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God’s Work, Our Hands (September 10, 2017)

Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

 

Like so many other passages in the Bible, this one has the potential to be misused—even abused—by those trust not in Jesus but instead in a clear-cut formula for good discipleship. I’ve seen this passage on conflict resolution in the church used to kick people out, to exclude, to justify holding grudges against some who disagree, to isolate people from the rest of their church community.

If they get called out on this very un-Christ-like behavior, the reply is always, “But I followed the steps in Matthew 18! That makes it right!”

The Bible is a funny thing. It is an amazing gift of loving grace, yet can easily be used to justify truly hateful actions.

 

The same with this text. This isn’t a stand alone roadmap for dealing with people we may find offensive. It’s part of a larger section where Jesus teaches the priorities of the what Matthew calls the “kingdom of heaven.” Feed the hungry, forgive the sinner, include the outcast, use your power on behalf of those who have none.

In other words, the kingdom of heaven is showing God’s love and compassion in this world.

This section on dealing with difficulty within the church is a continuation of that same theme. In order to defend the interests of the least in our world, we have to be clear about that within the church too. We don’t kick people out for being sinners or having faults. We embrace them and include them and listen to them and treat them.

 

Whenever we turn scripture into a clear formula for discipleship, we’ve already missed the point. Discipleship is trusting and following Jesus, not trusting and following a series of steps or a formula. The kingdom of heaven isn’t like chemistry or math. There are no set formulas that, if we follow them, will give us the right discipleship answer. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is kind of like giving us a pile of crayons and Legos and string and saying, “Show God’s love.”

Jesus’ intention in most of Matthew is that we’re all in this kingdom of heaven thing together, not so that we can be lifted up above others, or push others down below us. But so that we can help each other love the world. Discipleship is how we love the world together, not how closely we can follow a righteousness formula.

This series of reconciliation steps in this text has more to do with overcoming the obstacles that come from living within a community. We do that so we can love the world better. It really has very little to do with knowing when to kick someone out of the church. We love the world better as a community than individually. This text reminds us that showing the kingdom of heaven in the world is what we need to keep foremost in mind.

So what about the binding and loosing part? “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Anyone ever struggle with what that means? Alright! Jesus says I can forgive anyone I want, or send anyone who bugs me into eternal hellfire and damnation! Whoopee! This power is awesome!

Uhmm… Maybe we need to take another look in the context of what’s happening in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew records Jesus spending several chapters leading up to this one trying to explain the “kingdom of heaven.” Nobody gets it, but essentially it’s the job of his disciples to recognize the kingdom of heaven is present whenever God’s unconditional love and compassion show up. Even when they don’t always make sense in this world. His disciples are those that strive to reveal that kingdom of heaven everywhere and to everyone.

What we do here in this life on earth should reflect this kingdom of heaven. So, of course, we want to stick close to those things and those people that help us. We attach ourselves—bind ourselves—to those things. And we stay away from—loose from us—those things that deter us from those things.

Today, throughout the ELCA, we are participating in “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday. A day where we, all of us Lutherans together in one big ol’ community, bind ourselves to acts of service, compassion, and love. We do so because bringing love and service into our communities reveals the kingdom of heaven there. We get to join in, participate with God in kingdom of heaven work. Matthew’s Jesus would be really happy!

We’ve done this in a whole lot of different ways over the years. This year is a different way of showing God’s love and compassion still.

Neighborhood service through local government. How wonderful it would be if participants in city, county, and state governments had the kingdom of heaven foremost in their hearts and minds. This is different than having a Christian government. What we’re striving for is some people, who feel called to do so, have a kingdom of heaven perspective—God’s love and compassion—as one of the voices present when information is gathered, service is done, or decisions are made among us.

As we do this together—this revealing and participating in the compassionate kingdom of heaven, because, as Jesus says, even if it’s only two or three of us—Jesus is there among us.

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Posted by on September 10, 2017 in Sermon

 

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Silly Contests, Moving Up, Giving Up Your Seat (August 28, 2016)

Luke 14:1, 7-14

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. . . . 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

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.

Let me tell you that this is a difficult text for me. Be humble, Jesus says. Take the lowest seat, Jesus says. Don’t worry, you’ll be rewarded. It’ll be fine, he says. Someone will notice you down there and will come over and invite you higher, he says. It all works out.

I’m not buying it. I’ve spent much of my life in the lowest seat at the table—not because I chose it. Quite the opposite. I’ve always felt like by the time I get to the table, the lowest seat is the only one left. Then, my own history dictates, I get left there, usually unnoticed.

This isn’t a sob story. It’s a success story for me. I’ve fought my way up to not only being noticed, but being respected for my contributions and gifts. But it’s been a long and difficult climb. I’ve gone from a kid who was bullied and picked on more days than not to someone whose voice is respected and sometimes even sought out.

But no one offered me a higher place at the table. I fought for it. I was determined to move up and slowly did. Many tables I sit at now have a seat close to the top where I am welcome and invited. I fought my way up, let me tell you, not through humility, but through humiliation.

Is Jesus telling me and others who’ve struggled with self-esteem that we’re wrong? That if we had just waited at the low end of the table someone surely would have taken notice and recognized that we are valuable and worthwhile people? If we are patient we’ll eventually get invited to a higher place? Just sit and wait?

Not in my experience. Once you’re at the low seats at the table you tend to stay there, unnoticed and forgotten.

There are those who will point out that the long-suffering in the low seats will get their reward in heaven at the end of time. I’m not buying that either. The gospel is for the living, not the dead. The reign of God that Jesus reveals is here and now, present in this world or it’s no use at all. If there’s no application today, then there’s no application.

So what are we going to do with a text like this? One of the reasons I became Lutheran is that we are ready for texts like this. It’s not that we have all the answers, but we do have a theology that takes the reality of our world into account. We don’t live in a pie-in-the-sky kind of world, and statements about God that only offer pie-in-the-sky fluff are rightly rejected by us. And they ought to be.

No, we in the ELCA can afford to be honest about scripture readings that are hard, or don’t make sense, or that don’t fit well with our experience. We’re OK wrestling and disagreeing and conversing from our varying perspectives.

What we Lutherans do is get honest, admit where the rough spots are. We aren’t shy about that, but go deep with that and if we seem to have hit a dead end, we look at what we know about Jesus. When talking to a Pharisee on the Sabbath, Jesus isn’t discussing table manners or etiquette. He’s dealing with religious power and how that gets in the way of God at work with those left out.

There’s a point Jesus is making here. This isn’t advice on how to get ahead in life. This is a statement about our seeking power and status, because everyone wants a higher seat at the table.

Look at how the author of Luke sets this up: Jesus, a Pharisee, at a meal, on the Sabbath. This is a recipe for conflict. More than table manners or how to get noticed, Jesus is letting us know that power and status don’t matter, but doing the work of God in the world does.

Whether you are seated high or low, Jesus says, invite those lower than you, those who cannot repay, those who are lost and pushed aside. It’s not about us getting a higher seat—it’s about us giving up our seat for those who are lower!

Jesus tells the Pharisee who’s hosting the meal to look beyond those who will increase his own status, but instead offer a place at the table to those who have no place. Not only does that fit with the setting of this text, but it fits with Jesus. The gospel is never about the rich getting richer, not about the powerful getting more power, but it is always about the rich and the powerful giving that up for the sake of those who have none.

This text may not sound like good news for those who love their high place in business, government, finances, or even religion. But it is good news for those with no voice, who go unnoticed, who are picked on, who are bullied, who are poor, who are undocumented, who are ethnic minorities, who are denied rights because of their sexual identity, who are powerless. Those who are at the lowest seat, if they have a place at the table at all.

Jesus is telling those of us who have places at the table to make room, scoot down, give up our seat, bring those on the outside in. For all are valuable in the sight of God, therefore all are valuable. Period.

We break the cycle of power by giving power away. That’s what we can do with our place at the table. Regardless of where we sit, we make room at the table.

Join us at Zion Baptist “Church in the Park” today. As their guests, we are being offered a seat at the table. What will be served is an opportunity to step into racial reconciliation. The question then will be, “now that we have been given a chair at the table, what will we do with it?” Some will try to climb higher. Jesus calls us to give our seat to someone else. That’s how we offer good news to the world.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2016 in Sermon

 

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A Step into Reconciliation (July 31, 2016)

This sermon can be viewed at: https://www.facebook.com/lcm.lakewood/

Colossians 3:1-11

But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have . . . clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in . . . the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

Living in Christ we are being transformed, renewed. We are being changed out of malice and slander, and abusive language. Instead, we are being clothed in the new, in Christ. We are being transformed into his image.

So, of course there is no longer Greek and Jew, slave and free. There is no longer Democrat or Republican. There is no longer police and African American. There is only Christ and the new life we are being brought into. And we are the people God has called and equipped to show the world what that looks like.

In Christ, we are no longer dividers, but uniters.

In Christ, we no longer bring disparity, but unity.

In Christ, we no longer act according to our human differences, but according to Christ alive in the other.

It seems that our nation needs reconciliation now more than ever. We need unity as we move forward. We need to recognize Christ, present in love and compassion and understanding, in those who are different than we are.

Today is the day to begin bringing reconciliation. Because we’re the ones who acknowledge reconciliation through Christ. Since we are united in Christ, we bring reconciliation and togetherness to our world in him. It has to be us. No one else is nearly so equipped for this work.

With the urging of our Worship Planning Ministry, I had a few conversations in preparation for worship today. Half were with Officer Steve Davis from the Public Information Office of the Lakewood Police Department. The other half were with Rev. Frank Davis, pastor of Zion Baptist Church near Five Points in Denver, the oldest historically African American congregation in the Rocky Mountain area—chartered in 1865.

In each set of conversations we talked about divisiveness. We talked about anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. And we talked about reconciliation. I asked how we can facilitate some means of reconciliation and support for both the police and our African American brothers and sisters.

And I listened as each told me about the heartache, the sadness, the misunderstanding, the undeserved anger, the divisions they experience. These were emotional conversations that went to the heart of divisiveness. I was moved when Officer Steve Davis asked if we would pray for the police department—not just today, but ongoing. Pray for guidance, for wisdom, and for good judgment. And I was moved when Rev. Frank Davis grabbed my hands prayed for us and our ministry of reconciliation.

And based on those conversations, and with their endorsements, we have the opportunity commit to acts of reconciliation and encouragement. Recognizing that in Christ there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free. But in Christ we are all made new.

There are two letters in the back of the worship area. One is addressed to the Lakewood Police. The other to Zion Baptist. You are encouraged  to read and to sign each one if you choose to do so.

The letter to the police department is a letter of encouragement and support. Recognizing the dangers and the difficulties of their job each day, it is a letter of gratitude. By signing it, however, we would also be committing to holding the Lakewood Police Department regularly in prayer in an ongoing way. That is our act of unity in Christ: affirming those who sometimes feel unappreciated, or even targeted, as they serve us all with wisdom and good judgement.

The other letter to Zion is a letter of acknowledgment. Openly acknowledging that in our country there is a history of racial disparity, from which our African American brothers and sisters have suffered. Acknowledging that the differences between racial groups have been used to divide us. And again, our African American brothers and sisters have suffered more as a result. By signing this letter, however, we are committing ourselves to seek to establish a relationship with someone who is different than us, to help us understand, love, and be part of God’s reconciling work. As for me, I plan to get to know the Imam at the RMIC here in Lakewood.

As Rev. Davis and I talked in his office at Zion, he said that the fabric of our country is torn & can only be mended by love. Love happens in relationships. But because we’re afraid of those who are different, we avoid it. Reconciliation is grounded in love. That’s how it happens. By signing this letter to Zion, we commit to that work of reconciliation through a relationship with someone different in some way. Perhaps a different race or religion, a different sexual identity, a different political party, a different set of physical abilities, or a different language. But we, who trust we are transformed in Christ, we are the ones who must lead this movement of reconciliation in a divided country. As Rev. Davis says, “the answer isn’t in the White House, it’s not in the State House. It’s in the Church House.”

Today, we support others in Jesus’ name. Today, we walk with others in Jesus’ name. Today, we bring a little more unity into our world in Jesus’ name.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2016 in Sermon

 

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A Tale of Two Visions (Palm Sunday) March 13, 2016

Luke 19:29-40

When [Jesus] had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

One of the hardest things about this Palm Sunday is the contrast between Jesus and Pilate.

1 - Copy Slide 1  Because it’s more than that. It’s a contrast between God’s vision for the world and our vision for the world. Palm Sunday reveals the difference—the gap—that still exists between God’s ways and our ways.

Look at Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem next to Jesus’. Both have to do with the entrance of a king/power, yet drastically different.

Pilate comes on horseback, in strength, in a mighty parade, surrounded by glamour and armor and legions of Roman troops.

Jesus comes on a colt, in simplicity, surrounded by the poor and the sinners in Jerusalem.

These are not just differences in parade planning. They reveal a deep, core perspective on the way we live, on what it is we truly trust.

We say we believe that Jesus reveals God’s ways, which the Bible refers to as the kingdom of God, right? So what does this contrast on Palm Sunday say about this?2 - Copy

Slide 2 In real life, who would we rather trust, someone armed with incredible strength and power, who (we hope) wields it for good, or someone armed with humility, who’s biggest weapon is a command to love one another?

You see? This day is more than waving palm branches and calling Jesus a king. Palm Sunday goes way deeper than that. Palm Sunday exposes the reality of God’s reign, right here among us, that we have a hard time with.

When you look at 3 - CopyJesus’ message and life and teachings as a whole, it becomes clear that God’s ways still aren’t our ways all the time. We have difficulty with God’s ways because they contrast with some aspects of our preferred culture and lifestyle. For instance:

Slide 3 Which way would we rather live? And yet, Jesus continuously tells us to quit worrying about what we have or don’t have. But it’s hard to trust God’s ways, isn’t it?

Slide 4 Sometimes we eve4 - Copyn try to make our priorities look like God’s priorities. But on Palm Sunday Jesus makes it pretty clear that we’re fooling ourselves. Jesus exposes the difference between the way God actually works and the way we wish God worked. God’s ways are the ways of generosity.

But more than philosophical differences, Jesus calls us to actually follow him. He says that his ways are the ways of truth and life. If Jesus is about God’s reign, and we are disciples of Jesus, then our lives are called to reflect God’s ways in the world. Easier said than done.

Slide 5  God’s ways are the w5 - Copyays of humility, of lifting up the other person. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem reveals God’s vision that has no room for revenge.

6 - CopySlide 6  Following Jesus means we seek to care for others more than we seek to control our lives and our future and our surroundings.

 

Slide 77 - Copy  Jesus reveals that the way of God is the way of reconciliation. There is no room in God’s vision for aggression and violence.8 - Copy

Slide 8  As disciples of Jesus we follow him into the ways of peace, trusting Jesus when he says “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We work with him in moving toward a future when the wolf and the lamb lie down together. This isn’t easy, nor is it simple. Sometimes we are left with only bad options. And we have to choose the least bad one.

 

Slide 9 The way Jesus chooses to enter Jerusalem reveals that God’s ways are found in meekness rather than might. We stand with those who are pushed aside rather than seek 9our own advantage.

Slide 10 As disciples we do this not because we understand it or even think it’s better. Rather, we are aligned with Jesus in God’s ways because Jesus reveals that God’s ways really do lead to life.

10As we grow in our realization that God’s vision for creation is our call, our identity, our core as people created in God’s image, we contribute to life in the world. To do anything else, no matter how much sense the world around us says it makes, does not reveal God. It does not show love to the world. It does not move us forward in the ways of God. God’s ways, revealed in Jesus this Palm Sunday, reveal God.

God’s love, revealed by Jesus, reveals God.

God’s vision, revealed by Jesus, reveals God.

God’s life, revealed in Jesus, reveals God.

And we, who are surrounded by, immersed in, and filled up with the love and grace of God revealed through Jesus, are even now being changed by it. And today, on Palm Sunday, we have the chance to see our life in Christ even more clearly. To follow him more closely. To reveal the ways of God more fully.

Happy Palm Sunday.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2016 in Sermon

 

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