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“Knowing Truth” (October 29, 2017)

John 8:31-36

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Today we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s experience of a deeper truth. One that caused him to change outlooks, approaches, and life itself. And as a result of his experience of a deeper truth, the whole church (including the Roman Catholic church) was reformed.

Here’s what’s going on in this 8th chapter of John. The narrative is set during the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, which acknowledges God’s presence with the Jewish people as they fled from slavery in Egypt. They built temporary huts, sometimes called booths or tabernacles, and used them for shelter during their 40 years in the wilderness. At the time that John is describing, all people are invited to gather in Jerusalem for this celebration—many of whom would build replica booth-like dwellings and even eat and sleep there during the week of the celebration.

As the people are commemorating God’s protection in the wilderness during their flight from slavery in Egypt, Jesus speaks of the very things the people have gathered to observe: slavery and freedom, dwelling places and truth.

Jesus says, “If you continue (literally: dwell, tabernacle, live) in my word, you are my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Those who had previously believed in him argue, saying, “We have Abraham and Sarah as our ancestors. We’ve never been slaves.” Uhhmmm . . . did they forget why they’re gathered in Jerusalem in the first place? What the Festival of Tabernacles is about?

Even if the people aren’t clear about what slavery–therefore freedom–is, Jesus is very pointed about it. “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

What does he mean by “knowing truth”? The word John uses for “to know” (ginosko) is more than intellectual agreement. It means to deeply know, to be assured by, to know completely. It is the word used in the Bible when a man and a woman “know” each other, and 9 months later a baby is born. It’s more than reading a book about a subject, OK?

It’s like the difference between objectively watching an event and actually seeing what’s happening.

It’s like the difference between casually hearing someone talk and actually listening to what they are saying.

It’s like this: I can read books about white-water rafting, listen to lectures, and see movies–and therefore know about it. But that’s different than actually going white-water rafting. Then, I know it from the inside out, based on my experiences. I know it much more deeply. Ginosko.

This is the knowing Jesus talks about: an experience of Christ (who is truth) that changes us from the inside out. Much deeper knowledge. For example, quite a few years ago, I knew that the Bible stood in opposition to homosexuality. I knew it, because I could recite all seven verses in the Bible that seemed to oppose it. That’s one kind of knowledge, a book-like, incomplete knowledge.

Then, through a series of events, experiences, studies, and conversations, I came to a different kind of knowing, ginosko, a deeper, more complete knowing than a few Bible verses. I experienced the truth of God’s love and God’s inclusivity in ways that have changed me from the inside out. I have been set free from a bondage of a narrow, external perspective to a deeper, internal freedom in God’s grace and love for all humanity.

We will be witnessing today, in love and support, three of our young people as they take significant steps in their faith journey. Two will affirm their baptisms, and one will be received in the rite of Welcome to Baptism. They are doing this today not because they know the doctrines of the church, or have memorized enough Bible verses, but because they have struggled with what they actually believe. They have been brought inside and come to a deeper knowledge of God in their lives—which sometimes leaves more questions than answers. They probably can’t articulate Luther’s explanation to the 3rd Article of the Apostles’ Creed, but they have, I believe, experienced a deeper, internal knowledge of the Holy Spirit working faith in them (because we all know that that’s what the 3rd Article is about, right? Right?). They don’t know all the answers, but they know how to ask questions, how to watch for God in the world, and how faith needs to continue to grow with them. I’m not even sure they would say that, but I know it, because I’ve watched it happen in them. They know God in significant ways. And they know from the inside that God knows them. They know some truths, and they are set free.

You have hopefully heard about LCM’s “Renewal Team,” which is part of a cohort of three congregations seeking to know more fully what God is calling us to be and do. The idea is not for us to follow a program or series of prescribed steps, but to come to a deeper knowing of what God is doing in us and in our neighborhood.

On this 500h Anniversary of the Reformation, John declares that we are set free in Christ—truly free. Free from prejudice, from fear, from pretention, from other people’s opinions, from stagnation, from whatever it is that keeps us captive. And it is Christ who not only reveals this truth, but in whom that truth comes to us. This is the freedom Martin Luther experienced 500 years ago. A freedom that changed the world. As we continue to grow in our experience, our deep knowledge of this Christ from the inside out, we too become more and more free.

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Posted by on October 29, 2017 in Sermon

 

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“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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Being in Holy Moments (Transfiguration, Feb. 26, 2017)

Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised 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.

I was in Mexico with a group one time. We were touring a couple of small villages and learning about life in general for these people in abject poverty. They were telling us about the importance of their church and how they supported one another. There was a real unity in the midst of their poverty. Interesting, but it was getting toward lunch time and we had a little bit of a ride to get back. So as the conversation and interaction kept going, I kept glancing at my watch wondering how long before we could return.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that the Lutheran pastor there in those villages in Mexico was actually bringing insulin to a diabetic woman in one of those neighborhoods who would never be able to afford it. Somewhere he had been able to procure it, and was able bringing her life-saving supplies. It was a holy moment—his work and generosity, and her gracious appreciation. Christ was present. But I missed most of it because I was concerned about lunch.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that there are many more of these holy moments than we know. We just miss them because we’re too busy trying to do something. So we talk, or plan, or reason our way through these holy times.

I’m wondering if part of the point of the Transfiguration story is that sometimes the only agenda is to recognize a holy moment and simply be present in it. Not to analyze it, improve upon it, or even describe it, but just recognize it and be in it.

As is often the case, Peter gives us an idea of what not to do. He is chosen by Jesus, along with James and John, to go up this mountain alone. And they witness what can only be described as a holy moment. Jesus is transfigured—changed—right in front of them. Shining face, white clothing, Moses and Elijah showing up. Cloud covering them just like it did for Moses. A voice coming from the cloud giving Jesus high praise and accolades. This certainly falls within the general category of “holy moment.”

Peter just can’t help himself. Rather than be part of it, be fully present in it, he tries to improve it. “Let me just build some booths,” he says. “Because my contribution to this unbelievable moment will surely make it better.” What, just being present there with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah isn’t good enough? Don’t ruin this, Peter. Just know this is holy time and you get to be there for it. Absorb it. Live in it. Be aware that there’s more going on than you may know at the time. Recognize that when you start talking you are taking the focus off the holiness of the moment and limiting your experience of it. Just be present in it.

Sometimes the agenda is just to be there. To know you’ve been present. To experience holiness. To be in the presence of  Christ.

As Lutherans, we gather together on Sundays around Word and sacrament. We proclaim the presence of Christ with us during worship. Jesus tells us that “when two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Isn’t that here? Isn’t that now? If that’s the case, perhaps we could actually become more aware of this as a holy moment. If Christ is truly present with us, maybe we could be more fully present with him.

Try something with me. Close your eyes and sit quietly for a minute. . . .

Think of one word or phrase you need to hear right now. Take some time in the silence and consider what that word would be. Maybe it’s something you already know, or maybe it’s something new. But have that word or phrase in your mind. . . .

Picture Jesus here with you. Hear him as he speaks to you the very words you need to hear today. . . .

Just be with him and listen. . . .

Repeat those words to yourself with Jesus a few times. . . .

Go ahead and open your eyes again. Holy moments happen all around us all the time. We are made new in the presence of Christ.

We are starting the season of Lent on Wednesday. It is the 40 days (plus Sundays) before Easter. It’s traditionally a season of discipline and repentance. You’ll often hear people talking about “giving something up for Lent.” Usually like chocolate, a TV show, or even coffee (but that would not only be unhealthy, it would just be silly . . .).

Rather than any of those things, which aren’t bad, but may or may not actually help us grow spiritually, I’m suggesting we watch for holy moments during Lent. Practice recognizing them and being fully present in them. If we are experiencing the presence of Christ, stop what we’re doing and simply be with him then and there.

Today is a holy moment, here together. There are more, because Christ is active in the world. Let’s watch for him.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2017 in Sermon

 

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

Matthew 2:13-23

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

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

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

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

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

Her perception and experience of God is different than mine.

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

His perception and experience of God is different than mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on January 1, 2017 in Sermon

 

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“Experience God” Sunday (Holy Trinity), May 22, 2016

John 16:12-15

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

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

Trinity Sunday is the only day of the church calendar devoted to a doctrine. So I tend to think it’s the worst Sunday of the year. Not because I don’t like doctrines, because I do (at least some of them), but because I don’t think our time in Sunday worship is the best place to deal with our doctrines. Classes and lectures are better suited, I think. Doctrines are what we teach, what our history has led to, the particulars as to what makes us different than other people, theological places where me might draw lines in the sand. So, yeah, deal with doctrines in a class setting. With lots of opportunity to ask questions and think and share and argue and find relevance. In that way I think doctrines are fun! But not in worship.

That got me thinking that if Sundays aren’t really to emphasize doctrines, what should Sundays be about?

When you get down to it, our Sunday worship really is more about the experience of God than the knowledge about God. It’s one thing to know God is forgiving, it’s another thing entirely to experience forgiveness. Knowing God loves you is way different than actually being loved.

Which got me thinking that maybe I’ve been going about this Trinity Sunday all wrong. Maybe instead of teaching a doctrine so we can know a theory trying to explain God as 3-in-1, maybe instead we should consider the experience of the Trinity.

That’s really where our best doctrines come from anyway: attempts to explain our experiences of God. Martin Luther’s experience of a gracious God of mercy was different than a harsh God of judgment he’d been taught. So he tried to explain that and the Protestant Reformation began.

The early church didn’t have a doctrine of the Trinity–that didn’t formalize until the end of the 4th century. The problem was Jesus. It appears that his earliest disciples experienced him as divine in some way, yet every good Jew knew there was only one God. So how could they talk about their Jesus experience? It took a few centuries, but the doctrine of the Trinity was the best explanation the church could come up with. There is one God, but that one God is comprised of three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.

Personally, I imagine the bishops who met and voted on this kind of walking away afterward a little embarrassed. This confusing piece of doctrine was the best they could come up with. But it stuck, became orthodoxy, and here we are.

So if the doctrine of the Trinity was the 4th century church’s attempt at explaining how the disciples experienced God in Jesus, how would we try to explain our experience of God? Doctrines start with an attempt at explaining an experience. So let’s start with our experience of God.

I can’t teach an experience of God, but I can share it. My strongest experiences of God have taken place when I wasn’t even sure if I believed in God. There have been times when everything I thought could sustain me failed. Like all at once. My friends, my credentials, my education, my confidence, my strengths, my health, my faith, and even my treasured theology all have let me down at one time or another. But when they all fail at the same time, that’s bad.

How do you hang on to something for support when it can’t support you? How do you lift yourself up by your credentials when you realize they count for nothing? How do you cling to a God that seems to have disappeared? How do you ask for help when the very people you could ask are the ones kicking you down? How do you keep from falling when there is nothing there to hold you up?

The answer is you don’t. You can’t. You just fall because that’s all there is.

And that’s when I’ve experienced God most profoundly. In the falling. Because when I come to realize there’s nothing to stop the fall, that’s when I’ve understood that I’m held in God’s hands. All my goodness, unselfishness, hard work, good theology, overcoming difficulties made no difference. I was just being held. But my vulnerabilities, weaknesses, failures, and insecurities didn’t make any difference either. I was just being held. It wasn’t about me, it was about God. This experience says nothing about me, but everything about God. It’s not about who I am or am not, but all about who God is.

So if I were to make this experience of God into a doctrine, what would it be called? The doctrine of the Big, Soft Hands? Would this be Holy Catcher’s Mitt Sunday?

Probably not. But perhaps my experience of God resonates with you. And maybe your experience of God could touch my heart, or the heart of someone else. And then together, when we share our divine experiences, we all understand God better and maybe even trust God a little more deeply. And wouldn’t we all be better off for that?

So maybe instead of “Holy Trinity Sunday,” we could call this “Experience God Sunday.” And we all come together and share our experience of being in the presence of the Holy. Wouldn’t that be exciting?!

What’s your experience of God? I’d like to hear it. I think it would be good to share it with someone. Or if you can’t do that, then at least watch for it.

I trust in God. I trust that not because I know the doctrine of the Trinity, but because I’ve experienced being held in God’s hands.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Cognitive, Rational, Intellectual Reasoning–or New Life? (3 Pentecost B)

3rd Sunday After Pentecost

Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Cor 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

If Jesus is so great, and his message of the coming kingdom of God is of such ultimate importance, why doesn’t everyone buy into it? Why aren’t the whole world followers of Jesus? The fastest growing religious group in North America is “unaffiliated.” Why are there such diverse opinions and responses to Jesus?

Apparently it’s always been that way. Even during Jesus’ ministry there were extreme and diverse responses: From chapter 3 in Mark, great numbers came to him from Judea and beyond the Jordan; he’s out of his mind; great multitudes followed him; he has Beelzebul and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.

The reason for the diverse reaction really lies with the message Jesus brings and the primary way Jesus communicated it—through experiences explained in parables. The kingdom of God doesn’t really fit with what people already know. Parables that reveal the kingdom aren’t intellectual, cognitive imparting of information that one can agree or disagree with. They bypass all that and cut directly to the hearer’s life, attitudes, and assumptions. Parables are kind of like jokes—if you have to explain them, they’re no longer funny, and you’ve lost the experience of it.

I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a young man yesterday. He was recently released from prison, was homeless, is a drug addict and an alcoholic, and is gay. In our culture, there aren’t many people who haven’t passed judgment, ignored, or even hated this man. Yet all through the hurtful, hateful parts of his life he was able to articulate the gospel; he knew who Jesus was; it just didn’t make any difference. He told me that it wasn’t until he experienced God’s unconditional love through the church he’s attending that the gospel had any effect on him. He now owns a business and has been clean and sober for almost a year. He said that he is so deeply loved by his fellow church members that he finds himself actually loving those who have hated him. It wasn’t being able to intellectually understand the gospel that made a difference, it was the experience of the living Christ—enfleshed in the love he experienced in his congregation—that transformed him.

Jesus could have presented a clear, rational, logical PowerPoint presentation on the effects of the kingdom of God based on demographics, interests, and spiritual giftedness. He could have charted its progress, and backed it up with statistics of the difference in the world since the kingdom of God has broken into history. Part of me wishes he had. But it would have killed the point he was trying to make.

The problem is the kingdom of God cannot be encapsulated in an intellectual exercise of cognitive reasoning. That’s the point, I think. It’s not something we understand, not something we grasp, not something we make happen. But like a parable, like a joke, like an experience; it grabs us in our life and changes us by the experience of it. Or it doesn’t. At least not now. Maybe later.

Isn’t that the point of these parables? They reveal the experience of the kingdom of God touching our lives in a way we can experience and live.

The first one: the kingdom of God grows up around us without our knowing how. We could stop and analyze the growth properties of various grains and extrapolate a positive correlation between certain Middle Eastern agricultural vegetation and Christian faith. Yeah, if you wanted to kill the parable and reduce the kingdom of God to a horticultural Science Fair project.

Or the second one: a small mustard seed growing into a huge shrub where birds nest. A mustard seed is NOT the smallest seed and the grown shrub is NOT the greatest one. You can go that way if you want to slaughter the point and lose the experience that Christ is labeling for us.

We don’t have many mustard bushes here, so that makes it even more tempting to analyze this parable to death. But consider this—mustard plants were considered pesky, potentially rampant weeds. And the birds coming to make nests in the branches meant that they’d be eating the seeds the farmer was trying to plant. The people of that culture looked at mustard bushes kind of like we look at crabgrass in our lawns. You don’t want it, and if you don’t do something about it, it will take over your lawn and bring other pests with it.

So try this: the kingdom of God is like crabgrass in your lawn. If you’re not careful, it will take over your lawn.

Don’t you find yourself trying to explain that away? The kingdom of God can’t be like crabgrass! Can you feel that kind of grinding your life gears? Most adults would hear that and their knee-jerk reaction would be, “No way!” But his point is more that the kingdom of God is different than we think, and comes in ways we don’t expect.

Some get it. Some don’t. Some get it now and then don’t later and then do again. Some get it, then get it again, and then again. But these kingdom of God parables aren’t about convincing people with rational arguments, but helping them live in it. Kingdom of God has come in Christ. As it intersects with our lives we have a chance to experience it. Sometimes with “aha!” and sometimes with a “huh?” But hang in there. In Jesus, the kingdom of God has come—here in this world, present in your life. It doesn’t always make sense, and cannot always be explained.

But when the kingdom touches you—and you experience the freedom of real forgiveness, the humility of unconditional love, the awe of authentic grace; when the shame, embarrassment and guilt that are part of your life experience begin to fall away, you know the reality of it because you’ve experienced it. You can try all you want to explain it, but it won’t make any difference. The reality of it comes as it touches us in our real lives.

That’s what the church exists for. Not to argue anyone into the kingdom of God with intellect and reasoning, but to reveal its presence in their lives now—to help them experience forgiveness, love, and grace. To point out that these things have touched them because of the presence of Christ.

Listen again as Paul summarizes this in part of our second reading, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” That’s the experience in Christ that can’t be rationalized away. Be open. It’s not an academic exercise. It’s just Jesus.

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Sermon

 

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