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Monthly Archives: January 2017

Blessings, Vulnerability, Refugees, and the Church (January 29, 2017)

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Get ready, because we’ve got four weeks on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It starts with the ever-popular but nonetheless confusing “Beatitudes,” a series of 8 statements indicating who is blessed.

Most of us have heard the Beatitudes, and can probably list a few. The familiarity with this text doesn’t help us, actually. Because we bring our cultural understanding of what it means to be “blessed” with us. When someone says, “I’m so blessed!”  their probably not talking about feeling particularly meek that day. And that just makes the Beatitudes confusing. Because our cultural notion of being blessed involves material things or status things or financial things. So Jesus just isn’t making sense.

So, from God’s perspective, what is “blessed”?

I find it more helpful these days to think about “blessed” simply in terms of joy in the absolute presence of God. Think about that a minute. The more fully we experience the presence of God, the more we know how loved we are, how worthwhile we are, how gifted we are, how blessed we are.

The more fully we experience the presence of God, the more everything else—which turns out to be temporary and insignificant anyway—the more they fade into the background. And we’re just left with the peace of God.

When have you experienced that, even briefly? When have you known the presence of God?

For some, it can happen in the quiet of the mountains, at sunset, with birds chirping, and the clean smell of pine wafting in the warm summer breeze. You know what I mean? You know God is there, and the chaos of life down the mountain is far away. At least for the moment. That’s the kind of “blessedness” Jesus is talking about in the Beatitudes.

Those of you who participated, do you remember last August worshiping with the people of Zion Baptist in Denver? I remember one particular moment that day. I got there late because of worship here. Reverend Davis had already introduced guests who were there. At the end of the service, because I wasn’t there for the introductions, he asked me forward to offer a benediction. I went up, and, when he was finished, I turned around and faced all of you. You and the people of Zion, sitting there side by side, a sea of black and white all mixed together. And in that moment, the presence of God took my breath away and I couldn’t speak. There were, in that moment, only people that God loves, nothing except people brought together in a unity that our racist culture couldn’t divide. There was something bigger than black and white, and everything else melted away. All that was left was God in love with a group of people. I was blessed in God’s presence at that moment.

Wednesday night at Confirmation was another time. We’d spent the two weeks prior to that studying the Lord’s Prayer. It was kind of dry—not the most fun our confirmands have had this year.

But last Wednesday, based on all that dry, boring study, we each wrote our own version of the Lord’s Prayer. And some people shared theirs out loud for the group. Some adults and some kids. These were prayers that came from our guts, our real lives. They were beautiful and amazing. Who has ever experienced applause for a prayer? Our self-consciousness faded just a bit, and we were truly in the presence of God and of each other. In the vulnerability of those prayers, the presence of God-hearing-them, we were blessed.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in the Beatitudes. It’s not that we should strive to be meek or poor in spirit. But in those vulnerable situations, when we are made to feel meek or when we are mourning, when our spirits are withered and our pride has been shattered, when everything the culture around us values has been stripped away, there’s only the presence of God. And the peace of that presence is nothing short of a blessing.

You know what my dream for the church is? It’s that we would be the community that people run to when their spirits are withered, when their pride has been stripped away, when they are grieving a loss so deep they can’t move, when they experience the injustice of the world and know that they have to do something about it, when they have nothing of their own left to stand on and can only hope for mercy. My hope is that they will run to us, because we would be a community that recognizes the blessings of money, of winning, of self-reliance that they’ve thought could hold them are false. I My dream is that they would run to us because we would be a community that understands that strength and winning and power and superiority aren’t blessings at all. That we would be a community that can assure them that no matter what they’ve been taught by the world, that no matter what they are experiencing now, in the presence of God they are blessed. We would be the community to show them the presence of God.

Even more so, that we would be the community that runs to them to show them the presence of God. In our world are many who are vulnerable, frightened, lost—who are experiencing a meekness and poverty in their spirits in ways we cannot begin to imagine. We in the United States have been the place many of these would run to for safety. Tragically, today we are not that place. It becomes imperative, then, that Christ’s church runs to them to bring the assurance that these refugees know and experience the reality of their blessedness.

I think if that happened, the decline of the church would turn around in a week’s time.

David Lose, president of our Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, wrote it this way (paraphrasing), “To be [blessed] is to be inescapably fragile and vulnerable, and it turns out that the surprising character of God isn’t to reject these things but rather to gather them all into a divine embrace.”

Not only are we gathered and held when we are fragile, but we are called to gather and hold others who are fragile. All who are vulnerable and lost and helpless are blessed. Right now. It’s just that sometimes we can’t recognize it until all the false blessings of our culture are stripped away. Blessed are you. God is with us, today and forever.

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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Sermon

 

Withdraw to Galilee and Discover Who You Are (January 22, 2017)

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What would you say is God’s mission? What is God trying to accomplish? . . .

How should the church be helping with that? What is the role of the church?

At LCM, does anyone know our congregational purpose within the church as part of God’s mission? Strengthening Relationships, Serving the World: –with God, –through the worshiping community, –for the world.

We arrived at an understanding of that purpose with a good amount of time, prayer, discussion, and discernment. We didn’t invent it or create it, we discovered it! Before we could discern what our purpose is, we had to acknowledge that we are called by God into one.

We just had a team of people reassess this purpose and come to the conclusion that this is still what we are called to be about.

Do you have any doubts as to whether we as a congregation of Christ’s church have been called by God for a purpose?

A call by God gives meaning to everything. It has to come before anything being done in God’s name. The text today is one that bears that out.

John the Baptist has just been arrested by king Herod. Jesus, when he heard about it, needed to take a step back and assess what to do. He moved from Nazareth to Galilee, and only then began to speak publicly that the reign of God is nearby.

He saw two fishermen and invited them to follow him. He saw two more, and invited them too. Then he went traveling and teaching in the synagogues about God’s good news, and healing people.

What’s interesting about all this is that Jesus had to take some time to consider what to do after John was arrested. Apparently, you could get arrested for speaking God’s truth to power. John wouldn’t leave prison alive, and Jesus needed to be sure about how he was going to move forward.

In other words, Jesus needed to discern his call by God, his purpose. Just going out and talking about God may get you arrested, and you should probably know whether that’s worth it or not. If you’re going to run the risk of getting arrested, you ought to be pretty sure what you’re being arrested for is that important—that high a calling.

I love that Jesus had to take some time to figure all this out. Even Jesus had to be clear about his call, his purpose. And once he felt OK about it, then he could move forward deliberately. And it turns out that for Jesus, he was so certain that he was willing to die for it.

If Jesus had to take the time to become clear about this, doesn’t it make sense that we should too? Before we can live a life of purpose as people of God, we have to trust first that we actually are called to a purpose. We have to believe that we are created in love, deliberately, with a unique collection of gifts and abilities no one else in all of history has ever had. You are more than individuals who work, have friends, save money, retire, and die. You are ever so much more. You are called. You have been given a purpose. And once you begin to grasp it, you have a meaning for your life and a direction.

Jesus called four fishermen for a purpose. Notice he didn’t tell them that as fishermen they would have to first become preschool teachers or attorneys before God could use them. He called them to be who they are, use their experience, their lives, their talents and skills as they followed Jesus. Fish for people. Their purpose was found in their truest selves and deepest identity.

Then, knowing they were called specifically for a purpose, it made sense that following Jesus was a necessary part of that call. Without a sense of purpose, it would be foolish for them to leave their nets and their father and follow him. First you spend time knowing who you are and that you are called, only then do you put it into action.

I think we too often are so concerned with action that we skip the essential part of understanding what the action is for. But simply “getting stuff done” without first understanding what you’re called to be about means we could simply be wasting our time. Just because something sounds like a good idea doesn’t mean we ought to do it. Maybe someone should, but someone for whom that good idea fits as part of their purpose.

It starts with knowing who you are. First of all, you are loved. You are worthwhile. You are forgiven. You are valuable. You are holy. You are made in the very image of the creator of love. That’s first and foremost who you are. That comes first. Admit that to yourself before anything else. That may take some time. That’s OK.

Then consider what it is that keeps you up at night. What gets your heart pumping and your adrenalin flowing? What do you love doing? What gives you contentment and satisfaction?

Use some imagination to think about how your identity as a holy, cherished, child of God overlaps with what you are passionate about. Again, it might take some time. But if Jesus needed time to do it, I guess it’s OK for us, too. You are called for a purpose. Discover that, and your life-direction takes care of itself.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Just Come and See for Yourselves (January 15, 2017)

John 1:29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed ). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter ).

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Just gonna say, John’s gospel is a little bit different. For me, I have to pick one small piece of John and then peel off the layers of that one part. To try to cover a whole bunch of verses like this in 10-12 minutes would end up being very shallow and, as far as I’m concerned, not very helpful.

The one small piece that is intriguing is how John the Baptist refers to Jesus in this gospel. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In fact, John the Baptist calls Jesus “the Lamb of God” twice—two days in a row. He doesn’t talk to Jesus, he just yells to his own disciples that Jesus is the Lamb of God.

The only other time Jesus is called “the Lamb of God” is in the book of Revelation, which, if you’ve read that book, does anything but clear this up. It’s about as confusing a book as there is in scripture.

Other biblical references to “lambs” include the Israelites using lambs as sin offerings. Sheep were sacrificed to God to atone for the people’s sins. That sounds good. Except these were sheep, not lambs. They were a year old, no longer lambs. And they were female. And they weren’t used for sin sacrifice. So the whole “who takes away the sin of the world” part doesn’t fit well.

How about the Passover when the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt and Moses was trying to get Pharoah to let them go. God kept sending plagues: flies, locusts, boils, Nile turning into blood. Otherwise pretty convincing stuff. But Pharoah won’t budge. The last plague was the death of the firstborn of every animal and every family. But the Israelites were given a secret signal to ward off the angel of death. Find a spotless lamb, kill it, cook it, and eat it. Then smear the blood of this lamb over the door of their houses. The angel of death would “pass over” that house, thus sparing the life of everyone inside.

Sort of makes sense to describe Jesus like that. I’m not comfortable with having to roast Jesus and eating him, smearing his blood on the door in order to remind God to have mercy. That could be what John meant, but it seems like we have to twist it a bit to make it fit.

Isaiah’s suffering servant who is “like  lamb that is led to the slaughter,” and who “bore the sins of many.” That kind of fits in a culture that accepts sacrifice as atonement. But God doesn’t require sacrifice for sin—that’s just barbaric. Is that really who the gospel writer believes God is? A barbaric entity requiring a blood sacrifice before being merciful? Shouldn’t we have a hard time with that kind of imagery regarding a God of unconditional love, compassion, peace, and care for the poor and the suffering?

The story of Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac is another one. Isaac notes there is a knife and a fire for the sacrifice, but asks about a lamb. Abraham responds, “God will provide a lamb.” Jon could be referring to that, I suppose.

For John to say it twice in two days, right at the beginning of the gospel seems specific and important. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Apparently, lambs are included in Jewish imagery of God. So “Lamb of God” seems to call to mind all that imagery, all those references, as a general perspective that in Jesus is God’s presence, God’s will, God’s victory, God’s compassion.

I think that’s really the point here. If we look to Jesus, we recognize the presence, love, compassion, and victory of God in our world.

The rest of this text makes a little more sense in that light. John the Baptist calls out Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” and a couple of John’s disciples follow after Jesus to find out. They ask where Jesus is staying, where he lives, the implication being that they want to spend time with him, to see and get to know the presence of God, the will of God, the compassion of God present in Jesus.

And rather than give them a lecture on what means or insights into the intricacies of how that all works, Jesus simply invites them to “Come and see.” That’s it. You don’t have to understand it, or explain it, or critique it. Just come to Jesus and see it. Come to Jesus and find out for yourself. If you don’t know what “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” means in explainable detail, that doesn’t matter. But if you want to know more about God, more about what God’s intentions are, God’s perspective is; if  you want to know compassion more, or love more, or grace more, come along with Jesus and see for yourself.

This may be hard for us preachers to admit, but our lectures and teachings and explanations don’t always help as much as we might like. So for today, I’ll stop doing that. Today, I’ll invite you to “come and see” the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Come and see for yourself. Check Jesus out, this one who reveals God’s presence in the world. The Lamb of God. Come and see. Follow him and see what happens.

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2017 in Sermon

 

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My God is Bigger than Your God (or Is It the Other Way Around?) Jan. 1, 2017

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

My bifocals were becoming less and less helpful. I don’t know what happens to eyeglasses, but they seem to become weaker with time. Maybe they just wear out. Could be…

So this last week I went to eye doctor for an exam. While there, I was talking to the tech who was doing all the preliminary tests and measurements. In the course of the conversation, somehow it came up that she used to go to church, but no longer does. I asked her why, what had happened? She told me that her pastor had physically thrown her across a room, shouting that she was the spawn of Satan because of something she had done.

She later tried a different church, but found it very judgmental and condemning. So she hasn’t been back. For her, God isn’t found in the community of church. God is experienced only in private. “I believe in God,” she told me, “but shouldn’t the church be less hateful and more supportive? You know, more like God?” I invited her here hoping she could experience church—therefore God—differently.

Her perception and experience of God is different than mine.

A couple of months ago, I made an appointment with the Imam at the Rocky Mountain Islamic Center here in Lakewood. Though a very proud U.S. citizen, he was born in Syria and has a deep sadness from his experiences of the civil war going on there. We sat down and talked about God, religion, politics, and more for about an hour and a half. His experience of God is that God has pretty high expecations. Forgiving, yes, God is absolutely forgiving. But that doesn’t let anyone off the hook for living a life defined by devotion, service, peace, and justice. The pillars of Islam aren’t to be trifled with.

His perception and experience of God is different than mine.

In conversations with my Black friends and my LGBTQ friends and my Spanish-speaking friends, they all have perspectives and experiences of God that are different than mine.

Our high school and middle school students in this congregation think about God differently than I do. My own children believe in God differently than I do. My wife’s experiences with God are different than mine.

In fact, with everyone I have any kind of a conversation with at all, I discover their perception and experience of God is in some ways different than mine.

I guess there are at least two ways to deal with that: 1) my perception and experience of God is the correct one, so all the rest of you are wrong. 2) Another thought might be that other people’s perceptions and experiences of God are just as valid as mine, and maybe I don’t know everything about God after all.

I’ll admit that if everyone believed what I believe and thought the way I think, life would be a lot easier. But our understanding of God and how God is active in the world would be pathetically narrow. We’d all miss so much of the depth and vastness of God’s love and how that love changes people’s lives in different ways. We’d miss out on so many chances to recognize God’s love present and the opportunities to share it in ways that matter.

I’m mindful of this today as we hear about Jesus and his parents being forced to flee Israel and become refugees in Egypt. I wonder how much their understanding and experience of God was changed by living in a foreign country and getting to know people whose perspective of God was way different than their own. They had already had their view of God pretty much blown out of the water what with angels and Mary’s pregnancy and visits from Magi and such as Matthew records.

Could their belief in God, as expanded as it had now become, keep pace with the way God was working among the Egyptian people? Or would their perception and experience of God need to expand yet again? Could they stlll believe—and follow—a God who was bigger than their experience? Could they actually continue to trust in a God who always seemed to be working outside of their understanding?

Thank goodness they could! Their trust and following God wasn’t dependent on their perceptions of God, but of a recognition that God exists beyond their perceptions. Beyond their experiences.

We here at LCM are primarily white, middle class Americans. There are some differences in our God-experiences, but beneath those subtle differences are some pretty common perceptions. That’s doesn’t make us bad or wrong, just less able to recognize God at work in ways outside of our white, middle class perspective. When our experiences of God are limited, we are the ones who get shortchanged.

Which is why one of our council goals for 2017 is to become more inclusive and diverse, reaching out to and strengthening relationships with people who aren’t white, aren’t middle class, aren’t straight, aren’t Lutheran, or aren’t even church-going. “Provide for and initiate opportunities to foster inclusivity and continue LCM’s outreach efforts with more diverse communities, e.g., racial diversity, LGBTQ, and beyond.”

Jesus and his family returned from Egypt with a fuller awareness of how God works in the world. I imagine that being told not to return to Bethlehem, but rather go to Nazareth in Galilee was, at this point, no longer a big deal. Sure Galilee is Gentile territory, and Nazareth was a nowhere village lost in what most Jews considered to be godless Galilee.

But Jesus and family had come to know better, I think. A Messiah could just as easily come from a remote pagan village as from Jerusalem, the center of all that is holy. Because God, they now knew, was bigger than that.

Imagine how much better we could be part of God’s work if our recognition of God was larger! Imagine how much more confidently we could follow Christ if we experienced God outside of our current understanding!

I hope my vision technician from my eye doctor’s office last week shows up here some day. Not just so she can experience God differently, but so that through her, we can too.

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2017 in Sermon

 

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