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“Jesus is Too Divisive” (August 18, 2019)

Luke 12:49-56

[Jesus said to his disciples,] “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?

There’s a lot in this brief text this morning. There’s fire, baptism, stress, weather reports, accusations of hypocrisy, and seeing signs of the times. But my guess is that what most of us hear today in this text isn’t any of those things. It’s probably Jesus saying, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

I heard someone say recently that they are part of a Christian Bluegrass band, and they had a gig at a local bar one night. After playing a few songs, the manager asked if all their songs were about Jesus. “Well, yeah, it’s kind of a beer-and-hymns sort of idea.” They were then asked to pack up and leave the bar because, as the manager said, “Jesus is too divisive.”

Now, understand that Jesus isn’t saying it’s his goal to be divisive. Just that that’s sometimes the reality when the Reign of God is shown. Jesus isn’t saying it’s his goal to oppose peace. Just that people’s reaction to the presence of the Reign of God isn’t always peaceful.

See if that isn’t true. The Reign of God is present anytime and anyplace where the character of God is evident. Any time someone exhibits God’s over-the-top compassion, anytime someone gives with God’s extravagant generosity, any place where someone grants God’s never-ending forgiveness, anywhere that someone is loved with God’s unconditional love. Try doing that and see how divisive it can be.

What would happen if someone tried to exhibit God’s generosity with our tax dollars, or God’s compassion with our immigration laws? I’m not talking about agreement; I’m talking about the division that would result.

Or what happened right here in Lakewood when the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless tried to build housing on Federal land? Again, put aside whether it was a good idea or not, I’m just talking about the divisive way people responded. It largely wasn’t a conversation about whether this was the best way to provide housing for people who are homeless. It was just met with division. Those meeting certainly weren’t peaceful.

Even when the church reveals the Reign of God, it can be divisive. The ELCA in assembly last week voted to become a “sanctuary church body.” Even though this stance doesn’t call anyone to do anything illegal, just that we are publicly declaring that for us as Lutherans, walking alongside immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers is a matter of faith—a matter of following Jesus; a matter of the Reign of God. And the response by some media outlets was quite divisive.

So Jesus is stating reality here—that the response to the Reign of God can be divisive. Here’s why he says it. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is not meandering like an itinerant preacher, he is intentionally travelling to Jerusalem for almost half the gospel. Because that is where the Reign of God—God’s compassion, love, and forgiveness—will be most prominently revealed. On a cross. In Jerusalem the ultimate division will take place. A very un-peaceful fate awaits him.

So for ten chapters, almost half of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is heading to Jerusalem where he’ll be killed. And all along the way, he’s trying to get his disciples ready to take over this Reign of God work. He is sometimes rude, sometimes abrupt, sometimes extreme. Because this work of God is that important. All the teaching, all the healings, all the signs are to help prepare these disciples for the difficult work that awaits them. Showing God’s kindness and mercy will not always be met with peace. And people will be divided when some of them begin to follow these ways of Jesus. Division is not the goal, but it is the reality. These disciples need to be ready.

This text today is part of that travel narrative where Jesus becomes very direct. Recognizing the Reign of God present in the world is that important. That’s why he turns to the crowds—not just the disciples now, but everyone—and says all that stuff about seeing clouds and knowing it will rain, seeing the wind and knowing it’ll be hot. They’ve got to recognize God’s compassion when they see it, to know God’s all-inclusive love, to be looking for the presence of God’s justice so they can continue the work of revealing it. That’s the hope of the world.

I wonder whenever Luke describes Jesus turning toward the crowds—toward everyone—if he means for that to include us.

So I would ask, do we see the Reign of God? Do we recognize God’s compassion? Are we looking for God’s mercy and love being shown? It’s around us all the time. Right now I can point to 116 incidents of the Reign of God being present. Look at the timeline on the back wall. There are so far, to my count, 116 LCM “Glory Moments,” when some kind of compassion, love, forgiveness, grace, inclusivity were recognized by you in this congregation. Because you experienced them. And what a difference that has made!

That, to me, is astounding. Right here, among us, the Reign of God is revealed in ways that Jesus describes and points to. God’s compassion and love make us new, and for Jesus, that is the highest priority. And in order to provide those things to you, Jesus is willing to risk division. For your sake. To change your life. To make you new.

How can that not give hope to the world? How can we, who are the recipients of the Reign of God, not be part of revealing this to change the world? Even though it won’t be smooth, easy, or even harmonious, there’s nothing more important. It is the hope of the world.

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Posted by on August 19, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Fire from Heaven, Threats, and Exclusion (June 30, 2019)

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village. 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

About a year ago I got off Facebook. Initially, I stopped because I was beginning a sabbatical, but soon realized I needed to stay off because I was getting too churned up and angry about some of the absolutely evil things people would post. In the name of Jesus, no less.

Over and over, I became enraged at people I knew who were defending the most horrific, despicable, cruel actions and attitudes toward other human beings; toward Muslims and people of color, particularly immigrants; who would justify tearing frightened babies from their mothers’ arms, locking them in cages with no beds or soap; who would use the Bible to explain taking jewelry and medicine away from these people who were fleeing from more horrors and violence than I ever will be able to imagine. I had to express my righteous anger. I needed to defend Christ-like compassion in the name of Jesus. More than that, I felt it necessary to put those pseudo-Christians in their place, to demean them, to rage about how wrong, narrow-minded, evil they were. I wanted to blast them off social media. Or worse.

“When his disciples James and John saw [that the Samaritans had rejected Jesus], they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” Yes! That! Do that!

Oh, I get it. James and John were just defending Jesus against people who are openly rejecting him. They even have scripture to back them up (some copiers inserted “like Elijah did” after requesting fire from heaven). The honor of Jesus is at stake here. The truth of his message is on the line.

But Jesus turned and rebuked them for defending him. This is not the attitude of those who follow me, he says. Then they went on to another village to do it all over again.

Jesus has to call out the violent and vengeful tendencies among his disciples. Even if their reasons are good. Even if they are confronting evil. Even if they are defending Jesus himself. These threats of violence and attitudes of hatred have no place with him. It will stop—at least among his followers. That includes me.

It’s becoming easier and easier for us to demonize anyone on “the other side” of any issue. It’s becoming more and more normal to draw a dividing line between “us” and “them,” and to hate, threaten, and dehumanize “them,” whoever “they” are. We better check our own Facebook and Twitter feeds because Jesus has something to say about that.

That same attitude is often exhibited with much less drama than “fire from heaven.” When we take the opportunity to respond to anyone we disagree with, we tend to abuse it. We are all too willing to inflict emotional harm, we easily degrade people, we ignore those whose voices aren’t as strong as ours, we put down those who might challenge our way of thinking, we talk about them behind their backs, we create alliances against them. Who is it we’ve been bad-mouthing lately? Because Jesus will have none of it.

Because here’s the thing. Whether his disciples are angrily defending him or the Samaritans are openly rejecting him, Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem. He is determined to get there, knowing he will die there. His love for his disciples who seek vengeance, his love for the Samaritans who flatly reject him, his love compels him to go to Jerusalem and the cross. Love determines his actions, nothing else.

And nothing can dissuade him. Not rejection, not threats of violence, not hateful attitudes. He will act in love no matter what. No matter who. No matter what’s in the way.

That’s where the second part of this text comes in. Jesus invites us to follow him in exhibiting this kind of love, to follow him even if it means going to Jerusalem. We too often respond, I will follow, but first I need to bury my father. I will follow, but I just need to say goodbye to my family and friends. And yet, he will go to the cross for us even when we put our own priorities ahead of following him. He will go to Jerusalem for us even when we’re so busy doing good things that we neglect to follow him in love.

It’s worth asking, what beliefs or positions are we so attached to that they come before following Jesus in love? What are we clinging to that is a higher priority than his compassion and non-violence and forgiveness?

So I’m back on Facebook, but with some conditions. I’m trying not to post anything that Jesus would turn and rebuke me for. Even if I think my reasons are good and my anger is just, I’m trying to post only things that reveal the kind of love Jesus has for me. And for any who might read them.

No matter what our attitudes or priorities or actions, Jesus is going to Jerusalem for us. His love for us is that unconditional. And he invites us to follow.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2019 in Sermon

 

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“Please Come to My Church So You Can be Loved!” (May 19, 2019)

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

I’m amazed at this text in John. The author depicts this as happening during the Last Supper and Judas has just left to betray Jesus to the authorities. Jesus will be dead in less than 24 hours. And right after this text, Jesus informs Peter that he, Peter, will deny he even knows Jesus. This text is bookended by denial and betrayal.

So here’s what Jesus has to say to his disciples in the midst of all this: “Love one another. People will know whether or not you’re my disciples by this one thing—your love for each other.”

That’s it. That’s everything. Nothing about avenging his death, nothing about condemning Judas, nothing about watching out for the likes of Peter. No. Just that the sign of being a disciple of Christ is loving each other.

When it comes to this sign of being a disciple, I gotta tell you, I think LCM is starting to rock that house. For quite a while now, as I’ve heard anyone in this congregation talking, it’s been overwhelmingly expressions of care, love, support, and concern.

I experience more of you sharing parts of your personal stories and trusting the people around you to love you with some intimate aspects of who you are.

I hear you checking in with each other, remembering details about some painful situation mentioned a long time ago just to see how that’s going. Out of love.

I see you reaching out to those who are lonely or sick or grieving, just so they don’t have to endure those things alone. That’s what love looks like.

I watch as you take an authentic interest in people here that you don’t know—listening to their life stories, and welcoming them without any judgment or condition. We love you just as you are.

There haven’t even been whispers about people who go to the other worship service for a good while now. Quite the opposite—I hear people defending, speaking well of, and sometime even participating in the worship service they don’t usually go to! Rather than being a competition, our worship has become an expression of love for each other.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” And I think we’re owning this identity: that we are a church that loves one another. And it is making a difference. At least it is for me.

I want to tell you one way this has been affecting me.

It’s no secret that I have a significant problem with the far-right wing of Christianity. I’ve been quite outspoken about my disagreement with the self-righteous, hypocritical, judgmental, anti-Jesus fringe of the church that hates, divides, and condemns. And that I do so because of the Bible, not in spite of it; because I follow Jesus, not in addition to him; because I’ve experienced God’s unconditional love, not because I deserve it.

When I meet someone and, in the course of the conversation they ask me what I do for a living, I’m so concerned about being judged as “one of those Christians” that I often dodge the question. I do this because I’ve experienced, over and over, especially as a straight, white, middle-aged, Protestant preacher, the assumptions that I’m automatically “one of them.” And conversations close off. And potential relationships die on the vine. And walls of defensiveness go up as the other person assumes I’m condemning them for some self-righteous reason.

I’ve become so focused on trying to reframe to the whole world what I believe a Christian is, that actually being a Christian has taken a back seat. I’ve spent so much energy proving what I’m not that I don’t always live what I am.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you prove to them that you’re not a judgmental hypocrite.” No, Jesus says, “if you have love for one another.” It’s less what you don’t do, and more what you do.

All this came to a head when I was watching TV one night. I was watching a show that included a small group of people being shown around a small town, which included a little church building. And one person who was on the tour stopped and couldn’t go inside. He physically couldn’t go in. It came out later that as a gay man he had endured such pain and hate and condemnation at the hands of the church that he actually couldn’t go through the doors. You could see on his face and in his posture all that pain resurfacing.

As I watched this, my heart just ripped open for him. And through the tears that were dripping down my face I heard myself say—out loud, to him, as if he could hear me on this show that had been recorded two years ago—I groaned from the depths of my soul, “Oh! Please come to my church so you can be loved.”

And as I heard myself say it, I knew those words were true. In my church you’d be loved.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

What the love of this congregation is doing for me is helping me be what I am instead of trying to prove what I’m not. Rather than being clear that I’m not one of those judgmental, self-righteous, hypocritical, condemning, right-wing fundamentalists, instead I’m being clear that I am a disciple of Jesus Christ which means that I will do my best to love you as Christ loves you: without condition, without judgment, just as you are.

Because that’s how this congregation seems to be loving people. With God’s absolute love. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” For Jesus, and for us, that’s the bottom line.

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Celebration and Support, Foundation of Love (April 7, 2019)

John 15:9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 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.

Audio clip, stops at 1:06 (Theme from Cheers, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”)

Recognize that song? Do you ever yearn for something like that? “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” Doesn’t that touch something deep in your heart?

That gets at part of what my vision for the church is: a community where you are fully and authentically known, valued for who you are, and loved without condition. Where you get to be part of it not because of what you believe, but because you can experience God’s love.

My dream is that whenever someone has something exciting and wonderful happen, they run to a church community because they know arms of joy will be wrapped around them! And whenever they have something tragic and difficult happen, they run to a church community because they know arms of support will be wrapped around them.

Who among us doesn’t yearn for a community where we can just breathe because we can trust that we are known, loved, valued, and respected exactly for who we are at our deepest level? A community where we can be loved without condition, without judgment, without question. A community where, no matter what we’re going through, feeling, thinking, experiencing, we are held and loved. A community where we don’t have to hide our failings, weaknesses, our insecurities, and inadequacies because people still recognize us as worthwhile and valuable. A community where people will stand with us no matter what it is we’re going through. A community where we can be our authentic selves because the foundation of that community is absolute love. A community where we don’t have to prove how strong we are, or pretend we’ve got everything together because the community surrounds us with God’s own strength.

That is Jesus’ vision. It’s this kind of community he yearns for on our behalf. And that’s what he’s actually talking about in this text from John. He’s pointing out that God already loves us without restrictions, without boundaries, without conditions. And that this love is the foundation for our relationship with God and with each other. Jesus affirms this, reveals this, and shows us what this kind of community looks like. Jesus makes this kind of community real in the world.

What’s more, Jesus is telling us that this is the kind of relationship he already has with us because it’s the kind of relationship he already has with God. He understands how fully he is loved by God and then openly loves us in the same way. Rather than just being our teacher or our master or our lord, he now says we are his friends. As our friend he would do anything for us because he lives God’s love for us.

This is what forms us as a community. As we live more and more in Christ’s love for us we are shaped and influenced by that love. As we live in Christ’s love we grow in our capacity for expressing that same kind of love toward each other—the love God already has for us. Authentic relationships of love without restrictions, boundaries, or conditions. That love is already present in us and among us. In Christ we are now set free to live together as a community in that love—not only with Christ, but with each other.

At some point in everyone’s life they’re going to yearn for a community like that. But we have a cultural bias toward autonomy, the false thinking that there’s something wrong with us if we can’t handle everything by ourselves; that we’re somehow weak if we need support and care from others.

Which is why people usually seek out a supporting community when something unforeseen and tragic occurs in their lives—something that turns out to be out of their control and beyond their capacity to deal with alone. And here’s the thing: it happens to everyone. Because no matter how hard you try or how organized you are, life always gets messier, and bigger, and more unpredictable than any one of us can handle. At that point people seek out a community where they can be held and supported through those times.

You can easily see that after national tragedies. Worship attendance went up across the country after Columbine and after 9/11. But then it goes right back down again. Because although at those times we see a need for a non-judgmental community of love and support, we tend to expect it to simply appear instantly and without effort. And when that doesn’t happen easily, we just try to soak up what we can in the moment and once the crisis is over, go back to our neater, smaller, more predictable lives with proof that “the church doesn’t work.”

But what relationship of that depth and authenticity happens easily or instantaneously? Authentic relationships require an investment of time, of commitment, of vulnerability. And when you consider the depth of Christ’s love that is the foundation of this community, it means at the least being deliberate about it. That kind of deep trust and unconditional love simply can’t happen in a minute or on an occasional Sunday morning. Though the foundation is already here in Christ’s unconditional love, in all honesty we need to marinate in it. And for those who have been deliberate about it, they find that this community reveals astonishing love and surprising support!

I am someone who has had to be converted to the need for authentic, supportive communities. I’m here to tell you to pay attention to the innate yearning for a community “where everyone knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”

Christ’s unconditional love gets shown here. This is a community where you can bring your celebrations and your difficulties. Because this is a community that will hold you both in joy and in support. Christ reminds us that the foundation of this congregation is his love. And we’re always glad you came.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2019 in Sermon

 

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One Family. Period. (March 31, 2019)

This was my sermon, given at Green Mountain United Methodist Church as part of an ecumenical “Pulpit Exchange.”

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable: . . . 11 “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ “

I am so pleased that it’s been a full ten years now that the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have enjoyed full-communion partnership. That is significant for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that we can do this kind of pulpit swap without worrying about kickback from our respective bishops.

But also, together we are making a statement to the world that unity in Christ can be celebrated in the very midst of our diversity. Even when you note our distinctive histories and practices, we have much more in common than we have differences. That matters.

Far too often the world only sees the church expressing division and disunity. They only notice our self-righteous declarations of correct doctrine. They only pay attention to those times of arrogant positioning on narrow biblical interpretation. In the face of that, together we are proclaiming to the world unity in Christ. And if they take a look at the Methodists and the Lutherans, they will see what a celebration of unity in the midst of diversity looks like.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that in our world this message of unity and common purpose is far more important than any message of division or exclusion.

It seems to me that we set an example for the rest of the church as we recognize the diversity among us and still joyfully celebrate our unity in Christ.

It seems to me that in the midst of divisive activity meant to exclude certain people, we can boldly proclaim that by the grace of God we are One Church that has room for all.

And the United Methodist Church, through public statements by the Western Jurisdiction, the Mountain Sky Conference, the Council of Bishops, the Commission on a Way Forward, and notably the actions and voice of this congregation, are claiming the life-changing love of Jesus Christ for ALL people.

We in the ELCA, and specifically we at Lutheran Church of the Master proudly stand with you in support and admiration as you boldly proclaim on Green Mountain that God’s love includes everyone—without exception. Regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, documentation, political views, religion, or anything else that to some may divide, you reveal the risen Christ by lovingly including anyone. I’m proud to stand in this pulpit today.

You walk in good company. Not only with Methodist tradition, but also with scriptural consistency of God’s radical, extravagant, all-inclusive love. Today’s text is just one of many that make clear the radical love for all of God’s people. I want to turn to that now.

A father loves both his sons. Even though they are as different as night and day. The younger son is selfish and disrespectful. He’ll get a share of the property after his father has died. But asking for his share of the family property before then is way out of line. The father doesn’t have to grant the request—some would say he would be foolish to do so. It not only is reckless, but makes the father (and the whole family) look untrustworthy to the entire community.

Yet the only thing this parent hopes for is the return of this child. If you notice, the parent doesn’t wait for this prodigal to repent or make amends or prove they won’t do this foolish thing again. No, the point is that this parent’s love for their child knows no limits, no boundaries, no conditions. If this horrible child is loved this much by their parent, how much more is the Divine love for any of us. Without limits. Without boundaries. Without conditions. Love that seems foolish, extravagant, beyond reason. Love that has to be celebrated with a party. Love that restores this child, not just into the periphery, but to full status as part of the family—complete with rings and robes and sandals. Because all are invited. All are included. All are loved. There is One Family, and whether this child deserves it or not isn’t the question. The only thing that matters is the waiting arms of this loving parent. That’s what God’s love looks like. That’s the image in which we are created and that we are called to reveal to the world.

There’s also the elder child, the self-righteous one who clings to their resentment and anger. They think this inclusion of the unworthy sibling is unjust—even unrighteous. From this child’s perspective, their parent’s love for the younger one shows a disregard for faithfulness. Yet, this elder one knows better than anyone how radical God’s all-encompassing love is. They are offended and scandalized by this love. Because it goes beyond sensibility, beyond righteousness. Unconditional love is going to be offensive to some. Because it includes people some of us would rather not include.

So this loving parent reaches out to this child too. They affirm this child’s place in the family and invite this one also to come to the party. Because all are invited. All are included. All are loved. There is One Family, and whether this child deserves it or not isn’t the question. The only thing that matters is the waiting arms of this loving parent. That’s what God’s love looks like. That’s the image in which we are created and that we are called to reveal to the world.

As we strive to love all people the way God loves all people, we can’t help but be One Church.

Both children are included. Both have a place in God’s love. Whether any child deserves it or not isn’t the question. Because all are invited. All are included. All are loved. There is One Church, and whether any of us deserve it or not isn’t the question. The only thing that matters is the waiting arms of a loving God. That’s what God’s love looks like. That’s the image in which we are created and that’s what GMUMC is revealing to the world.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2019 in Sermon

 

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Arrogance Is Never the Gospel (May 21, 2017)

Acts 17:22-31

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For “In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring.’ 29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

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.

Have you heard of this apostle Paul? He is the one who opened up this new Jesus movement to the Gentiles. He’s the greatest evangelist of all time. He is credited with writing most of the New Testament. In this text in Acts, we get to hear one of this great man’s sermons. This famous follower of Jesus, after being chased out of two towns because his speaking about Jesus is so powerful, is now brought to this incredible venue to explain his views. The Areopagus in Athens, world-famous for its speakers and its court hearings. This is the big time.

Our bishop, Jim Gonia, preached Easter morning at Red Rocks Amphitheater this year. But as big a deal as that is, it can’t hold a candle to the Areopagus in Athens Greece in Paul’s day.

So here he is, on the biggest stage of his life, in front of a whole lot of people eagerly awaiting his speaking.

With all that heightened anticipation, he begins. And the response from the crowd is, “Meh.” Oh, a few were moved to follow Jesus. But the vast majority just kind of went, “What’s the big deal?”

To be honest, that’s pretty much my reaction too. Really, Paul? That’s the best you’ve got? You Greeks have a Unkown God, but we know who that God is? God doesn’t really live in statues? That doesn’t do much for me.

To be fair, perhaps Paul was having an off day. After all, the Thessolonicans won’t leave him alone. They’ve run him out of two cities now, and if they knew he was in Athens, they’d probably try again.

And this sermon was rather impromptu. He had been talking in the synagogue and then in the marketplace, which was his usual pattern, and those people whisked him off to the Areopagus, put him up on the stage, and said, “Go.” He had no time to prepare.

So we can cut him a little bit of slack. Even on his best day, no single sermon of Paul’s could ever touch everyone. Even Jesus couldn’t reach every person who heard.

But that really is true. Each person has unique experiences and histories. We’re all wired just a bit differently so that what has deep meaning to me is hardly worth hearing to you. That which reaches inside and touches the depths of your very soul might just sound like dogs howling to me.

The context of our lives matters. That’s the amazing thing about this gospel—it is good news in every context because it is solely about love and grace.

If it’s not sounding like good news to you, you’re likely hearing it from the perspective of someone else’s context. And if they’re telling you that what moves them and connects with them is the only way this gospel is real, they don’t know the gospel of Christ. They are putting their faith not in the gospel, but in their own interpretation of it as it touched them. And trying to make their unique perspective universal for everyone has got to be the height of self-centeredness. I can’t tell you that my history is the only one that matters. I can’t tell you that my interpretation of the gospel is the ultimate interpretation. I can’t tell you that what excites me has to, by my definition, excite you. And that if it does not, then you are obviously less, inferior, not as godly as me.

I’m glad some aspect of God’s love was moving to people who think that way, but no one can demand everyone else twist their lives to fit into one person’s perpective. Your life experiences are different than mine, so what would ever make me think that what makes sense for my life would have to make sense for yours before your life can be legitimate? What kind of arrogance is that?

The bottom line—and that which makes the gospel so universal—is that God is love. Which means you are worthy of love. So the question we need to ask ourselves is, “How has  love made a difference for you? How has love touched you and made you new? What does love look like for you?” This is the gospel. This is what Jesus came to show us. This is what God is like. And your story about this love, which is God, which is what Jesus is about, makes a huge difference.

Your story of love, of God, of Christ, is likely different than other people’s. Which means some may not be as moved by your story as you are. That doesn’t mean don’t speak about God’s love in your life, quite the contrary! It means you need to speak it clearly and boldly! It will touch someone! Just don’t be discouraged or upset if it doesn’t resonate with everyone. It’s not supposed to. It will touch some people, but it won’t—it can’t—touch every other person. No one’s story can do that. Christ is too genuine for that. Christ will reach other people with other experiences. We must affirm and recognize the validity of others’ stories of being made new in love too. They are genuine and just as legitimate as yours.

Share your story of God’s love in Christ. And don’t let anyone tell you, no matter how famous they are, that because their story is different, it’s more legitimate than yours. Christ has come to you in love. Nothing is more legitimate than that. Recognize God’s love in your life. Claim it. Share it. And encourage others to do the same. Even if the way God’s love touched them is different than yours. Share your story with me. I’d love to hear it even if it’s different than mine. Who knows, I might learn more about Christ’s love from your experience. Wouldn’t that be great?

 
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Posted by on May 22, 2017 in Sermon

 

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When Compassion is Shown, God Become Visible (June 5, 2016, Pentecost 3 C)

Luke 7:11-17

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. 12As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.13When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” 15The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. 16Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” 17This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.

This is a story that strikes us as unusual, because people just aren’t raised from the dead very often. Not that we hear about. But it’s not unheard of biblically. Our first reading is one of those times, and there are a few others. Yet always it’s about the glory of God, and the person raising someone from death is proclaimed a prophet of God.

The same with Jesus today. Only to a bigger degree. He raises this man in front of the whole town, it’s public. And their praise of God and proclamation of Jesus as a prophet are louder and longer. Prophets reveal God’s intentions. Jesus reveals God.

Jesus recognizes he is one in whom God becomes visible. He reveals over and over the presence of God, and how God sees the world and how God’s vision is different. He understands that his “job” is to proclaim that God can be seen because God is here, and then show it regardless of the cost. Which means he consistently shows compassion, love, and forgiveness. When compassion is shown, God becomes visible.

So it’s consistent with Jesus to see a woman who is now hopeless. Not only has she lost her primary means of support (her husband), but now has lost any hope for her future (in the death of her only son). She is completely powerless now and is nothing more than an object of pity. So Jesus shows compassion and restores her son. When compassion is shown, God becomes visible.

This is more than just a story of bringing someone back to life. Look at how Jesus reveals God. Take a look at what compassion looks like for him.

He’s traveling with his disciples, presumably on other business, when he sees this woman.

He sees her.

It’s hard to show compassion unless you see the need. In our busy lives, it’s much easier to look away, ignore, or make judgments about those in need of compassion. It’s inconvenient to take notice. Even if we do notice them, too often we blame them for their situation or rationalize why we don’t need to show compassion.

But Jesus sees this woman. He understands her situation. He doesn’t think about the inconvenience or whether or not she should have had a better financial plan. He sees her pain, sees her grief, sees her vulnerability. When you see someone’s hurt, you have the opportunity to show compassion.

Who in need of compassion are we noticing? Who in need of compassion are we not noticing? When compassion is shown, God becomes visible.

Seeing her, Jesus then speaks to her. A personal contact. Words that show he sees her difficulty. “Don’t cry.” More than just noticing she’s in pain, he makes contact with her. He walks alongside her. He enters her life.

Writing a check to a good cause is a good thing, but entering the lives of those to whom you are trying to show compassion is another. There’s something consoling about being present with people. Even if you can’t fix the situation, you can be present with someone. There’s power in showing up. Spending time with someone reveals compassion.

Who can you show up for? Who can you get to know? Who can you meet and listen to? When compassion is shown, God becomes visible.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Seeing the woman, and being present with her, he then acts to lessen her difficulty. This is a situation where he can actually do that. You and I can’t raise someone from the dead (I don’t think), but we can spend time at the Action Center, we can be a Big Brother or Big Sister, we can record books for the blind, we can build houses with Habitat for Humanity. We can bring someone a meal. We can say a prayer. We can mail someone a card.

Whose suffering can you lessen? How can your time be spent to make a difference for someone else? When compassion is shown, God becomes visible.

Jesus is the one who shows us the heart of God. He does so through his compassion for others, regardless of their situation, or reasons, or choices.

Jesus sees you, he is present with you, and he steps into your life in compassion.

And he invites us to join him in doing so for others. To pay attention and see the suffering of others, to listen to them and be present with them, and to step in on their behalf to make a difference for them.

In other words, to show compassion and reveal God. When compassion is shown, God becomes visible.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2016 in Sermon

 

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