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Monthly Archives: May 2017

Flapping Your Arms Isn’t Flying (May 28, 2017)

Acts 1:6-14

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

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.

These apostles have given up a lot to follow Jesus around for these last three or so years. They left their livelihoods, their families, their security, and their whole way of life in order to live and learn from Jesus. Where he went, they wanted to go. What he did, they tried to do. What he taught, they attempted to learn.

They were shocked when he was arrested, and devastated when he was killed. But they were then filled with new hope when he was raised from death 40 days ago. So when he gathered them on a mountain outside Jerusalem, they eagerly went. After all they’d been through with him, surely now he must be getting ready to close this deal, to make all things right. If persecution, trial, and even death can’t stop Jesus, nothing could stand in his way now. So this must be God’s time: To end their poverty and their oppression. To put Rome back in its place. To reward the righteous and condemn the wicked. Yes, surely now would be that time.

And when they were gathered on the mountain with Jesus, they pose their big question to him one more time. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is this when we are vindicated, when you will show the world that we are God’s people, with all the rights and privileges that accompany it? We’ve followed you all this time, we’re ready to follow you across the finish line. Whatever it takes, Jesus, we’re with you.

Jesus’ answer has to be disappointing to say the least. “None of your business,” he tells them. God takes care of all that end-of-time justice. No, your job is going to be quite different. Ultimately, your job is to share what I’ve been teaching you in your neighborhoods, across your country, and throughout the world. The Holy Spirit will show you.

This isn’t really what they were expecting, and way different than they were hoping for. They are still thinking Jesus to bring power and strength and overthrowing those who stand in our way. But his very last words to them, ever, are to share his message of peace, of love, forgiveness, and compassion to everyone.

Then, before they could ask for more clarification, Jesus is gone in a cloud. Just gone. They stand there staring with their mouths hanging open, confused and unsure what to do.

So they return to Jerusalem, back to their room—and do nothing.

That’s where I have a problem.

All twelve of them, plus all the faithful women, just sat down and did nothing. The last thing Jesus said was to be witnesses, to share his message. He said it will start here in Jerusalem, then spread. It seems pretty clear that since Jerusalem is where they are to start, someone can come up with a plan of some sort. Someone. Something. After following Jesus around, listening to his teaching, watching how he did everything, surely someone would have picked up some idea of how to begin. At least begin doing something along the lines of what this man who has been raised from the dead told you to do. His last words to you.

Ideas? Anyone? Hello? Peter, you’re never at a loss for words. Anything? John, you were his favorite. Nothing? Mary, his own mother? No? No one?

And they sat. And waited. Like lazy, helpless people. Do something! What are you waiting for?!

Sometimes, when the disciples are most incompetent, that’s when God speaks the loudest. Go back and take another look at what Jesus actually did tell them. After he told them to mind their own business about the end of time, Luke records Jesus as saying, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Then he describes what that looks like, sharing his teaching of peace with the world. Not yet empowered by the Holy Spirit, they weren’t equipped to do what Jesus had told them.

There’s a huge difference between doing something and doing something empowered by God’s Spirit. One is just flapping your arms, the other is actually flying.

I’ve been trained by our surrounding culture to get busy, to accomplish stuff, get moving. The early bird gets the worm, and all that. That’s good, actually. But apparently, there’s more to it than that. There’s  the reason for working hard, the motivation for being busy, the purpose for trying to accomplish something. It’s not just our effort, but it’s our effort in keeping with God’s agenda. And waiting for God’s agenda isn’t what our culture supports us doing. Yet that’s what these clumsy, ignorant apostles did. And it was one time they got it right. Not just doing, but doing with God.

For example, I’m coming to believe that there’s a reason why Sunday Schools all over the country are transforming. Not because the agenda isn’t good, but because the Holy Spirit isn’t behind the agendas. We teach morals and good stories, and there’s nothing wrong with that; but we neglect what God’s purpose in all of it is. We memorize Bible verses, which is fine; but fail to teach how kids can recognize when the Spirit is empowering them to act.

And we don’t teach our kids because I don’t think we adults know it ourselves.

In his last words to his apostles, Jesus paints a great image of the change they will make in the world. And, yes, they will be required to sacrifice greatly in order to move toward it. It will take everything they’ve got—all their ambition, all their effort, and all their lives to make any of it happen. Once they are empowered by the Spirit. These apostles who never did anything right finally got it. It’s never about our agenda or our effort. It’s about having our agenda, our effort lined up with what God is doing. That’s discipleship. That’s the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. That’s following Jesus. And that’s what we’re all about.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Arrogance Is Never the Gospel (May 21, 2017)

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For “In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.’ 29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

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.

Have you heard of this apostle Paul? He is the one who opened up this new Jesus movement to the Gentiles. He’s the greatest evangelist of all time. He is credited with writing most of the New Testament. In this text in Acts, we get to hear one of this great man’s sermons. This famous follower of Jesus, after being chased out of two towns because his speaking about Jesus is so powerful, is now brought to this incredible venue to explain his views. The Areopagus in Athens, world-famous for its speakers and its court hearings. This is the big time.

Our bishop, Jim Gonia, preached Easter morning at Red Rocks Amphitheater this year. But as big a deal as that is, it can’t hold a candle to the Areopagus in Athens Greece in Paul’s day.

So here he is, on the biggest stage of his life, in front of a whole lot of people eagerly awaiting his speaking.

With all that heightened anticipation, he begins. And the response from the crowd is, “Meh.” Oh, a few were moved to follow Jesus. But the vast majority just kind of went, “What’s the big deal?”

To be honest, that’s pretty much my reaction too. Really, Paul? That’s the best you’ve got? You Greeks have a Unkown God, but we know who that God is? God doesn’t really live in statues? That doesn’t do much for me.

To be fair, perhaps Paul was having an off day. After all, the Thessolonicans won’t leave him alone. They’ve run him out of two cities now, and if they knew he was in Athens, they’d probably try again.

And this sermon was rather impromptu. He had been talking in the synagogue and then in the marketplace, which was his usual pattern, and those people whisked him off to the Areopagus, put him up on the stage, and said, “Go.” He had no time to prepare.

So we can cut him a little bit of slack. Even on his best day, no single sermon of Paul’s could ever touch everyone. Even Jesus couldn’t reach every person who heard.

But that really is true. Each person has unique experiences and histories. We’re all wired just a bit differently so that what has deep meaning to me is hardly worth hearing to you. That which reaches inside and touches the depths of your very soul might just sound like dogs howling to me.

The context of our lives matters. That’s the amazing thing about this gospel—it is good news in every context because it is solely about love and grace.

If it’s not sounding like good news to you, you’re likely hearing it from the perspective of someone else’s context. And if they’re telling you that what moves them and connects with them is the only way this gospel is real, they don’t know the gospel of Christ. They are putting their faith not in the gospel, but in their own interpretation of it as it touched them. And trying to make their unique perspective universal for everyone has got to be the height of self-centeredness. I can’t tell you that my history is the only one that matters. I can’t tell you that my interpretation of the gospel is the ultimate interpretation. I can’t tell you that what excites me has to, by my definition, excite you. And that if it does not, then you are obviously less, inferior, not as godly as me.

I’m glad some aspect of God’s love was moving to people who think that way, but no one can demand everyone else twist their lives to fit into one person’s perpective. Your life experiences are different than mine, so what would ever make me think that what makes sense for my life would have to make sense for yours before your life can be legitimate? What kind of arrogance is that?

The bottom line—and that which makes the gospel so universal—is that God is love. Which means you are worthy of love. So the question we need to ask ourselves is, “How has  love made a difference for you? How has love touched you and made you new? What does love look like for you?” This is the gospel. This is what Jesus came to show us. This is what God is like. And your story about this love, which is God, which is what Jesus is about, makes a huge difference.

Your story of love, of God, of Christ, is likely different than other people’s. Which means some may not be as moved by your story as you are. That doesn’t mean don’t speak about God’s love in your life, quite the contrary! It means you need to speak it clearly and boldly! It will touch someone! Just don’t be discouraged or upset if it doesn’t resonate with everyone. It’s not supposed to. It will touch some people, but it won’t—it can’t—touch every other person. No one’s story can do that. Christ is too genuine for that. Christ will reach other people with other experiences. We must affirm and recognize the validity of others’ stories of being made new in love too. They are genuine and just as legitimate as yours.

Share your story of God’s love in Christ. And don’t let anyone tell you, no matter how famous they are, that because their story is different, it’s more legitimate than yours. Christ has come to you in love. Nothing is more legitimate than that. Recognize God’s love in your life. Claim it. Share it. And encourage others to do the same. Even if the way God’s love touched them is different than yours. Share your story with me. I’d love to hear it even if it’s different than mine. Who knows, I might learn more about Christ’s love from your experience. Wouldn’t that be great?

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Redeeming the Stones (May 14, 2017)

Acts 7:55-60

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand Image result for beautiful stonesof God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

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 Uncle Tom Melville, who was very dear to me, died two weeks ago. He had quite an influence on me as Iwas growing up. He was a missionary priest in Guatemala. He would come to visit us occasionally, and told exotic stories of his adventures in the jungles of Guatemala that kept all of us riveted. Stories of good people who suffered in poverty, their struggle with an oppressive government and powerful landowners, and his efforts to bring fairness and justice into their lives. Things that make the very best stories.

When I was about ten years old, I remember my Uncle Tom no longer being in Guatemala. He and his new wife, my Aunt Marge, had been forced out of Guatemala for opposing the government’s policies that kept the poor in poverty. They were also released from their vows as a priest and a nun.

They had gone from Guatemala to Washington, D.C. In protest of the Vietnam War and the U.S. support of a corrupt government in Guatemala, they, along with seven other people, broke into the selective service office in Catonsville, MD, removed almost 400 military draft records there, took them out into the parking lot, and burned them. All of the “Catonsville Nine,” as they came to be called, then stood in a circle praying and waiting for the police to come and arrest them.

Tom and Marge both served some time in federal prison for that. What I took away from that was that when you act with compassion for others who are powerless to act for themselves, there may be consequences. Rather than back away from acts of compassion for the sake of justice, you act anyway and take the consequences.

So when I read this story in the book of Acts about Stephen, it elicits a similar reaction from me.

Stephen was one of the seven people who were chosen by this fledgling Jesus movement to serve tables and do other tasks. The apostles, then, would be freed up to teach and share what this Jesus movement was all about.

Stephen, however, was pretty good at preaching himself. Some who were in power were upset, accused him of blasphemy, and incited a crowd. He stood up for Christ’s gospel of peace and compassion, and was killed by those who couldn’t see God’s vision in that.

Sometimes, when you act with compassion for others who are powerless to act for themselves, there may be consequences. Rather than back away from acts of compassion for the sake of justice, you act anyway and take the consequences.

All my life I’ve marveled at Stephen, whose convictions were so strong that he was willing to face death rather than back away. I still do, but as I grieve the death of my uncle, something else occurs to me. When you don’t see God’s vision of peace, justice for the least, and compassion, you can easily justify throwing rocks at those who do.

Like Stephen, my uncle faced significant consequences because those in power couldn’t see God’s work of compassion and justice being done by him. We could argue about whether or not his methods produced the best results—the same with Stephen, actually. Still, because they couldn’t/ wouldn’t recognize God, those in power could justify throwing stones.

Think about this: throwing stones is actually anything we say and do that doesn’t support the gospel of peace and compassion. We all throw rocks. We all oppose God’s vision in some ways. And we all justify doing it.

The stoning of Stephen is a big example, but there are all kinds of small ones too. Stones that we constantly tossing at other people or things so we don’t have to see the hard part of God’s vision of justice and love.

Any time I try to gain something for myself at the expense of someone else, I’m throwing a stone at them.

Any time I turn aside when someone else is hungry or hurting or in need, I’m throwing a stone at them.

Any time I’m not hearing the pain or sadness that someone else is speaking, I’m throwing stones at them.

Any time I throw blame, exclude someone who’s different, talk about someone instead of talking to them, put my own comfort and preferences ahead of someone else’s, I’m throwing stones. I’m acting in opposition to the gospel of peace and compassion.

Stones themselves aren’t bad, but we can use stones badly. We have a God who is forgiving and gracious, whose very nature is compassion and redemption. Today, God can redeem our stones of opposition, and allow us to use them instead for God’s vision of peace.

The very stones that were used to kill Stephen could have been used in good and helpful ways. Homes could have been built from those stones. Beautiful sculptures and artwork could have come from those stones. Roads could have been built. Even jewelry could have been made from those stones. They could have been used for beautiful, peaceful, compassionate purposes. They didn’t have to be used to oppose Christ’s gospel of peace with such violence.

We have a pile of stones in the back of the church. When you leave today, take one with you. Consider the many ways it could be used. And in the same way, consider how many different ways our words can be used. How many different actions we can take, how many different behaviors we can exhibit. How many uses there are for our money and resources. All of these can be used to oppose Christ’s gospel, or to reveal it. We have been given a new chance today for the stones of our lives to be part of God’s justice and compassion in the world.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2017 in Sermon

 

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I”m Tired of Hearing, “Oh, I used to be Lutheran” (May 7, 2017)

Acts 2:41-47

So those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

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.

When people find out I’m a Lutheran pastor, the comment I hear most often is some variation of, “Oh! I used to be Lutheran.” That opens up the door for some interesting conversation. Because when I ask why they no longer are Lutheran, the responses go all over the place, with the bottom line being that church didn’t really matter—didn’t make much difference for them. Church wasn’t important enough for them to stick around. We’ll come back to that.

Do you know what the most common question I get asked as a pastor is? Any idea? The most common question I get as a pastor by far is, “How big is your church?” My answer generally varies from “about 30,000 square feet” to “Well, we have room for one more. Interested?” Which, of course, isn’t what they want to know.

Numbers are our default setting for how well something’s going. We cannot ignore numbers, but they don’t always tell the whole story, either. Albert Einstein is thought to have said, “Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything we measure matters.”

Yet no matter how often I talk about the fact that numerical church growth can’t be our primary measure of success, and no matter how often people say they agree, we still kinda all look at the numbers, don’t we? If the church has more people, we feel good about it and think we must be doing some things right. If our worship numbers are down, we beat ourselves up trying to figure out what we’re doing wrong.

Then there’s the book of Acts. 3000 members were added in one day, Luke writes. Granted, he’s likely painting an optimistic picture of the earliest days of the church, but he still puts that out there. What a huge success story, we think! Why isn’t that happening now? Here? With us?

Since we usually end up talking about numbers, let’s talk about numbers. Why aren’t there enthusiastic people clamoring to be part of churches in the US? Probably because of the next 5 verses.

All the disciples, Luke writes—3000 plus—devoted themselves to learning, to being community, to living generously, to growing as disciples. Day after day after day. Devoted to the way of Jesus. Committed to revealing and living God’s priorities in the world.

I’m not sure how many of us today feel that way about the church. I asked a friend and colleague what she thought the purpose of the church was. She answered, “To make the world a better place.”

I think that’s basically true. I would add that we make the world a better place as defined by God. And God’s vision is shown to us in the person of Jesus. Through the life and ministry of Christ we have insight into God’s ways of making a better world.

And that, I believe, is what this earliest group of followers in the book of Acts was doing. Gaining greater clarity about what it is that God is doing, understanding more precisely God’s priorities, seeing more clearly God’s vision, and then committing themselves to being part of that in the world. And isn’t that exactly what the church is really about?

Knowing Bible stories matters, but why? Because we can gain insight into God’s vision for justice, forgiveness, and inclusivity.

Growing numerically is wonderful, but why? Because we then have more gifts with which to do God’s work of making the world a better place.

Sunday worship attendance is super, but why? Because as we gather in God’s name we are reminded of who we are and why we are here. It is here that we are nourished at Christ’s table and equipped with God’s Word. It’s from here that we are sent out to make the world a better place.

How are we doing with that?

In some ways, actually pretty well! We are committed to compassion, and virtually every opportunity that comes to our attention receives our generous compassion and mercy in some way. We actually do reveal the heart and the grace of God in ways that matter. E.g., I have recent letters of thanks from 2nd Wind, LIRS, Habitat for Humanity, Family Tree, World Hunger. Solar panels eliminated our carbon footprint. We generously support for our youth, and continuously offer our building to the community for scouts, support groups, community meetings. These things make a difference. To be honest, in some ways we really are amazing.

In other ways there’s room for growth. There are reasons why our compassion needs to continue to be poured out. There’s nothing we can do about natural disasters, for instance. But there are more effective things we can do about poverty, homelessness, disease, racism, homophobia, any form of intolerance or exclusion. Those things are on us. We’ve made the church more about convenience and comfort than devotion to Christ.

Most of us consider the church to be yet another volunteer organization in our culture. But I don’t think God sees it that way. I believe God considers the followers of Jesus to be the best hope for changing the world. If we aren’t on the leading edge of understanding, revealing, and living out the heart of God, who else can be?

As Frank Davis of Zion Baptist told me, changing the world won’t come from the white house, it won’t come from the state house, changing the world will come from the church house.

That takes devotion. It takes a commitment to learning, to being community, to living generously, to growing as disciples. Day after day after day. Devoted to the way of Jesus. Committed to revealing and living God’s priorities in the world.

We do that, and we’ll stop hearing, “Oh, I used to be Lutheran.” Instead we’ll begin hearing, “Wow! How do I become a Lutheran?” Church is meant to be important enough for them to stick around. Disciples of Jesus: we’ll change the world.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2017 in Sermon

 

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