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Forgiveness Has a Purpose (May 27, 2018)

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah was a professional prophet. He was a temple employee in Jerusalem as one who speaks for God in service to the king. His ministry was during the 8th century BC at a time when Judah was actually doing well. King Uzziah had built new wells for the fields and watchtowers to be alert to invaders. The army was strong and things had finally turned around after a series of pretty bad kings. So Isaiah’s life wasn’t too bad.

Before this text, however, King Uzziah had made a mistake. His pride had gotten the better of him, apparently, and he decided he didn’t need the temple priests—even though their role was specifically designated by God. So, against God’s law, he went into the temple and was about to make an offering on his own. He was confronted by the priests and, as the story goes, was stricken with leprosy for this grievous infraction.

He had to live apart from everyone else and couldn’t rule that way. So he had to hand over the kingdom of Judah to his son Jotham.

Anyway, after suffering with leprosy for about 11 years, king Uzziah died. And Isaiah’s life was turned upside down. Not because Uzziah died—it actually had nothing to do with that—but because God, out of the blue, called Isaiah to a very specific prophetic ministry. A ministry he neither asked for nor wanted.

He had this bizarre vision of the greatness of God: the majesty, the awesomeness, the sovereignty of God were so vast that just the edge of God’s robe filled the entirety of the temple. Creatures were swirling around shouting about the holiness of God. And in the presence of the majesty of God’s glory, Isaiah suddenly realized how lowly and pathetic he, and all of Judah, really were.

But Isaiah’s sad condition didn’t stop God. One of the heavenly creatures took a hot coal from the altar and touched Isaiah’s mouth with it. Then this creature shouted, Now you’re forgiven. All’s good.

At that point Isaiah heard God ask, I’ve got a message for my people. Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

Newly forgiven Isaiah rises up, Here am I; send me.

That’s where the text ends. Which is really unfortunate. Because we don’t get to hear what Isaiah was sent to do. Let me tell you, it wasn’t great. His call by God was very specific, very clear. He was called by God to tell the people that God says they’re never going to get it, they’ll never understand. No matter how hard they try, they will never see what God is about, never hear it, never know it. That was his God-appointed message. Can you imagine being the one sent to tell people that?

It’s at that point that Isaiah realizes this new prophet gig isn’t what he thought it would be, and says, Uhmm, so how long do I have to do this?

A couple of things to note that are relevant for us. 1) Forgiveness is about removing barriers. Isaiah was forgiven (with the live coal) not to get into heaven when he died, but forgiveness was actually removing barriers between Isaiah and God so that he could be with God to say these hard things in God’s name. And, 2) A call from God is always specific to the context. Isaiah was called by God to do this because it is what God needed at that time and in that place.

In the same tone as Isaiah, we are forgiven and called. Both individually and congregationally. We are forgiven and called.

Re: Forgiveness: It’s important that we grow beyond the preschool notion that Jesus died on the cross so I can be forgiven and go to heaven when I die. Forgiveness has a purpose in God’s work in the world. Forgiveness removes the barriers between us and God so that we are no longer separated from God but are with God in God’s mission in the world of love, compassion, mercy, and grace. Forgiveness is not an end in itself. Forgiveness allows us to join God in loving the world.

Re: Being Called: Our call to join God is probably more specific than we assume. It’s one thing to say, “Love the world in Jesus’s name.” But it’s another thing to say, “God calls me to show love in the world that looks like this particular thing.”

God is active in this time and in this place. And God’s love for the world meets the world as it is now. Our call is to show God’s love in this part of the world. What gifts, what passions do you have that allow you to show love? That’s probably God’s call to you!

Let me give you a personal example. I grew up in Ogden, UT as the only non-Mormon family in the neighborhood, so I was already on the outside looking in. I was the smart, nerdy, insecure kid who wasn’t good at sports and played the clarinet in the band. I got beat up more days than I didn’t. Got the picture? I was never the “popular” kid.

But as painful as parts of that were, I have a heart—a passion—for those people who get left out, pushed away, not included. Part of my “Isaiah-type” call from God is to welcome the unwelcomed, include the excluded. Which is why you hear me preach so often about racism, sexism, LGBTQ, poverty. In our context today, these are among the people who have historically been excluded from privilege and power. God has called me to speak of God’s call to love these.

And God keeps removing the barriers that are in the way of me doing this. More and more. Day after day. Sometimes the same barriers have to keep being removed. Sometimes I discover God is removing a new one. But that removal of barriers is forgiveness, so that I can follow God’s call.

Isaiah wasn’t called to change the world. Isaiah was called to follow God’s call in a specific time and in a specific place.

Pause in silence for a minute. . . . Think about the world in which you live. Your context. . . . Where is there a lack of compassion that bothers you? . . . Where are you aware of hatred or violence or exclusion being shown? . . . God sees it too.

This is why you are forgiven. This is why barriers between you and God have been removed. You are forgiven.  And God now asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Who can show my love and grace and compassion in that situation?

Newly forgiven and called people of God, now we rise up and say, “Here we are; send us.”

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Posted by on May 30, 2018 in Sermon

 

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Grow Up, for Christ’s Sake (Eph. 4:1-16) August 2, 2015

 

I don’t like to exercise. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t experience the euphoria some people talk about. I don’t feel better afterward. I find nothing pleasurable in it whatsoever. For me it is just hard work and a lot of sweat. It’s a hassle.

I also know it’s “good for me.” So I grudgingly do it. As little as I have to, and as infrequently as I can get by with. Saying “I don’t like it” is a poor excuse.

That’s me. Of course some of you have different priorities. There are some people can work out all day as long as they don’t have to read a book.

The point is that any kind of growth takes effort. Physical health, mental and emotional health. And also spiritual health.

Which is where the author of Ephesians is going today. Ephesians starts with a big picture and keeps getting more specific and detailed as the book goes on.

Chapter one points out that God’s plan for redeeming all of creation is now in place.

Chapter two says that part of that involves reconciliation between us and God, between us and each other. Human divisions are irrelevant because of  the creation of one new humanity in Christ.

Chapter three suggests that we need to gain understanding of all that. That’s what the church is for—to put skin on God’s love in the world and make it visible.

And now, in chapter four, the author explains that the church, knowing what it needs to do, must prepare for its role in God’s work. We are to be spiritually healthy to function as church, in the way God intends. God has even given the church gifts to help with this spiritual growth.

11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 

Different gifts scattered throughout each congregation. Why?–

12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity.

Spiritual growth toward maturity in Christ is essential for the church to be about its purpose of showing the world what God is up to. The author urges us, writing,

14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine . . . . 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up . . . into Christ.

A church that isn’t growing spiritually, that isn’t maturing into Christ will become less effective in doing what the church is created to do. Which means we have to be growing spiritually. If we are to reveal God’s love for the world, we have to grow into the love God has for us. If we are to show the world God’s reconciliation, we have to grow into the reconciliation God has already done for us.

Like physical or mental exercise, spiritual growth takes deliberate effort.

Unfortunately, spiritual growth is like physical exercise for me. Not my favorite. Not easy for me to do. Because I generally move everything to my head. That is my favorite. I like thinking. I like logic and rationality. Heart things feel gooey.

But the reality is that spirituality doesn’t work out of our heads. It’s much more about hearts than heads. Saying “I don’t like it” is a poor excuse.

We have to practice, work for spiritual maturity. We have to be deliberate in growing in faith. Who said it was easy? Who said it was natural? Who said it happens automatically? It doesn’t. Like anything else, it requires practice and exercise. You have to do it on purpose. It doesn’t happen by itself.

So for someone to say, “I can’t pray very well so I’m just not going to,” would be like me saying, “I can’t run a marathon so I’m going to sit on the couch and watch TV.” It’s a poor excuse. Rather than not praying, we practice prayer. We seek out people who are good at prayer who can help us do it better. Saying “I don’t like it” won’t cut it when it comes to growing spiritually.

Maybe some of us struggle with growing and expanding our spiritual lives. But as church, it’s a necessary part of who we are. So get help praying in a different way, commit to a few minutes each day reading scripture, contemplate what God is up to that you haven’t seen before, begin a journey of discovering new things about God, maybe even learn to sing a new song. Saying “I don’t like it” is a poor excuse, and isn’t good enough when it comes to growing spiritually.

We can expand our awareness of Jesus. We can grow up in him. We can practice spirituality. Our faith can mature. And it must. God is at work, divisions are erased, we are new people with a purpose as Christ’s church. Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up into Christ.

Ask yourself, what will you do differently to help you grow spiritually? Write it down and take it with you. Let us mature into Christ.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Exercising Faith: Living a New Life (2 Cor. 5:6-17)

When I was in 2nd grade, I was chasing my sister through the house. She, of course, had done something that completely justified it. Just as I was about to catch her, she ran out the back door, which had a large pane of glass in it, and it clicked shut just as I put my hands out to push it open. My hand went through the glass and cut my hands and left wrist pretty seriously. The tendons and nerves were severed in my wrist and I underwent surgery to try ad repair as much as they could.

My wrist was immobilized in a cast for 6 weeks. After that, my left hand had no feeling and no movement. None at all. Nonetheless I started physical therapy to see how much mobility I might regain. There were no promises as to whether I would regain any sensation in my hand or any movement. I remember being terrified when my little 7-year-old hand couldn’t even grasp a tennis ball.

Therapy went on for three years. Slowly, through continual exercises, I began to regain some movement. After a few months, I could hold a tennis ball, then a golf ball, then I began to play with Tinker Toys–working to grasp those small sticks and maneuver them. Two years later, with continuous therapy and exercises, I began guitar lessons in order to exercise the fingers on my left hand to form chords on the frets.

Ultimately I regained full mobility. The feeling will never come back completely, but I’ve regained most of it. Not a day goes by, 50 years later, that I don’t deliberately move the fingers of my left hand and marvel that it works.

The repair work done in surgery was a gift to me. The neurosurgeon, Dr. Gerald Bergera, was way ahead of his time and reestablished nerve connections that few other surgeons in the country could do in that day. I am grateful for the gift he gave me that made it possible to use my left hand all these years later.

I was given the gift of nerve and tendon repair through complicated surgery. But that gift wouldn’t have made any difference without the physical therapy that followed. As much as it hurt, as frustrating as it became, as slow a process as it was, those exercises allowed me to experience the gift.

Paul is telling the church in Corinth that their faith is a gift. God has given it to them freely in Christ through the power of the Spirit. It is theirs, it is done. They are forgiven, loved, and made new. That has happened and it is God’s gift to them. They are fully restored. Trust it, he writes. Walk by faith and not by sight, he urges them.

And we experience the gift by exercising it.

The exercise of the gift of faith is a life-long process. We don’t see immediate results. But that doesn’t mean the repair work hasn’t been done. It doesn’t mean the gift hasn’t been given. We are made new, and we need to move forward and live that new life. For we walk by faith, not by sight.

  • We exercise forgiveness, no matter how difficult it is, because it is the gift given to us. Christ urges us on, Paul writes in v. 14. We keep exercising it.
  • We exercise mercy, no matter how long it takes, because it is the gift given to us. We regard no one from merely a human point of view any more, Paul writes in v. 16. Through God’s gift, we begin to see them as Christ.
  • We exercise love, no matter how painful, because it is the gift given to us. So if anyone is in Christ, Paul writes in v. 17, there is a new creation. We flex our love, practice our love because we are made new.
  • We exercise our new life in Christ, because it is the gift given to us. Everything old has passed away, writes Paul in v. 17, see everything has become new. We continue to practice living as Christ, over and over, day after day, year after year, getting stronger and more flexible.
  • The gift of faith, a spiritual life, a new way of living has already been given to us. The surgery has happened; Christ died for all.

Now we continue in long-term spiritual therapy, exercising that gift of faith. Slowly, gradually, sometimes even painfully we live a new life, walking by faith, trusting a God of love and life who cannot always be seen.

Exercise your faith, walk by faith and not sight. Expand and grow and strengthen your faith.

My new spiritual therapy exercise is to pray every day for those on our prayer list. I will also pray for each of you, day by day, one name, one household at a time. We walk by faith, not by sight.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Unseen Growth: Expanding our Spiritual Life (2 Cor. 4:13–5:1)

The apostle Paul is an amazing and complex character. Even though this congregation in Corinth is often really difficult to work with sometimes, his love for them is overflowing. They have had their share of disagreements and misunderstandings, but he keeps encouraging them in their discipleship.

Some members of the Corinthian congregation were hurt by a previous reprimand from Paul. One person, apparently, had caused a real division that had sidetracked them from Christ’s mission. Then Paul promised he was going to visit them and then changed his plans. Several people in the church weren’t very happy with him. There are still divisions and concerns.

In short, things aren’t looking ideal for the Corinthian congregation.

Which sets up this week’s portion of his letter to the church. He refers to their “inner nature” and their “outer nature.” The outer nature is physical, it’s visible, it’s what impresses other people. It can be superficial, and is definitely temporary. It includes their bodies, their finances, their jobs, their houses, their hairstyles, their health, and even the circumstances of their church.

And, says Paul, “It is all wasting away.” They are upset about so many circumstances regarding this outer nature that it is distracting them.

So Paul reminds them to “not lose heart” because no matter the circumstances, the inner nature is being renewed every day. The outer nature–these visible, temporary parts of our lives–don’t define us. The depth of our inner lives–our deepest identity in the image of God–is being renewed every day apart from what’s happening on the outside. Don’t lose heart, he writes. The real stuff, the eternal stuff, the parts of our selves we don’t necessarily see are what matters.

And these inner aspects of ourselves carry us through, because the inner nature is in the image of God. In spite of outer circumstances, God is working and renewing and restoring at a much deeper level. Don’t lose sight of that; don’t be distracted by the outer things.

Paul encourages us to keep proper perspective. Our outer circumstances are part of our lives, yes. They can be difficult and challenging, yes. But they don’t define us or our relationship with God or how God works in our lives.

To get caught up in those outer circumstances at the expense of our inner image of God is problematic at best. Spending all our time and energy on the outer nature leads to misdirection and division. That’s what the church in Corinth is dealing with. Putting all their efforts into their outer nature and neglecting what’s happening every day in their inner nature.

Perhaps us too. We can get so focused on fixing our lives, fixing what’s wrong, worrying about our finances, getting every piece of our outer nature into line that we can neglect to recognize the growth in our inner nature, our faith, our discipleship, our relationship with God.

How often do we plan and strategize growth in our spiritual lives? Shouldn’t we pay as much attention to expanding our generosity as in expanding our 401(k)s?

If I plan to devote 30 minutes a day to time on my physical health, shouldn’t I also plan to devote 30 minutes a day to time on my spiritual health?

If my relationships with friends are important to me, shouldn’t forgiveness and restoring relationships be important too?

What would you think about discovering ways we really reflect the image of God in which we’ve been created and deliberately expanding those aspects of our lives?

God is renewing our inner nature every day. God is continuing in forgiveness and mercy and generosity and grace within us every day. Paying attention to God’s new work in us, partnering with God in our daily renewal is our most human endeavor.

Circumstances, our outer nature, can be hard and painful. There is support and encouragement here in the congregation in those times. So we do not lose heart, Paul writes to us. Because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

Consider how God is renewing you today. Today. What renewing thing is God accomplishing in your right now? It is happening. Divine love is making you new at this very moment. Discover that work. Take delight in it. Join God in it. So, regardless of anything else, we do not lose heart.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Word and Sacrament: A Conversation Starter

8th Pentecost C
Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Children’s message…

When I was 12, a friend and I wanted some extra spending money. So we came up with a get-rich-quick plan. We got a couple of brooms and planned to go to area businesses and offer to sweep their parking lots. If they said “no,” we would let them know how badly their parking lot needed sweeping. If they still said “no,” we would then inform them that we could do just as good a job as anyone else, but we could do it cheaper. Foolproof!

So we set out with all confidence that we had this in the bag. We’d be swimming in money by the end of the day. We had thought of everything. The first business we came to was a fast food restaurant. We asked for the manager and confidently laid out our sales pitch. Surprisingly, he said “no,” so we went on with stage 2 of our foolproof plan, pointing out how debris-ridden his parking lot was and how bad that was for business. He still said “no,” so we played out ace-in-the-hole, how cost-effective we were.

We had all the information we needed, and were merely seeking an answer. We just needed the business owners to give it.

That’s how the lawyer in this text is approaching Jesus. He has all the information he really needs; he just wants an answer to his one question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In the same way, that’s also how many people understand the purpose of the Bible. OK, God, we know most of the stuff; we just need an answer, we’ll open the Bible and get it from you.

All of us–my friend and me with our brooms, the lawyer with eternal life, and those who want God’s answers from the Bible–don’t quite get what we want.

So after my friend and I finished our line about being the most cost-effective parking lot cleaning service in town, the business owner sat us down and began to patiently talk with us about child labor laws, liability insurance, and federal and state taxes. We just wanted an answer, but what we got was a conversation.

The lawyer knows his stuff when he comes to Jesus. He’s studied his Torah, he’s got his information. He just wants an answer to this one question. “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” He just wants an answer, but what he gets is a conversation.

When we are seeking an answer to what God’s will is for our life, or whether abortion is right or wrong, or how the church should deal with homosexuality, we often go to the Bible for answers. But what we get is a conversation.

That’s the Bible at its intended best, a conversation with God. The Bible functions much like the conversation the lawyer has with Jesus. He comes with one question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus asks him two questions in response, “Let’s start with what you know about it?” And, “how do you interpret that?” The conversation goes on, including the Good Samaritan story, with questions going back and forth and the conversation deepening, until Jesus asks, “Which person was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer gives the answer that he really needed all along–but just didn’t know it–“The one who showed mercy.” He came wanting to know how to inherit eternal life; he left with a realization that the way if God is showing mercy to the least likely. Not the answer he came looking to get, but through the conversation with Jesus, it was the answer he needed.

We gather as a community around the word of God (anything that proclaims Jesus–including Jesus himself) and the sacraments (promises of God’s grace connected to tangible elements–in our case baptism and Holy Communion). We do this in order to have an ongoing conversation with Jesus. Sometimes we come here with specific questions. “Why do so many bad things keep happening to me?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “What do you want me to do with my life?” “Should I break up with my girlfriend?” “How do I deal with my nephew who just told me he’s gay?” And sometimes we just want quick answers to these questions. But word and sacraments don’t often work that way. Instead, God uses them to open up a conversation–which happens through story, and together with the gathered community. The Bible becomes for us not a textbook where we look up answers for life’s tests, but a means for God to engage us in a dialogue that shapes our lives.

I’m wondering what question for God you have as you came here today? And I want to offer one small way to enter into a conversation with God about it. Bear in mind that we are best when we do this in community, listening to one another and sharing with one another, but for now let’s enter the conversation on our own. I’m going to read the scripture passage again, and I want you to listen for something in there that rubs you the wrong way or that is confusing or pricks at you a little. Ready?  . . .

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

You’ll want to share your sticking point with someone else, and I encourage you to do that at some point very soon. But for now, think about why this particular phrase or word or thought is catching you up. What is troubling you about it? What is going on in your life that makes this particular point difficult?

Now, from what you know about Jesus, what would he say to you to help you? Anyone want to share? . . .

The conversation has only just begun. God’s story has just become part of your story. Your life’s story is informed now by God’s story. Don’t let that conversation end. Share it with your friends, listen to their conversations too. Let’s gather together next week in this community that supports our conversations with God. God will be engaging us together–in the Word and in the sacraments. Amen

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2013 in Sermon

 

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