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Fire from Heaven, Threats, and Exclusion (June 30, 2019)

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village. 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

About a year ago I got off Facebook. Initially, I stopped because I was beginning a sabbatical, but soon realized I needed to stay off because I was getting too churned up and angry about some of the absolutely evil things people would post. In the name of Jesus, no less.

Over and over, I became enraged at people I knew who were defending the most horrific, despicable, cruel actions and attitudes toward other human beings; toward Muslims and people of color, particularly immigrants; who would justify tearing frightened babies from their mothers’ arms, locking them in cages with no beds or soap; who would use the Bible to explain taking jewelry and medicine away from these people who were fleeing from more horrors and violence than I ever will be able to imagine. I had to express my righteous anger. I needed to defend Christ-like compassion in the name of Jesus. More than that, I felt it necessary to put those pseudo-Christians in their place, to demean them, to rage about how wrong, narrow-minded, evil they were. I wanted to blast them off social media. Or worse.

“When his disciples James and John saw [that the Samaritans had rejected Jesus], they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” Yes! That! Do that!

Oh, I get it. James and John were just defending Jesus against people who are openly rejecting him. They even have scripture to back them up (some copiers inserted “like Elijah did” after requesting fire from heaven). The honor of Jesus is at stake here. The truth of his message is on the line.

But Jesus turned and rebuked them for defending him. This is not the attitude of those who follow me, he says. Then they went on to another village to do it all over again.

Jesus has to call out the violent and vengeful tendencies among his disciples. Even if their reasons are good. Even if they are confronting evil. Even if they are defending Jesus himself. These threats of violence and attitudes of hatred have no place with him. It will stop—at least among his followers. That includes me.

It’s becoming easier and easier for us to demonize anyone on “the other side” of any issue. It’s becoming more and more normal to draw a dividing line between “us” and “them,” and to hate, threaten, and dehumanize “them,” whoever “they” are. We better check our own Facebook and Twitter feeds because Jesus has something to say about that.

That same attitude is often exhibited with much less drama than “fire from heaven.” When we take the opportunity to respond to anyone we disagree with, we tend to abuse it. We are all too willing to inflict emotional harm, we easily degrade people, we ignore those whose voices aren’t as strong as ours, we put down those who might challenge our way of thinking, we talk about them behind their backs, we create alliances against them. Who is it we’ve been bad-mouthing lately? Because Jesus will have none of it.

Because here’s the thing. Whether his disciples are angrily defending him or the Samaritans are openly rejecting him, Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. He is determined to get there, knowing he will die there. His love for his disciples who seek vengeance, his love for the Samaritans who flatly reject him, his love compels him to go to Jerusalem and the cross. Love determines his actions, nothing else.

And nothing can dissuade him. Not rejection, not threats of violence, not hateful attitudes. He will act in love no matter what. No matter who. No matter what’s in the way.

That’s where the second part of this text comes in. Jesus invites us to follow him in exhibiting this kind of love, to follow him even if it means going to Jerusalem. We too often respond, I will follow, but first I need to bury my father. I will follow, but I just need to say goodbye to my family and friends. And yet, he will go to the cross for us even when we put our own priorities ahead of following him. He will go to Jerusalem for us even when we’re so busy doing good things that we neglect to follow him in love.

It’s worth asking, what beliefs or positions are we so attached to that they come before following Jesus in love? What are we clinging to that is a higher priority than his compassion and non-violence and forgiveness?

So I’m back on Facebook, but with some conditions. I’m trying not to post anything that Jesus would turn and rebuke me for. Even if I think my reasons are good and my anger is just, I’m trying to post only things that reveal the kind of love Jesus has for me. And for any who might read them.

No matter what our attitudes or priorities or actions, Jesus is going to Jerusalem for us. His love for us is that unconditional. And he invites us to follow.

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Posted by on July 1, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Love in Disagreement (June 2, 2019)

John 17:20-26

[Jesus prayed,] “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I’m sensing a little bit of division in our country. I know, I know, sometimes it just seems like I’m just making stuff up. But if you look closely, you just might see evidence that there could be some truth in what I’m saying.

Much of the division seems to be centered politically. That’s not the only arena, but it is certainly one of the largest. What seems to be happening is that I and those who agree with me are right, therefore you and the people who agree with you must be wrong. And since you’re already wrong, I cannot work with you, cooperate with you, or (God forbid), compromise (gag). That would be selling out to the enemy—those who are wrong, aka, those I disagree with.

So this part of Jesus’ prayer in John’s gospel seem rather odd. He’s praying for unity, for oneness. That we would be one as he and the Father are one. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us . . . I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”

In this culture of division, do we even know what unity means? Does it mean we all agree all the time? That we always get along? That we look the same? That we believe all the same things about God? That we all vote the same way?

That would be more like “uniformity” than “unity.” That’s different.

Unity is about being part of a community. Standing together. Being with and for each other for a greater purpose than our individual selves.

Unity is all the Lutheran denominations, who can’t even come to the Lord’s table together, who nonetheless work together through Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran World Federation, and Lutheran Disaster Response for the sake of those suffering.

Unity is a family, whether together in one household, spread across the country, or simply chosen, all committed to loving one another and being present for one another no matter who you voted for or where you work or what your gender identity is.

Unity is a congregation that goes to a lot of trouble and expense, spending months in planning and coordinating, just to have 5 really good nights of Vacation Bible School for the children of our neighborhood. Five evenings where our neighbor kids will not just hear, but will experience unconditional love. Five nights that no one can take away from them.

Jesus isn’t praying for us to get along. He’s not praying for us to express the same moral views or even go to the same church or confess the same doctrines. He’s praying that the love that binds him and the Father together would also bind us to one another and to him.

He’s praying that this love would catch us up, hold us together, and be shared in the world that Jesus also loves.

He’s praying that this love, this unity, this purpose is what we’ll be known for in the world. Not just the original disciples gathered around his table at the Last Supper, but “also on behalf of those will believe in me . . . that they may all be one.” Jesus includes us in his prayer. That we would be united: in him and in one another, together in the love God has for us and the whole world.

And here’s the thing: his prayer is answered. Not perfectly, but there are still signs of Christ’s love that holds us all together being expressed—both in this building and beyond. We don’t always agree; that’s fine. Christians don’t always get along; that’s unfortunate but not necessary. Some Lutherans aren’t even able to pray together. But God’s love, that holds us together, is still shown among us. And it is shown in the world. Unity is about love. And the love of Christ can be seen uniting us all over the place.

Even in this politically divided country where one party can’t even talk to the other. And yet, so far this year, the 116th Congress has passed 17 laws with bipartisan support. Including the creation of 1.3 million more acres of public lands and national parks, the largest in a decade. They’ve passed changes to Medicaid services, even a Colorado River Drought Contingency. And it looks like they may be ready to pass a couple more very soon: the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019, and (one that will change my life) the Telephone Consumer Protection Act which will block illegal robocalls. That’s become so bad that I’m actually getting robocalls from my own phone number!

The unity Jesus prays for exists—it’s just that sometimes we need to dig underneath some of our disagreements to find it. Which is why our unity in our love-for-all is a game-changer. It’s an answer to prayer. Rather than basing our lives on our disagreements, here we base our lives on the love God has for us. And we show the world what that love looks like as it holds us together. And we share that same love with the world as it holds us together with them.

“I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Maybe we’re not so divided after all. We’re all united in God’s love. But we are the ones who will show the world what that looks like. God loves the entire world—it’s just that as the church, we can dig underneath the disagreements and bring that love to the surface so it can be known.

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Religion for Division or for Unity? (June 3, 2018)

Mark 2:23—3:6

One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

A number of years ago I was visiting my mom and went to church with her. She belonged to a different branch of Christianity and the doctrines around communion were rather strict. Knowing this, I had planned to not participate until the pastor, who knew what I do for a living, looked me square in the eye during the sermon and said, “Holy Communion is for the entire body of Christ.” I figured he was telling me it was OK to come to communion.

So I did.

Apparently, I had misunderstood what he was saying in the sermon. Because when I got to the front, he simply stood there. No bread, no blessing, he just stood still, quietly looking at the floor.

I felt I needed to add to the awkwardness of the moment too, so I chose to stand there and wait also.

There were two lines coming forward for communion, and the other line kept moving. My line was now stopped and the pastor and I shared this moment together. Finally, he said to me, “Uhmm, we don’t normally do this.” So I continued on my way, making my way past the wine chalice back around to the pew where my mom had long since returned. She was aghast. I was simply embarrassed.

After the service, the pastor was waiting for me. He had run into his office and retrieved the documentation that prohibited him from giving me communion. He showed me the section—he even underlined it—that said I, by virtue of being of a different Christian tradition, wasn’t to be included.

The pastor correctly followed his tradition’s doctrine. But his use of that doctrine itself wasn’t good discipleship. It segregated people and ranked them. There became insiders and outsiders. It was religion at its worst.

Religion can be the worst thing we do or it can be the best. It can be used for separation, judgment, and division or it can be used for compassion, forgiveness, and unity. Division happens when our religions become an end unto themselves. When we are led by ideologies and doctrines instead of the Spirit of God.

Unity happens when our religions point us toward the Divine. When we

are opened to the loving nature and character of God that come to us and make us new.

We can look to our religious preferences and doctrines to justify ourselves, or we can use our religious traditions and practices as ways to open us to the presence of God.

Both happen in this text in Mark today. There seems to be a disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians about keeping Sabbath laws. And it’s quite a disagreement! Except the thing is the Pharisees and Herodians (who rarely agreed with each other) didn’t really disagree with Jesus’ interpretation of Sabbath law here. All three would agree that compassion takes precedence over Sabbath. That was long understood and accepted.

What’s at stake here isn’t the doctrine itself, but the role of their religion. The Pharisees and Herodians are using the Sabbath laws to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s righteous and who’s unrighteous. And, surprise, surprise, using their argument they come out better than everyone else. The Jewish doctrine around Sabbath became for them an end unto itself. It took on a life of its own. The Pharisees and Herodians correctly followed their tradition’s doctrine. But their use of that doctrine itself wasn’t good discipleship. It segregated people and ranked them. There became insiders and outsiders. It was religion at its worst.

Jesus, on the other hand, understood Sabbath laws as means to emphasize God’s compassion. Sabbath is about restoring, about giving life. More than just “not working,” but all people being refreshed and restored.

Of course you restore a man on the Sabbath! Now not only is his hand fixed, but he can go back to work and take care of his family. His dignity and his position within the community are restored. For Jesus, the Sabbath is about restoring life for everyone, not righteousness for yourself. For Jesus, the Sabbath is for everyone. It is a chance for all things to be restored and renewed. The doctrine of Sabbath points to God’s desire to restore everyone, God’s desire for life for everyone. Sabbath law is a way to make sure all can be renewed. For Jesus it cannot be a way to rank or divide or exclude. For Jesus, Sabbath law was religion at its best.

Hearing that your religion doesn’t make you more righteous than anyone else can be hard to listen to. Hearing that the dividing line that separates us from them, good from bad, orthodox from heretical is not what religion is about can make a person angry. That’s what got the Pharisees and Herodians plotting against Jesus. Religion at its worst destroys life.

But hearing through your religion that even at your worst times, even at your lowest, even at your weakest and most vulnerable places, you matter to God as much as the best, highest, and strongest can be liberating—exhilarating! Inclusivity and unconditional love are the nature—the essence—of God. Religion that opens us up to this nature of God gives life. That is religion at its best.

Christianity, even Lutheranism, isn’t an end unto itself. There are devout Lutherans who use their religion to judge, to divide, and to proclaim their own righteousness. But there are others, some who aren’t even Lutheran(!), who recognize their faith as a way to be open to God’s unconditional love and grace, and who then show that same compassion to all that God loves. We Lutherans have a helpful way of looking at that. But whether Lutheran or not, that is religion at its best.

 
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Posted by on June 3, 2018 in Sermon

 

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The Risk of Division (August 14, 2016)

Video available at: https://www.facebook.com/lcm.lakewood/https://www.facebook.com/lcm.lakewood/

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

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.

Every year on the 4th of July, my daughter Emily and I sit down and watch the musical “1776.” I’m not sure why she does it—probably just to humor her old man. But I watch it because it’s a reminder to me of what courage looks like.

Now, it’s not completely historically accurate—I don’t think the entire Continental Congress demanded that John Adams sit down while bemoaning the heat and the flies in Philadelphia—all in Broadway musical style, but the men and women behind the Declaration of Independence had a vision of a new country. And the creation of it involved significant risks. They were branded traitors by their government (which was England), and had people within their own cities who were still loyal to the British Crown who stood with the king as vehemently as they stood in opposition. Death sentences were pronounced on them.

Yet despite the threats and the division, they continued leading this movement into the development of a new country—an experiment in democracy different than the world had ever seen. They did whatever was necessary to accomplish it. Not perfectly, but they did it.

Sometimes the risk of division is necessary to attain something higher.

I’ve been perusing Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” and I see similar things there. A whole generation of people grew up in the Great Depression and, after Pearl Harbor, joined an effort to defeat fascism. They sacrificed more than they let on for a cause greater than themselves. They risked their lives and their futures for something better.

War is always divisive. Yet sometimes the risk of division is necessary to attain something higher.

I believe that this congregation’s history has similarities to this also. There were hard times here in the 1970s and then again in the 1980s. Division and infighting alongside of sacrifice and effort for something better. Then again in the 1990s. 21 years ago division racked LCM. Yet many in this church dug in and sacrificed. They pulled together and got serious about our purpose as a congregation within God’s mission. They raised the bar for membership and for leadership.

I came here when things had settled down a bit and as this hard work loomed ahead of us. Together we pulled, together we prayed, together we moved forward. Yet we lost members along the way who weren’t ready or who weren’t convinced that the hard work ahead would be worth it.

The community around us took notice of our excitement and our dedication and our hard work. Members began to join here by the dozens year after year. Our budget virtually tripled within a few years. We began to reach out into our community in love and care in new ways. We went from a congregation that, at my first synod assembly, people said to me, “Oh, you’re the pastor they got to go there,” to, “You’re at LCM? My congregation is inspired to try something you did. How did your folks do this?”

We sat back and watch the success. We looked at ourselves with satisfaction, patted ourselves on the back, and watched a congregation on the rise.

That was the problem. We sat back. We began to look inward. After pulling together with courage and living into a new resurrection life again, we sat back and looked inward. Content. Peaceful. We began to think that little risk and minimal inconvenience was normal. We chose to back off, make things easier, avoid any division for the sake of an apparent peace. We accommodated ourselves, made ourselves comfortable. We lowered the bar to keep peace and avoid any conflict. The potential division wasn’t worth the risk to us. Because things seemed to be going fine.

That became the norm. We took our eyes off God’s work and focused on our easy ride internally. And the more our vision turned inward—to our own new normal of convenience and entitlement—the more we opened the door to discontent, criticism, and self-centeredness. Lowering the bar for the sake of avoiding conflict became the expectation. Anything inconvenient or challenging was bad or wrong. Anything requiring a commitment or effort was tossed aside as unnecessary. Anything uncomfortable brought back-biting and blaming.

So we lowered the bar further to make things even easier and keep people happy. And the roots of convenience and self-comfort grew deeper. Leaders became afraid to lead because they would often experience so much criticism and negativity. Any change at all became a threat. Anyone who challenged the relative peace of the status quo was not to be trusted.

So we lowered the bar again, longing for the easy days of the early 2000s, when we sat back and lived in peace and comfort.

And it’s to us now that Jesus speaks these words in Luke’s gospel. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to LCM? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Jesus isn’t calling us to keep everyone happy and comfortable, but to be about God’s work in the world. And that often means inconvenience and discomfort. Some won’t like it. It means work, effort, commitment. And sometimes that’s more than some people feel they’ve bargained for. And the more important we believe our work to be, the more likely it is to cause division. Yet Jesus tells us that doing the work we’ve been baptized for is more important. It’s worth that risk of division.

–We should expect a bunch of people to go to Zion Baptist Church in the Park, to be a visible witness of racial reconciliation—not because it’s convenient, but because it’s God’s work.

–We should expect a full sign up sheet for Sunday School teachers—not because it requires a minimal effort, but because our children need examples of discipleship.

–We should expect the parents of Sunday School-aged children to bring their kids regularly—not because it fits their schedules, but because growing discipleship matters.

–We should expect most households to increase their financial giving—not because it’s comfortable, but because the ministry we are called to do is more important than our comfort.

–We should expect our council to be bold and to take risks, and we should support them in that—not so we have someone to blame, but because they need to follow the Holy Spirit.

Being a disciple of Jesus is not easy, not always peaceful and calm, not rainbows and butterflies. It’s messy, it’s hard, it’s unglorious, it’s imperfect and risky. It requires our forgiveness and grace toward each other.

And it’s also who we are in the resurrected Christ. It’s us at our best. It’s where our faith God has given us comes alive. It’s where we can meet God most fully. Sometimes, Jesus is telling us, the risk of division is necessary to attain something higher.

God is on the move, and we are the people invited and equipped to be on the leading edge of that movement. That’s worth the risk.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2016 in Sermon

 

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