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OK, Really. Are You the One? Will You Change the World? You? (Dec. 11, 2016)

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

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.

One of my professional passions is in the area of those outside of the church. I’ve spent years of study, conversation, and trial-and-error in connecting with many of these people. I’ve recently been on a journey of discovery about our Millennials (that generation that is between 20 and 35 years of age), and why they by-and-large are uninterested in church—or, if present, see the church quite differently.

First to those of you who are under 40. We haven’t listened to you very well. I don’t have easy answers, but do know that those of us who are older have to take your views more seriously than we have. The fact that an entire generation is largely missing from Christian congregations of all stripes means that what we are doing isn’t significant to you. And research indicates that once you leave you aren’t likely to come back, even if you have children (which worked for previous generations). I’m hearing you say that you find no compelling reason to be part of a congregational community. Everything you would get from a church that would be of value you can get at least as well somewhere else.

No only do many of you as youth and young adults find the church not really helpful, but your view of the church and Christianity is more negative than positive. You often categorize the church as hypocritical, judgmental, exclusive, homophobic, and more into political power than loving our neighbors. Not every congregation falls into that generalization, and I think LCM does a little better than some. But unfortunately, we all get lumped together whether we like it or not.

Few positives and lots of negatives. Makes for a grim outlook for the future of LCM and the rest of the church, doesn’t it?

I don’t necessarily think so. I bring this up on the 3rd Sunday of Advent because I think John the Baptist can actually help us all understand some things. John the Baptist gets you, I think. He asks questions of Jesus that sound a lot like the questions you ask.

John’s in prison in this text, having been arrested by King Herod for opening his mouth once too often. But regardless, from prison he hears about Jesus’ ministry and sends some of his own followers to question Jesus. Well, just one question. “Are you the Messiah, or should we keep looking?” Are you really going to make a difference, or just another religious hypocrite.

Jesus’ answer: Tell John what you see. Blind see, lame walk, lepers healed, deaf hear, dead live, poor have good news.

John is asking Jesus the same kinds of questions that many of you younger people are asking. Is the message of church significant for me? Are church people serious about God’s love and compassion? Do you really care? When we look at you, will we get a clear picture of this Jesus you talk about?

And apparently, you’re not getting great answers to your questions. You look at the church as see the same judgmental, closed-minded, hypocritical people you see everywhere else. And the church therefore looks no different than any other volunteer organization.

I hope you give us another chance. There are significant things that can happen through this church. There are some powerfully good things here. We are an organization that is built on love for all people, justice for all people, peace for all people, compassion for all people. The church has changed history, and in some pretty amazing ways. Hospitals, education, care for the poor, asylum for refugees, standing with those who are not part of the power structure—these are all things the church has a history of initiating. And we do so because of Jesus, actually. We may not follow him perfectly (and never will), but as long as we’re connecting to him we will feed the hungry, serve the poor, stand with the oppressed. We will follow Jesus in changing the world. You can’t judge the path based on those who are walking on it. To be the church in the world Jesus envisions, we need your help.

Now to those of us who are older—40s on up. It’s not that people younger than you are opposed to God, but they are opposed to much of what they see being done in God’s name. They often see a church that talks badly about people. A church that claims their God loves everyone, but won’t stand up for the poor. A church whose God calls them to help those who are discriminated against, but isn’t putting much effort into it. A church that claims to follow Jesus in loving all people, even his enemies, yet seems to exist primarily for itself.

What do you think people see when they look at LCM? A church that is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the world around us, or yet one more judgmental group of people.

Though we are serious about God’s compassion and live that out every day, we can take more seriously how we reflect the Christ who forgives all.

We send fifty-six 6th graders to Outdoor Lab, but we can acknowledge we don’t always emphasize living as disciples of Jesus.

We can serve the neighborhood around us, but still need to listen to the critiques and repent when they are valid.

As we struggle to love God, each other, and our neighbors, we can be honest about our struggle to love God, each other, and our neighbors.

When people ask, “Does LCM have anything worthwhile for my life?” we can respond with honesty, “What do you see? Imperfect people, yes, but also lives that are now changed, people that are now loved, hopeless that now have hope, the poor that now have good news.”

The future can be very good. We just need to be willing to be changed by two things: by God’s love for us shown to us in Jesus. And by the cries of people who need that love shown to them.

John’s question is that simple, “Are you going to change the world?” And Jesus’ answer is that simple, “What do you see?”

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Posted by on December 11, 2016 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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Silly Contests, Moving Up, Giving Up Your Seat (August 28, 2016)

Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2016 in Sermon

 

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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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Cup of Water or Confession of Faith? (Mark 9:38-50)

So here’s my question: What does it mean to be a “Christian”? Is it a set of one or more beliefs you agree to? Is it one or more rules for how we are to live in the world? Is it being a good person? Is it something else?

Ask three Christians to answer that question and you’re likely to get five different answers.

But one thing we all know for sure, and that’s that our way of being Christian is right, which means their way is obviously wrong (whoever “they” are).  That’s sarcasm, by the way. . .

Bible scholars say that the gospel writer of Mark included this little section because the people of Mark’s own congregation were likely all pretty much in agreement about following Jesus, but then met people from another congregation who believed, lived, trusted in Jesus differently. An argument broke out; one that hasn’t stopped yet.

Isn’t that one of Christianity’s weaknesses? That we just can’t get along with each other? Instead of supporting — or even learning from — each other, we turn our Christian faith into a competition.

So the disciples complain in this gospel that someone else is doing it wrong. They found someone who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but wasn’t part of their group. They believed, then, that this wayward disciple of Jesus must be stopped. There must be an end to his activity, because something about it must be wrong.

So who’s right? Which way of being Christian is best? Who is the most devout follower of Jesus? Jesus answers this by telling them that whoever gives you even just a cup of water because you are bear the name of Christ is right. He says that whoever even gets in the way of anyone who believes in Jesus is wrong.

And he says this in the strongest terms possible: drowning and cutting of limbs is better than getting in the way of anyone’s discipleship. Apparently Jesus thinks this is kind of important! If you tell someone their way of following Jesus is inferior to yours, you are getting in their way. Instead of competing with them over whose version is better, give them a cup of water to drink.

These verses today are right in the middle of a whole bunch of stuff about serving others in humility, that the greatest one is the servant, that the ones who don’t matter actually matter the most, the last are actually first. The thing that matters to Jesus seems to be that his followers be the ones taking care of the least, the lost, the littlest ones, and not competing with each other about who’s the greatest or who’s the best disciple, or who’s beliefs are most orthodox.

Whether or not you agree with all the practices and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, is there any doubt about the discipleship of Pope Francis as he’s made his way along the eastern part of the US?

Many of you know I grew up in Utah, and one of the favorite topics of conversation is whether or not Mormons are really Christian. I’ve taken an active role in those arguments over the years, I’m embarrassed to say.

How much time I’ve wasted! While I was arguing with someone about who are “real” Christians, many of my Mormon friends were out serving their neighbors. While I was busy perfecting my true Christan theology, many of my Mormon friends were going around the world talking about their faith. Whoever gives even a cup of water in my name, Jesus says, will not lose their reward.

Apparently being a Christian is more about serving the least than having better beliefs. It’s more about loving the unloved than following rules. It’s more about bringing water to a thirsty person than being first and best. Maybe all Jesus wants out of us is to love others the way God loves us.

So, yeah, let the guy cast out demons! Why would you stop him? Because he isn’t part of our elite group? Because he believes differently? Because emphasizes different things than we do? No! Regardless of how much the disciples may disagree with his theology, he’s helping a demon-possessed person while they’re arguing about who the real followers of Jesus are!

So, what does it mean to be a Christian? Maybe the answer is that we should quit arguing about it. Maybe following Jesus is broader than my way of doing it. Maybe I could learn something new about serving in Jesus’ name from someone who believes differently. Maybe there’s someone who would be better served by a cup of water than by a confession of faith.

Maybe being a Christian is just as simple as Jesus makes it out to be: love God, love your neighbor.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2015 in Sermon

 

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Abundant Faith: Excelling in Generosity (2 Corinthians 8:7-15)

 

A bunch of boys were playing soccer at recess. They had all the soccer balls off in one corner of the field, but were only playing with one of them. Some girls came up and asked for one of the extra soccer balls. The boys said ‘No, because we might need them.’

Paul keeps telling the congregation in Corinth that God’s grace has provided more than what they need. They have extra everything, he says, because Christ continues to provide them with extra faith, extra speech, extra knowledge, extra eagerness, and extra love. It’s all there, Paul writes. And he reminds them of this over and over.

His question to them here is, Since God has given you more than enough of everything, how about doing something with it? Since you excel in everything by God’s generosity, how about showing that—how about living that?

What does your discipleship look like? Because it has to look like something! If you have been given all kinds of faith and love and forgiveness and generosity to the point of overflowing in you, shouldn’t it be leaking out somewhere!? Shouldn’t it be evident? If you’ve got more soccer balls than you need, shouldn’t the girls be able to play soccer too?

Then Paul advises them on one way their abundant faith can be lived. Remember that collection you were so excited to start a year ago? Remember you were doing that for the poor in Jerusalem? Then you got mad at me and got sidetracked and didn’t finish it? Why not get that collection going again and finish that up? It is a great way to put flesh on this excellent faith you have been given. It’s a way you can live out of the abundance of generosity God has given you. It’s a way to put your beliefs into practice.

Generosity is a very tangible aspect of discipleship. It is a reminder that the ways of God are different than our ways and that our life is found in God’s ways. Generosity is a spiritual thing, so counter-cultural that it seems foolish to many people. It is an expression of life in Christ.

So Paul makes a suggestion–“advice,” he calls it. The excitement you had for helping the poor in Jerusalem a year ago was a faithful response. So finish it up. Let the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ not only flow into you, but flow out of you too.

Christians have a tendency to emphasize what Jesus gives us, and push aside what that should look like in our lives. Many of us never get to the life-applications of our beliefs. We talk a lot about beliefs, about faith, about discipleship. We have argued and fought over doctrines. We have been very quick to judge as inferior those who believe differently.

But Paul reminds us that talking about discipleship isn’t being a disciple. Debating faith isn’t living faith. Knowing our beliefs isn’t experiencing our beliefs. New life is to be lived in the world! We are called to do what we say we believe!

And one of the most straight-forward, foundational, attention-getting, counter-cultural life practices of Christian discipleship is generosity. Specifically, financial generosity.

Where do you believe God is most active? Where do you believe God’s mercy, compassion, forgiveness, unconditional love are being revealed? If we believe God is doing something in the world, doesn’t it make sense that that belief would be reflected in our lives somehow?

How we use money is one of the loudest statements we can make as to what we really believe. God’s generosity will always provide more grace, forgiveness, and love than we need.

Editing a saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel with your generosity, and when absolutely necessary, use words.” May we always grow in faith; and may we always live what we believe. There are plenty of soccer balls for everyone.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2015 in Sermon

 

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One Flock, One Shepherd, One Voice (John 10:11-18)

(This sermon was preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Seward, Nebraska, on the occasion of their celebrating 50 years of ministry)

50 years? Really?  Congratulations on 50 years of revealing Jesus. 50 years of the voice of the good shepherd being proclaimed through this congregation. 50 years. No one ever said following Jesus, the good shepherd, was going to be easy. If they did, they lied. It’s not easy. Listening to the voice of Jesus and following is extremely difficult. Yet, this congregation has been serious about that for 50 years. It’s astonishing. But it’s being done. Because you are a flock that knows the shepherd.

For the first time, I noticed in this text that Jesus doesn’t say anything about individual sheep. He loves the flock, cares for the flock, lays down his life for the flock, will gather all the sheep into one flock. It’s not so much about individual sheep, but more about the flock as a whole. “Sheep” is plural throughout this chapter.

Of course Jesus loves each individual sheep, but the emphasis here is that he lays down his life for the flock. And he will bring in the other sheep too so there will be one flock, one shepherd. One flock, for whom he lays down his life.

This changes everything in this text for me. We’re not just individual sheep, each of us trying to discern the voice of the shepherd. We are first a flock for whom the Good Shepherd lays down his life. It’s not “you’re a sheep” and “I’m a sheep,” so let’s get together and create a flock. No, it’s “we are already a flock!” and we belong to the Good Shepherd. We are part of something bigger than just us. That’s who we are. Our identity comes not from being an individual sheep who chooses a shepherd’s voice, and then seeks out other individual sheep who agree on that voice, and call ourselves a flock. No, our identity comes from already being part of the flock for whom the shepherd lays down his life. We are already included. It’s already done.

Now, if that isn’t cool enough, there are implications as to what this means about our life together as a flock.

Most importantly, Jesus the Good Shepherd is enough. As a flock, the Good Shepherd is all we need. We are enough right now. Faith Lutheran Church has enough, you are enough, right now. Because, as a flock, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for you.You have been called, gathered, and cared for by the Good Shepherd who sees the wolf yet will always stay with you. The shepherd saves you. Saves us. The whole flock. He knows you and lays down his life for you—as a flock.

He says there are other sheep who do not belong to this fold but who he will bring into the flock. Sometimes we can get frantic about that, and think our primary purpose is in seeking them out, thinking that we have to get them in our doors. So we sometimes put a lot of energy into calling them.

But Jesus says they will listen to his voice, not ours. It’s his voice they will follow, not our individual baaaing and bleating. So when we speak to sheep who may be outside the fold, we do so as part of his flock, taking care to use his voice, his words, doing so in his character—that of the Good Shepherd, which has already embraced us, loved us, forgiven us.

We know the sound of his voice. His voice is always that of love, forgiveness, grace, compassion, a willingness to lay down our lives, our agendas for them. That’s the voice they hear; that’s the voice they will follow.

So as a flock belonging to the good shepherd, we love other sheep, whether we consider them inside or outside the flock–because that ultimately not our concern. It is the concern of the shepherd. So we love all sheep, without strings and without conditions. They will listen to that voice. We show them compassion and mercy—even if they haven’t deserved it. They will follow that voice. We forgive those who offend us. That’s the voice of the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the flock.

Nobody can ever say that listening to the voice of the shepherd is easy. No one can tell you that following the good shepherd is comfortable. And yet, Faith Lutheran Church has been doing exactly that for 50 years. That is impressive.

I hope you can take this opportunity, as you celebrate these 50 years of faithfulness, to begin to look to the next 50. The good shepherd knows you, and knows you are listening to his voice. Amen.

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2015 in Sermon

 

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