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What To Do When You Can’t Do Anything (March 5, 2017)

Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

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.

This is the very first thing that happens to Jesus after his baptism. He’s led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The Spirit leads him, deliberately, into the wilderness. If the Spirit is doing it, it must be important, somehow.

In the Bible, the wilderness is always a difficult place. It’s a place of preparation, of waiting for God, of learning to trust God. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. 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.

And you can’t hurry through it, either. Which is why it’s often described biblically with a metaphor of “40.”

  • It rained 40 days and nights with Noah and his family trapped in the wilderness of an ark.
  • Moses fasted 40 days and nights on the wilderness of Mt. Sinai waiting for God to inscribe a covenant.
  • The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.
  • Which is why, by the way, that this Lenten season of preparation, repentance, and fasting lasts for 40 days.
  • Now, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.

Have you been there? I have. I’ve spoken of it before. A “dark night of the soul” when everything within me that I’ve looked to and counted on to sustain me seemed to disappear. My strengths, my gifts and talents, my intellect, even my theology couldn’t hold me up. And I felt like I was falling with nothing to grab hold of, nothing to slow my fall. I was diagnosed during that wilderness period with depression, no amount of strength, perseverance, or endurance could get me out. It was a wilderness.

It’s not that I didn’t believe in God or questioned God’s existence, it’s that God didn’t matter. It’s not that I was hopeless, I was helpless, which is different. I was utterly, completely, and totally without any of my reliable resources. Lost in wilderness. Completely vulnerable.

Have you experienced that wilderness before?

Grief feels like that. When you put out all possible effort and still fail feels like that. Addiction feels like that. I imagine that our new refugee neighbors who have had to leave their homes and their countries, and who have been living in terror for years feel like that. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.

So why does the Spirit lead Jesus to a place like that?

Because it’s in the wilderness that you meet God most profoundly. Biblically, that’s what happens.

  • After the wilderness, Noah met God and was given a covenant of life.
  • After the wilderness, Moses met God and was given the law.
  • After the wilderness, the Israelites met God and were delivered into the promised land.

Maybe it’s because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe it’s because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe it’s because we’re so desperate that we actually are willing to trust God. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, our relationship with God changes. What really happens in the wilderness is that we come to know who we are.

This is actually our Lenten journey. A wilderness journey of 40 days where we learn to rely more on God and less on the world. Where we get to know and to trust God more deeply. Where we find out who we really are as God’s beloved children.

When I was falling in the wilderness, feeling utterly helpless and vulnerable, I met God in a way that was entirely new. Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t meet God. God met me in the wilderness. I realized at some point that I was no longer falling, but instead, I was being held, lifted up. As weak and helpless as I was feeling, I experienced the reality that I was worth something to God. Without access to any of my own personal resources that I had been able to trust my whole life, I came to understand that I am gifted by God.

I went into the wilderness with fear and trembling, God met me there, and I came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for my life.

Why wouldn’t it be the same for Jesus? He went into the wilderness having just heard in his baptism that he was the Son of God, the Beloved. How could he live up to that? So he was led into the wilderness, God met him there, and he came out with deeper trust in God and greater clarity for his life.

When you find yourself in the wilderness, when you are feeling helpless and vulnerable and weak, Jesus assures us that God will meet you. 40 days is a metaphor for a long time, but God will meet you. You eventually will have the opportunity to experience God in a new way, to recognize how trustworthy God is.  You can, after the 40 days, know how loved and how worthwhile you really are.

I don’t ever want to go back into the wilderness. But if I find myself there, I will cling to the promise of a God who will meet me there.

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Posted by on March 5, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Who *Really* Wants to Take the Kingdom of God Seriously? (Mark 9:30-37)

I want you to notice the difference between Jesus and his disciples in this text today. It begins here with Jesus and his disciples on their way through Galiliee, and Jesus “did not want anyone to know it”. Travelling incognito, unknown, quietly, without fanfare or recognition.

On the way he is teaching his disciples that he will be betrayed, killed, and will rise again. And this is the second time he’s told them this.

They get to the house in Capernaum, and the whole journey Jesus is trying not to call attention to himself, to lay low, helping them understand the role of suffering and even dying—tremendously humble and meek topics.

The disciples, meanwhile, too frightened to ask him about all this, had been arguing about which one of them is the greatest.

Humble, suffering Jesus. Frightened, boasting disciples.

Jesus deflecting attention from himself to God’s will in the world. Disciples who want recognition, deserved or not (and it’s definitely not).

Jesus: it’s all about others. Disciples: it’s all about us.

What the disciples never seem to get in Mark’s gospel is how differently God works in the world than we usually do. Jesus is continually trying to teach and show his disciples what God’s kingdom is actually like. It is so opposite of what they experience that they just can’t seem to understand it. Today’s verses shine a light on that misunderstanding.

In God’s kingdom, Jesus says, the greatest are the servants. The least in our world should be treated like Christ himself. The one who serves others has their life given to them. The one who is ignored is the one in the center.

If God had God’s way, this would be the normal way of the world. The disciples never seem to catch onto that.

When Jesus goes on about how different God’s way is, it just doesn’t click with the disciples. All this “serve others, love enemies, forgive everyone, last are first, weak is strong” business Jesus tells them may as well be “up is down, red is green, and squares are round.” It doesn’t connect with them.

As I suspect it still doesn’t with us. God’s way is soooooo different from how the world actually operates that we usually find it easier to just kind of ignore it.

Think about if everyone took Jesus seriously when he says that the greatest of all is the servant of all. That would mean that the night janitor at McDonald’s has more status than any of our current presidential candidates . . . (OK, maybe a bad example). It would mean that everyone would accept that the homeless alcoholic man with a cardboard sign at the traffic light is just as valuable in the world as the person in the Mercedes who gives him money and food. Or the totally nerdiest kid in school is elected student body president over the most popular kid.

If everyone took Jesus seriously, can you imagine how badly it would turn out if we actually did love our enemies? Makes it kind of hard to fight a war, don’t you think? Capitalism kind of falls apart.

How about Jesus taking a child, the most powerless and most vulnerable person in his society, and telling us to welcome these as if they were Christ himself? If everyone actually welcomed and embraced the most vulnerable, most powerless people in our culture, imagine the changes in immigration and how we’d deal with the Syrian refugee crisis?

Then there’s the whole suffering and dying thing Jesus talks about. Can you imagine if everyone trusted so fully in God that they would go to that extreme for the sake of others?

Hard to even imagine that, isn’t it? God’s ways are just too different. The world would turn upside down if everyone took all that stuff seriously. And let’s be honest, not everyone even wants God’s ways, much less be willing to live them.

No, not everyone will. Hardly anyone. Maybe no one.

This is where the church comes in. Jesus calls his followers to do it. We are the ones Jesus sends into the world to be last of all and servant of all. How about if we, as Lutheran Church of the Master, were willing to suffer as a congregation because showing God’s mercy and compassion for others was more important to us than our own comfort or even survival?

God is so committed to this that God keeps removing the barriers that get in the way of following Jesus. So God keeps forgiving us, coming among us, giving us gifts, equipping us, and loving us so that we can love others.

Do you think we’ll do this perfectly? Nope, not gonna happen. But we can serve someone today. Then stand up for someone else tomorrow. Then show love to an undeserving person the next day. Sometimes it will cost us. Sometimes it will be hard. Sometimes we won’t benefit ourselves at all. But God is seen. Jesus is lifted up. God’s kingdom is exposed. Maybe without fanfare or recognition. Usually with humility and meekness. Not everyone wants it. May we be among those who do.

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2015 in Sermon

 

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How Do You Know if You’re Successful? (Mark 8:31-38)

Think of someone who is successful. Why do you think they are successful? What’s the measure?

Are you successful? How do you know?

Our human nature is to strive to be prosperous, strong, influential. Doesn’t God want us to be successful? Don’t we thank God for our  successes—calling them “blessings”?

Peter and the other disciples have experienced Jesus’ “success.” They have seen Jesus cure people, cast out demons, feed thousands, challenge the powerful, teach crowds in amazing ways. He is amazingly strong and influential! Everything you’d think a successful person would do. Everything we think a successful church should do.

So imagine how shocked these disciples were to hear Jesus saying that success means suffering, rejection, death. And when Peter tries to question that view of success—because, after all, that just doesn’t make any sense—Jesus calls him Satan. He says that Peter’s human view of success is not of God. It is merely human, satanic. If Peter believes that human views of success are God’s views, then Peter is standing in God’s way, and he needs to back down and get out of Jesus’ way. Because God has a mission, and God will be successful. God’s reign of love, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and generosity has come into the world, and in Jesus it is taking on the powers of human success head on.

Even though it will cost Jesus his life. Even though it will look to all the world as if Jesus has failed. And in the face of all that Jesus is still adamant that this is God’s success. He brings God’s love, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and generosity into the world regardless of how inconvenient it is. No matter the cost to him. So, Peter, if you’re not on board with that then “get behind me, Satan.” The world will be loved and we will be forgiven. Period. That is Jesus’ mission; therefore, as his church, it is ours too.

So how did the church get so far off track?

When did the church become more concerned about gaining members and money than about forgiveness and grace? When did Christ’s church begin to put its members’ comfort and convenience ahead the inconvenience of showing God’s love and mercy in the world?

Go to almost any Christian congregation of any denomination and it won’t be long before you hear the priority of human success. “How big is the church?” “This outreach program is fine, but will it bring in new members?” “How do we get more people inside our doors?” “How’s the budget?”

Peter would stand with us in using these as measures of success. Because in our world they make sense; from a human perspective they make sense. If our human measures are successful, we appear strong, prosperous, influential to the world. We gain status and respect in the world.

But if we hold that as a higher measure of success than forgiving the unforgiveable and loving the unloveable, then Jesus tells us to get behind him, because we are not contributing to God’s success.

Christ’s church can’t make decisions based on how many people like them. The church can’t back off loving the neighborhood because some withhold offerings. If we were merely a human institution those views might make sense. But we are not just a human organization. We are the body of Christ. We are called by God into God’s success. Even if it is painful. Even if it is hard. Even if it is inconvenient. Even if it costs us. Even if it leads us toward the cross.

Ironically, Jesus says it’s following him to the cross that leads us to success and life. Isn’t that a kick? God is successful. The world is loved. The world is forgiven. Even the church. Even you. And nothing will stop Jesus from continuing to bring that love and grace to you. Even if it costs him. God will succeed. God already has. God’s love surrounds you now. You are absolutely forgiven now. Perhaps, as the church, we will find that successful. Because apparently Jesus does.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Epiphany: God’s Surprise (Matthew 2:1-12)

The gospel text for Epiphany is always the story of the Magi in Matthew 2. They saw the light, an unusual star, and followed it to Palestine, where, naturally, they went to Jerusalem. Where else would a king be born? They go to the king to inquire where the new king was to be found. King Herod consults the priests and elders, then sends magi to Bethlehem and they find the baby Jesus, and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Familiar story, right? It usually gets lumped into the Christmas story with the shepherds and the manger. All of our Nativity Scenes have Mary & Joseph, Jesus in a manger, shepherds, and three kings, right?

There are lots of myths and stories about these Magi, very little of which is actually known to be true. Magi were NOT kings, NOT wise men. Instead, they were pagan, dream-interpreting, fortune-telling, psychic hot-line, Tarot card readers. They represent to Mary and Joseph and other good religious people of the day idolatry and religious hocus-pocus, those who told the future using chicken gizzards and tea leaves. They were not royal, respected, or educated. They were everything the people of God were not.

Yet in Matthew’s gospel, they are the first to come and worship the Christ child. God called them—of all people—God revealed to them the newborn king, the Savior of the world.

God didn’t come to the magi because of the purity of their doctrine, the morality of their lives, or the correctness of their faith! God came to them, called them, gave them an epiphany because God’s love includes everyone. Jesus has come for the sake of everyone.

God came to them in a different way, but a way they could recognize—through a star. God entered their lives and called them from within their own lives and their own experience. Like God does for all of us, God enters our world, our lives, our particularities and reveals God’s own self in ways we can recognize.

That’s first: are we paying attention as God comes into our lives with epiphanies, working in ways we don’t expect? When was the last time God surprised you?

Let me tell one. I volunteer as a big brother with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado. In December they held a holiday party for the 25 or so Bigs and Littles that are part of our local program. The sponsor for this party is a financial company that buys past-due loans and muscles people into paying them. A long time ago I was on the wrong end of a company like this, and it wasn’t a good experience.

But for this party, this company provided a full meal for all these Bigs and Littles plus their families. They gave all the kids an opportunity to earn Monopoly money and use it to go into a room and buy presents for their families that this company had provided. They then gave each of the 25 Littles a personal gift based on their individual interests. And finally, they gave each Little, 25 of them, a new laptop computer. The generosity shown these families that are enduring some hardships blew me away. And it made me angry. What business did these people have being part of God’s generosity? That is reserved for us, the godly people! It was God’s own generosity, coming from a company that I didn’t want it to come from. An epiphany. A surprise.

Pay attention for God’s epiphanies. They’ll surprise you. And they change you.

We recognize in a new way God’s forgiveness, then we are drawn more deeply to forgive.

We recognize in a new way God’s generosity, then we are drawn more deeply to be generous.

We recognize in a new way God’s mercy, then we are drawn more deeply into mercy.

Is your capacity for forgiveness increasing? Are you becoming more generous? Are you showing more mercy? Pay attention, because the good news is that God is doing these things in you and around you every day.

Pay attention. Be ready. The star of Bethlehem is even now shining in our lives. God is revealing God’s self—an epiphany. Watch for the star, God’s presence in your life, be surprised where you discover forgiveness, generosity, compassion. Then watch for God to allow you to have the ability to offer forgiveness, generosity, compassion. God’s love includes everyone. Even you. Jesus has come for the sake of everyone. Even you.

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Investing in the Main Thing (Matthew 22:15-22)

In Matthew, this text is happening during the last few days before Jesus is killed. There’s no time for trivialities. The Pharisees sent their minions along with the Herodians to trap Jesus. Normally, they hate each other, but to trap Jesus they become partners. Together they plan and scheme and spend all kinds of time coming up with a fool-proof plan to discredit Jesus. If he says, “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar,” the Pharisees can condemn him to the crowds as a religious fraud. If he says, “No, don’t pay taxes to Caesar,” the Herodians can have him arrested by Rome for insurrection.

They approach Jesus with disingenuous, empty flattery, and think that this question about taxes will trip him up? You’ve got to be kidding! God incarnate is about to be nailed to a cross. The central piece of God’s entire salvation history is a couple of days away. The redemption of all creation is coming to fruition right now, right in front of them. They think this is important? That this is where their energy is best used? Really?

I’m amazed Jesus answers them at all, considering what he’s getting ready to face. Yeah, pay your taxes. Whatever. Don’t let the emperor’s stuff get in the way of God’s stuff. Don’t let temporary, trivial things get in the way of the main thing.

And Jesus is all about the main thing. God is making everything new: forgiveness is now breaking into sinfulness; hope is breaking into despair; wholeness is breaking into brokenness; life is breaking into death. This is the main thing. God is all about this, and we in this congregation have been created to be part of it. Not only do we experience this among ourselves, but we proclaim the reality of this to the world. We exist as church to be with God in making all things new through forgiveness, hope, wholeness, and life.

Jesus got that, and didn’t seem to get sidetracked from the main thing very often. Certainly not here. Certainly not by the Pharisees and Heriodians. Certainly not by a question about taxes.

For the rest of this month, our council will be working on the 2015 budget. This isn’t just a spreadsheet of how we’re going to spend money; it’s a declaration of how we will live in the image of God, of how we will be part of God’s main thing.

And we will be part of God’s main thing. We will reveal generosity, compassion, and grace. We will proclaim forgiveness, love, and mercy. And quite honestly, doing that as a congregation in our culture involves having a budget. That’s just real. Our council will present an honest, authentic, balanced proposal of how LCM will take part in God’s main thing—that for which we exist.

Today we’re receiving Estimate of Giving cards for 2015. Part of that is to help our council get a better idea of what funds we’ll have for the year. But another part, I think, is more important. It’s the opportunity to think about, to deeply consider, how we will invest in God’s main thing. How we will invest in mercy, grace, compassion; forgiveness, love, and mercy being revealed in our world.

Don’t get all weird because we’re talking about money and pledges in the church. Money is just part of life. Oh well. So give or don’t give, whatever. Turn in a card or don’t turn in a card, whatever. So don’t worry about that. But I do invite you to take this opportunity to consider investing in the main thing. Consider how much you’re willing to invest in revealing God’s love and compassion in our world. Because the world needs more love, compassion, mercy, and grace.

Whether you turn in an Estimate of Giving card today or not isn’t the main thing. Whether you increase or decrease giving isn’t the main thing. God’s forgiveness and grace being shown in the world is the main thing. As a council, I assure you that with whatever money this congregation has, God’s main thing will be our main thing. That will be reflected in the budget we will propose for 2015.

I invite you to take the opportunity to make an investment in that. Give to the emperor the emperor’s things give to God God’s things. Whatever. We no longer let the temporary, trivial things sidetrack us. Because for us in this congregation, the main thing of God’s is the main thing for us.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2014 in Sermon

 

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Chosen for Celebration (Matthew 22:1-14)

Jesus’ audience for these parables is very specific: the chief priests and the elders of the Pharisees, the church leaders of the day. These are the people committed to their church, who serve on the council, teach Sunday School, sing in the choir, lead a Bible study, mow the church lawn, and give more than10% of their income to the church. These are the insiders of church insiders, and are the types of people everyone wants as members of their church.

Yet Jesus is trying very hard to make a point with them. Since he’s being so persistent in getting those committed church people to understand something, it’s probably worth our while to listen—especially those of us who are committed church members. Jesus is speaking to us.

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 the invitations so the guests knew it was coming, 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 agenda is basically saying that they have no use for 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 not merely turning down an invitation, it 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 original request is for the banquet for his son, he invites others to come—those on the fringe, on the edges, both “the good and the bad.”

They accept the king’s invitation, but one comes without a wedding robe. This isn’t like he got off work at 5:00 and the banquet starts at 5:30. It’s not any issue of him being poor and not having nice clothes. This guest had weeks or months to go home, clean up, put on appropriate clothing (borrowing if necessary), and still come.

This person, who accepted the king’s invitation, 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, but apparently accepting the invitation isn’t the point. Deciding to come to the banquet isn’t the most important thing. What Jesus is telling these good religious church people is that the king is going to celebrate, and do it right. Everyone is invited, and anyone can come. But the king decides what the celebration looks like.

Many are called, but few are chosen, Jesus explains. As if that clears this all up with the wedding robe and the invitations and the rebellious town.

Usually we want to make that into a self-righteous thing about how because we’ve accepted the invitation to make Jesus our Lord or because we’re pretty good people that we’re among the special ones chosen for heaven.

But that’s not it. Remember, Jesus is talking to the most religious people on the planet. People who love God and strive to obey God with their whole lives. Jesus is trying to get these religious people to understand the will of God–the reign of God–and their role in it.

Don’t be all high and mighty because you were invited to the banquet by the king, Jesus tells them. Many are called; the whole town. And don’t even lord it over others because you actually showed up in the presence of the king. Many are called; both good and bad people were dragged in off the street.

That’s not it. Everyone is called to the banquet. The wedding robe is the difference. Those in the wedding robes are those are on board with the king. They are celebrating with the king. They are participating with the king.

For many years, Linda Wheeler makes these baptismal cloths. We give one to each person who is baptized here. A white cloth. A sign of baptism, of being clothed in Christ. A celebration cloth. A wedding robe.

In baptism, we are chosen to wear the wedding robe for the king. Chosen to be part of what the king is doing. This isn’t a parable about who gets into heaven or not. This is a parable about our call to be part of God’s mission, God’s celebration.

God’s celebration is forgiveness. God has invited us to the forgiveness banquet. In baptism we are clothed with forgiveness. The church wears the robe of forgiveness in the world.

God’s celebration is mercy. God has invited us mercy banquet. In baptism we are clothed with mercy. The church wears the robe of mercy in the world.

God’s celebration is including the outcasts. God has invited us to the inclusion banquet. In baptism we are clothed in inclusion. The church wears the robe of inclusion in the world.

God’s celebration is taking care of the least in the world. God has invited us to the caring banquet. In baptism we are clothed in care. The church wears the robe of care in the world.

The feast is prepared. We have been called. And clothed in Christ at our baptism, we are chosen to celebrate with the king. Welcome to the banquet!

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Sermon

 

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