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The Power of Powerlessness (Ash Wednesday, Feb 14, 2018)

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. . . .
12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 17 Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, “Where is their God?’ “

As the people of Jerusalem try to rebuild the city after returning from a 70 year exile held captive in Babylon. They are experiencing the worst disaster that anyone can remember. For an agricultural society, a plague of locusts means starvation and death. But this plague tops anything that even the oldest people have ever heard about. It’s overwhelming. It’s hopeless.

I think that in some ways we share that experience of hopelessness. There are things in our world that we can’t even imagine fixing. Our country is more divided than ever before; greed, lies, obstruction  seem to grow unchecked; an all-out war on the most vulnerable among us seems to actually be deliberate, our national leaders seem more out of touch and uncaring than ever.  There are 2400 homeless children in Jefferson County, yet the obstacles and the anger around any address of the issue seem insurmountable.

It just seems like there’s nothing we can do. Sometimes, as if we’re experiencing a plague of locusts, we can feel powerless.

And that’s what the people of Israel were experiencing too.

Our tendency when we feel overwhelmed is to pull in, hunker down, and make sure our own little corner of the world is safe. If the world is falling apart, we’re going to do what we can to stay clear of that. We’re going to remain where it’s safe, put in a security system, buy a handgun, and do what we can to make sure we’re going to be OK.  If the situation is bigger than our ability to deal with, we take care of ourselves first.

But here’s what Joel’s people in Jerusalem did in the face of a hopeless situation. All of them together threw their lot in with God. They recognized that their situation was bigger than their ability to deal with, so they—all of them together—publicly turned to God for hope and help. Maybe God would do something, maybe not. That was up to God, not them. But they called everyone together to fast and pray and see what God would do. And they did it openly and publicly.

15Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; 16gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 

For Joel and his people, the response to despair wasn’t “how can I survive this?” but “how can we help each other seek God in this?” And everyone participated.

As church, as the body of Christ, as followers of Jesus, this is what we can offer the world. A public, altogether, open, everyone involved, plea to God in the midst of things that seem impossible.

We say God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

We say God is our refuge and strength.

We say God is with us in the midst of difficulties.

We say Jesus brings among us the mercy, compassion, love, and forgiveness of God.

We say that this is unconditional.

We say we trust God in these things.

Here’s our chance to live those things we believe. Let us come together during this season of Lent. Let us, as the whole congregation of Lutheran Church of the Master—all of us—call upon God to spare our world, to end hatred, to stop terror, to put an end to poverty, to protect the vulnerable, to do those things that we ourselves can feel powerless to do.

15Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;  16gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. 

This Lent, as we gather each week, both on Wednesdays and Sundays, across ages, ethnicities, genders, faith backgrounds, let us remind one another of God’s promise of hope and newness. Let us discover our own part in God’s promise. Let us, altogether, publicly and openly, call upon our God. Let us share with the world what we believe our God can do. Amen.

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Sermon

 

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The Dismantling of the Church (John 2:13-22)

What is Jesus so mad about? Are the temple moneychangers cheating people or being dishonest? No.

Is this whole setup of exchanging money that declares Caesar as Lord for money that declares God as Lord not working? No.

Is this temple system ineffective? No, it’s working quite well, actually.

Is it dishonoring God? No, not really.

So why is he so angry?

The whole temple system, which operates quite well and efficiently, isn’t empowering people with God’s love, forgiveness, and generosity. It’s not pointing people to Jesus, who brings that into the world.

The fact that it works isn’t what counts. The fact that sincere, God-loving people like it isn’t what counts. The fact that it’s been around for centuries isn’t what counts. The fact that it’s good religious practice isn’t what counts.

The temple system of sacrifice, even though it functions well, doesn’t reveal what God is doing. It doesn’t bring people into forgiving others, loving others, being generous to others. It doesn’t allow for Reign of God, the Heart of God coming in Jesus. It’s a system of religious practice that functions in a cul-de-sac all by itself. But it’s not connecting with God and God’s mission of forgiveness, love, and generosity happening in Jesus.

Jesus comes into the temple and is dismantling the system, taking it apart. Any system that bears God’s name but isn’t about God’s work—isn’t empowering, even compelling, people into forgiving, loving, being generous ought to be dismantled.

That’s all well and good. But here’s where this gets hard. God’s doing it again. A religious system that operates well and that lots of God-fearing people like is being dismantled. Church as we know it is being taken apart—by God, I believe. For similar reasons. The church we are familiar with isn’t set up to reveal the fullness of God’s will as revealed in Jesus. Christianity as an institutional church is more about self-perpetuation than forgiveness. It’s more about numerical growth than unconditional love. We care more about fellow Christians than we do about atheists, Jews, Muslims, or non-religious people. We, the Christian Church, are a well-functioning, religious, well established cul-de-sac that functions far too often separately from God and God’s mission. And we are being dismantled. Look around at all the countries that we used to call “Christian.” Every one of the traditional Christian countries is losing members hand over fist.

What if that is by the leading of the Holy Spirit? What if Jesus has come into our temples and is turning over our systems of practicing religion because they aren’t joining people to what God is doing? What if the people leaving our churches in droves are being led by God to something else?

What if that’s true?

Sure, some of those who participated in the temple system in Jesus’ day were moved to greater love and forgiveness. And sure, some people who participate in the church today are authentically moved to greater mercy and generosity. But it seems the system of church itself isn’t accomplishing that.

Because I don’t know what it’s going to look like. If God would show us what she’s doing with the church, perhaps we could help with it. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. We don’t know, and that makes us uncomfortable at best, terrified at worst. Or else we just ignore it and keep offering our temple sacrifices despite Jesus turning over the tables.

If this is happening, what do we do?

Vs. 22, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he has said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” I guess we cling to Jesus. I guess we trust God. I guess we follow the Holy Spirit’s movement as we can. What else can we do? God is going to do what God is going to do. Love, forgiveness, and generosity—those things of God—will be the signs of Jesus’ disciples. Why not run full speed to Jesus? Run headlong to forgiveness, love, and generosity. The tables of the church are being overturned. Let’s see what Jesus is up to. And let us follow him.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Quit Going to Church (April 6, 2014)

Acts 10:44-48; Acts 17:32-33

I’ve decided I’m going to quit going to church. Let me explain that:

If I “go” to church, that means church is a place separated from the rest of my life—contrary to God’s call in baptism.

If I “go” to church, that means I have activities that are part of God’s work and some that aren’t —contrary to God’s call in baptism.

If I “go” to church, that separates what happens inside this building from what happens outside–again, contrary to the life we’ve been called to in baptism.

Any time we separate church from other part of our lives, we’ve missed the point of church.

So, yes, I’m going to quit “going” to church; and instead, I’m going to recognize that I “am” church. Every day. In every situation. Anything that compartmentalizes faith, baptismal life, God, or church into some separate place or activities pulls me away from my life as church.

That’s the point Peter and Paul are making in these texts in Acts today. Peter in Acts 10 is among the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house. These are people who Peter had always been taught were separated from God, separated from righteousness, separated from belief. And yet, God was among them and including them.

Paul knew from his own experience that there is no separation between people that love God and people that God loves. So he’s revealing God’s creative and redeeming work to those who asked him about it in Athens. OK, they aren’t so receptive to it. Not the point. The point is that Paul knows they are loved by God and that Jesus embodies that love for them.

No, God’s love never separates us. God’s love unites us. As Peter and Paul both recognize, in God’s love the sacred is no longer separated from the secular; believers are no longer separated from non-believers; church life is no longer separated from Monday-Saturday life. God is the God of all of it, all of us. Jesus came among us to remove any separation between us and God, between us and each other. So the work of the church has to do the same thing – live beyond those things that we falsely believe separate us from one another.

If God loves in Christ is for all people, we now recognize Christ in others.

Therefore, If God loves in Christ is for all people, we acknowledge that we are united in Christ with others, whether they are Christian or not, believing or not.

There are lots of people we’ll come across this week. Most of them will never step foot inside this building. We are the body of Christ for them. God put us in their lives to show them what God’s love for them looks like, because they, too, are united by Christ into God’s love. God has sent us, the church, to them to reveal that Christ has removed all separations between us and them. We are all loved by God and forgiven in Christ, all of us the same.

The work of Jesus, lived out by Peter and Paul, is the removal of those things that separate us. That is our purpose in the world. Showing all people what God’s love for them looks like. Because the separations are gone. Christ died for all. To live as if we are more righteous, closer to heaven, or less in need of forgiveness is to stand against the mission of Jesus Christ. You are forgiven today through the cross of Jesus Christ. And so is your co-worker who will never step foot into a church building. We are united in our need of that forgiveness, and because of Jesus we are no longer separated because of it.

That is true as we live as church in the world. But it is also true as we live as church in this building. We have to admit that we live as if we were a separated congregation. The most recent manifestation of that in recent years is worship style and music. But those are just container for our idolatry. Many of us would rather reject the work of Christ, clinging to separated lives as a congregation than recognize we already are one in him.

And if you’re thinking, “I hope he says/said that at the other worship service,” I would say that that thinking is what we have to move past. Whenever we dwell on those things that we believe are more important than our unity in Christ, we are rejecting the work of Christ. All of us have been brought together in a common purpose. All of us are forgiven in Jesus’ name. All of us are loved desperately by a God of mercy. And all of us are called to live that each day as church. And whenever we live as if that isn’t the most important thing, we are in the way not only God’s mission, but the work of the very congregation we all so dearly love.

In Christ you are all deeply loved. In Christ you are thoroughly forgiven. In Jesus Christ you are one. And you are also church.

Let’s quit “going” to church. Instead, let’s simply “be” the church. Let’s remind each other that forgiveness and mercy and love that we receive in Christ are most important.  Let’s recognize that we are no longer separated from the world, and that new life without separations is practiced here among us. Because as we do it here, we also do it there. Because of Jesus, we are no longer separated from God, and we are no longer separated from one another.

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2014 in Sermon

 

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Perspective and Action (March 23, 2014)

3rd Sunday of Lent

Acts 10:23-33; Acts 17:19-21

Do you remember the first time, as an adult, you went into an elementary school bathroom? When you were little, everything normal sized, but now everything is so small? When did the porcelain shrink? You gain a new perspective as an adult.

When I moved from Salt Lake City to St. Paul, MN, I was warned about the cold there. “I have a coat, ” I said. “How cold can it be?” I gained a new perspective very quickly.

When my children were small, I’d talk with parents of teenagers and think, “Just tell them what they should do. Reward them if they do it, and punish them if they don’t. How hard can that be?” Then my kids became teenagers. Teenagers are wonderful, just not the same as young kids. It’s an experience that will gain you a new perspective.

There are experiences that simply change our perspective. And when our perspective changes, we do things differently.

Peter in Acts 10 understood God’s love and God’s law. He knew who was in and who was out. It made sense. And then this whole thing sheet thing happened with clean and unclean animals and God telling him that profane and holy aren’t as clear-cut as he thought. It was an experience that changed his perspective. And with a new perspective that God loves people who shouldn’t be loved, he is doing things differently.

So when three men sent by the Roman centurion Cornelius (obviously not a Jew) come to him, he goes to Joppa with them “without objection.” Only after he gets to Cornelius’ house does he ask, “Why did you send for me?”

The Athenians in Acts 17 recognize that what Paul is teaching is new. They don’t have a frame of reference for this information about someone named Jesus being raised from the dead. So wanting a new perspective, they ask to know more.

There are experiences that simply change our perspective. And when our perspective changes, we do things differently.

So, I’m wondering what new perspectives have we gained from God? As a result of an spiritual experience, how do we do something differently? What has God shown us that would cause us to “get and go without objection?”

Let me give you some examples:

As a result of spending time with these chapters in Acts as well as some others, passages like “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean,” my perspective on our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers changed. Those who God has made clean I can’t call unclean. My perspective on immigration was clarified so that it doesn’t matter to me whether someone has proper documentation or not. These are just more people that God loves and should be treated exactly that way.

As  result of new perspectives, I do things differently surrounding those two issues, and many others. When God shows us something that changes our perspective, we do things differently.

One more perspective that may be changing as a result of an experience with God. What if holy communion wasn’t for the baptized, but was the responsibility of  the baptized to provide it to the world? If we trust Jesus comes to us in bread and wine, bringing forgiveness and life, why aren’t we taking this meal, as a church, to the park, the shopping center, the coffee shop?

And what about LCM? How has our congregational perspective been changed by an encounter with God that has caused us to do things differently?

I believe God is speaking to us, showing us that God is active in our neighborhood outside the church building. And that we are most fully the church not when we’re in here, but when we’re out there–with God. That’s why we have embraced ministries like Hope, Green Mountain Elementary Homework Helpers, Abrazos a Molholm. That’s why we have so many people from here who are joining God at The Action Center, with Habitat for Humanity, and all the others that we’ll be able to see and celebrate on April 27th right here on our Celebration Sunday.

God shows us God’s work, and our perspective changes. And we end up considering possibilities like mentoring Green Mountain and Bear Creek High School students in career possibilities.

Peter’s perspective was changed by a vision from God. As a result, a Gentile and his household were baptized into Christ.

God comes to you now in love, grace, mercy, forgiveness. Let that sink in. As forgiven people, experiencing unconditional love, how might you see the world differently? With these new eyes touched by grace, new ears touched by forgiveness, a new perspective from God, how will you do things differently now?

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Sermon

 

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Ash Wednesday: Tangible, Real, Visible Discipleship

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday—official beginning of Lent. Season of deliberation, repentance, deepening discipleship. This is a season when we focus very intentionally on our spiritual lives, spiritual disciplines, our relationship with God. Sometimes that means we need to put aside other things during Lent in order to focus on this aspect of our lives.

We talk a good talk as Christians. We confess our faith, we believe in God, we come to church, we might even tell people we are Christians. But does that discipleship cause us to do anything that’s actually different? Does our belief in Jesus actually reveal itself in tangible ways?

Actually, it does. But we can become complacent about it. So it seems the question this year would be: Are our lives different this year as our relationship with God grows? Are the lives of the people around us different this year as our faith deepens? Are we able to share God’s story of love and grace and forgiveness more boldly this year? Are we more clearly seeing God’s story as our own? Are we recognizing God’s story intersecting with the life-story of the people in our neighborhoods?

Today, Ash Wednesday, we have the opportunity to express our faith, our trust, our repentance, our commitment in a different kind of way. Today, Ash Wednesday, we will be marked with the sign of the cross in a way that can be seen by everyone. With ashes.

Ashes were a Hebrew sign of repentance and cleansing. The cross is a sign of God entering our world, our very lives, in Christ. We will look at one another and see, with clarity, the reality of our faith and our commitment to Jesus as his disciples in the world.

The gospel text reminds us that we don’t do this for show. It’s not to impress anyone. But it is a tangible expression, a physical reminder, a different way of declaring the source of our life, our breath, our forgiveness, our salvation. We don’t wear this mark proudly, but in honest humility. We are dust, God is our life. Jesus entered into our world, into our life, even into our death on the cross. Because of him we are different than we were before. The difference in our life is real, tangible, evident. We will respond to Jesus tonight in a real, tangible, evident way. We wear God’s story on our foreheads. God’s story of forgiveness and life touches us even in the dirt and grime and ashes of our lives.

The ashes are real. God’s story is real. The cross is real. So our story in this Lenten journey is just as real because God’s promise of forgiveness and life are the most real of all. The cross of Jesus makes a tangible difference in the world. May these crosses on our foreheads remind us to recognize God’s story in our own life story and be part of that story in the world too.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2014 in Sermon

 

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A Safe Place to be Vulnerable–Lent 5

5th Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8

 So, what do you think of Mary of Bethany in this gospel text? She takes perfume that’s worth almost a full year’s salary, ad pours it on Jesus’ feet—the work of a slave. Then she wipes it with her hair—a scandalous act for a woman. What are one or two words you might use to describe her? Free spirit? Grateful? Overly dramatic? Devoted? Wasteful?

The word I think I would use is “authentic.” She is being herself in a very unique situation. Her brother, Lazarus, has just been raised from the dead by Jesus and she is responding to that. And she’s doing it in her own, unique, genuine, and authentic way. John writes that her anointing of Jesus’ feet with this expensive perfume is a preview of his being anointed for burial. Of course gospel-writer John would find deep meaning in this act and relate it to the cross. That’s what he does. But I’m not sure in this story that Mary of Bethany had that in mind at all. Her actions are her own, with her own motives of gratitude and devotion. She is being, well, Mary. And she’s not trying to impress Jesus, Judas, or anyone else. She is responding to her brother’s restored life in an authentically “Mary” kind of way: by breaking open an extravagantly expensive jar of perfume and anointing Jesus’ feet with it, then wiping his feet with her hair.

Her response doesn’t meet Judas’ approval—even though many would say that Judas has a point. Judas is one of the twelve insiders whom Jesus picked, but his criticism doesn’t stop her at all. It doesn’t even matter to her. Her response to Jesus compassion isn’t influenced at all by what others think. Not only is that authentic, but it’s courageous. Because by acting in an authentic way, she’s opening herself up for public ridicule. She’s quite vulnerable to that right now.

Jesus, however, loves her response with the perfume. Not because it’s the right one or one that he approves of, but because it’s authentic for her. Her response to Jesus’ compassion comes from the core of her identity. It’s not meant to gain approval, not for anyone else, but just a response that comes from deep within her heart.

And that’s why we usually don’t behave authentically.

When you respond to Jesus (or anyone) in an authentic way, it leaves you vulnerable. Look at the criticism Judas levels at Mary. It’s harsh. He’s not just criticizing her actions, because her actions are coming from the depths of who she is. He’s criticizing her as a person. And if it wasn’t Judas saying it, how many of us would agree with him (because if he says it, it must be wrong)? How many of us would look at each other, roll our eyes, sigh, and whisper to one another, “There she goes again. She is just so strange.” And then we’d avoid her, gravitate toward others who also think she’s strange, and end up excluding her.

Mary is taking a tremendous risk by being authentic. Authenticity makes you vulnerable because it opens us up to pain that is so easily inflicted by those around us.

We live in a culture that doesn’t want us to recognize—much less admit—our vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be weak. It is considered wimpy. Buck up, we say. Be strong, we say. Tough it out, we say. Our heroes are people of strength and power. They aren’t vulnerable, they never back down, they never give in, they are never weak.

Mary has the courage to be authentic in the face of what others think about her. She does this extravagant thing because she has been touched by Jesus’ compassion and grace. When you are most vulnerable and you are met with compassion; when you are most vulnerable and are met with love, you are given new life.

I think that’s the church at its best. A place where you are met with compassion and love when you are most vulnerable. You see, that’s how Jesus continuously meet us—when we are weakest and most vulnerable, he comes to us in love, compassion, and grace.

At our Lenten devotion time last Wednesday, those at our table were talking about this text. The question we were dealing with had to do with Mary of Bethany’s extravagant gratitude. What were we grateful for, the question was asked? Many said that this congregation was pretty close to the top of the list. Several people shared that when they were living their lives in hard places, this was a safe community for them. They were welcomed, cared for, and held without any expectations or assumptions. They could be authentic in their pain, in their weakness, and in their vulnerability without much fear of reprisal or criticism. A safe place to be vulnerable—a safe place to be authentic.

I have a friend who experienced the death of a family member a while ago. She has spent the last several months being very vulnerable with a group of friends who’ve held her, walked alongside her, prayed with her during her journey of grief. She has cried, anguished, lamented, and shared her journey—trusting that no one would tell her to be strong, or to quit being so tearful, to get on with her life. Her grief is authentic, and her journey through it is just as authentic. Not looking for approval, just a safe place to be vulnerable—a safe place to be authentic.

Can you imagine the freedom that would come with that kind of safety? To know that you can express what truly in your heart, knowing that you will only be loved in return? That’s who we are in Christ. That’s what it looks like when the church is authentic.

I pray you would find this to be an authentic community here at LCM. I pray you would feel free to be authentic here. Jesus has touched us with compassion and love, we are free to respond in an authentic way. We are free to live in an authentic way. We are forgiven; we are loved; we are free. In that, we are given new life.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2013 in Sermon

 

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John 3:16 is Not a Weapon! Sermon: 3/18/12 (Lent 4 B)

4th Sunday in Lent (B)

John 3:14-21

 I think I’ve figured out why the gospel of John is sooo not my favorite: there’s so much in it that it’s overwhelming. I prefer gospel writers that take a whole lot of verses to make one point, not take one verse to make a whole lot of points. John is deep, thick, rich, multi-faceted, and operates on several levels at the same time. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in this gospel. You just can’t read it quickly or superficially. If you think you understand the gospel of John, take a step back and look again. Because chances are you’re missing multiple layers that God can open up for you.

Which is why I’ve never been impressed by the “John 3:16” craze, which is one of the verses in this text. To take one verse out of John reduce it to a single, shallow, sometimes judgmental rallying cry not only does a tremendous disservice to the complexity of this gospel, but misses almost every layer of what John is conveying here. This isn’t a verse about trying to get people to believe in Jesus; and it’s especially not a verse threatening them if they don’t. It’s a verse that fits into a whole gospel, rich in its own context and overflowing in abundant grace. What was a word of hope and life for John’s little church overrun by Rome can quickly become a word of condemnation in our world where Christianity has long been a dominant institution.

But that’s not the part I’ve been wrestling with. We get so hooked on John 3:16 that we often miss the rest of this section. Verse 18 is the splinter in the bannister for me. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

“Those who do not believe are condemned already.” Seems harsh, doesn’t it? I think there are assumptions we make here that are simply too shallow for the gospel of John.

We have to understand that John’s little community was insignificant in its neighborhood. So the author making contrasts between those who believed and those who didn’t had very few consequences because it wasn’t a statement of power. But today, Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries. From that position of power, we have used these words in John to exclude people, judge them, and coerce them.

John was attempting to encourage his overlooked little community to be faithful, to keep at it, to persevere in the face of overwhelming persecution. There is life eternal with Jesus, so hang in there. Don’t allow yourself to fall prey to the darkness. Don’t let yourselves be separated from the community of faith. What was meant as encouragement for those inside the church has in our day become a word of judgment against those outside of it.

Here’s what concerns me about all this today: that we have settled for a superficial interpretation of this verse, and believe our own hype that we are on the inside track in God’s favor because we believe. If that’s not bad enough, I’m afraid those outside the church have only heard our shallow interpretation of this verse, and based on centuries of church power, have further reason to stay away from the church and the light of Jesus.

If we are to live out the gospel, we owe it to the world to dig a little bit deeper in order to be authentic to this text. We can’t afford to a shallow voice of condemnation and judgment. If the gospel message of forgiveness, love, compassion, and generosity is to be lived by us, we can’t let a superficial understanding of one or two verses get in our way.

What John means as inspiration to those inside the church, we cannot use as judgment of those outside the church. You may has a little bit of an image problem around being judgmental.

In the face of a world power that was focused on destroying them, John encourages his tiny little church to hold on to their faith, to continue to trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, to band together as believers without giving up hope. We can’t be true to this text when we make it nothing more than a benchmark of who’s in and who’s out.

Instead, John’s message of trust and encouragement is still for us. When faced with insurmountable odds, we encourage one another to continue to trust in the One who brings life out of death. I have a friend whose husband just died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). What astonishes me about her journey through his diagnosis, deterioration, and ultimately his death is that she continued to trust in the promises of the God of life. This isn’t because she’s so much more faithful than I would probably be, but because she, like John’s little church community, banded together with people of faith and clung to them. For her, these verses in John are not a relief that her husband was “inside,” believing in Jesus and therefore not condemned. Rather these verses are an encouragement that even in the face of death, when all else is falling away, the light of Jesus continues to shine brightly. And she can trust that. It is for her; it is for her husband; it is for us.

Our witness isn’t judgment of those outside the church. No, our witness is that no matter what we face, no matter how difficult or painful or shameful, the light of Jesus shines in truth and in life. As we encourage one another with the light of Christ, we are then a witness to the world—not in judgment, but in truth and love.

Don’t settle for judgment and condemnation. Seek the light of Christ, the truth of God’s love. For part of this text also includes verse 17, Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. That is our witness. That’s what the world needs to hear. That’s what they need to see in us. Because that’s what we trust God has done for us.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in Sermon

 

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God-Given Passion: Sermon, 3/11/12 (3 Lent B)

3rd Sunday in Lent (B)

Exodus 20:1-7; John 2:13-22

How would you describe Jesus’ actions here? . . . When was the last time you let your passion lead your actions? When has your behavior come out of such conviction that you didn’t fully measure the consequences?

Usually we tend to think of those behaviors in negative terms—perhaps because most of our passionate responses would be out of anger or revenge. But eliminating road rage, bar fights, or politics, think about passionate behavior in terms of your faith.

That’s what Jesus is doing. His bizarre behavior is led by passion. He’s not necessarily upset by the corruption of the temple market—no indication it was corrupt. He’s not fighting social injustices. No one has insulted him or his family. The selling of sacrificial animals was a routine part of the culture. It was a lot easier to buy cattle or sheep than to bring them to Jerusalem for the Passover—not to mention feeding them, caring for them, cleaning up after them. It made religious life simpler to let that be done in the temple courtyard, and at the time of sacrifice simply purchase the required animal. And, of course, you couldn’t use the Roman denarii used everywhere else. You had to pay the temple tax in Tyrian shekels or half shekels. That money had to be converted, and there was a small but expected fee for that service as well.

This system had been in place for decades if not centuries. Everyone knew it, used it, and even appreciated it because it made it so much easier to fulfill their religious duties on these holy festivals, such as Passover.

Jesus is not driven by anger over an unjust system. He’s not necessarily appalled at the evil-doers in the temple taking advantage of the poor—there’s no indication of that. This isn’t really about justice or anger or fixing an abusive system. It’s his passion for what his Father is doing, and Jesus’ role in that.

The temple was a symbol for the presence of God among us. So there was more at stake for Jesus than maintaining an established religious system that was working pretty well. Rather, the presence of God had become a system of rules rather than a relationship. He knows he has come among us to open that relationship up between us and God, to bring that into the world regardless of whether people approve or not.

Jesus is driven by devotion to his call within his Father’s mission; certainly not diplomacy or keeping people happy. People were offended by his actions. They demand an explanation (which is really pretty tolerant of them). What sign can you show us for doing this? How can he legitimize this abhorrent and disruptive behavior?

I’m not promoting offensive behavior, but this gets me thinking: what part of God’s work in the world are we that passionate about? What about God’s mission is more important to us than considering whether some action or word is offensive or foolish?

By his actions in the temple, Jesus is reminding us that the most important thing is what God is doing, and our call in that—anything else is just a personal agenda.

We know what God is doing in Jesus Christ. We know that what God is doing is forgiving those who’ve offended, caring for those who are powerless, loving those no one else loves, giving to those who may abuse the gift. But that takes any multitude of forms. How can our passions line up with that?

For the people in the temple, the zeal was for preserving the church system that had been in place forever, and that was working quite well. The zeal was for maintaining a church where people could follow particular traditions, patterns, and norms in order to consider themselves justified.

For Christ, the zeal was for his Father’s presence, his Father’s mission, and his Father’s activity in the world.

I would invite you this Lent to consider your own zeal. Where do you exert the most energy? What do you get most excited about? What can you talk about for hours without stopping? And then, where might God be in the midst of that passion?

Take some time and consider what gets your blood pumping, whether it’s a religious thing or not. What are you willing to devote time to just because it is exciting for you? Baseball, travel, writing? Is it friendships, academics, music? Perhaps children, helping people, problem solving?

Whatever it is, consider the possibility that it is a God-given passion. Reflect on how God might be calling you to into God’s work through that passion. Be willing to imagine  and connect God’s forgiveness with your love for animals; outlandish generosity with your ability to make new friends; Christ-like mercy with a passion for sports. Where is God calling you in the midst of your zeal? Take some time, use your imagination, be willing to try some things. You never know what God is up to, and how God is calling you to participate!

Consider God’s call to you this Lent. By the power of the Holy Spirit, who has created enthusiasm and zeal within us, may living our new and zealous life in Christ be that important for us.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2012 in Sermon

 

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Generosity: A Measure of Discipleship (3/4/12)

2nd Sunday in Lent (B)

Mark 8:31-38

Immediately before these verses, Peter had this great insight as to who Jesus actually is. You are the Messiah. But the next thing Jesus says to him, in our text today, is, Get behind me, Satan! Does that bother anyone else but me? Satan? Really? If Peter said something incorrect, why doesn’t Jesus just say, Good try, Peter, but that’s not quite right. Thanks for a really good effort, though. Let’s work on this together, OK? But, no, he calls him Satan. That doesn’t square with our common perception of Jesus as nice guy and good teacher.

I give Peter the benefit of the doubt, here. When someone you care about talks about dying, the natural human response is for us to not want that to happen. Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him so. It’s just human. And Jesus blasts him for it.

Because here’s the deal: what Jesus is saying about his coming death and resurrection is so desperately important that he simply can’t afford to be nice. There isn’t time. It’s like a child starting to run out into the street. You aren’t so worried about being polite, you simply grab them however you can and pull them back to safety.

That’s the sense of urgency here. The difference between divine things and human things is that important. It’s life and death. Get behind me, Satan!

So as far as Peter’s rebuking Jesus, just because something is a common or even an expected human response doesn’t make it good, right, or Godly. In fact, often the divine things fly in the face of common sense and human expectations.  “The last shall be first.” “Love your enemies.” “Leave the 99 sheep to go look for the 1 who is lost.” “Give to everyone who asks.” “God’s Messiah must be rejected, suffer, die, and be raised.” Jesus adds another one right here, those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Let’s bring this home: I don’t think Jesus is talking about losing your life as in dying, but more losing the things that we think will give us life. When someone talks about “living the good life,” don’t we usually think that means having lots of money, financial comfort and security, and surrounding ourselves with the good things money can buy? In our human culture, it makes sense to us that more money equals better life. So we talk that way, live that way, and all seem to agree. We do whatever we can to make more money and to keep more money. Because we believe that having more will give us a better life.

Then when Jesus throws the divine thinking on us, saying something about giving away so much that we have to adjust our good lifestyle, we either ignore him as “oh, that silly Jesus,” or, just like Peter we quietly take him aside and rebuke him. C’mon, Jesus. You know that can’t be true. I work hard because I only want to provide good things for my family. Surely you’re not saying that my children should do without, are you?

And Jesus replies, Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

But Jesus, I’ve got to provide for my kids. College expenses will be coming up. I’ve got to save for retirement, don’t I? That’s just being responsible!

And Jesus replies, For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. It’s that important.

Since so much of our culture, our identity, our sense of what life is about is tied directly to how we feel about money, I think that’s one of Jesus’ primary targets for us. We have accepted the notion that more money equals more life, but Jesus says that’s the type of human thinking that leads only to death. Get behind me, Satan. It’s that urgent.

When it comes to money, the divine thing in the face of our human thinking is generosity. The nature of God is that God gives us everything, constantly, continuously. Whether we deserve it or not, whether we believe in God or not, whether we go to church or not, whether we are generous or not—God is generous to us. The gifts of creation are constant. As Martin Luther wrote in the explanation to the first article of the Apostles’ Creed,

I believe that God has created me together with all creatures. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. God does all this out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all! For this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.

Forgiveness and unconditional love are given to us day after day after day. And it’s not that God sits back and doles this out to us out of some excess reserve. The divine nature of God’s generosity means that God gives God’s own Son, the Son gives his own life, for our sake.

We’re still early in Lent, this season of deliberately changing our minds from human things that we believe give life to divine things that actually do. So let’s get specific about that. Jesus tells us in this text that if we want to become his followers, we would deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.

This Lent, why not make a conscious move from saving our lives to losing them? This Lent, why not try giving more and keeping less? Biblically, a general guide for generosity is giving away 10% of our income; at least in the Old Testament. The New Testament refers to giving away everything. But 10% is a pretty good gauge, I’ve discovered. So try it. If you’re already giving away 10%, try 15%. Outrageous generosity is a divine thing. See what happens when we set our minds not on human concept of having more, but the divine concept of giving more. Try it this Lent. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? It’s that important. It’s that urgent.

 
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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Sermon

 

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The Advantage of the Wilderness, 2/26/12 (1 Lent)

1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

 This is quite the dramatic description of Jesus’ baptism. I wonder how we’d feel about baptism if this sort of thing that happened all the time? Picture it: we all gather at the church, everyone in their best clothes. Relatives have all been invited and even those who haven’t darkened the door of a church in years have shown up to support the ones being baptized. Those being baptized along with their parents have been practicing their promises. The Godparents are nervous, because they have promises to make too and don’t want to goof them up. Everyone sits in the reserved “baptismal family” seating, which is, unfortunately, at the front. Those parents of small children are saying silent prayers that their kids won’t choose this particular time to throw a holy tantrum.

The time of baptism comes, and all gather around the font. Water is poured, the Word is spoken, candles are lit, and promises are made. Just when everyone breathes a sigh of relief that all has gone so wonderfully well, suddenly the heavens are torn apart, the Holy Spirit resembling a dove descends on the newly baptized, and a voice booms from above, “These are my beloved children; with you I am well pleased.”

I have to admit, that would be cool, don’t you think? Pretty impressive and powerful, right? Obviously, God is doing something that would get our attention. That would be just amazing—so far.

But then, in this text Mark goes on. This remarkable scene at Jesus’ baptism takes a turn. Right then the Spirit, who up until now has been cute and quiet, like an innocent little white dove, takes hold of Jesus and hurls him out into the wilderness. That’s the verb used here. The Spirit doesn’t guide Jesus, or suggest to Jesus, or even lead Jesus. The Spirit drives him, throws him, violently casts him out into the wilderness all alone, where he had to deal with Satan and wild beasts for six weeks.

What would we do if that happened at our baptisms? Suddenly, baptism isn’t so fun. Thrown into the wilderness for forty days with the wild beasts, tested by Satan the whole time. If this is what happened, we’d probably rethink this whole baptismal thing. Forty days in the wilderness sounds pretty lousy. Wild beasts? Satan? Sure, some angels came and help him out, but is this what we really bargain for in baptism?

So what is really going on here?

In the Bible, the wilderness is a difficult place. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. It’s a place where we are the most vulnerable, weak, and lost. It’s a place where we are alone and where our strength is drained until we have nothing left. Have you been there?

You’re in the wilderness when you’re grieving the death of someone you love. You’re in the wilderness when you experience serious illness or injury. You’re in the wilderness when you try as hard as you can for as long as you can and still can’t find a job or save your children or even gain a foothold in your life. You’re in the wilderness when your best and most honest efforts still result in falling prey to an addiction or losing control. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.

And in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, the wilderness is also a place where people in all times and in all places have been met by God. Maybe because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe because we’re so desperate that we actually seek God out. The wilderness is a place or a time in our lives when the saving power of God is real; because there is nothing else. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, we are changed. We have that opportunity in the wilderness to know what we mean to God; in the wilderness we come to know who we are.

If we aren’t thrown into the wilderness immediately after baptism, we’re thrown there eventually. No one chooses to go; we’re always thrown there. The advantage we have is that when we’re thrown into the wilderness, we go with the promises, the assurance, the clarity of who we are in baptism. We can come out of it knowing God more fully and trusting God more deeply.

On Ash Wednesday, we experienced the reminder that we will all die, that ultimately in the face of death we are all helpless. We were marked with a sign of that helplessness, a sign of wilderness on our foreheads: we were smeared with ashes, the dust of the earth out of which we came and to which we will return.

But more than that, this mark of death was shaped in the form of a cross. We were marked not just with death, but with the cross of Christ and the promise of life. We were marked with assurance of the presence of God no matter how deep our wilderness becomes. Even in the wilderness of death, God meets us there to lift us up to life.

Last Wednesday we were reminded of our helplessness in the wilderness and our utter dependence on God. Today we recall the reality that we are at times thrown into the wilderness. But most of all we have the promises of God, spoken at our baptism, that no matter how deep, no matter how dark, no matter how lonely the wilderness may be, God will meet us there. And that really is cool. That really is impressive and powerful. Because God really is doing something that not only gets our attention, but truly is amazing.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Sermon

 

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