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Monthly Archives: November 2015

Syria, Paris, Mali, and Christ the King (John 18:33-37)

 

This text for Christ the King Sunday reveals a clash of two kingdoms. Make no mistake, they are distinctly different, but they are both present. Each kingdom has different rules, and each one operates differently. And they are both operating among us now.

These kingdoms aren’t places, like one is earth and the other heaven. No, both of these kingdoms function here and now, side by side. Both are seen in our everyday lives, and both are vying for our loyalty. Each one uses different tools to try and win us over.

Jesus shows us how one kingdom works and what it looks like, and Pilate shows us the other. Each kingdom proclaims similar goals sometimes, but they couldn’t be more different.

Pilate understands that he has power; with a word he can condemn Jesus to death. He knows how one kingdom works. And he is in a position to take advantage of that. The kingdom he affiliates with runs on power and the things that give a person power. So strength, position, recognition, and money are important tools of Pilate’s kingdom. Weapons and force and control are some of the things at Pilate’s disposal. One belief of his kingdom is that if you have enough power, you can bring about peace, because those who are threats to his kingdom are eliminated. Pilate is working toward peace through intimidation, through fear, and through brutality.

If Jesus is a king, Pilate wonders, then Jesus is a threat to the emperor (you can’t have two kings!). He would be a threat to the oppressive, forced peace of Rome.

If we can get past the fact that this is Pilate here–the one who condemns Jesus to crucifixion–we’d likely admit that this is the way the world works. Those with power win. Those with money win. Those with position and strength and backing and friends in high places win. The prize goes to the biggest, the strongest, the mightiest, and the smartest.

We know this kingdom. Because to move up, to get ahead, to win in this world–perhaps even to survive–these are the things we must do. We don’t even think about it, because the ways of this kingdom is so prevalent, so common, so every day. Everyone operates more or less in this way.

And then there’s the kingdom Jesus reveals. Way different. While Pilate uses strength, Jesus uses weakness. Pilate uses intimidation, Jesus uses vulnerability. Pilate uses force, Jesus uses mercy. Pilate uses power, Jesus uses forgiveness.

Jesus points out how different these two kingdoms are when he answers Pilate. Jesus says that if his kingdom were of this world, you’d know it because there would be fighting and a struggle for power. But, since his kingdom is not of this world, those things aren’t happening. Instead, Jesus’ kingdom is about something deeper and more significant than strength. It’s about truth. You can tell the people who affiliate with Jesus’ kingdom, because they listen to the truth of mercy, the truth of compassion, the truth of forgiveness, the truth of loving others. These are the principles by which they operate.

And we know this kingdom too. Because the Spirit keeps filling us with with love and forgiveness. God continues to forgive us and show us compassion. We sometimes experience the truth of divine mercy when we experience compassion; someone going out of their way on our behalf. We can the truth of that, and we can live the truth of that.

Never is the battle of these two kingdoms seen more clearly than right now in the argument about Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. One kingdom says there’s a threat there. Let’s not be stupid and take unnecessary risks. The other says showing compassion to our neighbors compels us to make sure they have safety—even if that means some of them come here.

We are pulled by the lures of both kingdoms. Power and force might impose a superficial and temporary lack of conflict, but do so based on fear and intimidation. Love and mercy appear weak in the world kingdom and leave us vulnerable, but are the ways Jesus reveals.

Today, we confess Christ as King. Which means we defer to his kingdom as his disciples.

The kingdom of force, of violence, of power, of fear, of intimidation may be able to put Jesus to death. It may be able to put 129 to death in Paris, take hostages in Mali, and wreak havoc all over the world.

But the kingdom of violence, fear, and power has already been defeated. Christ the King took the worst threat this world’s power could throw at him. And then he rose from the dead. And he breathed the ways of his kingdom of compassion into frightened disciples. And he inspired them to live and reveal his kingdom of mercy and love. Right in the face of fear and oppression.

Jesus came not just to bring mercy and grace to us. He came to show us the truth of mercy and grace so we can live it in the world. May we hear the voice of Christ the King. And may we follow him.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in Sermon

 

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When Faith Fails (Mark 13:1-8)

With the attacks in Paris, as well as Baghdad, The West Bank, Beirut, Cameroon Chad, Egypt (just in November), I have to admit my faith is challenged. I am not sure what God is doing in the midst of such violence and evil. And I imagine I’m not alone in that. For each of us, there are times when we discover that our faith just isn’t big enough to wrap around what’s happening in our lives and explain where God is and what God is doing. Sometimes, in the face of new life experiences or new difficulties, we are forced into the realization that our faith isn’t working.

What do you do then?

Sometimes we try to force our complex life into a small faith container. Even though our life matures, our faith remains childish. We ignore life and cling to an immature and unreal faith.

Sometimes we see our faith can’t hold the realities of our life and so we throw out the whole concept of God and of church. We ignore faith and cling to the realities of life.

Sometimes we tweak our faith just enough to allow parts of our life to fit into it. Then both our faith and our lives are unsatisfactory.

But I think here in the church, we need to be honest—sometimes our faith just isn’t good enough. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. Sometimes it seems like our faith isn’t trustworthy. And sometimes we’re right.

Our faith in God is really like the stones of the temple in this gospel reading. The bricks and mortar of the temple reveal God’s presence. The temple is trustworthy. We can see it and feel it. As long as it’s there, we trust God is near. Isn’t that how our faith works? As long as we have faith, we can trust God is near. So we depend of the physical temple. We depend on our faith. We put faith in our faith.

But what happens when the temple is destroyed? What happens if our faith no longer works? How do we know God is near? How do we trust what God may be doing?

Like the temple, our faith isn’t the most important thing. It’s not our ability to trust in God that counts—it’s actually God that counts. We can get so caught up trusting our faith is that we don’t realize God is trustworthy, whether our faith is working for us or not.

Our faith isn’t sacred. Our faith doesn’t save us, it doesn’t comfort us, it doesn’t love us. God does those things. Faith is merely a recognition of that.

As your life has changed, has your faith changed? Have the difficulties of your life challenged your faith? What was the situation that made your realize your faith wasn’t working?

  • Death/illness?
  • Loss of job or income or financial security?
  • End of a relationship?
  • A church that wouldn’t answer your questions or judged you for asking them?

Wherever it is that our faith in God fails us, the reality of God steps in. If our faith can’t sustain us, God can. Our faith doesn’t conquer death, God does. Our faith isn’t divine, God is. Our faith doesn’t hold us and comfort us and love us, God does.

So if your faith is not enough for you, if it’s failing you, if it cannot provide what you need in your life, good. Quit relying on it. God is there. And regardless of your faith, God is sustaining you and holding you and loving you and walking with you. Especially if you doubt it. Especially if you can’t see it or understand it. Especially if you don’t believe it. Especially if you have no faith in it.

In this gospel text, Jesus goes on to warn the disciples not to get all caught up in signs of the destruction of the temple. Don’t get all excited about wars and earthquakes. Don’t be distracted by people claiming to have truth. How easy it is to focus on that stuff! Because the temptation is to see those things, hear those things and then trust in those things. But they cannot sustain us any more than our faith can. At their absolute best, the most they can do is remind us that God is actually near and is still at work in our lives.

Even if you pay attention to signs and wonders, exciting philosophies and thoughts, new discoveries and ancient wisdoms, that doesn’t change who Christ is or how he walks with you. Even if your faith evolves and changes, is renewed and refreshed, is torn down and built up anew, that doesn’t affect how much God loves you.

If you can’t believe that today, don’t worry about it; that’s OK. There are others here who can continue to remind you of God’s grace and love. They can love you with God’s love, walk alongside you with God’s presence, they can trust God’s mercy for you.

Maybe your life has outpaced your faith right now. But it hasn’t outpaced God. You may not be able to trust your faith, but you can trust that you are loved, you are forgiven, you are not alone. Because Christ is really here for you. Christ is here for Paris, Baghdad, Israel, Palestine, Cameroon, Chad, and Egypt. Christ is with you. We are here with you too.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Why is the Church Here? (Mark 12:38-44)

 

What do you think of the poor widow in this text giving away everything she has to live on? Is she someone we should emulate? Is she a model of stewardship? Should we feel guilty if we don’t give away everything we have? Is she just being irresponsible?

Notice that Jesus doesn’t commend her for contributing all she had to live on, nor does he tell his disciples to “go and do likewise.” Why she gives away everything isn’t actually the point here.

The first part of this text, in fact, this whole section of Mark’s gospel, is an escalation of the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities (scribes and pharisees). The reason why this conflict is escalating is really the point. This poor widow stands in stark contratst to the scribes.

Scribes are denounced by Jesus because the way they are on the inside of a temple system that benefits them. They’re not stealing or anything. The customs and rules of the temple have been in place for centuries. There were 13 “trumpets” for offerings in one of the courtyards. They funded the running of the temple, made it convenient for sacrifices, helped the poor, and so on. The scribes aren’t doing anything unexpected, illegal, or dishonest. They are doing what everyone knows the temple has always done. It’s not their fault that it works for them. They just want respect, best seats, places of honor, look good to others (long robes and long prayers). Since it works for them, they don’t want this temple setup to change.

The contrast Jesus makes is between the scribes who are part of a temple where their needs are met vs. the poor widow who is on the outside edge of the temple community but whose needs are not met, and yet still gives all she has.

The deeper question Jesus is asking is, “Why is the temple here, and whose needs are being met by it?” And he has a problem with the answer, because even though the temple is a community of God’s people for God’s work, that’s not what is happening. It’s a system that sustains those on the inside, the scribes and Pharisees, while virtually ignoring the needs of people like this poor widow. Of course the scribes are most comfortable with it. It’s working for them! Instead of caring about this poor widow, the scribes are more concerned with maintaining a church system that meets their needs.

Oh, those nasty scribes! How dare they?! It’s so easy to judge them, because we are nothing like them! Right? . . .

Can you guess where I’m going here? How many of us, when looking for a church or critiquing a church, ask the question, “What does this church offer me? How can it benefit me? What can it meet the needs of my family?” and use that answer to evaluate that church? If I’m not getting what I want in one church, I’ll check out another one that will give it to me.

Again, Jesus asks the deeper question, “Why is the church here, and whose needs are being met by it?”

Jesus has been, and is now, leading up to a total denouncing of the temple system because those who are inside are the ones who benefit. Rather than using the temple to serve others in God’s name, the scribes use it for their own comfort and benefit, to meet their own needs.

So I wonder, why are we here in this place? What’s our primary concern about whose needs should be met by this church?

Jesus makes it very plain that he and the community of his disciples are here first for those outside, those on the margins, the poor, the lost, the helpless. We, as followers of Jesus, are gathered together by the Holy Spirit not primarily for ourselves but for those Jesus came to serve. If we, and our families, and our friends, are the primary beneficiaries of our own congregational system, we will be continually disappointed and frustrated in the church. Because that’s not the core identity of the church, not what the church is here for. Jesus is calling us to something else–a life in which we are not the center. We are called to give ourselves away. Our whole lives. For the sake of those the rest of the world disregards.

What would be different if that whole temple system was set up to meet the needs of people like this poor widow who has nothing—no income, no support, no security? What if she was the primary beneficiary rather than those inside?

That’s where Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and Pharisees is leading him. Jesus challenges systems that aren’t serving others. He calls out religious people, acting in God’s name, who believe the church should primarily benefit themselves. Jesus keeps trying, over and over, to get his disciples to see this. This is what God is about. This is what the Jesus community exists for.

If there’s any conflict in the church today, it’s over the same thing. Does the church primarily exist to serve its members, or does it primarily exist to serve the world Jesus died to save?

LCM is at a perfect point, right now, to clarify our answer that question. Why is the church here? Why is LCM here? For those of us on the inside of this church, whose needs should be considered first?

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Life Comes into the Midst of Death (All Saints Day, Isaiah 25:6-9)

I’m noticing more and more in our culture a denial of death. We usually don’t talk about people dying; instead we say they “passed,” or “left this life,” or “gone to heaven.” Even in the church we talk not about death but about someone having “completed their baptismal journey.”

Hospitals talk about people who “expired.”

In war we talk about “casualties.”

Mortuaries use make up artists and hair stylists to make the dead look more alive. And even when we bury bodies, we no longer lower the casket and place dirt on it. We leave the cemetery and other people fill in the grave alone and quietly.

But anyone who has lost a loved one knows these are just tricks, semantics. Death is real. And it is hard. And it is permanent. The more we love someone, the harder their death is on us.

The texts today recognize the reality of death. They talk about tears and about mourning, crying, and pain. They speak of a sheet and a shroud covering us up. The biblical authors knew about death. They suffered in the grief of losing loved ones.

No, death is all too real. The grief, the loss, the emptiness, the sadness, the loneliness, the sleepless nights, the tears that won’t stop, the despair are all very real. There’s no denying it. Not for anyone who has been affected by the death of someone they love.

Yes, these texts speak of death. But they also speak of life. God is the one who destroys death. In the Isaiah text, God gathers up all people for a feast beyond imagination, with the riches foods and best wines. While all are enjoying this amazing feast, did you notice what God is eating? God swallows death. God comes on that day and destroys the shroud covering all people. God eliminates the mourning, and the crying, and the pain. God comes and wipes the tears from our grieving faces and assures us that death is not the last word.

God takes care of all of God’s people, and not even death can get in the way of that. God comes to us here, on this All Saints Day, when we open up our grief and our sadness. God comes and gently wipes the tears from our eyes. And God promises again that those we love are in good hands. God, who created them and loved them and forgave them is even now taking care of them.

Death is not the last word, God says. We can trust this because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. God has the last word. And the last word is life.

And until that last word of life is spoken again, God comes and sits with us in our grief. God comforts us in our sadness. God doesn’t leave us alone in our mourning, but is present with us gently wiping our tears.

Today is All Saints Sunday, a day to open up our grief and sadness because of death. But it is also the day to hear again God’s promise of life, abundant life, joyful life.

All Saints Day is the day to claim those promises and entrust our loved ones into the hands of the God who has given them, and still promises them, life everlasting.

I invite you to light a candle for someone you’ve lost to death. Write their name on a card and place that card in the basket. We’ll take as long as we need to do that. And then we will read aloud the names of those we have lost to death and commend them all into God’s care, trusting in the power of resurrection.

Please make your way to the candles and the table.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2015 in Sermon

 

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