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Longing for God’s Vision (Dec 3, 2017)

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Is it even possible for the nations of our world to ever live in peace? Is there any hope at all of alleviating hunger and poverty in our world? Do we stand a chance of overcoming our cultural obsession with violence? Will we ever see an end to hate, racism, homophobia, or oppression? Is any of this remotely possible, or is it all just pie-in-the-sky and we are wasting our time longing for these things?

Advent is a season of longing. As we begin this season, we need to take time to acknowledge those deep longings of our souls. Because those deep longings are our spirit connecting to God’s Spirit. These longings are real. Where do God’s priorities for the world resonate within us? What are the possibilities of God’s vision that touch you spiritually?

In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah believes that the unrighteous behavior of Israel has been in the way of God’s justice. Now that that unrighteousness has been dealt with, God’s long hoped-for vision can now be revealed. There is one coming, Isaiah cries, who will prepare the way for God’s peace to enter in. One who will point out the rough places in the world that will be smoothed, the low places in our culture that will be raised up.

The promise of a coming one who would prepare the way for God’s vision is made in Isaiah, and is kept in the coming of John the Baptist. John’s message is that God’s vision for the world is coming; what we long for in our spirits is in fact on its way.

So John points out the rough places, the low places, the crooked places. He calls people to help smooth, to lift up, to straighten. John makes clear that God’s vision, God’s justice, God’s peace is on the way. “There is one,” he says, “there is one coming through whom God’s vision will be realized.”

All that we’ve hoped for, says John, all the injustices and the wars and the violence and the hatred that our world has endured for so long will finally be resolved. In the coming of the Christ, we will see God’s reign at last. The possibilities we’ve longed for will finally begin.

So let’s prepare the way for God’s possibilities. Let’s smooth, let’s lift up, let’s straighten out.

In other words, John says, let’s repent.

John means something different by that word than we usually do. We hear “repentance,” and we go straight to how bad we each are and that each of us needs to be sorry for our sins. Usually there’s a hint of punishment involved if we don’t: either hell or God’s disfavor or some other bad thing will happen to the one who doesn’t repent of their sins.

That’s not really John’s emphasis. He uses the word “repentance” and “forgiveness of sins,” but his reasoning is significantly different than ours. Whereas we are more concerned with our individual salvation and personal righteousness— getting into heaven when we die, John’s concern is with God’s vision of peace and justice restoring all of creation.

For us, confession of sins usually means each person acknowledging their personal list of disobedient behaviors, trusting that God will forgive those who do confess.

But for John, confession of sins means acknowledging the obstacles in the way of God’s vision of justice for the world.

For us, repentance usually means each one of us feeling sorry for those bad things we’ve done and promising not to do them any more.

But for John, repentance means turning our life, our focus, our energy toward God’s vision of peace for the world.

So when John cries for repentance, he’s calling for us to turn away from hopelessness, that the world will never be better. Turn away from giving up on our longings and turn instead toward the realization that in Christ, God’s vision is actually becoming real. Make those paths straight.

He’s calling us to turn away from passively waiting for peace and turn toward making peace happen. Smooth out those rough places.

He’s calling us to turn away from seeking our own personal righteousness and turn toward God’s justice happening in the world. Lift up those low places.

One of the promises of Advent is that God’s justice is coming. God’s vision for peace and the renewal of creation is actually possible. In Christ we can see it. We can again turn our efforts toward being part of God’s vision for the world because Christ is coming. In him it is real.

Those deepest longings of our souls, those parts of God’s vision that are within us, are now possible. So prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. God’s vision for us and our whole world is happening. Turn toward that. Christ is coming. In him there will be peace. And life. And wholeness. And justice.

As Isaiah reminds us today, “[the Lord] will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This is God’s vision for the world. Prepare for that. Turn toward that. Work for that. It’s closer now than ever before.

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Posted by on December 3, 2017 in Sermon

 

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

Acts 2:41-47

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are we doing with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2017 in Sermon

 

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God’s Mission: It’s That Big a Deal (June 22, 2014)

Pentecost 2

Matthew 10:24-39

Whatgoes through your head when you get a phone call and the person on the other end greets you with, “Don’t worry. Everything is OK”? That the cue to start worrying?

Or the dentist says, “You might feel a little discomfort”?  I think dentists and I have two different definitions of the word “discomfort.”

Or Jesus says to us, “Follow me, but don’t be afraid”? Uh oh. That makes me a bit apprehensive. If you follow me, people will say hateful things about you. If you follow me, people will want to physically hurt you. If you follow me, some people you thought you could count on will abandon you. If you follow me, you will lose your life. Rather than peace, it’s swords and division.

Why would Jesus say things like this? Why is his language so harsh? There are, I think, a couple of reasons:

–Because he’s making it very clear that what he’s asking his followers to do actually is that difficult, and,

–Because God’s vision for the world is that big a deal.

The U.S. Soccer team is playing in the World Cup in Brazil. They continue to endure grueling physical workouts, a horrible travel schedule that keeps them away from home for weeks at a time, a lack of support from many of the citizens of their own country, and the knowledge that in spite of all their work and effort and talent, they probably aren’t good enough to win the World Cup. Why do they do it?

Because the opportunity to play in this world tournament is that big a deal. The hope that they might have a chance to do well—with the opportunity to possibly win it—is worth all of the effort and more. It’s that big a deal.

Those who were part of the Civil Rights protests in the 1960s endured threats, beatings, arrests, even death. Yet they continued. Why would they do this?

Because a culture where they could have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else is worth all that and more. It’s that big a deal.

God is accomplishing something in creation that is that big a deal.

–Imagine a world where you are so valued that you are recognized as worth everything. For God that’s a big deal.

–Imagine a world where you can live every day free from any threat of any violence, where you live free from worry, free from fear. For God that’s a big deal.

–Imagine a world where we all are willing to share so generously with anyone else that every person has enough of everything. For God that’s a big deal.

–Imagine a world where you are encouraged, loved, accepted just as you are right now without any conditions whatsoever. For God that’s a big deal.

Can you begin to envision a world like that? Because God can. That’s God’s vision. And it is God’s intention and mission to make that happen. Bringing the reality of that vision into this world is what Jesus is about. IT’s that vision that he lives for, that he died for, that we can see in the resurrection.  It’s that vision he gives to his disciples. And it’s that vision he sends us into the world to make real. No one ever said that would be easy.

That is why the church exists. That is why we are here. LCM exists because God has a vision for the world, and we have been called to reveal it.

This mission into which we’re baptized is hard. It is costly. It is inconvenient. It is uncomfortable. Because this mission is not about us, or what we like, or what’s comfortable for us. IT is only about God’s mercy, forgiveness, peace, and love being made real in the world. So we do things to embody God’s vision:

–we practice forgiving each other, taking that into the world,

–we love those who are different than us; even our enemies,

–we show the world what real peace looks like,

–we reveal unselfishness to them,

–we live generously, giving away more of our money than makes sense for the sake of others.

–we publicly stand with those who, because of nationality, economic status, or sexual orientation, have been made to feel worthless in our culture.

We do all this not because it’s easy or comfortable, but because in our baptism God’s mission becomes our mission.

At our council meeting last Tuesday our council president, Roger Johnson, used this gospel text as our opening devotion. We spent 45 minutes talking about the cost of discipleship, and what it means today to follow Jesus.

Pastor Brigette. As pastoral leaders called to this congregation we want to be very clear that God’s mission is what we believe to be the freedom, joy, and heart of the gospel. Our calls here as ministers of Word and sacrament revolve entirely around proclamation and equipping for God’s mission.

Council. We talked about this at our meeting, and we decided that we are affirming here this morning that we are disciples of Jesus. As such, our call as elected leaders is to set a direction for LCM that is deeply rooted in our purpose within God’s mission in the world. We are assuring you publicly that we are committed to that.

Jesus tells us it will be hard, that the consequences of following him can be severe and even painful. And yet, he says, don’t be afraid. It is in God’s vision that you find your life. It’s that big a deal.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2014 in Sermon

 

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