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“Easter Isn’t About Belief. It’s About God” (April 16, 2017)

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

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.

You know the story. Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, was raised from the dead 2000 years ago. Good news! Because it’s good news, we can ask what difference it makes in our lives right now, today? That’s a fair question.

Maybe the resurrection of Christ comforts you so that you can trust that there is life after you die. That’s good.

Maybe this story in Matthew helps you believe that there is a God who is more powerful than death. Again, that can be great comfort for when we face death. That, too, is good.

Or maybe these biblical resurrection texts help you find solace in a God who can work amazing, supernatural miracles. That’s good too.

If your faith is somewhere along those lines, and this Easter Day helps you there, that is absolutely wonderful! Keep it up. Continue to grow in your faith. Keep on your spiritual journey of trusting and believing. Keep going.

But again, if that’s you, you need to understand that you’re now  a diminishing minority. Fewer and fewer people find that kind of spiritual significance in the stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Fewer and fewer people take this text in Matthew literally. Fewer and fewer people consider Jesus’ resurrection from the dead very meaningful to their lives today at all.

If that’s you, and you find yourself struggling with the meaning of this Easter day, know that you’re not alone. What’s more, wherever you find yourself right now on these issues of faith and God and resurrection is not only OK, it is good! You are among a growing number of people who are thinking deeply and personally about this cornerstone of Christian faith, who are facing legitimate doubt with honesty and asking appropriate questions about the relevance of a claimed event 2000 years ago. Your thoughts and opinions on this whole resurrection thing matter. And you are worth hearing. Whatever you think about Jesus’ resurrection, whatever you believe about it is actually important! And it needs to be part of the conversation.

We need to  listen to each other and be open to what another person thinks about all this—whether the other person is devout in their Christian faith, or whether the other person has never been inside a church.

As important as those conversations are, and as helpful and inclusive as they need to be, here’s the thing: Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

Easter day should never have been about correct beliefs or right doctrine or coercion into a particular set of religious values that you have to claim if you want to avoid eternal hellfire. This day isn’t about that at all. Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

Whatever you believe about God, Easter shows us is that God isn’t a far-off, distance entity watching over the world and occasionally intervening if we ask nicely. Easter shows us that God enters into, is fully present, in the very fabric of life. God is already there in all aspects of creation. Easter is a declaration that there is nothing, there is nowhere, that God isn’t already completely and totally present. Nothing can keep God away. Nothing can keep God out. Not so much because God is more powerful, but because God is, and has always been the very essence of creation.

Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

What this story in Matthew tells us is that nothing can stop God from being present. Not political authorities who bring death. Not religious authorities who self-righteously call for death. Military guards who, out of fear, are now “like dead men.” A gigantic stone rolled over the entrance of the grave. Death itself. With God who is the essence of creation, life is real, it is absolute, and it is unconditional. Life is what God is about.

The resurrection of Jesus is the declaration of just one more normal thing for God. It is a continuation of what God has always done, of who God actually is. And nothing can get in the way of God being present and therefore bringing life.

In Genesis, God who was already there, breathed life into dead clay and it became a living person. In Ezekiel, God who was already there, brought dry, dead bones lying in the desert sun back together, and they became living people. Just a couple of weeks ago we heard about Jesus being present, restoring life to Lazarus, calling him forth from the grave. Life is what happens because God is there. Life is the way of God, central to who God is. Life isn’t earned, bought, coerced, bargained for. Where God is, there is life. And nothing can keep God out. God is in all things and through all things.

Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.

And like it or not, believe it or not, trust it or not, the God of Easter day is present in you and gives life. To everyone. Even you. Especially you. Isn’t that what we witness every day in creation? It’s what we witness in our own lives. The very presence of God. All creation sings with life because God is fully present there. We sing today of new life because God is fully present with us.

Easter day isn’t about what we believe, it’s about who God is.  

We celebrate today because we recognize the presence of God: the source, the essence, of life. Life that cannot be stopped by politics, military, graves, fear, or disbelief. This is the good news of Easter day. God is here. Fully and completely here. That means there is new life here. That means there is hope for creation here. Hope for us. Hope for you. God is here. God is life.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Hallelujah!

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2017 in Sermon

 

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What’s in Our Way this Advent? (Nov 27, 2016)

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

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.

Advent: Season of preparation, getting ready for Christ to come. We get ready for Jesus because the coming of Christ means something different for the world. It is good news for the world right now. The coming of Christ is not merely hope for heaven after you die, but hope for all people in our world right now. A hope that Christ’s presence in the world will include everyone living in love, joy, grace, and peace.

If that hope for each person to live in peace and love is to be realized, there are some things that will change in the world with the coming of Christ. Some things do have to change because not all people are experiencing hope, forgiveness, compassion, and absolute love. Christ’s job, then, is to be changing the world according to God’s character and God’s vision. Christ comes to change the world, to reveal the power of God’s love, to bring peace and wholeness, to expose life coming out of death. He comes to embody that hope for each one of us.2016-advent

If the coming of Christ means hope and love and peace and grace for all of creation, then as the church, we are called in baptism to be part of that presence of Christ in the world. We are called to be part of the hope of grace and peace being realized. “God’s Work, Our Hands” in the ELCA. Whatever God is doing, that’s what we are to be about. We know it will always be based in love, in compassion, in peace, forgiveness. That’s the nature of God, and therefore, the nature of Christ’s church.

So for us as church, our call is to reveal the presence and the hope of Christ to the rest of the world. To show what God’s forgiveness, love, compassion, grace look like. To be part of that being made real in the world—to put flesh on it. To be the presence of Christ for the world and in the world.

As we look at this gospel text at the beginning of Advent, there are two things we need to come up with answers for:

  1. If the coming of Christ means love, compassion, and peace, where might God be getting ready to reveal those things in our lives/world?
  2. What’s in the way of us revealing this presence of Christ?

Take a look at Joseph in this text.

  1. If the coming of Christ means love, compassion, and peace, where might God be getting ready to reveal those things in his life/world?

Joseph is recognizing God is moving toward what prophets had spoken of for centuries. God will be with us, God will save us.

  1. What’s in the way of his revealing this presence of Christ? Limiting God to customs/laws of his religion. Once opened to that possibility, Joseph could trust a dream that was crazy.

LCM:

  1. If the coming of Christ means love, compassion, and peace, where might God be getting ready to reveal those things in our lives/world?

I believe God is attempting to make this congregation a community where all can be safe, express vulnerability, experience trust. We haven’t always done that well in our congregational history, and it has limited us. Only in a trusting environment can God’s love be experienced and growth in God’s mission occur.

  1. What’s in the way of us revealing this presence of Christ?

This Advent as we wait for the presence of Christ and the love for one another that he brings, we can consider changing the things that are in the way. That is our preparation. So this Advent, we can give the benefit of the doubt, quit talking “about” people and instead “to” talk them, listen for the voice of God in those with whom we disagree, show support and encouragement for those who approach church differently in this place.

Each of us:

  1. If the coming of Christ means love, compassion, and peace, where might God be getting ready to reveal those things in our lives/world?
  2. What’s in the way of us revealing this presence of Christ?

That is what we can be doing this Advent. The presence of Christ will be changing something in our lives and the world in which we operate. Can we use this Advent season of preparation to see one thing that that might be? And then, can we spend this Advent time being opened to the presence of Christ changing something in us so that we can better reveal Christ to the world?

Blessings this Advent. As God opened Joseph’s heart to see God’s presence in a new way, may God open us to what God is doing in our world today. Amen.

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2016 in Sermon

 

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You are Welcomed, Valued, and Respected in the Kingdom of God (though your politics may not be)–Nov. 20, 2016

Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 [Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

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.

When we think of a king, it’s usually about power. Which is a little different perspective than what we’re talking about on Christ the King Sunday.

Christ the King has Power, that power is used to help those who have no power: those on the edges, the homeless, those on the fringes of society.

Christ the King has might, that might is used in showing mercy to the least: those who live in the shadows, in fear, believe government is not for them.

Christ the King has Strength, that strength is used to love those who are different or who disagree with him.

Christ the King—who, while being mocked, ridiculed, scoffed at, yet revealed the reign of God in the forgiveness of those who crucified him. Who, while sarcastically being made fun of as one who cannot even save himself, was in actuality saving the world. Who, when asked merely to be remembered by a criminal, gave him paradise instead.

This is how Christ is King.

This is the kingdom he has brought to this world. A kingdom of love.

This is the way he rules over us. Ruling in acceptance and mercy.

This is the kingdom he calls us to reveal in the world. A kingdom where those who live in fear are recognized and held.

You may have noticed, but we are a divided country. We have known it for a long time but haven’t done much about it. We’ve seen it happening, but have ignored it or gone along with it or even pretended it wasn’t as bad as we thought. But it is. We’ve lived it among ourselves in various ways too—drawing lines that divide us into us-and-them groups. Though we’ve been divided for our entire history, reported incidents revealing that division have increased drastically in the past year.

As a congregation we embrace Christ as King. We make it a priority to proclaim and be part of this reign in the world. Which means a few things for us in this time of escalated division.

First—all are welcomed, valued, and respected in this place. One of this congregation’s values. Period. End of discussion.

All means all. No matter how you voted, or if you didn’t vote at all, this will be a safe place for you. Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, Green, Socialist, non-political, you are welcomed, valued, and respected in this place.

All means all. Which means that married, partnered, single, divorced, widowed, Lutheran, other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Mormon, agnostic, atheist, non-religious, you are welcomed, valued, and respected in this place.

All means all. Which means that gay, straight, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, unsure, you are welcomed, valued, and respected in this place.All means all. That means whatever language you speak, whatever country you or your ancestors came from, whatever documentation you may or may not have, you are welcomed, valued, and respected in this place.

All means all. Because Christ is King and we reveal his kingdom in this world, you are welcomed here, valued here, respected here.

But Christ as our King means something else too. Seeking to proclaim and make real his kingdom in the world also means that although all people are valued here, not all things are held with equal value here. In the kingdom of God hatred is not valued. Exclusion is not valued. Lying, sexism, homophobia, persecution of any religious group, sexual assault, inciting violence, judging those who hold different opinions are not valued in any place where Christ is proclaimed as King.

This isn’t about politics. It’s not sour-grapes about winners and losers in an election. It’s not red vs. blue, not electoral college vs. popular vote. It’s not about patriotism or protests. Nothing that temporary or trivial.

No, this is much more significant than that. This is about who we are as baptized children of God, called by God to be a light in the world.

Christ the King has Power, that power is used to help those who have no power: those on the edges, the homeless, those on the fringes of society.

Christ the King has might, that might is used in showing mercy to the least: those who live in the shadows, in fear, believe government is not for them.

Christ the King has Strength, that strength is used to love those who are different or who disagree with him.

Christ the King—who, while being mocked, ridiculed, scoffed at, yet revealed the reign of God in the forgiveness of those who crucified him. Who, while sarcastically being made fun of as one who cannot even save himself, was in actuality saving the world. Who, when asked merely to be remembered by a criminal, gave him paradise instead.

This is how Christ is King.

This is the kingdom he has brought to this world. A kingdom of love.

This is the way he rules over us. Ruling in acceptance and mercy.

This is the kingdom he calls us to reveal in the world. A kingdom where those who live in fear are recognized and held.

Know that you are welcomed, valued, and respected in this place. But some of the things our country revealed and supported in this election are not.

Check your politics at the door. Because in this place, among us, Christ is the King. And his kingdom of forgiveness and love will be proclaimed among us and by us. His kingdom of compassion and mercy will be revealed through us in this divided country.

Christ is the king. And thanks be to God for that.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2016 in Sermon

 

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The Risk of Division (August 14, 2016)

Video available at: https://www.facebook.com/lcm.lakewood/https://www.facebook.com/lcm.lakewood/

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” 54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

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.

Every year on the 4th of July, my daughter Emily and I sit down and watch the musical “1776.” I’m not sure why she does it—probably just to humor her old man. But I watch it because it’s a reminder to me of what courage looks like.

Now, it’s not completely historically accurate—I don’t think the entire Continental Congress demanded that John Adams sit down while bemoaning the heat and the flies in Philadelphia—all in Broadway musical style, but the men and women behind the Declaration of Independence had a vision of a new country. And the creation of it involved significant risks. They were branded traitors by their government (which was England), and had people within their own cities who were still loyal to the British Crown who stood with the king as vehemently as they stood in opposition. Death sentences were pronounced on them.

Yet despite the threats and the division, they continued leading this movement into the development of a new country—an experiment in democracy different than the world had ever seen. They did whatever was necessary to accomplish it. Not perfectly, but they did it.

Sometimes the risk of division is necessary to attain something higher.

I’ve been perusing Tom Brokaw’s book, “The Greatest Generation,” and I see similar things there. A whole generation of people grew up in the Great Depression and, after Pearl Harbor, joined an effort to defeat fascism. They sacrificed more than they let on for a cause greater than themselves. They risked their lives and their futures for something better.

War is always divisive. Yet sometimes the risk of division is necessary to attain something higher.

I believe that this congregation’s history has similarities to this also. There were hard times here in the 1970s and then again in the 1980s. Division and infighting alongside of sacrifice and effort for something better. Then again in the 1990s. 21 years ago division racked LCM. Yet many in this church dug in and sacrificed. They pulled together and got serious about our purpose as a congregation within God’s mission. They raised the bar for membership and for leadership.

I came here when things had settled down a bit and as this hard work loomed ahead of us. Together we pulled, together we prayed, together we moved forward. Yet we lost members along the way who weren’t ready or who weren’t convinced that the hard work ahead would be worth it.

The community around us took notice of our excitement and our dedication and our hard work. Members began to join here by the dozens year after year. Our budget virtually tripled within a few years. We began to reach out into our community in love and care in new ways. We went from a congregation that, at my first synod assembly, people said to me, “Oh, you’re the pastor they got to go there,” to, “You’re at LCM? My congregation is inspired to try something you did. How did your folks do this?”

We sat back and watch the success. We looked at ourselves with satisfaction, patted ourselves on the back, and watched a congregation on the rise.

That was the problem. We sat back. We began to look inward. After pulling together with courage and living into a new resurrection life again, we sat back and looked inward. Content. Peaceful. We began to think that little risk and minimal inconvenience was normal. We chose to back off, make things easier, avoid any division for the sake of an apparent peace. We accommodated ourselves, made ourselves comfortable. We lowered the bar to keep peace and avoid any conflict. The potential division wasn’t worth the risk to us. Because things seemed to be going fine.

That became the norm. We took our eyes off God’s work and focused on our easy ride internally. And the more our vision turned inward—to our own new normal of convenience and entitlement—the more we opened the door to discontent, criticism, and self-centeredness. Lowering the bar for the sake of avoiding conflict became the expectation. Anything inconvenient or challenging was bad or wrong. Anything requiring a commitment or effort was tossed aside as unnecessary. Anything uncomfortable brought back-biting and blaming.

So we lowered the bar further to make things even easier and keep people happy. And the roots of convenience and self-comfort grew deeper. Leaders became afraid to lead because they would often experience so much criticism and negativity. Any change at all became a threat. Anyone who challenged the relative peace of the status quo was not to be trusted.

So we lowered the bar again, longing for the easy days of the early 2000s, when we sat back and lived in peace and comfort.

And it’s to us now that Jesus speaks these words in Luke’s gospel. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to LCM? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Jesus isn’t calling us to keep everyone happy and comfortable, but to be about God’s work in the world. And that often means inconvenience and discomfort. Some won’t like it. It means work, effort, commitment. And sometimes that’s more than some people feel they’ve bargained for. And the more important we believe our work to be, the more likely it is to cause division. Yet Jesus tells us that doing the work we’ve been baptized for is more important. It’s worth that risk of division.

–We should expect a bunch of people to go to Zion Baptist Church in the Park, to be a visible witness of racial reconciliation—not because it’s convenient, but because it’s God’s work.

–We should expect a full sign up sheet for Sunday School teachers—not because it requires a minimal effort, but because our children need examples of discipleship.

–We should expect the parents of Sunday School-aged children to bring their kids regularly—not because it fits their schedules, but because growing discipleship matters.

–We should expect most households to increase their financial giving—not because it’s comfortable, but because the ministry we are called to do is more important than our comfort.

–We should expect our council to be bold and to take risks, and we should support them in that—not so we have someone to blame, but because they need to follow the Holy Spirit.

Being a disciple of Jesus is not easy, not always peaceful and calm, not rainbows and butterflies. It’s messy, it’s hard, it’s unglorious, it’s imperfect and risky. It requires our forgiveness and grace toward each other.

And it’s also who we are in the resurrected Christ. It’s us at our best. It’s where our faith God has given us comes alive. It’s where we can meet God most fully. Sometimes, Jesus is telling us, the risk of division is necessary to attain something higher.

God is on the move, and we are the people invited and equipped to be on the leading edge of that movement. That’s worth the risk.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2016 in Sermon

 

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Syria, Paris, Mali, and Christ the King (John 18:33-37)

 

This text for Christ the King Sunday reveals a clash of two kingdoms. Make no mistake, they are distinctly different, but they are both present. Each kingdom has different rules, and each one operates differently. And they are both operating among us now.

These kingdoms aren’t places, like one is earth and the other heaven. No, both of these kingdoms function here and now, side by side. Both are seen in our everyday lives, and both are vying for our loyalty. Each one uses different tools to try and win us over.

Jesus shows us how one kingdom works and what it looks like, and Pilate shows us the other. Each kingdom proclaims similar goals sometimes, but they couldn’t be more different.

Pilate understands that he has power; with a word he can condemn Jesus to death. He knows how one kingdom works. And he is in a position to take advantage of that. The kingdom he affiliates with runs on power and the things that give a person power. So strength, position, recognition, and money are important tools of Pilate’s kingdom. Weapons and force and control are some of the things at Pilate’s disposal. One belief of his kingdom is that if you have enough power, you can bring about peace, because those who are threats to his kingdom are eliminated. Pilate is working toward peace through intimidation, through fear, and through brutality.

If Jesus is a king, Pilate wonders, then Jesus is a threat to the emperor (you can’t have two kings!). He would be a threat to the oppressive, forced peace of Rome.

If we can get past the fact that this is Pilate here–the one who condemns Jesus to crucifixion–we’d likely admit that this is the way the world works. Those with power win. Those with money win. Those with position and strength and backing and friends in high places win. The prize goes to the biggest, the strongest, the mightiest, and the smartest.

We know this kingdom. Because to move up, to get ahead, to win in this world–perhaps even to survive–these are the things we must do. We don’t even think about it, because the ways of this kingdom is so prevalent, so common, so every day. Everyone operates more or less in this way.

And then there’s the kingdom Jesus reveals. Way different. While Pilate uses strength, Jesus uses weakness. Pilate uses intimidation, Jesus uses vulnerability. Pilate uses force, Jesus uses mercy. Pilate uses power, Jesus uses forgiveness.

Jesus points out how different these two kingdoms are when he answers Pilate. Jesus says that if his kingdom were of this world, you’d know it because there would be fighting and a struggle for power. But, since his kingdom is not of this world, those things aren’t happening. Instead, Jesus’ kingdom is about something deeper and more significant than strength. It’s about truth. You can tell the people who affiliate with Jesus’ kingdom, because they listen to the truth of mercy, the truth of compassion, the truth of forgiveness, the truth of loving others. These are the principles by which they operate.

And we know this kingdom too. Because the Spirit keeps filling us with with love and forgiveness. God continues to forgive us and show us compassion. We sometimes experience the truth of divine mercy when we experience compassion; someone going out of their way on our behalf. We can the truth of that, and we can live the truth of that.

Never is the battle of these two kingdoms seen more clearly than right now in the argument about Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. One kingdom says there’s a threat there. Let’s not be stupid and take unnecessary risks. The other says showing compassion to our neighbors compels us to make sure they have safety—even if that means some of them come here.

We are pulled by the lures of both kingdoms. Power and force might impose a superficial and temporary lack of conflict, but do so based on fear and intimidation. Love and mercy appear weak in the world kingdom and leave us vulnerable, but are the ways Jesus reveals.

Today, we confess Christ as King. Which means we defer to his kingdom as his disciples.

The kingdom of force, of violence, of power, of fear, of intimidation may be able to put Jesus to death. It may be able to put 129 to death in Paris, take hostages in Mali, and wreak havoc all over the world.

But the kingdom of violence, fear, and power has already been defeated. Christ the King took the worst threat this world’s power could throw at him. And then he rose from the dead. And he breathed the ways of his kingdom of compassion into frightened disciples. And he inspired them to live and reveal his kingdom of mercy and love. Right in the face of fear and oppression.

Jesus came not just to bring mercy and grace to us. He came to show us the truth of mercy and grace so we can live it in the world. May we hear the voice of Christ the King. And may we follow him.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Where is God? Last, Least, Servant, Slave (Mark 10:35-45)

If you’ve been here any Sunday during any of the last several weeks, you’ve heard this theme in Mark repeatedly: the greatest are servants, the last are first, whoever wishes to be first of all must be slave of all.

Everytime Jesus tells them this, the disciples never get it. This time James and John are wanting glory for themselves. And when the others hear about it they’re angry because they didn’t think of it first.

Why is it in Mark’s gospel, Jesus gives us this same emphasis over and over? Welcome the kingdom like a little child instead of a powerful person. Give all your money to the poor and then you’ll have treasure in heaven. If you want to save your life lose it. If you want to be first, then be last. If you want to be the greatest, be the servant.

Last, least, servant, slave. Over and over, Jesus, we get it! We’ll take serving others more seriously! We won’t seek our own glory! We won’t abuse power over others! We’ll be humble and meek and generous and helpful to everyone!

Sort of.

What we mean is that we’ll serve others when we have time to do it. We’ll put others ahead of ourselves until they start getting credit for our work. We’ll be generous with all of our extra money and time. We won’t seek glory for ourselves unless someone else starts getting recognized. We’ll consider ourselves last until others start thinking we actually are last.

Let’s be honest, it seems that what Jesus is proposing–over and over and over–doesn’t really work in our world. You start putting everyone else ahead of you and pretty soon everyone else is ahead of you.

You start being the servant of all and it isn’t too long before all people start thinking of you that way.

You keep being last and soon you are last.

If you don’t shine at least a small spotlight on yourself and tout your own abilities somehow, who will ever notice your abilities? Then, even when you have gifts to offer no one will take them seriously because you won’t be seen as credible. Your strengths won’t be recognized after a while. If you do a good job of being last of all and servant of all and least of all, that’s exactly where you end up.

We get what Jesus is saying, and we try to live it, I think. Up to a point. Is that enough? Is that what Jesus really wants from us? Just do what he commands–to a point? Just follow him–partway?

Our Estmate of Giving cards for 2016 are coming in today. We’ll give generously–kind of.

How do we reconcile these constant demands of Jesus to be last and least and servant and slave with the reality of how our world actually works?

At some point, don’t we have to recognize what we’re good at–maybe even great at—and call attention to that aspect of ourselve in order to be seen as having something worth offering? In order to contribute with our gifts?

Jesus seems pretty clear, over and over. I’m not as clear as to how that works out. But here’s how I’m wrestling with it–at least today.

I believe Jesus means what he’s saying here. As his disciples, we are to be least, last, servant, slave. We know he means it, because he does it himself. From birth through life and even into death, Jesus is last, least, servant, and slave. Doing this may mean we don’t get ahead at work. We may not maximize our earning potential. It might result in those who glorify themselves not taking us seriously. It’s humbling, even humiliating at times.

But what happens when we are last, least, servant, and slave is that we look at people differently. We connect to them differently. Or relationship with them changes. We notice what’s going on in their lives. We recognize needs we never would have noticed before. The whole barometer of measuring success is dramatically different.

One by one, little by little, we affect people’s lives in ways we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. We may not even notice, they may not either. What happens when we are last, least, servant, and slave is that we embody the compassion of Jesus. We become Christ in the world. We change the world in God’s image from the bottom up rather than contribute more of what the world already knows, from the top down.

I’m beginning to think that the only way to save the world is from the bottom up, not the top down. We reveal Jesus more significantly from below, not from above. We affect people’s lives in more important ways as the least rather than as the best.

Most people around us, even many in the church, will disagree. Because the prevailing understanding is that power changes the world, not slavery. Jesus challenges that. And then calls us to join him at the bottom. Last, least, servant, slave. That’s how the world is saved. That’s where we’re called to be. That’s where we join Jesus.

 
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Posted by on October 19, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Camels through Needles: With God, All Things are Possible (Mark 10:17-31)

If ever there was a text that was self-explanatory, this is probably it. Wealth is a problem. The man kneeling before Jesus is a respectful, God-fearing, commandment-obeying, church-going believer. Jesus acknowledges that, but also tells the man that to inherit the kingdom of God he lacks one thing. Sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, then follow Jesus.

Who here has done that? Like the man in this text, we leave grieving because we have many possessions. This is one of those texts where the meaning is pretty clear, even though parts are exaggerated; we pretty much nudge it off to the side. It’s a spiritual thing, we say. It’s not literal, it’s about discipleship.

That may be true, but it is clearly about money. Wealth is often a problem for rich people who follow Jesus. So our tendency is to immediately skip over to Jesus saying that those things that are impossible for humans are entirely possible for God!

Whew! Maybe everything will be OK. Maybe God will make things good for us who have a lot of possessions. Maybe God will smooth the way. Maybe our wealth will no longer be a problem. Maybe we can continue as before. Because with God, all things are possible! Right?

Except that’s not exactly where Jesus is taking this. He’s not letting us off our wealthy hook. He’s telling us that with God, it’s possible to eliminate those things that stand in the way of our following Jesus. Even our money and our possessions. When he says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, he’s not saying that because of God, a camel no longer has to go through the eye of a needle. He’s saying that with God, a camel can pass through the eye of a needle. God doesn’t keep things the same; God changes everything.

That which is possible for God and impossible for us is a change so deep within us that we are willing to give up possessions for the sake of the poor. That’s what Jesus came to reveal: that God is changing the world that profoundly–changing us that deeply. With God that actually is possible.

So the question isn’t how much money you give away. The question is how much are we being changed—revealed by how much we give away? What impossible thing is God doing in our hearts and in our lives? What obstacle is God eliminating to draw us into God’s kingdom?

For those who are rich, wealth can be a problem. That’s pretty much all of us. Which is why we have worked so hard as a congregation to give away 11% of everything that comes through the offering plates right off the top. And when you factor in staff time, neighborhood partnerships, and parts of other ministries, we’re actually investing about a third of our income outside our walls. We subsidize Lutheran Family Services, government advocacy for the poor, congregations that deliberately minister in neighborhoods of high poverty, to name a few. Missionaries, world hunger, disaster relief. More!

Some of us say, “Really? A third of my offering isn’t invested in this congregation? We’d have no struggles if we kept that. Take care of things at home first, then start looking outside.” It’s tempting for those who are rich to say “let’s emphasize our own Christian education, upgrade our building, take care of our property, hire our own youth staff person first, then consider the poor.”

Then Jesus looks around and says to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!'”

But Jesus, we say, we need to educate our kids and teach them to pray and make sure they obey the ten commandments!

Jesus looks at us, loves us, and says,”You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  This text is annoyingly clear. Ministry outside our congregation is absolutely necessary as disciples of Jesus. In fact, that is our priority as disciples of Jesus.

Perhaps another way to look at this is that it’s great that a third of our offerings help the poor and others in our world. Wouldn’t it be better if it was half? And not just because more of the poor Jesus loves would be helped, but also because if we were to invest half of our offerings in ministry outside of ourselves, that would reveal God doing an impossible thing. That would be God getting a camel through the eye of a needle. That would be a rich congregation entering the kingdom of God. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

We are beginning a budgeting process for 2016. The council will be preparing a budget to propose to the whole congregation for approval. Hold us, as council, accountable. When you look at the proposed budget in a few weeks, check how much will be invested outside of ourselves. See whether our congregation is being changed by God. See if we are being part of God’s kingdom in the world or simply keeping “all the commandments.” Make sure we are following Jesus and not “lacking one thing.” When we approve a budget, let us be sure we will have “treasure in heaven” and not “grieving because we have many possessions.”

Good Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life? . . . You know the commandments. . . Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth. . . You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and ive the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2015 in Sermon

 

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