Monthly Archives: November 2019

A Different Perspective on Advent (Dec 1, 2019)

Luke 1:46-55

Mary said “yes” when an angel announced that would become pregnant outside of marriage. Because she said “yes,” her whole community assumed she was lying about the pregnancy, or worse. She would endure judgment, criticism, ridicule, shunning, and loss of respect. She would be seen by her family and friends as a sinful girl, condemned to live outside of God’s righteousness. Her pregnancy, and eventually her illegitimate baby, would be living reminders of her great shame.

That would be one perspective on Mary. A perspective based on the way the world around her worked.

Another perspective would be that by saying “yes,” an entirely new life opened up for her. That one word moved her directly into the path of God’s redeeming activity for the world. She became caught up in God’s mercy and love which was changing everything. God’s purpose of redemption and love became the center of her life, and everything was made new. Her perspective, her worldview, her priorities, her day-to-day living.

In that one “yes” her heart was opened to a clearer, completely new understanding of who God is and what God is about. And that new awareness of God’s purpose in the world overwhelms her, and pours out from her heart when she meets her cousin Elizabeth in this text today.

Mary’s Magnificat is an outpouring of praise for the God of love and mercy who has now filled her heart and her life. Her joy cannot even be contained. It flows from her, a river of meaning, fulfillment, and joy. Her life is entirely new and wonderful.

That is another perspective on Mary. A perspective based on the nearness of God.

The season of Advent presents us with some different perspectives on our lives and our world. Some are based more on how the world around us works. Others are based more on God coming near to us. But because of what Advent is, the differences in these perspectives can be quite stark. And, the opportunities that lie before us in this season are quite contrasting.

For instance, informed by the world in which we live, this time before Christmas is pretty chaotic, stressful, and sometimes pretty lonely. We sprint through store after store stressing out as we try to find the perfect gifts for everyone. We spend way more than we should for gifts that may not even be needed. We fill our calendars with all the holiday parties we have to attend with people we don’t know even though we really don’t want to go. We shop till we drop loading up credit cards that will then take months—if not years—to pay off. Not to mention digging out the house decorations, putting up the tree, inviting the guests, hosting the dinners. We have to put on a happy face and pretend we’re enjoying all this stress, because we’re supposed to. Even if what we’re really experiencing is just plain loneliness or heart aching grief.

We’ll then make it to church Christmas Eve, but we’ll be exhausted. We’ll hear the story of the manger, we’ll hold a candle and sing Silent Night, but in all honesty we’ll just be glad when it’s over.

That’s one perspective. One that doesn’t include all the opportunities for heart-filled joy of this season.

Another perspective would one that is informed by the nearness of God whose love for the world is about to bowl us over. Advent can be the time to follow Mary, say “yes,” and move directly into the path of God’s redeeming activity in the world. To get caught up in God’s mercy and love which change everything. To get to know God in surprisingly new ways that make our whole lives new. To experience the joy that Mary couldn’t contain, the pouring out praises to the God of love and mercy. A God whose story—we are reminded—is one of coming so close that the world could actually touch God. In Advent we can be filled with meaning, fulfillment, and the joy of Christ that make our lives entirely new and wonderful.

That’s another perspective. One that helps us re-discover that which has been missing for us. A perspective based less on stress and more on that which fills the empty places in our hearts.

We can begin today. We can join Mary as she says “yes” to God’s justice and mercy, as she pours out her Magnificat of praise from the depths of her being, as she opens her heart to be filled with God’s love for the world.

There are a lot of different perspectives on Advent. We have the opportunity to experience this season from the perspective of God’s love, mercy, and justice that is sweeping into the world. We can step directly into the path of God’s presence with us. We can experience God’s newness and life. We can have our hearts opened again to God’s purpose in the world. We can pour out our praise to the God who comes near and makes all things new. We can say “yes” this season. Yes to pouring ourselves out in worship. Yes to being made new. Yes to re-discovering that which has been missing. Yes to full and joyful hearts.

God comes near to us. Of course, that’s just one perspective.

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Posted by on November 29, 2019 in Sermon


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Today You Are Loved (Nov 24, 2019)

Luke 23:33-43

“You’re not quite good enough.”

That was the earliest message I can remember receiving.

“That was a dumb thing to do, Robbie, I wonder if you’re just not smart enough.” “You get good grades, but look at your friend Allen. His are better. I guess he just works harder.” “You practice your music, apparently not quite enough, though. Otherwise you’d be first chair all the time.”

As I grew up, that message became for me more than not being able to do enough. It became a belief that as a human being, I wasn’t good enough. It moved from a lack in what I did to a lack in who I am. That message formed a foundation of my whole identity. Not being good enough is a demon I’ve wrestled with my whole life. Striving to be seen as good enough has been a lifelong endeavor.

That’s mine. But I think everyone has some way they fall short, aren’t enough, are a failure. Most everyone has some experience of shame that’s part of their personal story, some part of their lives where they feel unworthy or disgraced.

What makes it so difficult is that everyone has been judged for it. And found lacking.

So what we tend to do is cover up those inadequacies, keep them secret. We avoid situations where they might be exposed. Sometimes we even pretend to ourselves that they aren’t even there. But they always show up. Our shortcomings find a way to sneak out and reveal themselves. Which prompts us to work even harder at covering them up. Which means that when they show up again, we feel even more like a failure.

On Christ the King Sunday, we’re reminded that we are constantly on the lookout for a king who doesn’t live with that kind of shame. One who doesn’t fail, who doesn’t have those shortcomings. One who really is good enough. And then, when we find that king, we commit to following that king—hoping that maybe we, too, can have our shortcomings, our failures, our incompetancies removed. Then we can be seen, finally, as good enough.

That’s the king we want. Someone who can overcome our failures. One who will finally make us “good enough.” That’s the king we hope for.

But it’s not the king we get.

The king we get is a shameful, powerless, weak, inglorious loser. That’s what crucifixion makes public. The king we get was betrayed, arrested, put on trial, beaten, humiliated, mocked. Finally, and publicly, the king we get was nailed to a cross in the most shameful form of death that Rome could think up. Crucifixion was more than capital punishment, it was a public display of shame. According to the standards of this world, this king didn’t measure up.

The crowds knew it; that’s why they just stood by and watched.

The leaders knew it; that’s why they scoffed at this king who couldn’t even save himself.

The soldiers knew it; that’s why they mocked him and stole his clothing.

One of the criminals being executed with Jesus knew it; that’s why he derided him as a false messiah who couldn’t save anyone, much less him.

Rather than a king who fixes all our weaknesses, we get one who shows up with even more.

“But,” we say, because we’re still looking for the king we prefer, “Jesus was innocent. He didn’t do anything wrong. Therefore, he can still fix all our shortcomings.”

But that’s not what this king is about. This king doesn’t make us worthwhile by making us good enough. The reign of this king has nothing to do with somehow becoming good enough or successful enough or likable enough or holy enough. No, the reign of this king goes a completely different direction. It starts in a completely different place.

What kind of a king do we really have? Not one who has come to make the world see us as good enough, but one for whom the only thing that matters is love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. Which this king doles out indiscriminately, constantly, unconditionally. Whether the world around us thinks we’re good enough or not doesn’t even come into the picture in the reign of this king.

Now, overcoming shame is a good thing. Learning from our failures and growing into more competent human beings is great. There is nothing wrong with being recognized by our world as good enough. But whenever we talk about overcoming our inadequacies as the goal—the purpose—of a king, we are measuring that king’s reign by the standards of this world. It doesn’t work. Look at Jesus. The prime example. He and his kingdom were measured by Rome’s standards, and fell quite short. He didn’t overcome those who killed him, he forgave them, for, as he said, “they do not know what they are doing.” He didn’t condemn the criminal being executed next to him, but promised that “today you’ll be with me in Paradise.”

What kind of a king do we really have? Not one who has come to make the world see us as good enough, but one for whom the only thing that matters is love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion.

The funny thing is, the love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion that define this king and his reign are the very things that assure us we already are good enough. Not because we’ve overcome so many inadequacies, but simply because we are loved by this king. And you are loved by this king. Christ the King. Which means that no matter what the world around you says, you are, right now, more than good enough. You are loved by Christ the King.

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Posted by on November 22, 2019 in Sermon


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Your Story Needs to be Told (Nov 17, 2019)

Luke 21:5-19

The Temple in Jerusalem is central in Luke’s gospel. Luke’s account actually begins in the temple with a priest named Zechariah who was preparing to go into the Holy Place inside the temple to offer incense to God. And Luke also ends his gospel in the temple with the disciples returning there after Jesus is taken up to continually bless God in the temple.

There are lots of significant things happen in the temple in Luke. In Chapter 2, Jesus is circumcised there when he’s 8 days old. His parents bring him again to be presented to the priests for his dedication as the firstborn. In the temple Simeon and Anna prophesy about the baby. When he’s twelve years old, Jesus travels with his parents to the temple where he stays behind while they think he’s traveling back to Nazareth with them. It took them three days to find him—in the temple. One of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness involved the temple—will you throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple to see if God will save you?

Jesus’ most pointed teachings come while he’s in the temple. Once he gets to Jerusalem in Chapter 19, he’s in the temple every day teaching there, confronting the religious leaders there, running the moneychangers out of there.

Every day he’s in the temple, which is the heart and the center of life for the Jewish people. The temple is where God lived. It’s where all sacrifices and offerings to God took place.

And the temple at the time of Jesus was absolutely magnificent. The outer walls of the temple area were 500 yards long and 300 yards wide. If you’ve been to St. Peter’s square in Rome (the whole square, not just the Basilica), the temple was about that size. Everything from top to bottom was built from huge stones elaborately carved with care and skill. It was decorated with impressive jewels and layers of gold. It was the best, the most ornate building that anyone, including the Romans, could have possibly built at that time. Nothing was too good for the house of God. The temple was the pride of Jerusalem, the pride of all Jewish people everywhere.

And here, today, when his disciples are understandably looking at it in awe, Jesus talks about its destruction. Well, this certainly gets his disciples’ attention. “When?” “How?” “What warning will we have?”

Jesus answers them in the rest of this text by basically saying, “Don’t get all worked up about that. The temple being destroyed is only one of lots of things are going to be happening. Wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines, plagues, pretty much every bad thing you can think of. The temple is just one of them.”

Now, if you study Luke’s gospel, you realize that by the time Luke writes this gospel down and shared with his community, it’s about 85-90AD. The temple had already been destroyed by the Romans fifteen or twenty years earlier in the year 70AD. So you have to ask, why is Luke including this prediction, when some in his audience only have memories of the temple?

The answer seems to be that they are experiencing all the other things Jesus was predicting. Luke’s community was likely in the midst of violence and severe persecution. The Roman Emperor during Luke’s time was named Domitian, and history recalls, in the kindest terms, that there was something wrong with him. Paranoid, desperately cruel, and terminally narcissistic, he was the first emperor to demand all people in the empire refer to him with divine titles such as “Savior” and “God the Lord.” Luke’s community may have been in danger because as followers of Jesus, they weren’t inclined to hail the Roman Emperor as “Lord of the Earth” or “the Chosen One.”

I’m giving you this history lesson because this is where it connects. In Luke’s text today, Jesus lists all these life-threatening events that Luke’s hearers are already experiencing. Imagine how Luke’s people would hear this: Jesus says that all this horrible stuff that you’re experiencing “will give you the opportunity to testify.” Don’t worry about it, you don’t have to come up with some elaborate defense as to why you aren’t going along with the Emperor. Just tell your story, Jesus says. Just tell what God has done in your life. Just tell what a difference God has made for you. If you do that, no one can argue with you. Because it’s your story. And that, apparently, is the thing that matters.

I don’t pretend to fully understand all this, because Jesus says some people “will be put to death,” and then in the next sentence he says, “but not one hair of your head shall perish.” So there are some things that may not be clear here. But one thing that is clear is that we need to have the ability to tell our stories. When things are tough, when life is hard, we need to remind people of the ways God’s love has touched us. We need to remind people of the difference Jesus has made in our lives. We need to remind people of those times when God’s goodness and mercy and compassion were made real for us. We need to be able to tell those stories. Tough times are our opportunities to testify to the reality of God’s grace. Because, whether you believe it or not, we all have those experiences. We all have a testimony to give. We all have a story to tell. And there are times when these experiences need to be shared.

Maybe today is a day that you need to hear again of the difference God’s love makes. Maybe today you need to be reminded of the father whose experience of God’s love was so profound that it jolted him into receiving treatment for his addiction. Maybe today you need to be reminded of the child who was so moved by God’s love for poor children that they went around their neighborhood with a wagon, collecting food for the local food pantry. Maybe today you need to hear of a struggling single mom who encountered God’s love through a local congregation that “adopted” her, showering her with Christmas toys for her children, grocery cards, and gas cards. Maybe today you need to hear about 40 children from Molholm Elementary School here in Lakewood who will now get to go to Outdoor Lab because God’s love met them through you.

I’m so convinced that we need to be able to tell our stories that in January I’m going to offer a God-storytelling workshop. We’ll learn how to discover our own, authentic God stories and learn how to tell them. Your story, because it is uniquely yours, needs to be told. We each need to be able to share our struggles with God and how God has met us there. We each need to be able to share how God’s love and mercy have shaped us. We each need to tell it, because when the temple falls and life gets hard, the rest of us need to hear how God’s love still makes a difference for you.

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Posted by on November 15, 2019 in Sermon


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Following the God of the Living is Complicated (Nov 10, 2019)

Resurrection. Life after death. Like so many other aspects of faith, there are lots of differing opinions on what happens to us after life on this earth is done. The Sadducees, for instance, like many people today, didn’t believe in any version of heaven, hell, or life after death. And some people think that though their body may die, their soul never dies but simply goes to heaven. Others believe that when you die, you are dead until the last day—the day of resurrection when all are raised. Still others believe that upon death, our essence rejoins the elemental cosmos in universality. Some believe in a place, while others believe in a state of being. We all think about what happens after we die, but we certainly don’t agree on it.

Sometimes our beliefs are based on hope, sometimes on some scriptural references, sometimes on logic or reason, sometimes even on experiences. But the bottom line is that we really don’t know. So we can look at passages like this one and go, “ok. so?”

But let’s not write this off just yet. There are a couple of things that we can make a difference in our lives here and now.

One is Jesus seems to believe that whatever happens after death, it will be different than what we know here and now. So the Sadducees question in that sense doesn’t matter, because he says there is no marriage after you die.

But the other thing that Jesus points out, and that everything turns on, is when he says, “Now [God] is God not of the dead, but of the living.”

If our faith is based primarily on what happens to us after we die, that’s a faith based on dying, not living. If it’s based on doing things, saying things, or believing things to make sure we “get to heaven” when we die, that takes priority away from what God is doing with the living here and now. If our faith and our theology fail to prioritize living people, real people, what use is it?

As believers in the God of the living, as followers of the risen Christ, we are by definition about those things that bring life. Our emphasis is on lifting up life, improving life, helping the living—because God is a God not of the dead, but of the living. This isn’t easy, and it is not simple When we try to take a very complicated issue like lifting up, improving life for very present people, and pretend it’s a simple black-and-white issue, we become like the Sadducees—justifying ourselves through self-righteousness.

Lifting up life is not easy, and it’s not simple. For example, when my daughter was in college, she worked for a short time for an organization called, “The Feminist Majority Foundation.” Part of her job included working at a booth on campus where she would hand out information about women’s issues to anyone interested. Part of that information included abortion—the legalities, the emotional affects, and where to find help and support and counseling. The policy of the Feminist Majority Foundation was that if a woman, particularly a woman living in poverty, finds herself in the heart-wrenching situation of needing to terminate a pregnancy, she should be able to do it with care, with safety, and with awareness. Emily agreed with that position, and was happy to provide that information.

One night, after she finished her shift and had packed up her material and closed her booth, she started to walk across campus to her dorm. A group of young men began shouting at her, calling her a baby-killer and yelling at her that she was evil. She ignored them and kept walking, so they began throwing rocks at her while angrily shouting and cursing at her.

All alone, and facing a group of very angry men, she was terrified. Her life was potentially in danger. Fortunately, by this time she was close enough to her dorm that she could run for the security door and get inside. Who knows what could have happened?

On that night, in that situation, who was about those things that bring life? One was coming from a place of compassion and a desire to lift up women in poverty who find themselves in an extremely difficult situation. The others were coming from a place of anger and violence and self-justification.

I wonder, on that night, who was taking a stand for life? Who was actually lifting up life, making life better for very present and real people?

God is the God not of the dead, but of the living. And as we trust in this God for life not only after we die, but life right here and now, we are called to lift up all those who are living, not just the ones we like. And that’s not always easy, and certainly not always simple. We share a common desire to follow the God of the living, but don’t always agree on what that looks like. Which is why, as a community, we ought to be listening to one another, sharing our insights together, and learning together.

Not just when it comes to life issues like abortion, but capital punishment, not to mention poverty, disease, hunger, education. All issues that have consequences of life and death. And on this Veterans Day weekend, we consider also the issue of war—certainly an issue with life and death consequences. Again, these aren’t easy, and not simple. So we are compelled to wrestle together with these life and death issues, and together seek the guidance and the forgiveness of the God of the living.

So what happens when we die? We still don’t know. But because God is the God of the living, the God who raised Christ to new life, we live here and now with that promise of new life. We live to lift up the lives of all those God loves. And ultimately, we simply have to trust in the words of Jesus today, that we will somehow be raised to new life where, as he says, “we cannot die, because [we] are like angels and are children of God, being children of resurrection.”

God is God not of the dead, but of the living. That will always include us.

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Posted by on November 11, 2019 in Sermon


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A Success Story for All Saints Sunday (Nov 3, 2019)

Luke 6:20-31

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

What do we do with this text? Is Jesus saying that God only blesses those who are destitute and curses the rest of us? That God only blesses those who have nothing to eat and curses all of us who had breakfast this morning? That God only blesses those with no place to sleep and curses us because we have our own beds?

Look at the “woes” in Luke’s beatitudes: Rich, Full, Joyful, Respected! Aren’t these what we are all striving for? If we achieve these, aren’t we considered successful?

I think Jesus is telling us that God’s measures of success are significantly different than ours. Even sometimes in the church.

Here’s what I mean. We talk about successful congregations as those with increasing numbers of people and dollars. And then, being envious, we spend considerable time and energy figuring out the secret to their success. In the ELCA, based only on those numbers, congregations that hold steady in members and worship attendance over the last five years are referred to as “stagnant.” And those whose numbers are more than five percent lower are “in decline.” These are not terms associated with “success.” Even in the church, we assume bigger equals more successful, so our effort and energy go into the numbers of attendees, members, and dollars received. Good, tangible, measurable numbers.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you believe that God measures success the same way we do. But is a spreadsheet the best way to measure God’s reign? Is God’s vision for creation counted in such detached terms?

Let’s face it; bigger is the culturally accepted measure of success for pretty much everything. Sales, clients, market shares, bank accounts, properties, listeners, viewers, revenue streams, billable hours, and yes, even church members. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem to nestle into Jesus’ life, ministry, or teaching quite as comfortably as I would like. Look at this text, among so many others that reveal God works differently than we do. Jesus came proclaiming the presence of the long-awaited reign of God. Which is fine except it doesn’t fit with what we think success ought to be.

God’s reign is revealed when people are loved. God is successful when grace and mercy and compassion are shown. That’s why all the blessings and woes in this text are followed by the “love your enemies” stuff, the “turn the other cheek” stuff, the “give away your stuff” stuff. Success in the kingdom of God is different. It’s totally different view of reality. It starts in a different place and points in an entirely different direction.

What groups of people tend to get looked down upon, that we might call unsuccessful? Homeless, unemployed, poor, uneducated, can’t speak English? Those are the people who, when God is successful, are lifted up as equal to the wealthy, the CEOs, the PhDs, the powerful, the famous.

Jesus’ point is that this is how God measures success, and it clashes with our assumptions of success in the world.

I have a friend who I’ve come to realize reveals God’s success to me. He’d probably argue with me if he knew I thought that because he’s an avowed atheist with absolutely no use for God at all. Yet, he isn’t my friend because I’m good or smart or believe the same as him. He’s my friend because even though he knows a lot of my weaknesses and the pieces of me that are broken, he still values me and respects me. Not because of what I can do, but because of who I am. He calls me successful, not because of my work or my ability to change the world, but because of me.

There’s such a difference between the way he thinks of success and the way most of us—sometimes even the church—think of success. Most of what we consider to be our successes in life have to do with our accomplishments: work promotions, educational degrees, income, the size of our homes, number of first-place trophies. But God sees way beyond than that. God sees all the way down to the broken pieces of our lives, our failures, the things we are ashamed of, all the parts of who we are that—if known—would make others think less of us. And then, sitting with us in the middle of all of that, God says, I’m so proud of you. I love you so much. You are one of my best success stories.

On All Saints Sunday we celebrate the people through whom we get a glimpse of God’s measure of success. The people who have known us and nonetheless have loved us. The people who somehow, and in some way, by their lives have shown us a glimpse of God’s love, grace, and compassion. Who’ve shown us that we matter, that we are worthwhile, that we are successful because we are who we are.

Who has shown you God’s version of success? Who has shown you that you are loved by God, and therefore are God’s successes. Think a minute. Picture them, be ready to name them. Then all together, we will name those saints out loud. Ready?

. . . . . .

On All Saints Sunday, we recognize that God does view success differently. And it clashes with our assumptions about success. Yet we just named a whole bunch of people who have revealed God’s perspective, God’s love in the world. We are grateful for these saints, especially those who’ve gone before us. We can also be grateful for those who are revealing the success of God’s love today. And we need to be aware that God will continue to find ways to be successful in the world, and do so through us.

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Posted by on November 4, 2019 in Sermon


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