Monthly Archives: August 2015

Jesus and the “Spiritual vs. Religious” Argument (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

A church was celebrating a candlelight Christmas Eve service with their new pastor. When it came time for candle lighting, and pastor couldn’t find his candle. Looked over the whole altar for it, moving everything on the altar searching. Couldn’t find it.

He finally took the Christ candle out of the stand and brought it in front of the altar for the acolytes to begin lighting congregation’s candles. It all went fine.

Afterward, one long-time member commented, “Great service, Pastor. I especially liked where you blessed the altar.”

To this day, and several pastors later, that congregation maintains the tradition of blessing of the altar on Christmas Eve.

We are people who have a lot of traditions. Family traditions, cultural traditions, community traditions, and church traditions. They are helpful because they can remind us of reasons to celebrate. They can bring us closer together. They can help us understand our identity. The best traditions are the ones that remind us together of something with deeper meaning.

But then sometimes traditions can become empty, we do them just because we always have, and we forget what the deeper meaning was. The tradition becomes the important thing instead of what the tradition was started for. One problem with traditions is that far too often they become empty rites that lost their meaning. This is usually what people mean when they say they are “spiritual, but not religious.” They are often referring to rituals and religious practices that have lost meaning for them.

Apparently this has been going on for a long time. Just look at today’s gospel text in Mark.

The Pharisees are upset because Jesus’ disciples aren’t following sacred traditions around eating. This is about much more than washing hands, it’s about the deeper meaning of the tradition of the elders. The Pharisees are concerned that traditions of the elders aren’t being upheld by Jesus’ disciples. These traditions, once put in place to remind a whole people that God is the source of all life, now the washing rituals have taken on a separate life of their own. Now they are merely being used as a statement of self-righteousness. Under the guise of honoring those who’ve gone before us, the traditions like washing of hands have been corrupted into something that has nothing to do with God’s purpose.

Some religious traditions point us to God while others no longer do. What makes it hard is that these are different for different people. For most Pharisees that deeper purpose had been lost.

We all have traditions that are deeply important to us. We all have religious practices that can point us to God. Our failure is insisting that the things that point some to God do so for everyone, and the things that are lifeless traditions to some are equally empty to everyone.

Just to be clear, Jesus has no problem with religious tradition. His problem is with what’s behind the reasons for keeping them. In observing traditions, are people closer to the reign of God? Do these religious practices point them toward a life of mercy, grace, love and compassion? If so, great! Keep it up! If not, why are you doing them? If observing them does nothing to point us to God’s forgiveness, grace, and love then don’t claim we are righteous for observing them.

Jesus is really clear that eating purified food with purified hands won’t make you righteous before God. The things that are outside of us can’t do that.

Which also means eating unpurified food with unwashed hands won’t defile you before God.

So obeying or disobeying rituals, following or ignoring traditions, being spiritual or religious will never affect your standing with God. But the deeper meanings might move you into God’s activity in the world or move you away. The deeper meanings are not what we do on the outside—the rituals, but what we do on the inside—what’s in our hearts. So Jesus is telling the crowds that we need to take care of our hearts—to focus on the things of God. If there are religious practices you help with that, wonderful! If not, they are useless.

How many of you remember putting on your “Sunday best”? Or remember when women were supposed to wear hats in church? How many neckties do you see on men this morning? The pastor wearing a white alb is a religious tradition. It’s now white, representing that the Word and the sacraments are covered with the grace of Christ. If a white alb takes you there, that’s awesome! But if it’s only meaningful because it seems more “churchy,” then we have to think about why we should do it?

I once told a faithful member of a previous church’s altar guild that she was folding the purificator incorrectly. How many of us even know what a purificator is, much less how to properly fold one? If folding it “the right way” helps me forgive one who’s hurt me, then fold away. If not, I really needed to think about why it mattered so much to me. The reasons were not great.

For Jesus, the Reign of God’s mercy and love are everything. The only thing. If any ritual or tradition points us toward love and grace, then it’s worth doing. If not, Jesus says we don’t have time to mess with it.

Think of a tradition, a religious rite, that bothers you when it’s not done, or when it’s done wrong,  e.g., people not bowing their heads when they pray, or communion that’s done too fast, or the pastor not wearing the alb, or not doing all parts of the liturgy, or a purificator that’s folded wrong. Now think about why that bothers you. If you think Jesus would be bothered too, let’s figure out how we can talk about the deeper meaning of these practices. We need all the help we can get with moving together toward mercy and peace.

But if not, then it’s OK to rethink these practices. Doing or not doing them isn’t the most important thing. But participating with God in forgiving, loving, showing mercy, and making peace is everything.

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Posted by on August 31, 2015 in Sermon


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BE the Church, Regardless (Ephesians 6:10-20)

Put on the whole armor of God. Sounds like a call to battle, doesn’t it? Shields and swords and breastplates and helmets. It all sounds like preparation for war.

Except, if that’s what we hear, we’re hearing the opposite of the author’s intention. This is not a call for us to defeat the devil. It’s not a declaration of war—us against the forces of evil. It’s not.

This letter was written for people whose allegiance to Jesus put them at odds against their neighbors, their friends, their government, even their families. So in the context of first century believers in Turkey, we have to remember:

That this metaphor was written for people who were an overwhelming minority and were therefore feeling extremely powerless;

That even with the overpowering domination by Rome, the struggle is not with any people, even their Roman enemies;

That the armor described is for defending, not attacking. It is a survival strategy for people of faith in a hostile world.

Look at this from their perspective. When everything in your whole world is pointing to the hopelessness of ever seeing justice, when the might of Roman oppression appears to be unbreakable, when military power is ruling every aspect of your life, the author of Ephesians reminds the church why they exist:

To reveal to the world what God’s love looks like.

To show the world what peace really is.

To put skin on forgiveness, unconditional love, and mercy.

And in order to do that, they have to stand fast. They have to resist the powers that defy God, not matter how strong they appear to be. They have to stand together as a congregation, supporting and encouraging one another. They have to stay focused on their purpose, because there are powers at work that will sidetrack them or even derail them. They have to be on guard against that.

And since they are all so familiar with the uniform of the Roman military, the author is turning that armor imagery around for the church. They, too, can put on armor, but for a completely different reason. They can use this armor not for injustice, but for justice. Not to oppress, but to bring peace. Not to kill, but to forgive.

Even so, the author is clear that Rome is not the enemy here. “The struggle,” he writes, “is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against . . . the cosmic powers of . . . darkness . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

There are forces that oppose God’s love and mercy. Those are revealed in human violence and division and injustice in the world around them. And as church, Christians are called to not cave in to those forces which are so common in the world that they can be seen as normal, if not overwhelming. Instead, the church is to continue to reveal God’s love and forgiveness and compassion to everyone, as Jesus made clear to them.

You see, they are to be on guard, standing in opposition to forces that don’t reveal God. They are to stand fast in their purpose, no matter how the odds appear to be stacked against them, so that the people around them have the opportunity to see God’s love, and God’s grace, and God’s compassion made real by the church.

The same thing still goes on. The forces opposed to God’s love and the purpose of the church to reveal God’s love.

So, let’s help each other put this into our current context.

I’m going to ask you (left side) to tell us something going on, either in the world, your neighborhood, or your own life, that oppose God’s love and mercy.

Then I’ll ask you (right side) to think of a way we can reveal God’s love in the midst of that.

Then we’ll switch sides and do it again.

. . .

That is the message of the book of Ephesians: to remind the church of who we are and why we’re here. May God’s love continue to be known because of us.

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Posted by on August 24, 2015 in Sermon


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Words Matter (Ephesians 4:24–5:2) 9/9/15

Words matter. How many of us grew up with our mommas telling us, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”? If we were to boil down this section of Ephesians to one sentence, that’s pretty much what it would be.

But for the author of this book, there’s much more at stake in this saying than being polite with your words or not hurting someone’s feelings. The very life of the church is up for grabs. In our words. The author has spent considerable time establishing that the purpose of the church is to show the world what God is up to–to put skin on God’s love for the world to see.

The way the church deals with divisions, factions, deliberate spiritual growth, growing up in Christ either help or hurt the church in that purpose. Today, the author makes the case that the way the church speaks and acts toward each other is vital to its purpose with Jesus.

Vs 29, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.”

I agree, not because it’s nice, but because we’ve all experienced the consequences of what the author calls “evil talk;” and we’ve all experienced the new life that comes from “saying what is useful for building up.”  These are not trivial things. Words matter. They have the power to take life or to give live. And in the church, we are about giving life. That has to include our words.

Three and a half years ago I received an email saying that I was one of 16 pastors who had been nominated for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod. That email began a journey the likes of which I’ve never experienced. I am a very private person, and going through that very public process of electing a bishop brought out some very deep personal fears and insecurities I had been living with for my whole life. Now I could be ridiculed by thousands of people across five states.

That election process left me feeling really vulnerable and inadequate.

That descended into a realization that my always-trusty theology wasn’t adequate to deal with all this.

That descended into feeling like I was inadequate as a pastor, and therefore totally to blame for a six-year numerical decline here.

That descended into feeling totally incompetent as a pastor.

That descended into feeling inadequate as a human being.

That descended into a diagnosis of clinical depression.

Needless to say, I was in a pretty vulnerable state. Everything that I felt had given me a solid place to stand–even if just to rest awhile–seemed to be crumbling beneath me. I felt worthless, inadequate, incompetent, and a failure. I was very susceptible to what Ephesians calls “evil talk.”

Now, I realize that some of that “evil talk” just comes with being human, it’s unavoidable–and certainly comes with this job. Normally it slides off me pretty readily. But I was really vulnerable and feeling weak. I felt that everything I was feeling about myself was now being said by others too. In my state of doubt and vulnerability, I was in no position to defend or deflect the words.

I was feeling beaten down, battered, and bloodied. After 30 years of ordained ministry, 17 of which have been here, the rumors and ill-spoken words, betrayals and half-truths–what Ephesians calls evil words–had defeated me. I wasn’t sure where to go or what to do.

All I knew was that I could not stand on my own.

It was at that point that I heard words of grace spoken. Words that (as Ephesians says) were kind, tenderhearted, forgiving. Words that revealed God’s mercy. Words spoken in love and care. Words that were true, not always easy, but were upbuilding. Words of life. Some of these words were spoken by God. Some by those who knew where I was. But many of these words were spoken by people in this congregation who without knowing it were reflections of God’s grace.

That, I believe, is what the author of Ephesians is talking about. The community of the church being imitators of God, reflecting grace and love and truth because they practice it and work at it. The words spoken within the church need to bring life.

And because of the words that were useful for building up, my path in the darkness began to lighten. There was a profound presence in words of encouragement that were sustaining and calm. The words brought rest in the arms of Jesus.

It was words that brought a change for me in the darkness. Evil talk had defeated me, but words that encouraged gave me hope and new life. Words matter. What we say to and about each other is the difference between being Christ’s church and merely a gathering of good people.

This is more important than we realize. This is life and death for the church. This is a place where words matter. Where truth matters. Where encouragement matters. To be the church Jesus calls us to be, this has to be a place of encouragement and words that are useful for building up. As the author says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.”

To reveal God’s love in the world we all need encouragement and bulding up, words that are true and  tenderhearted and forgiving. In Christ’s name, may LCM always be that place.

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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in Sermon


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Grow Up, for Christ’s Sake (Eph. 4:1-16) August 2, 2015


I don’t like to exercise. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t experience the euphoria some people talk about. I don’t feel better afterward. I find nothing pleasurable in it whatsoever. For me it is just hard work and a lot of sweat. It’s a hassle.

I also know it’s “good for me.” So I grudgingly do it. As little as I have to, and as infrequently as I can get by with. Saying “I don’t like it” is a poor excuse.

That’s me. Of course some of you have different priorities. There are some people can work out all day as long as they don’t have to read a book.

The point is that any kind of growth takes effort. Physical health, mental and emotional health. And also spiritual health.

Which is where the author of Ephesians is going today. Ephesians starts with a big picture and keeps getting more specific and detailed as the book goes on.

Chapter one points out that God’s plan for redeeming all of creation is now in place.

Chapter two says that part of that involves reconciliation between us and God, between us and each other. Human divisions are irrelevant because of  the creation of one new humanity in Christ.

Chapter three suggests that we need to gain understanding of all that. That’s what the church is for—to put skin on God’s love in the world and make it visible.

And now, in chapter four, the author explains that the church, knowing what it needs to do, must prepare for its role in God’s work. We are to be spiritually healthy to function as church, in the way God intends. God has even given the church gifts to help with this spiritual growth.

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 

Different gifts scattered throughout each congregation. Why?–

12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity.

Spiritual growth toward maturity in Christ is essential for the church to be about its purpose of showing the world what God is up to. The author urges us, writing,

14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine . . . . 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up . . . into Christ.

A church that isn’t growing spiritually, that isn’t maturing into Christ will become less effective in doing what the church is created to do. Which means we have to be growing spiritually. If we are to reveal God’s love for the world, we have to grow into the love God has for us. If we are to show the world God’s reconciliation, we have to grow into the reconciliation God has already done for us.

Like physical or mental exercise, spiritual growth takes deliberate effort.

Unfortunately, spiritual growth is like physical exercise for me. Not my favorite. Not easy for me to do. Because I generally move everything to my head. That is my favorite. I like thinking. I like logic and rationality. Heart things feel gooey.

But the reality is that spirituality doesn’t work out of our heads. It’s much more about hearts than heads. Saying “I don’t like it” is a poor excuse.

We have to practice, work for spiritual maturity. We have to be deliberate in growing in faith. Who said it was easy? Who said it was natural? Who said it happens automatically? It doesn’t. Like anything else, it requires practice and exercise. You have to do it on purpose. It doesn’t happen by itself.

So for someone to say, “I can’t pray very well so I’m just not going to,” would be like me saying, “I can’t run a marathon so I’m going to sit on the couch and watch TV.” It’s a poor excuse. Rather than not praying, we practice prayer. We seek out people who are good at prayer who can help us do it better. Saying “I don’t like it” won’t cut it when it comes to growing spiritually.

Maybe some of us struggle with growing and expanding our spiritual lives. But as church, it’s a necessary part of who we are. So get help praying in a different way, commit to a few minutes each day reading scripture, contemplate what God is up to that you haven’t seen before, begin a journey of discovering new things about God, maybe even learn to sing a new song. Saying “I don’t like it” is a poor excuse, and isn’t good enough when it comes to growing spiritually.

We can expand our awareness of Jesus. We can grow up in him. We can practice spirituality. Our faith can mature. And it must. God is at work, divisions are erased, we are new people with a purpose as Christ’s church. Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up into Christ.

Ask yourself, what will you do differently to help you grow spiritually? Write it down and take it with you. Let us mature into Christ.

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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in Sermon


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