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A Place at the Table (Oct 21, 2018)

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus]and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Well, whatever’s going on in this text can’t be good. “OK, Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask.” Promise that first and then we’ll tell you what we want. Deal?

What could possibly go wrong here?

Can you just see Jesus rolling his eyes? Can you hear the deep sigh as he fortifies his patience?

“What is it you want me to do for you?” he asks.

James and John pull him a little further away from the others. Then they lean in close and whisper, “We want to be on either side of you when you become king. We want to ride your coattails into power. We want to sit in the best seats in positions glory. C’mon, Jesus, you know we’re your favorite apostles.”

With a sad look in his eyes, Jesus slowly shakes his head and says “You still don’t get it. Getting more power over others and benefitting yourself is the opposite of how God’s reign works. The ‘way’ of the cross is the way of serving others, giving up power so those without it have equal places at the table.” And then watch when we get to Jerusalem. Watch as I’m arrested, spit at, beaten, mocked, and put on a cross. I’ll show you what this cup is that you want to drink. I’ll show you what this baptism is that you’re so excited about. It’s the opposite of what you think—the opposite of what you want. So be careful. You may just get what you’re asking for. What is greatness?

So I’m wondering before hearing this text, if asked who’s the greatest person you know–would your answer be different than if you were asked now? Isn’t our first, immediate thought someone who is powerful, famous, influential–more along the lines of what James and John are looking for? But then Jesus’ definition sinks in a bit, and we have to rethink it. So go ahead and rethink it. By Jesus’ definition, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all,” who is the greatest person you know? . . .

Let me tell you about a great person I met in Jackson, MS this summer. I’d just spend a couple of days in Mississippi, and was finding this state to be both hopeful and frustrating. There were definite signs, not only of the deep and cruel racism that were glaring parts of its history, but also signs of genuine striving for inclusivity and equality. Yet there seemed to be a tiredness, an acceptance by blacks of their lesser places at the table and a refusal by whites to actually acknowledge their seats of privilege. I was confused because MS has the largest percentage of black citizens of any state in the country, and I couldn’t understand why there was such a repressive imbalance of power.

So, on my last night in Jackson, MS, I met a great person. She was a black woman about 25-30 years old and was serving tables at the restaurant of the hotel where I was staying. She was competent, attentive, funny, personable, and was on her way to earning a pretty good tip. We were getting along fine.

On a whim, since it was my last night in MS, I called her over and wondered if she’d answer a question for me. “Sure, if I can,” she said.

I explained to her how I was feeling about this state of Mississippi, and wondered if she had any insights (this was a “listening tour” sabbatical, remember?). “With such a high percentage of black citizens,” I pursued, “why does there seem to be this oppressive undertone? Am I misreading something?”

“No,” she replied. And then she said some things I found incredibly courageous—and that revealed her greatness. “I find it confusing too. I’m not from MS originally—I’ve only lived here for a couple of years. But, yes, for some reason I can’t figure out the power here is still held by whites.”

Then she said what I consider to be the most courageous—and the greatest—thing of all. “For instance, in this hotel, all the service employees are black, and all the managers are white.”

Even though she didn’t know anything about me, who I was, or why I was asking, she spoke up on behalf of blacks who may well be stuck in service jobs relying on tips or minimum wage to pay rent. For all she knew I could’ve been a friend of management coming to check up on how well the service employees were doing their jobs. There were many scenarios where someone like me could have had her fired.

But from her position of relatively little power, she spoke a truth that revealed her greatness. The blindness to power and privilege on the part of management was laid bare by this waitress. A place at the table for all.

The white management of that hotel seeks to sit, one at the right hand and one at the left of glory, clinging to seats of power and refusing to acknowledge any injustice. In the words of Jesus, they lord their power over others and are tyrants over them. And a black table server, drinking the cup that Jesus drinks, the cup of what could have been a huge personal sacrifice, took a risk of becoming last of all by speaking up for service employees who need a place at the table. That’s the greatness Jesus talks about. That’s the greatness James and John don’t understand. That’s the greatness of Jesus himself, and this is the greatness that reveals the nature of God.

It’s the greatness of Jesus that has opened the kingdom of heaven. It is the greatness of Jesus that includes even us. And it’s this greatness of Jesus we are now called to reveal, and then to emulate. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Who opens up places at the table? Who extends the table to include more? Who gives up cushy seats of honor and privilege so that others can share? That person may be the greatest person you know.

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Posted by on October 21, 2018 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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“Every Boundary has Already Been Crossed” (December 31, 2017)

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

The baby Jesus is only 40 days old, and already every aspect of his culture is affected by him. Gospel-writer Luke tells of a truly inclusive Messiah who affects people across all kinds of racial, political, economic, and religious lines. Everyone is touched and changed by this baby:

from Zechariah the powerful priest to Mary the poor, young, illegitimate mother,

from shepherds who live as social outcasts to angels who sing in heavenly choirs,

from devout Simeon who is moved by the Spirit to the elderly Anna the temple prophet.

At 40 days old, this baby is already making room for rich/poor, male/female, Jew/Gentile, young/old, insiders/outsiders. God’s good news is already being carried across every boundary. People are changed by the very presence of this newborn child—and he hasn’t even made a sound yet.

This child comes into the world in order to reveal and create God’s reign on earth. And although his adult teaching, miracles, compassion, death and resurrection all do that, it’s his very presence that starts it all. In God’s vision for the world everyone is included, everyone is valued, everyone is needed. And as God’s vision is established and takes hold, we become part of it.

This Christ-child has reached across whatever boundaries are in the way in order to come to you. To include you. To recognize you. And now, we are not just recipients who have been included, but we are part of the great cloud of witnesses who carry it forward.

Everyone’s story matters in God’s reality. Everyone’s life and experience and background and religion are included. There are no longer any people beyond the boundary of God’s reign in this world. Starting with a 40-day-old infant, all barriers have already been crossed.

And, in the name of this Christ-child, the one who has included us, we follow that pattern.

We not only tolerate people who see the world differently, we are to seek them out. Every boundary has already been crossed.

We not only hear the voices of people who sing a new song, we look to sing it too. Every boundary has already been crossed.

We not only invite people who don’t know have much religious experience, we learn from them. Every boundary has already been crossed.

The way of living as part of God’s vision for the world is way different than the way we seem to want to live. One of the difficulties we are experiencing as a culture is an avoidance of anyone who doesn’t see the world the way we do. We hang out only with those who share our views. We’ve begun to demonize those who disagree with us or who have a different viewpoint. Our world seems to have become rigidly black-or-white, right-or-wrong, good-or-evil. We’ve lost the willingness to listen, to recognize validity in someone whose life experiences have shaped their perspective in different ways than our life experiences have shaped ours.

But what this 40-day-old tiny child is showing us is that this isn’t how God sees the world. Every boundary has already been crossed. God loves and values every one. Even those who see things differently.

Following this child means moving beyond our own boundaries. Bearing the name of this infant Christ means standing alongside those whose challenge our perspective on the world. Being disciples of Jesus means we learn to see the world with their eyes, hear other voices with their ears, seek to understand people we think we have nothing in common with.

Because in Jesus, every boundary has already been crossed.

This isn’t easy, and it certainly runs counter to our cultural norms. But it is God’s way, God’s vision, the reality of the Christ-child among us. So as Christian people, it is necessary. In order to know God, we need to know people beyond what we’re familiar or comfortable with.

Here’s some ways we can grow in our spirituality, deepen our relationship with God. Be deliberate about spending time with people who are different than you. You don’t have to prove anything or convince anyone of anything. Just listen, watch, try to understand.

If you are a reader, read books by authors of a different ethnicity.

If you’re a TV watcher, watch shows with characters with a different sexual orientation.

If you’re a movie-goer, make it a point to go to movies produced by people of different faiths.

If you’re on social media, reach out to a friend of a friend who is black or Hispanic or an immigrant or a refugee.

If you work, have lunch with someone who has talked about a cause that you don’t know about. Get to know them. Listen to them. Recognize the Christ-child who has already reached out to them.

To be a Christian has to mean we follow Christ. And by definition, from his very earliest days, Christ brought different people together. Jesus lived his whole life deliberately crossing uncomfortable boundaries. Because that’s who he has always been, from the time he was born. That’s the vision of God that Christ brings into the world—that all people matter. If we don’t know them, we cannot know Christ.

I’ve begun to take this aspect of my own journey with Christ seriously. And even just dipping my toe into the wide waters of others’ viewpoints has given me new experiences in God’s love that could never have happened otherwise.

Come and see the baby Jesus. He has included you, because in him every boundary has already been crossed.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2018 in Sermon

 

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Wait. I Have to Wear that in Public? (October 15, 2017)

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

This parable today is a strange one. A king’s son is getting married—about the biggest event in the life of a kingdom. So the king hosts a huge wedding banquet. He’s already sent out a “save the date” card, and now he’s calling them to come. He calls them twice: the first time they wouldn’t come, the second time they simply went about their own business. To say that one’s own priorities are more important than the king’s is basically saying that the king isn’t the king. These invited guests make their sentiments very clear by killing the servants of the king who come to bring them to the banquet.

This is open rebellion, so the king has no real choice but to put down the rebellion—in this case by sacking the town. Then, since his agenda is the banquet for his son, he invites others to come—those on the fringe, on the edges, both “the good and the bad.”

This is God’s all-inclusive grace. It’s one of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago. God includes us by grace, not because we are good have done the right things or believe the right things. We are saved by God’s grace. Independent of anything else. That’ s who God is.

So, by the king’s grace, all these people have now been included in the wedding banquet for the king’s son. They’ve all been invited. They all get to come. That would be a wonderful ending to the story. In fact, Luke, in telling a similar parable, does end it there. Hooray! We’re in! Grace is neat, isn’t it?

But Matthew doesn’t stop. Because Mathew reminds us that there’s more to discipleship than just getting into heaven. There’s following Jesus now. There’s standing up with Jesus now. There’s living out God’s agenda now.

Which leads us to the guy in the parable who comes to the wedding banquet but won’t wear a wedding robe.

This person, who’s now included by the grace of the king, who has accepted the king’s invitation, who shows up at the king’s banquet, is still choosing to do things his own way. So he’s tossed out on his ear. He accepted the invitation and he showed up. So apparently accepting the invitation isn’t the point. Deciding to come to the banquet isn’t the point. The king has authority, and that authority takes precedence over the guest’s. When you come to the banquet, you give up your agenda for the king’s agenda. You wear the wedding robe.

You know what that means? Accepting the invitation to come to church is great, but is not what Jesus is asking. Saying “I believe in God” is great, but that’s not what Jesus is asking. Making a decision that Jesus is our personal Lord and Savior is great, but it’s not what Jesus is asking. As people who’ve been included in God’s banquet, what he is asking is that we give up our agenda for God’s agenda. In Lutheran language, we die to ourselves and are raised with Christ. It’s baptismal language. We wear the wedding robe.

What Matthew’s Jesus is telling his church members is that God’s will is to be done by those who are in Christ. Even if it’s in conflict with our priorities; even if we are uncomfortable with it. Many are called, Jesus says, but few are chosen. The invitation to come, to join in is for everyone. “I’ve been invited to the banquet!” “I’ve been saved by grace!” Great, so was everyone else. But not everyone will follow the call to re-order their lives according to God’s mission. As part of the church, we give up our agenda for God’s agenda. That’s wearing the wedding robe.

God’s agenda is to love unconditionally and show compassion to all and to forgive everyone and include those cast aside and to stand up for those who are pushed down.

More than accepting the invitation, that’s wearing the wedding robe.

Just this last week, Tiana, one of our high school students, wore this wedding robe at school. A kid in one of her classes made a horrible racist comment, using the “n” word. No one called it out. So she did. She stood up and in front of the whole class told the kid that this was not OK. That word has never been OK, and it’s not OK now. That kind of racism has to stop. Even though it meant taking the risk of speaking out in front of her peers, she stood up against racial discrimination. This is living out God’s agenda. This is wearing the wedding robe.

“For by grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” writes Paul to the Ephesian church. This text is one of the key themes that clarified for Luther that God’s grace includes us. We are all invited. We are all included. We are all able to attend the banquet in the kingdom of heaven.

And we’re expected, as people who accept the invitation, to wear the wedding robe. It keeps slipping off, doesn’t it? God’s forgiveness is a centerpiece of God’s grace. It’s OK. We just pick up the wedding robe and put it on next time. We take a step.

Maybe we aren’t civil rights leaders. Maybe we cannot organize our neighborhood compassion drive for the homeless. But we can take a step in God’s agenda. With the confidence of God’s unconditional grace, we can encourage and support someone like Tiana, who took a bold stand with Christ. We can listen to people’s stories who tell us that justice doesn’t always include them in our culture.  We can learn from them and make adjustments in our own attitudes. We can let it be known that jokes that demean someone else are not appreciated. We can take a step. Surrounded and held in God’s grace, we can put the wedding robe of the king back on. And when it falls off we can put it back on again. And again. The invitation to the feast still stands. The banquet will go on. We’re still included. And, yes, the wedding robe is still there for us to wear.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 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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Pentecost: We’ve Been Doing it Backwards (Pentecost Day, May 15, 2016)

Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be 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.

At the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly a couple of weeks ago, I went to a workshop on “Being a Neighborhood Church.” The agenda was to help congregations develop relationships in their communities.

About 20 people gathered for this workshop, and one of the presenters shared an example of a beautiful relationship they have with the school across the street from them where both church and school have benefited. The other presented how God is already active in the neighborhood. As we enter into relationships within our neighborhoods, we are actually reflecting the image of God there.

“How do we do that?” someone asked.

“By discovering what God might be doing in the neighborhood and becoming part of that.

“That sounds hard.”

“Yes, it does take time to develop those relationships in your community where you can begin to see—”

“So, do we meet with the school administration before we meet with the faculty?”

“I don’t know. First you need to see whether or not God is even calling you into a relationship with—”

“How much money do we need to budget for this school thing?”

“You really need to see what God is doing in your neighborh—”

“How many families from the school program thing will join our church?”

They couldn’t seem to get past a program. They couldn’t see God as actually active in their communities. This presenter was speaking a foreign language, he was filled with new wine. You can’t program God into your neighborhood. You can’t impose God on people. You can’t.

Well, you can. But it would be the opposite of what happens in the book of Acts, especially in this text on the day of Pentecost.

You see, on that Pentecost day in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit just blew through in some rather obvious ways—fire, wind, languages, bold proclamations of God’s mighty deeds of power. Obvious to some, at least. Not obvious to everyone. There were those who simply thought these Galileans were drunk and just wrote off the whole event.

Here’s the order of events—and this order matters.

  • Jews gathering in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival, like they’d been doing every year for centuries. Normal activity.
  • Then, the Holy Spirit gets active with the fire and the wind.
  • After that, the disciples responded with all the languages and Peter gives his sermon.
  • Finally, after this text today, 3000 people were baptized; some disciples were jailed, others beaten, and some killed.

Normal life, Holy Spirit, response, consequences (some good, some not so good). That’s the way the church began. Life is going on, Holy Spirit disrupts, disciples respond to that, and who-knows-what-happens as a result.

I think the church has tried to reverse that order. At least the institutional church of the last 17 centuries or so. We start at the end, with what we want the consequences to be (usually because it benefits us), and then we back up and try to figure out a way to make that happen. We back up further and ask God to bless our work. Then we package it and impose it on people’s lives.

For instance: the 3000 baptisms in one day sound really good. And there were more day by day too. So let’s start there, we say. Let’s make that happen. How can we get that result?

So we back up and make the church buildings attractive, we create magnificent programs that people want to come to, we preach entertaining sermons that people want to hear, we promise people heaven and threaten them with hell, we sing songs we’re sure they want to hear because we like them, and we put on a really good pot of coffee.

Then we back up further and assure ourselves that this is what God wants and ask God to bless it.

And we present this church with all its programming to the public, expecting the results we want. When it falls short, we bump up the programs, add more jokes to the sermons, make the bulletins slicker and add projection. And we tell people how to make their lives easier. Then we advertise this new and revised church to the public, hoping for the results we planned.

Over and over and over we do this, never noticing that we’ve actually got the whole thing backwards, which pretty much leaves God until last. But we’ve been doing it this way for so long that it seems normal, right, good, and even Godly. That’s what we’ve been telling ourselves for centuries.

All the while, the Holy Spirit continues moving, interrupting people’s lives. Sometimes we as the church are kind of busy with our own agenda so we don’t always see it. We can convince ourselves that the Holy Spirit can’t move without the church, forgetting that on that first Pentecost day, there was no church. Just a bunch of Jesus followers sitting in a room without programs, educational systems, choirs or bands, or even coffee. But the Holy Spirit came anyway. And not all, but some people noticed. And they responded. And some things happened.

With us or without us, the Holy Spirit will get all up in people’s lives. It’s our job to notice, to respond, and to take the consequences whether we like them or not.

It’s the same Holy Spirit today as in Acts 2. Where is the Holy Spirit intervening now? Look for where mercy being proclaimed, or compassion being shown. Those things that are definitely of God. It sometimes comes from unexpected people in unexpected ways. Even Galileans who appear drunk.

Have you seen the Holy Spirit moving? Have you recognized compassion being proclaimed? Have you noticed those who are normally pushed to the edges brought in and told they matter?

Here’s one instance I’ve seen this week. On Monday, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch included this statement in a speech to the legislators of her home state of North Carolina, “Let me speak to directly to the transgender community. No matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice . . . wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you moving forward.”

That is nothing but people being shown compassion. That is care and love being proclaimed to some who are pushed away in North Carolina. That’s the Holy Spirit at work. And someone responded. And who knows what the results will be.

Some of us hear this speech from Loretta Lynch and will say to one another, “What does this mean?” Others will sneer, “She is filled with new wine.” Others will say, “How is it that we hear these things coming from the government?”

No one expects to experience the Holy Spirit through the U.S. government. Just like no one expected to experience the Holy Spirit through a bunch of Galilean yokels. But it doesn’t who responds to the Spirit, it’s that the Spirit is moving.

In the midst of life, the Holy Spirit blows in and disrupts, some notice and respond, and things happen.

On this Pentecost Day, may we take time to notice the Holy Spirit’s interruptions. May we discover anew God’s compassion and grace being revealed in people’s lives. And may we respond to the Holy Spirit’s love as it blows all around us.

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2016 in Sermon

 

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