with you than I can alone.
“Who do you say that I am?” is an important question that Jesus asks us. The answer reveals why we follow Jesus. It reveals why we’re here in this place. It reveals who we are and what we stand for. And when we know that, we can move forward together–in Jesus’ name.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in Sermon

 

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The Cross Reveals the Reign of God (Matt 16:21-28)

Matthew 16:21-28

Sometimes I feel like I’m just not a very nice person. And then I read some things Jesus says, like today, and pretty much quit worrying about it. Here Jesus calls Peter, one of his leading disciples, “Satan” and “a stumbling block.”
Then he goes on to tell all the rest of his disciples, including us, that if we want to be his disciples we need to take up our own crosses, deny ourselves, follow him, and lose our lives. He makes it sound like all this isn’t optional for those who are his followers, and that we are Satan and stumbling blocks if we don’t. And he tops it off by saying that only through dying to our own desires can we live.
No matter how often we hear about taking up our crosses, denying ourselves, dying to selfishness for Jesus, we still aren’t very good at it. If the reign of God is dependent on us following Jesus as he demands we follow him, we’ll be waiting a long, long time.
We know the situation of our world. Israel and Gaza, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine. We know the racial divides that exist in our own country. Central American children by the 10s of thousands continue to seek help and refuge among us. Republicans and Democrats in congress demonize each other at the expense of all of us. Sports heros cry about the unfairness of not getting the millions they deserve while school children at Molholm Elementary don’t know whether or not they’ll get lunch today. There’s so much wrong that we become immune to it and try to ignore it.
And yet, we long for the reign of God to come, for things to be made right, for justice and for peace to be the way of the world. We yearn for the time when the wolf lies down with the lamb, when the blind will see and the lame will dance as Isaiah describes. When it all gets overwhelming, we shake our fist at God and shout, “How long?! When will you step in and do something?!” When nothing seems to happen, we question our faith, the existence of God, and the purpose of Christ’s Church. Because it seems there’s nothing we can do. We can feel powerless to make any difference.
In the midst of all this, we Christians claim and profess that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” for our world. And he tells us right here how we can participate with him. Take up our own cross, put aside our personal desires, consider the needs of those around us, and follow him to Calvary.
In the early church they understood that their actual lives were in danger. In some places that is still true. For us, you’d think denying ourselves and taking up our cross to follow Jesus would be easier, wouldn’t you? Yet we think about taking up our crosses as being a bit inconvenienced. Or maybe doing a little extra volunteer work in the church. So we sigh and show up on a ministry team sometimes, bearing our cross.
But Jesus is talking about his disciples showing the world what the reign of God looks like. It’s not about inconvenience or adding another commitment into our schedules. It’s about dying to our own desires, preferences, selfishness for the sake of the other person. It’s about knowing we won’t get everything we want because others have needs too. It’s about giving up some things so others can have some things. It’s about being concerned for one another, caring about one another, sacrificing for one another, going out of our way to love others. Whether they deserve it or not, want it or not, are like us or not. Unconditionally, constantly.
And then doing it again the next day.
We cannot make the reign of God come. We can’t speed it up or slow it down. But if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, we make sure we reveal it to the world. We make sure that Christ, who lives within us, doesn’t have stumbling blocks as he works through us. We make sure we are dwelling on the divine things–giving away ourselves, our resources, our love. We make sure we dwell less on human things–our own preferences, our stumbling block agendas, our satanic selfishness.
And we learn it here in this congregational community. We practice it here. We learn to recognize the divine things here so we aren’t stumbling blocks to the work of Christ and the reign of God.
We deny ourselves starting here.
Here’s what it looks like here:
• We are just as concerned about LCM ministries we aren’t part of as those we are.
• We support and encourage those who disagree with us.
• We let go of our preferences and power, and instead work to make sure others have room at the table.
• We make a point of getting to know people at a different worship service, and encouraging their faith journey.
• We worry less about adult needs, and more about the children’s.
• Our own likes and desires are less important than the LCM community as a whole.
• We accept our own responsibility for our brokenness, admit our own way of being satanic stumbling blocks, and let other people do the same for themselves–without our help.
• We don’t look for scapegoats, and we seek the presence of the divine things in those we may struggle with.
As we deny ourselves, as we pick up our crosses so we can follow Jesus, we find our resurrection lives in him. We reveal God’s reign to the world. And we experience a little bit, a small taste of God’s vision for the world right here among us.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in Sermon

 

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