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It’s Not Always Easy to Listen (Transfiguration B, February 11, 2018)

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

According to some scholars, the Old Testament prophet Zechariah writes that on the day of the Lord, those who aren’t keeping the festival of booths will be punished by God. The way one keeps the festival of booths is by building little dwellings, tents, booths, to remind one’s self of the flight from Egypt and the 40 years wandering in the wilderness.

If that was on his mind, I understand Peter’s outburst about building three booths for Jesus and his important companions. That doesn’t mean, however, that even as these words were coming out of Peter’s mouth he was already regretting them. “It’s good to be here at the end of the world. Why don’t we settle in and do something religious.”

He is so scared out of his mind that the world was coming to an end that he tries to do something godly, religious. I don’t know what it is he’s trying to say, but I empathize with him. Have you had that happen? Some words come out of your mouth and you immediately think, “Oh. That was a mistake.”

What regrettable thing would you say if suddenly you saw Jesus as he really is—as eternity sees him? What would you do if, suddenly, the authentic, full-blown Jesus became real? Like, really real. More than a historic figure, more than a symbol, more than an important person that whose teachings we ought to follow. But, undeniably, in your face, without question, life-changingly real?

Because that’s what just happened to Peter, James, and John. This whole Messiah-thing with Jesus just got real. Jesus is changed right before their eyes. Moses and Elijah suddenly appear, chatting with him, the two all stars of All-Stars. The voice of God from the clouds declare Jesus as the Son, the Beloved of God. And then commands them to really listen to him.

I think it would be a really good day if the worst thing I did right then was utter something religious.

But that’s what’s going on in the Transfiguration. Jesus suddenly gets real for these disciples. He’s something really unique and special to God, no messing around with this. God says listen—not to Moses or Elijah—but to Jesus.

So the question for us as we head into Lent is, “Is Jesus real? Is he worth listening to?” And the question to ask right after that is, “If so, how can we hear Jesus more clearly? What voices are we listening to instead?”

Whether Jesus is worth listening to above all other voices is up to each of us, I guess. I’m here to tell you he is, and I’ve been telling you that for 20 years here, and some of you must agree at some level because you keep paying me to tell you that he’s worth listening to. But the “realness” of how deeply we listen, how seriously we take him, is up to us.

I think it’s easy to listen to Jesus when he’s healing us, or when he’s Transfigured and looking all-powerful. But it’s not so easy when, as he tried telling his disciples right before this text, he’s going to be hanging dead on a cross. It’s not so easy to listen then. God’s beloved? I like saviors who aren’t killed. I like winners.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he tells you to follow him—even to a cross.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he tells you that you have to forsake voices that are contrary to his. Even if it’s family, church, boss, or government.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he says that the way to fully live is to give yourself away. Even to those who hate you or make fun of you.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he says that the way to get ahead is to serve those who are behind, who have less power or status or money or privilege.

It’s not so easy to listen to him when he says that in order to see him you have to look for him in the faces those who are different than you, in race, language, politics, citizenship, sexual and gender identity, or religion. Not just see Christ in them, but treat them as if they were Christ himself—because he tells you they are.

We begin Lent this Wednesday. The season of really listening to Jesus. The season of taking him even more seriously. The season where we might want to consider turning down the voices that are contrary to his, so we can focus on listening to him with more attention.

It won’t be easy. Lent never is. But perhaps a way to see Jesus as he really is—transfigured, glowing, full-blown Messiah and Beloved of God—is to listen to him. And not just hear his words, but actually follow them.

Join the rest of this community in some Lenten disciplines to help us listen more clearly. Download the daily devotional booklet we’re using this Lent. Spend some time each day with it. Come on Wednesday evenings and practice listening to Jesus in different ways. If it would help, follow the practice of giving something up for Lent. But not for the sake of piety, but so you have something to remind you to listen to Christ.

The Transfiguration of Jesus happens so that we can know how important it is to listen to him. Whether in the brightness of his glory or in the depths of our fear, God still says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

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Posted by on February 10, 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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Entering the Divine Conversation

Acts 10:1-8

 I want you to listen again to the description of Cornelius. In addition to being Roman military, which means a foreigner and a Gentile, Cornelius was “a devout man who feared God . . . Gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.”

Do you know anyone like that? Anyone that you’d describe as devout, generous, and a constant pray-er?

And yet, when this devout, prayerful, and generous man of God sees a messenger from God, he is terrified. That makes me think it didn’t happen to him very often. I guess angels appearing to him wasn’t an everyday occurrence and hearing the voice of God wasn’t really common in his life.

Now here’s where it gets pretty funky. Cornelius actually answers. Terrified, worried, and uncertain, he still answers what he believes is the voice of God, saying, “What is it, Lord?” And he does this with an apparent willingness to follow through, since he actually does what God asks of him.

What’s your first reaction to someone who’s claimed to hear the voice of God telling them to do something? Especially something that makes no sense, like, “Go into the next town and knock on a door asking for a guy names Simon”? More of us have had some kind of experience like this than we will admit, so it still seems pretty bizarre.

So here’s my question for us: How did Cornelius know this was the voice of God; that this angel was a messenger of God? How did he recognize it?

The answer lies in the description of who Cornelius is. He is devout, he is generous, he is prayerful. Because he’s been listening for God’s voice for years, because he knew God well through his religious practices, he was able to recognize God’s voice and God’s presence when it came specificially to him.

And do you know what happened as a result? This was the first step toward Gentiles being recognizec, included, and baptized as people God loves. Cornelius, because he recognized God’s voice, was able to accept an invitation by God to be part of God’s work of including all people in love and forgiveness.

Because of his spiritual life, his devotional habits, his religious practices, Cornelius could serve the world with God. He was part of God’s vision taking shape in the world. So now, when we talk about the story of Cornelius, we are also talking about the story of God.

It seems that a spiritual life is important if we are going to be part of God’s vision becoming real in the world. It seems that devotional habits canbe developed. Religious practices actually are helpful if we are to be about God’s work in the world! Even the Greek Stoics and Epicurians from Acts 17 (our first reading), because of their religious practices, recognize something worth hearing in Paul’s message.

So here, in the safety of this place and this community of faith, we are going to practice a spiritual discipline, a devotional practice to help us be able to recognize God’s voice when it comes to us.

We’ll do this in several steps. First, I’m going to read the first four verses of Acts 10 again, somewhat slowly, and I want you to just listen. See if there is a word or a phrase that sticks out or stays with you or confuses you or moves you. Don’t force this, just listen and see what word or phrase seems to stick with you. Whatever pops up for you is right . . .

Next, ponder that word or phrase. Consider this to be from God, spoken just for you at this point in your life. Take a minute and get used to that idea, that the word you’re pondering is actually from God to you. . .

Now, spend a couple of minutes asking God why this word or phrase is God’s word to you today. What is God getting at? What’s going on in your life that may be related? Where is there pain or joy, anxiety or celebration? Consider how this word from God connects to your life. . .

Finally, rest. You don’t have to do anything or make goals or plan anything out. Just take this minute to be in God’s presence. Relax, knowing that whatever is happening in your life, God is delighted to there with you in deep love. Rest with God for a time now . . .

 

Well done! If this was helpful for you, I encourage you to practice with any passage of scripture. It’s officially called “Lectio Divina,” or divine reading. The name doesn’t matter, but the time with God does.

We’ll learn more of these kinds of things during Lent. Not for our personal piety, but so that when God invites us to be part of God’s vision in the world, we can — with Cornelius — answer, “What is it, Lord?”

 

A Version of Lectio Divina

1. Read a small passage of scripture slowly, listening deeply. What word or phrase stands out for you?

2. Consider this word or phrase to be God’s word for you today. Be ready for God to speak to you.

3. Ponder what’s happening in your life, and what God is saying through this word or phrase. Why would God call your attention to this word at this time?

4. Rest in the loving presence of God. Relax, enfolded in the loving arms of God in this time.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2014 in Sermon

 

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Non Christians, Please Keep Complaining About the Church!

John 21:1-19

Here’s where we pick up the story. Jesus has been raised from the dead, appeared to Mary Magdalene, appeared to the disciples in a locked room, appeared to the disciples again with Thomas there, and now he appears for the last time to them in John’s gospel.

I’m really thinking Peter just isn’t getting this. After hearing Mary tell how she saw Jesus, then after seeing Jesus himself twice—raised from the dead, mind you—now, at the beginning of this text, Peter wants to go fishing. Like this was a normal day. Like nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Some other disciples decide to tag along—again, as if everything was the same.

Then there’s Thomas, who made such a big deal out of seeing Jesus, touching the nail prints in his hands, then falling on his face and proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”

Not to mention that at that time all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent out by Jesus on a mission of forgiveness. A new job. Now they’re just heading out fishing. Nothing like the first day of a new job taking a vacation day.

So Jesus stands on the beach while they’re out fishing, but they can’t tell who it is. Now several of these disciples are professional fishermen. Fishing is their life, their livelihood, their skill. But they aren’t catching a thing.

So this guy is standing there on the shore yelling at them. They don’t know it’s Jesus, they don’t recognize him at all. But whoever it is, is giving them fishing advice. Do you know how annoying that must have been?

I remember playing baseball and going several at bats without a hit. Frustrated, I began goofing around with the bat. In the on-deck circle I’m swinging left-handed, changing my grip, anything to kind of break out this slump. I heard one of the moms from the other team—who I’d never seen before—say rather loudly, “Look at the way that kid’s swinging the bat. No wonder he can’t get a hit! Why don’t you hold the bat right, kid!” That was frustrating. I can’t remember what happened, but I most certainly did not appreciate her so-called advice.

I wonder if the disciples felt the same way. Some guy on the beach telling these professionals their nets are on the wrong side of the boat. The last thing they’re wanting to do is listen to advice from someone on the shore.

But these fishermen/disciples did hear. They did listen. They did what the stranger suggested—tossing their nets out of the other side of the boat. I don’t understand why, but they did. And they caught a huge load of fish. If they had known it was Jesus, sure they would have done what he said. But they didn’t know it was him. Just some stranger who, as likely as not, had no business telling them what to do.

Only later did they recognize this stranger as Jesus. Then once they knew it was Jesus they shared a meal; and Peter was given the chance to redeem his previous denial of Jesus. Earlier, while Jesus was on trial, Peter had publicly denied that he knew him three times. Now he publicly affirms his love for Jesus three times.

But for some reason they heard the voice of Jesus in this perceived stranger—enough to follow. They put aside their pride and life-long experience, recognizing that what they were doing wasn’t working, and did what he suggested. Maybe they get this resurrection thing better than I give them credit for.

Here’s where I think this gospel text is hard to hear. This is where these disciples leave me behind. Lots of us, including me, have been Christian for a long time—even Lutheran for a long time. Some of us have never known anything else. We believe we’re pretty good at this Jesus thing, this faith thing, this discipleship thing. So for many of us, it’s easy to disregard the voices of those on the shore, who have left the church or never been part of it. Those who find the church irrelevant, out of touch, judgmental. It’s hard to hear the voice of Jesus in those critiques because, after all, we know Christianity better than they do.

When people outside the church say things like, “I have no problem with Jesus but no use for the church,” it’s easy for us to brush it off as ignorance. When they tell us that they don’t feel welcomed, that we’re out of touch, that when they look at Christians they see no difference from any other person (except more hypocrisy), we just casually disregard it because they just don’t know. They can’t know. We’ve been in the church a lot longer. We are the professionals; they’re just yelling advice from the shore.

But here’s what gives me hope. They keep yelling advice. I can’t help but wonder that if Jesus wasn’t speaking through them, they wouldn’t be yelling at us at all. If it wasn’t Jesus coming to us they would simply ignore us and let us go on our way fishing from the wrong side of the boat. Why should they care?

I wonder if we heard the voices from outside the church, if we listened for the voice of Jesus might be there, we might end up sitting down with Jesus and having a meal with them. We might recognize our new life in the resurrected Christ, and more live it more fully, following him more closely in the world. We might trust that the resurrected Jesus comes to us, even when we’re fishing. Even when we’re not listening. Even in our arrogance. Jesus comes. He’s speaking. Like it or not, he’s bringing life and hope and newness to the world. Even to us. Life is new, because Jesus is raised from the dead.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in Sermon

 

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