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One Family. Period. (March 31, 2019)

This was my sermon, given at Green Mountain United Methodist Church as part of an ecumenical “Pulpit Exchange.”

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: . . . 11 “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “

I am so pleased that it’s been a full ten years now that the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have enjoyed full-communion partnership. That is significant for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that we can do this kind of pulpit swap without worrying about kickback from our respective bishops.

But also, together we are making a statement to the world that unity in Christ can be celebrated in the very midst of our diversity. Even when you note our distinctive histories and practices, we have much more in common than we have differences. That matters.

Far too often the world only sees the church expressing division and disunity. They only notice our self-righteous declarations of correct doctrine. They only pay attention to those times of arrogant positioning on narrow biblical interpretation. In the face of that, together we are proclaiming to the world unity in Christ. And if they take a look at the Methodists and the Lutherans, they will see what a celebration of unity in the midst of diversity looks like.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that in our world this message of unity and common purpose is far more important than any message of division or exclusion.

It seems to me that we set an example for the rest of the church as we recognize the diversity among us and still joyfully celebrate our unity in Christ.

It seems to me that in the midst of divisive activity meant to exclude certain people, we can boldly proclaim that by the grace of God we are One Church that has room for all.

And the United Methodist Church, through public statements by the Western Jurisdiction, the Mountain Sky Conference, the Council of Bishops, the Commission on a Way Forward, and notably the actions and voice of this congregation, are claiming the life-changing love of Jesus Christ for ALL people.

We in the ELCA, and specifically we at Lutheran Church of the Master proudly stand with you in support and admiration as you boldly proclaim on Green Mountain that God’s love includes everyone—without exception. Regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, documentation, political views, religion, or anything else that to some may divide, you reveal the risen Christ by lovingly including anyone. I’m proud to stand in this pulpit today.

You walk in good company. Not only with Methodist tradition, but also with scriptural consistency of God’s radical, extravagant, all-inclusive love. Today’s text is just one of many that make clear the radical love for all of God’s people. I want to turn to that now.

A father loves both his sons. Even though they are as different as night and day. The younger son is selfish and disrespectful. He’ll get a share of the property after his father has died. But asking for his share of the family property before then is way out of line. The father doesn’t have to grant the request—some would say he would be foolish to do so. It not only is reckless, but makes the father (and the whole family) look untrustworthy to the entire community.

Yet the only thing this parent hopes for is the return of this child. If you notice, the parent doesn’t wait for this prodigal to repent or make amends or prove they won’t do this foolish thing again. No, the point is that this parent’s love for their child knows no limits, no boundaries, no conditions. If this horrible child is loved this much by their parent, how much more is the Divine love for any of us. Without limits. Without boundaries. Without conditions. Love that seems foolish, extravagant, beyond reason. Love that has to be celebrated with a party. Love that restores this child, not just into the periphery, but to full status as part of the family—complete with rings and robes and sandals. Because all are invited. All are included. All are loved. There is One Family, and whether this child deserves it or not isn’t the question. The only thing that matters is the waiting arms of this loving parent. That’s what God’s love looks like. That’s the image in which we are created and that we are called to reveal to the world.

There’s also the elder child, the self-righteous one who clings to their resentment and anger. They think this inclusion of the unworthy sibling is unjust—even unrighteous. From this child’s perspective, their parent’s love for the younger one shows a disregard for faithfulness. Yet, this elder one knows better than anyone how radical God’s all-encompassing love is. They are offended and scandalized by this love. Because it goes beyond sensibility, beyond righteousness. Unconditional love is going to be offensive to some. Because it includes people some of us would rather not include.

So this loving parent reaches out to this child too. They affirm this child’s place in the family and invite this one also to come to the party. Because all are invited. All are included. All are loved. There is One Family, and whether this child deserves it or not isn’t the question. The only thing that matters is the waiting arms of this loving parent. That’s what God’s love looks like. That’s the image in which we are created and that we are called to reveal to the world.

As we strive to love all people the way God loves all people, we can’t help but be One Church.

Both children are included. Both have a place in God’s love. Whether any child deserves it or not isn’t the question. Because all are invited. All are included. All are loved. There is One Church, and whether any of us deserve it or not isn’t the question. The only thing that matters is the waiting arms of a loving God. That’s what God’s love looks like. That’s the image in which we are created and that’s what GMUMC is revealing to the world.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Authentic Relationships: Confronting Each Other When Necessary (March 24, 2019)

2 Samuel 12:1-13;

Galatians 2:11-14

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12 for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13 And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the 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.

This area of confrontation as part of discipleship isn’t my “go-to.” I recognize the need for it, the benefit of it, but still kind of resist it—actually I pretty much avoid it if possible. I don’t always confront very well for some reason. On those occasions when I get past my avoidance and actually confront someone when I think it’s necessary, I usually come off like a bulldozer—very little tact or sensitivity. And I usually end up causing resentment, anger, and an injured relationship, which is the opposite of what I hope will happen. That, then, reinforces my avoidance of confrontation and the cycle starts all over.

On the other hand, I’ve seen confrontation as harassment or abuse. It can be used by people to judge, to condemn, and to self-justify. Sometimes people who are really good at confrontation use it to intimidate others in an effort to prop themselves up above someone they feel to be weaker. They use confrontation as a weapon, as nothing more than a bully tactic.

But why is this really hard topic an issue of discipleship? We need to take a look at the texts today for help with that.

The setting for the 2 Samuel text is King David’s attempt to cover up a murder for which he was responsible. He ordered the husband of his mistress into the heat of a battle in order to get him killed. It worked. He got away with it. No one’s the wiser.

Except for the prophet Nathan who knew what had happened. In this text he confronts David using a parable of a poor man whose beloved lamb is stolen by a rich man—the injustice of this. “What should happen to that rich man?” asks Nathan. “He deserves to die,” answers the king. “You are that man!” Nathan exclaims.

The result is that David acknowledges his sin and provides one of the greatest repentance stories in all of scripture. Read Psalm 51.

Confronting David led him to repentance, which made him a better king—both in God’s eyes and in the eyes of Israel.

The other text from Galatians is a bit different. Fairly recently some parts of the Church have begun including—even baptizing—Gentiles. For the first time non-Jews are being welcomed as equal disciples of Jesus. For us no big deal. For them, this was a seismic shift in thinking. It was incredibly controversial. As is often still the case, some of the outlying congregations were adopting this practice of equal inclusivity more readily than the orthodox “mother church” in Jerusalem. So the church was divided over this issue.

Now Peter had had this dream (cf. Acts 10) about eating unclean food because God had said that if God makes it clean, it’s clean. So when Peter (Cephas) came to Antioch, he participated in these inclusive meals and worship times with Jews and Gentiles together. He even ate at Gentile tables with Gentile food, which was forbidden by the orthodox Jewish church in Jerusalem. So the church in Jerusalem sent some people up to Antioch to check, and Peter backed down.

Now, a lot of scholars believe Peter removed himself from the Gentile meals to help keep peace in the church. He didn’t want to promote a division over a small issue like meals, so he sided with Jerusalem.

Keeping peace isn’t bad, is it? Keeping the church from splitting isn’t bad, is it? It’s easier to back out of these common meals and keep the churches happier, right? Especially those who are in power.

There was more at stake that keeping people happy. An issue of the gospel was actually at stake here. If Peter sides with the powerful church in Jerusalem, he is in essence saying that the Gentiles—whom Peter acknowledges that God was including—didn’t matter. They were essentially second-class citizens whose inclusion wasn’t as important as the approval of the Jerusalem church. Peter sold out the gospel because it was easier. He ignored God’s inclusion to keep more powerful people happy. His actions revealed that he felt God’s inclusion of the Gentiles wasn’t worth a conflict.

Can you imagine if someone of Peter’s importance said you weren’t worth standing up for?

So Paul confronts Peter, and does so publicly. This was an act of discipleship on Paul’s part because God’s vision for the church was at stake. If God includes people as Peter had argued before, then they are worth standing up for. They are worth including. They are worth risking a conflict. They are worth confronting the orthodox powers that be.

In the case of Nathan, confronting David made him a better king—thus helping Israel to better reveal the ethical nature of God to the nations.

In the case of Paul, confronting Peter helped the church to better reveal the inclusive nature of God to the nations.

Jesus certainly confronted people—but always regarding their opposition to the reign of God. Confrontation is discipleship when it points out a barrier to something God is doing. Confrontation is discipleship when it can pave the way for God’s reign of love and compassion and inclusion to be revealed more fully.

It’s worth thinking about: what is God doing here and now in our lives, in our church, in our culture? What’s in the way of that happening? Disciples of Jesus are called to point out those obstacles and confront those who support those obstacles. For the sake of the reign of God.

What are those hindrances, those obstacles, those things and people that need to be confronted for God’s sake? How can we best do that? Come back Wednesday and we’ll talk about that.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Respect for All People (March 10, 2019)

James 2:1-13

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

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.

Discipleship = learning from and committing to a particular person or teaching or philosophy. Taking those things that they put forth and applying those same priorities in our own lives because we believe they matter. Follow them and their teaching.

People are disciples of lots of things: a particular physicist, a certain type healing methodology, or a way of doing meditation. When we are a disciple of someone or something, we approach life informed by the one we follow. We incorporate that one’s wisdom, teaching, way of living into our own life.

For those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus, it means growing in our attempts at following Jesus. We do this because we acknowledge that he is the fullest revelation of the nature of God we can understand. Therefore, discipleship means that his priorities become ours because we trust they are God’s. His attitudes toward other people become ours because we trust they are God’s. As we seek to grow in this way we believe we reflect more fully God’s Reign in the world, which, we trust, is the hope we have for creation.

This Lent we are giving each other an opportunity to grow in our discipleship by considering Christ’s approach to “Authentic Relationships,” and we begin this series this week with the topic: Showing Respect for All People.

We’ll prime the pump today and hopefully get us all thinking about how showing respect to all people is an important aspect of discipleship: why it matters and how Jesus views it. Then, you’re invited back here on Wednesday (noon or 6:30) for a deeper discussion together about how we can grow in this aspect of discipleship.

To start, we treat people with respect because they are created in the image of God. Every single human being on earth—from the poor living on the streets to kings and rulers, young and old, healthy and sick, LGBTQ or straight, people we like and people we don’t. We are all created in the image of God and are all deserving of basic respect.

In addition, Luther understood that God can and does use anybody to make the world work. People are valuable because God actually works through them. People matter to God. Therefore, people matter to us.”

Since each one of us is created in the image of God, each one of us is a reflection of God in some authentic way. Think about what that says about God. Many of us have been taught that God is a straight-and-narrow God of rigid rules and that we, as diverse humans, need to deny that diversity in order to conform to God’s narrow righteousness. Perhaps we have that backwards.

Since we are all so different—each one of us is truly unique—then God is apparently much more diverse than we often imagine. When we respect others, especially those that are different from us, we are respecting the God whose image they reflect and reveal.

Which includes each of us! Do we see ourselves as people who reveal the image of God and who are worthy of respect? It’s so easy to focus on our faults and our failures, our weaknesses and gifts we don’t have.

Again, many of us have been taught that when we look at ourselves, we are to see first and foremost as sinner in need of redeeming. However, over-emphasizing the negative aspects of who we are blocks our ability to see the image of God in ourselves. When we focus so much on our sinfulness we miss out on the love, grace, and compassion that is the basis of who we are. In the first creation story in Genesis 1, after each day of creation, God saw all that was made that day was good. But on the day God created humanity—you and me—that’s the one day God saw that what was created was very good.

Right now, just as you are, with the whole mix of compassion and selfishness, where you’re gifted and where you’re not, with all the ways you are ignored and all the ways you are recognized, just as you are—here and now—you are worthy of the deepest respect. You, right now, as you are, reflect the image of God in ways no one else can—and you are worthy of the deepest respect. All parts of you are created by God in God’s image—and you are worthy of the deepest respect.

Take a minute and consider yourself. All of who you are. Don’t categorize into good and bad, sinful and righteous. Just you; your whole self. . . .

Can you see the image of God revealed through you? . . .

If so, what aspects of God do you reflect? . . .

If not, then at least imagine the image of God in which you were created. Imagine yourself reflecting that image just because you were created.

Now look around this room. See the wonderful diversity of a very creative and loving God. We are all so different, and yet we all reflect the image of God. See God present in each one, whether they look like you or not. Whether they agree with you or not. Whether you like them or not. Whether you know them or not. Each one reflecting God in unique and magnificent ways. Each one loved deeply by God. Each one worthy of the deepest respect.

Everyone we encounter this week is someone dearly loved by God and who has been created in God’s image. Each one reflects that image in unique and wonderful ways. Each one is therefore worthy of respect.

Let’s talk about how we can incorporate this aspect of discipleship more fully into our lives this Wednesday.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2019 in Sermon

 

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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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