Monthly Archives: August 2017

“Who Do You Say I Am?” Can We Be Honest? (Aug. 27, 2017)

Matthew 16:13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

There are two questions that Jesus asks in this text. “Who do others say I am?” and, “Who do you say I am?”

I think we’re good at answering the first one, and not as good at answering the second.

The first question, “Who do other people say I am?” includes what we’ve been taught about Jesus, what people we respect say about Jesus, and what is generally accepted about Jesus. This question is often about doctrine, where there are right and wrong answers. We’ve become so reliant on what others say about Jesus that we have a hard time answering for ourselves. In the old days, if someone answered this question incorrectly, we would burn them at the stake.

We don’t do that anymore. Instead, if someone disagrees with the correct doctrinal position they simply burn in hell. Because we’re no longer uncivilized barbarians.

We’ve been trained over the centuries to have the “correct” answers to all things Jesus. We’ve had the ability to answer the second question, “Who do you say that I am?” frightened out of us. We’re so afraid of being wrong that we simply go along with everyone’s answer, assuming they are right. We’re no longer willing to go out on a limb, do a gut-check, to discover something new about Jesus. It’s as if all there was to know about him was discussed in the first few years, the question was called, the debate was closed, and a vote was held. No more discussion. No more discovery. No more sharing of eye-opening personal experiences with one we claim has risen from the dead. It’s all about what other people have said about him.

It’s important to note Jesus’ questions weren’t “Who do others say that I am?” and then, “OK, now what’s the correct answer?” No, he asks the disciples who Jesus is for them. He asks for their honest speculation. He asks them to take a risk, venture out, be vulnerable, and answer for themselves.

All the disciples are silent. You can hear crickets chirping, feet shuffling. Then Peter, who can’t stand awkward silences, opens his mouth and says something. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus praises him for answering. And we’ve assumed all these centuries that Peter is praised for having the “right” answer, even though Peter proves in the verses immediately following today’s text that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about (come back next week!). It’s true that his answer has become the doctrinally correct one—the answer we are now supposed to use when asked who Jesus is. But in reality, it’s still probably what other people say Jesus is.

The church, at our heart, is a community where we ought to listen to what others have said about Jesus. We should hear what wise and deeply spiritual people have experienced him to be. But that cannot prevent us from discovering how he encounters us now, how he opens our hearts to God today, how he moves us in our own growth as disciples. What others say about him matters because it can open us up to possibilities, but it can’t be the final word for us.

We know all the “correct” answers. We know what is proper doctrine. We know what the first Christians voted on and approved as the right answers. But unless we are encountering the living Christ, we are only able to quote what other people say about him. Until we’ve answered for ourselves, based on our experience with the resurrected Christ, the best we can do is be silent like the rest of the disciples.

So here’s my question today. Why not answer Jesus’ second question, “Who do you say that I am?” What’s wrong with being honest about who Jesus is for us? What’s stopping us from sharing our own experiences, our own heart-events with him? Others might say our experiences are wrong. Some might even want to burn us at the stake because we may not be doctrinally correct.

But Jesus still asks, “Who do you say that I am?” In your spiritual journey, in your life-experience, who is he to you?

Because he has encountered you. If you haven’t recognized him, it might be because you’re only looking for the Jesus that other people have described. That may not be the way he comes to you. If you’ve been moved to acts of compassion, might that be the risen Christ? If you find yourself desiring mercy—given or received, couldn’t that be Christ moving in your life? When you are generous, kind, gracious, when you serve others, can’t we consider the possibility that it is Christ who has met us and moved us there?

Who is Jesus for you?

For me, at least today, Jesus is the one who reveals what God is like. He is the one who inspires me to live differently, generously, boldly. He is the one who makes me realize that those I tend to ignore are just as worthwhile as those I pay attention to. He is the one who moves me from judgment to listening. He is the one who brings out the “image of God” in me. It is in these ways that he is the Son of the Living God for me.

Feel free to disagree. You can call me a heretic or believe I’m on my way “somewhere” in a handbasket. But when Jesus asks who I say he is, I need to answer him.

Who do you say he is? I’d love to hear how you answer that!

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Posted by on August 28, 2017 in Sermon


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Does God’s Grace Include Racists? (August 20, 2017)

Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus left that place (Gennesaret of Galilee) and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

What do you make of Jesus’ rudeness? First he ignores this poor woman whose daughter is sick. Then when he finally does acknowledge her, says it’s not his job to help her, and he calls her a dog.

Are you bothered by Jesus’ treatment of this Canaanite woman?

The thing is, for the audience the author of Matthew wrote this gospel for, they likely wouldn’t be offended at all. They may not even notice Jesus’ attitude, because it may have so reflected their own. Matthew’s Christian audience was Jewish historically. They were wrestling with this concept of non-Jews being part of the church.

They understood Jewish Christians to be God’s elect, special people God had chosen to bring light into the world. They believed that their way of life, their view of the world, their belief in God was given to them by God, and therefore the rest of the world should do things the way they did them. Especially when it comes to faith, religion, and Jesus. They had the answers. In order to be doing God’s will, the rest of the world—certainly non-Jewish Christians in Israel—needed to listen to them and follow their lead. They were the ones who knew what God wanted, and how God wanted it.

So of course this Gentile, this apostate, this enemy, this woman isn’t worthy of Jesus’ time. She represents everything that good Christian people ought not to be. She’s wrong in her ethnicity, her heritage, her religion, and her gender.

What’s worse, she’s culturally way out of bounds too. Women of God were expected to be reserved in public. But she’s shouting at Jesus, making demands of Christ. Who does she think she is?

Jesus would be right, according to Christian belief in Matthew’s community, in ignoring her. You can’t encourage such dog-like behavior from a dog-like person. She needs to learn what it is to be a believer in the one true God. Jesus needs to put her in her place. He needs to show her what God-fearing people are like. She’s wrong in every possible way, and Jesus needs to let her know that.

That’s likely the background of Matthew’s audience as they hear this text. So the offense wouldn’t be Jesus’ rudeness, but her un-Christian behavior and inferior beliefs.

So the surprise would be Jesus actually listening to her, then changing his mind and agreeing with her, and then commending her faith! God’s mercy, apparently, is even for people like her—a woman so far outside their Christian thinking that it’s offensive to have to include her.

I want to stop a moment and check in with you. How are you feeling about this story now? Are you more sympathetic with the Jewish Christians in Matthew’s community? Have your views of this woman changed at all? Does their being offended by her affect how they should treat someone like her?

But mostly, I want to see if you are making any connections with our lives right now.

In our American Christian thinking, who do we automatically assume is outside God’s mercy and grace? Who, by virtue of their inclusion, would we be offended by? Who do we all pretty much agree, without even needing to say it, have no place in the church?

I’ll tell you who that is for me. It’s the racist, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, white supremacists who planned an evil rally of violence and hatred in Charlottesville, VA. I do not want them or any of their sympathizers anywhere near this church. I am desperately offended by their use of the name of Jesus to proclaim such vile, wicked, sinfulness. Their actions and attitudes are, beyond any shadow of a doubt, absolutely, completely, totally despicable. Make no mistake about that. That behavior is truly contrary to everything Jesus lived and died for.

I’ve always known that racism and hatred have been present. But in my own white privilege it hasn’t always affected me. I could ignore it, or at least be silent about it, because I wasn’t victimized by it every day.

But now the lid has been blown off that superficial comfort. Now the very present, even bold, evil of racism is right in my face. And people who look like me are using Jesus’ name to justify horrible, evil actions and attitudes.

And I can’t stand it.

And this gospel text points out that God’s mercy is for those people too. If I ever were to swear in a sermon, right now is when it would come out. Because that offends me in ways that are so deep I can’t express them. The actions of those people, who dare to call themselves Christian, are as far away from Jesus as possible, yet this text says that God’s mercy is for them too. There’s room at the communion table for them too. And it is my job—our job—to proclaim that and live that. Regardless of how offensive that is to me, I’m the one who has to adjust to that. My attitude has to change. I cannot condone or justify their actions or attitudes, but they, as human beings, are included in God’s grace.

If even those who are dispensers of evil are included in God’s mercy, then it seems the door is pretty wide open. Wouldn’t you say that it’s a pretty easy call that people who aren’t spewing vile, hateful rhetoric ought to be invited and included?

About 55% of this congregation lives in zip code 80228. The other 45% live in concentric circles around 80228. There are over 32,000 people just in the 80228 zip code. Of those, over 5000 of them are people of color within a couple of miles of this building’s doors. Hundreds of these, just in 80228, are Black. And if only 55% of our congregation lives in 80228, then don’t tell me there are no Blacks who live here. Thousands are Hispanic or Latino. Although I couldn’t find statistics on how many are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, Denver has the 9th largest LGBTQ population in the country. God’s mercy is for them, and we are the ones called and equipped to proclaim and to live that. So why are so few here?

We need to change that. We need to live and breathe the reality that God’s mercy is actually for all people. We need to be the visible witness of the wideness of God’s grace.

And here’s our next step. We, as a congregation, are going to have a conversation in the not too distant future, about becoming a “Reconciling in Christ” congregation. Which means in the ELCA that we state publicly that we openly welcome and affirm those in the LGBTQ community. God’s mercy includes everyone. We may as well say it. We may as well show it. We may as well live it. If you’d like to be part of the team to plan that conversation, let me know.

As disciples of Jesus, Christians are God’s chosen people. But not for privilege. We are chosen to proclaim, to reveal, and to live out God’s mercy and grace to all people. And we each can take another step forward in that call starting today.

My friend, Pastor Meta Carlson recently wrote a simple way to take a step forward, “Turn your face to the truth. The truth about God’s love, God’s people, God’s justice. And then find someone to tell. Wake a child, call a friend, kiss a lover, stand awkwardly outside until a dog-walking neighbor comes by and scare the crap out of them with some love. Tell someone the truth tonight. ‘You are created in the image of God. God made you and said “very good.”’”

You see, God’s grace includes everyone. We begin anew today.

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Posted by on August 20, 2017 in Sermon


“Just Get Back in the Boat, Peter” (August 13, 2017)

Matthew 14:22-33

Immediately [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Jesus, on hearing of John the Baptist’s death, tried to get away to mourn. Because the crowds followed him and he had compassion for them, he delayed his period of grief and began to heal their sick.

Now, after feeding the 5000+, he tries again to go off by himself. He not only sends the crowds on their way, but he makes his disciples leave too. He orders them to get into a boat and go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He was finally able to spend some time alone.

The disciples, however, didn’t have such a refreshing night. A storm came up and kept them from reaching land. Fighting all night long against the wind and the waves, they couldn’t get to the other side of the sea. Even though Jesus told them to go, the storm kept them from obeying him.

Frightened and exhausted, in the midst of the storm they see someone walking across the water toward them. It was still dark, and I can’t even imagine how terrifying that would be on top of everything else. Of course they think it’s a ghost. What else would they think?

So even though Jesus tries to reassure them, Peter makes a really stupid suggestion, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” I can just hear Jesus thinking to himself, “Peter, just stay in boat with the others like I told you.” But I envision Jesus heaving a big sigh and saying, “Alright, Peter. Go ahead.”

I get being terrified, and I get wanting to be near Jesus. But I’m not sure why Peter would think walking on the water would be the best way to deal with his fear. Why not ask for the storm to stop? Or to be transported to land? Or a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich?

Because here’s how I see Peter’s attempt to walk on water. Not an act of faith, but of selfishness. He not only forgets Jesus’ command to the disciples, but he abandons them in order to ease his own panic. He’s going to do whatever it takes to be comforted in his fear, even if it means leaving the relative safety of the boat and the team effort of his friends. He’s striking out on his own so that he can be with Jesus, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. In the face of his own panic, this is an act of cowardice and selfishness, hardly one of faith.

I keep coming back to one of Jesus’ primary themes in Matthew. You are all in this life together, so you better hang in there together. Quit creating divisions. The parable of the different soils—he seed will still come to you. The parable of the weeds and the wheat—hang in there together. If we abandon others just so we can get closer to Jesus on our own, we wind up sinking.

Now, hear what I’m saying. I’m not saying we shouldn’t turn to Jesus when we’re afraid. But I am saying that sometimes “faith” means sticking it out with the other disciples in the boat. Sometimes “faith” means holding to what Jesus tells us to do even if that means heading into the storm. Sometimes “faith” means supporting each other when we’re afraid and trusting that Jesus will meet us there. Sometimes “faith” means recognizing that God is God, Jesus is Jesus, and we are not. Jesus walks on water, we don’t. Sometimes “faith” means staying in the boat together, which, by the way, is where Jesus told Peter to be in the first place.

I’m afraid that sometimes, in order to seek our own personal comfort with Jesus, we abandon the others in the boat. And I think that is the lack of faith—the doubting—that Jesus confronts Peter with. If we are forsaking others for our own sense of spiritual righteousness, we’ll sink. If we want Jesus to save us while ignoring others in the boat, we’ll sink. If we are so terrified of the wind and the waves that we bail on our community with the excuse of getting closer to Jesus, we’ll sink.

Sure, Jesus reaches out and saves the sinking Peter. But the point of the story isn’t that Peter is a good example. Rather, that even if we panic, even if we abandon others in the boat, even if we are so terrified that we do ridiculous things, Jesus still comes to us and reaches out to us. But Jesus is coming to us whether we’re afraid or not.

We all get terrified at some points in our lives and can’t see Jesus there, right? We all have points at which we want to abandon others for our own safety and comfort.

When we face the first holiday without a loved one, we can be filled with dread.

When the symptoms of a disease we thought was gone begin to re-emerge, we can sense the panic.

As we foolishly tinker with the possibility of nuclear war, we can begin to feel the nervousness.

As we look on, aghast, at the hatred and violence and the evil of racism so boldly displayed in Charlotsville, Virginia, and we begin to get concerned about where this will lead.

As we watch our Muslim siblings, our immigrant siblings, our transgender siblings face very real discrimination and even persecution, we can begin to give in to our fear of what’s coming next. And it can take over our actions. We might simply want to abandon everything and everyone else and run to Jesus. We want to escape our fear and be held in his comfort. Even if that means doing something dumb like abandoning those in the boat and trying to walk on water on our own. Fear can do that to us.

But Jesus is coming to us. Just stay in the boat together.

We may not recognize him, but he’s walking across the fear to us. Just stay in the boat together.

At first, his approach may cause even more fear. But he’s there. Just stay in the boat together.

We’re in a boat together. And we sink or are saved together. And Jesus comes to us across the chaos, through the fear, together. And when we’re all together in the boat, and the storm is stilled, we worship him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

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Posted by on August 13, 2017 in Sermon


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A Gift Card, Crowds, More than Enough (August 6, 2017)

Matthew 14:13-21

Now when Jesus heard [that John the Baptist had been killed], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

“[Jesus] ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.”

I read recently that the five loaves and two fish would be enough for a meal for about dozen people. Which means the disciples brought enough for themselves. It’s evening so they want Jesus to quit healing the crowds and send them into town so they can get some food for themselves.

The disciples have enough for themselves, but not for everybody else.

They have enough for themselves.

The disciples aren’t mean. They are noticing that it’s now evening, and if these crowds are going to have any chance of finding food for themselves they better get on it soon! Since the disciples have theirs, they want to make sure these thousands of others can get theirs too.

The disciples have enough for themselves. It’s not their fault the crowds didn’t plan ahead. But Jesus invites them to think about their food—and the crowds—differently too. He asks them to give their food away.

I wonder if the real miracle was that these disciples trusted Jesus enough to do it. Trusted him enough to be willing to take the risk of going hungry if others didn’t share also.

If the disciples had kept their mindset of “I’ve got mine, now you go get yours,” some would surely have gone hungry. But Jesus challenges them to think beyond that. Jesus’ message is that it can’t be “I’ve got mine, good luck to you.” Jesus helps us understand that, together, we’ve got more than enough already. More than enough. It’s a matter of thinking differently about our resources. Thinking beyond ourselves and our own needs. It’s a matter of knowing that there is already more than enough and acting on that. When we have more than enough we are free to be generous.

I talked a couple of months ago about a man named David I met in a coffee shop. When I first met him he was sitting at the table next to mine. The sermon I was working on at the time had to do with racism, and as David was Black, I eventually leaned over and asked this stranger to read over what I had written and give me his impressions. Which he generously and graciously did. I’ve seen him a few times since at the same coffee shop, and we always exchange greetings and he gives me encouragement to keep proclaiming the Word.

This past week David and I were both there again. As usual, we greeted each other and he encouraged me to “keep telling them about Jesus.” We went to our separate tables and each tended to our work. A while later I noticed David walking toward my table. He smiled, and as he approached he laid a coffee shop gift card on my table. “This is for you,” he said. “For your faithfulness and commitment to Jesus.” Then he left.

Here’s why I mention this. You see, when I got to the coffee shop that day and had ordered my latte, there was a moment where I didn’t think I had enough money with me to pay for it. I found a $5 bill, I breathed a sigh of relief—I could buy myself my own cup of coffee. And get change besides. With my drink in hand, I could ignore everyone else in the coffee shop, not really paying any attention as to whether they had coffee or not. I got mine.

But David saw more than just himself in the coffee shop. He saw at least one other person and shared some of his own resources with me. That make me think that there were 16 other people in that coffee shop at that point, and all of them are children of God, all of us are “sitting in the grass” of the coffee shop right then. The hearing impaired couple at the next table, the elderly couple neither of which could walk well, the woman in a wheelchair, the young man mentoring a high school student, the four women playing cards, and all the rest aren’t people to be ignored, but people with stories and lives and who are are worth being cared about.

So, inspired by my friend David, and in an attempt to live out the point of this text, I began to think about what I had that I could share with the multitudes sitting in the grass of the coffee shop. I’m not a stalking creeper or anything. I’m really good at respecting people’s space. But I’m writing this sermon on taking a risk of sharing what you have, and was just on the receiving end of that as the gift card was still sitting there in front of me.

What could I share? I had no more money with me. I wasn’t about to stand up and offer a benediction to all the coffee shop patrons. Interestingly enough, a woman at a nearby table seemed quietly frustrated with her computer. I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been inspired by David and this text to look beyond myself at the crowds around me. I left the comfort of my own world bubble and asked her if there was anything I could do. It turns out she couldn’t get on the internet even though her computer was brand new.

I’ve struggled to get online there too, and had kind of figured out how to do it, and offered to share that knowledge with her. There was enough band width for everyone with 12 baskets left over. I just had to look a little bit beyond myself and see what I had to share. There’s more than enough for all of us.

We have enough for everything God is calling us to do. Individually for sure. But as a congregation too. Right now. We have more than enough. Our budget is more than sufficient, our human resosurces are more than adequate, our overall giftedness is overabundant. We’re being called to look beyond ourselves and share the abundance of what we have so that all see the miracle of Christ present, so that all have enough. We have enough for ourselves. And it’s more than enough when we share it.

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Posted by on August 6, 2017 in Sermon


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