A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

“Blessed: Life and Death” Mary’s Song December 14, 2017

This sermon was preached on Wednesday Dec. 13, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran Church.

Mary and Jesus

Luke 1: 46-55  The Magnificat

What do you know about Mary? We tend to know the most about her from the birth narratives and from the passion story. We have snippets of normal mom stuff throughout, but Mary takes on multi-dimensions at Christmas and Good Friday in our church year. And these two days are inextricably linked for her, even from the beginning of her pregnancy. Mary is often portrayed as meek, mild, obedient and nurturing. I wonder about this. She was a young woman, a peasant, part of a minority religion, in an occupied territory, who was unwed and pregnant, ran away to the hills to a distant relative, who never says one word to her parents or about her parents in this whole narrative. Sounds like a head strong, defiant and stubborn teenager to me!

And then we have her song here in Luke: not a lullaby, not a sweet song of love for Joseph or her child, but a song that proclaims a political manifesto, a rearranging of the social system, a reversal of power, hope for the down trodden and a God who walks with those whom the rest of the worlds casts away. This is no ordinary birth announcement! A song of freedom that bursts forth from an ordinary young woman who would be considered a disgrace, a nobody, possibly even a problem. She has nothing and is nothing in the eyes of the world, but in her heart, she has everything-she is blessed.

When have you felt blessed? What does it mean to you to be blessed? What do you think it meant for Mary to say “from now on all generations will call me blessed?” Mary demonstrates how even in seemingly imperfect circumstances, God’s blessings abound. Mary is blessed by new purpose, relationship with God and part of God’s work of reconciliation. Mary’s purpose is not an easy road, she is taking on one of the most dangerous activities in the ancient world: childbirth. There was a very high maternal mortality rate and an even higher infant mortality rate. Life and death inextricably bound together.  Joy and grief, hope and despair. Mary would know the joy of holding her son only a few minutes alive and the soul shattering heart break of holding her son only a few minutes dead. Yet, all generations will call her blessed. Not because her life was easy or without risk or heart break, but precisely because she took this risk to be a part of what God was doing in the world, through her, and through her child even if it pierces her heart.

Mary’s song sings into our lives today with this powerful melody of blessings, not from the world’s perspective of being first, the best, and with the most but from God’s perspective of humility, self-emptying love and justice. Our lives sing like Mary’s when we live into the blessings of following God despite the risk, the blessings of pointing to God’s work in the midst of discomfort, the blessings of proclaiming God doing a new thing that is good news for the poor, the hungry and the lowly as they will be freed from injustice and the good news for the rich, the powerful and the proud as they will be freed from the oppression of being controlled by money, status and self. God’s blessings are sung in the midst of confusion and chaos by a peasant girl, by a mute prophet, by an old barren woman now pregnant, by angels, by shepherds and sheep, and by God as Jesus Christ, God with us, to save us, to heal us, to free us and to call us into the song God’s promises for us and all creation of hope, mercy and joy.

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“Hold On: Here is your God!” Sermon for Advent 2, Dec. 10, 2017 Year B December 11, 2017

This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village. To view the sermon go to http://www.bethanylive.org and go to the correct date.

Children’s time. Gather the children and ask where do you see God around you right now? Point God out to me. It can be hard to see God sometimes can’t it? And we forget that God is with us always. Walk to the font. In the bible story I just read, there was this guy, Jesus’ cousin, who was telling people that God was with them always, forgiving them when they did wrong things and holding on to them. He was splashing them with water, what’s that called? Baptism! And the water that clings to us reminds us that God clings to us too. BUT John told the people something else. That God does hold us but that through Jesus who was coming, we will be not only be baptized with water, but God’s Holy Spirit will cling to us too! This means that we have work to do with God and for God. Just as you helped me to see God right here, right now, we have to tell everyone we meet Here is your God and God holds on to you! This is why we light a candle and say to the newly baptized person, even if they are a baby “Let you light so shine before others that they might see your good works that glorify your father in heaven.” We are part of Jesus’ light and work in the world! Jesus wants us to hold on to that truth that each one of us has important work to do. Here is a glow stick to help you remember to hold on to God. I’m going to talk some more about this and every time you hear me say “Hold on Here is your God!” I want you to wave your glow stick, ok? Let’s pray:

In many facets of our life, it might seem like we are barely holding on. I know that when our children were young, I was serving full-time in a congregation, my spouse was working full-time, we had piano lessons, ballet, t-ball, church choir, and all of the school activities, most days I felt like I was barely holding on to sanity and let alone time management to get done the mundane activities such as laundry, grocery shopping and house cleaning. We grasp each day with both hands and hope that we can just hold on through another day.

And then there are the times when we hold on because we just can’t let go of someone or something even when we should. Relationships that aren’t healthy, jobs that is no longer life giving, long held beliefs about groups of people or ourselves. Or we hold on to the way life used to be or to our vision of the way life should have been, or even the way church used to be and it can be painful or harmful to continue to hold on to those ideas. Sometimes we have to let go in order to hold on to what God is doing.

And then there are times when we don’t even know what to hold on to: what we should hold on to might be risky or down right overwhelming. Maybe a new vocation at an older age, I started seminary at 36 with two young children! Maybe a move out of state away from family for an exciting opportunity. Maybe leaving what is comfortable and known for unknown and but perhaps will be meaningful and fulfilling.

Our theme for Advent is “Hold On.” Exploring how we hold on to God and God’s promises in our lives. When we are in distress or overwhelmed with our lives or the world we live in, it can be difficult to know who or what to hold on to. In Isaiah 40, the Israelites have been taken to Babylon in exile and they feel as if they have lost their grip on God or more accurately, that God has let them go. The opening lines of our Isaiah text are words of comfort to a people who are decidedly uncomfortable with their current state of affairs. They are away from Jerusalem; the Temple is destroyed and they can’t practice their religion they way they used to or think they should.

But then the voice of God breaks in with a word of hope and words of mission for the prophet and the people. Cry out! God says.  Which can translate to Preach! The prophet responds what shall I preach? Or again a better translation is Why shall I preach! The people are turning away. Why God says? Because “Here is your God!” Right here, right now holding on to you even if you can’t feel it, or see it or know it. I am here with you, even in exile, even in discomfort, even in your own lack of faith, I am here and always have been and always will be God says! Preach this good news from the highest mountain top! Hold on to this good news that God is holding on to you, to all of you, with the power of God’s mighty arms and with the tender care of a shepherd caring for his sheep.

Our gospel of Mark this morning invites us right off the bat into our theme. Mark’s gospel begins with a bang with these words: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark then immediately moves us into the mission and work of John the Baptist who essentially says to his community and to us: Ready or not, here we go! Hold on! It’s about to be a wild ride with God!

The people who were flocking to John, were desperate to hold on that perhaps their lives meant something. In first century Palestine, baptism was not a new thing. This was part of a Jewish ritual of cleansing, but John was drawing people out to the wilderness, away from the seat of government and religious authority with this message of repentance or a clearer definition is having a change of heart. Mark writes that people from the whole of Judean countryside and ALL people of Jerusalem were coming. This was extremely inclusive, it was not only the Jewish people, not only the elite, not only the poor, not only the educated, not only the religious, but all. And to this diverse crowd John proclaims something even more amazing than the forgiveness of sins: Hold on! There’s more! Not only are your sins cleansed and you can turn around to God, but through the one who is coming, all of you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit who comes and brings you all into what God is up to in the world. Here is your God! Breaking into the world, coming to you, to hold on to you, to never let you go and to bring you into the purpose and mission of the kingdom of God. Hold on!

The world around us is looking for such good news to hold on to. People are desperate for this good news, desperate for the truth, capital T truth for their lives.  As people called by God, what shall we preach to them? Or why shall we preach to them? Does it matter in a world that seems to have turned away? God tells us through our baptisms, yes! It matters that our lights shine and we hold on to our call to preach and be the good news of Emmanuel, God with us. We preach it not only to others but perhaps most importantly to ourselves. We can preach the truth of “Hold on: Here is your God” who breaks into our lives as a baby from a backwater town in Palestine. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we bridge divisions for true dialog and healing. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we speak out against injustices so that the road is level for all people and particularly for those who face discrimination based on color, religion, gender or sexual orientation. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we step outside our comfort zones and hear someone else’s story of pain and are willing to share our own. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we let go of how we think the world should be and reach out for new thing that God is up to. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we follow Jesus and stand with the poor, the marginalized and the forsaken.

We preach Hold One: Here is your God when we receive and offer to all the signs of the promises of God for us to hold onto, even when it’s hard to grasp them. Hold On: Here is your God in water, in the bread and in the wine for us to hold on with both hands to the truth of God’s presence with us no matter how difficult, treacherous, or steep the road of our lives may be. Preach this truth of the good news of Jesus Christ with me this week “Hold on! Here is your God.” Preach it with every aspect of your lives, preach it at work, preach it at school, preach it! Preach it and hold on with your whole being to the good news of God breaking into our lives and the world with promises of love, forgiveness, mercy and hope. Hold on! Here is your God.

 

Speechless A Sermon on Matthew 22: 1-14 October 21, 2017

This sermon was preached Oct. 15, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran Church Cherry Hills Village, CO. You can watch it live at http://www.bethanylive.org

The texts are Isaiah 25: 1-9, Philippians 4: 1-9 and Matthew 22: 1-14

I have been left speechless more times than I would like lately. Sometimes there are simply no words for what we witness around us in the world. What words are adequate for a beautiful new baby? Or for the miracle a loved one was hoping for? What do we say about fires that rage out of control, killing people, destroying not only property, but also livelihoods. What do we say to loved ones diagnosed with cancer, Alzheimer’s, mental illness or heart disease? What do we say about teens taking their own lives believing that is the only answer despite our pleas to the contrary? What do we say about nations at war and innocent people caught in the crossfire? What do we say when dialog seems to only break down to fundamentalism, blaming and shaming? What do we say? Do our words matter? Do our actions matter?

I resonated with the man in our Matthew parable who was speechless and I  wonder if we misunderstand why he was cast out. Jesus tells a parable about a king who invites people to attend a wedding feast for his son and he is refused by people who fancy themselves too busy with their own lives and priorities to attend. Remembering that the parables that Jesus told were steeped in hyperbole, the king became enraged and burned down the city. That is the king decided to see what would happen if the peoples self-selected priorities and tasks were taken away. What happens when everything that we think is important is gone? What happens when priorities, ideas, tasks that we have built our lives around come crashing down? That can render one speechless and in despair.

Then the kings sent his slaves out again, to gather all they could find, the good, the bad and the ugly to come to this feast that the elite, the self-important and self-absorbed had rejected. The king filled his hall with people who did not refuse for whatever reason, and I don’t believe that these people were more altruistic or truly understood better than the first batch of invitees. No, more than likely, these were people of a social rank who wouldn’t normally be included and so how could they say no? This reminds us that inclusion is a tricky thing: to radically include all people regardless of social status, economic status, race, color, gender, sexual orientation, or any other human made category, means that someone else may exclude themselves so to not be included with “certain people.” The slaves of the king couldn’t help who excluded themselves when the first call came to be part of the feast of abundance and love. And the king understood this on some level as well, and so instead kept inviting and including-gathering all that he could.

Then we come to verse 11 with the unsettling tale of the man not dressed correctly for the wedding feast. Scholars have lots of theories on these verses but all admit it’s notion of judgment is troublesome. When confronted with not being dressed appropriately, the man is silent. He has nothing to say. Perhaps he knows that he should say something, but is worried that his words will be inadequate or will spark controversy. Or will his words fall on deaf ears? Or will his words not match his actions and he will be called a hypocrite? After all of this radical inclusion why now is this man excluded for a seemingly small infraction as failing the dress code? After all, he DID respond to the invitation…isn’t that enough? Is it really just about not having said yes to the dress? Or is it his lack of response that sends him to the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth?

The last three weeks we have wrestled with the parables of Jesus around what it means to fully participate in the kingdom of God and by who’s authority we are included. As good Lutherans, we focus on the unconditional grace, love and mercy of our loving God through Jesus Christ, and this is good. But Matthew is challenging us to not stop there. Our theology must not end with comfort for ourselves, peace of mind that we are ok, that since we don’t earn God’s grace, we don’t have to do anything. These parables are a corrective for that line of thinking that I know lulls me to complacency far too often. God’s grace for ME, God’s unconditional love for ME, God’s uses of God’s authority for ME. This is most certainly true and it has seismic consequences for how I am then in relationship with other people and how I am called to live. God most certainly uses her authority to include all people: people I don’t like, people I would never associate with, people I fundamentally think are wrong. It’s also clear that for God it matters how we live together. So much so that God sent Jesus to show us how. Jesus gave away his own power and authority to eat with tax collectors, prostitutes, lowly fishermen, and women. Jesus used his authority to bring the children to him. Jesus used his authority speak up for the voiceless. Jesus declared that in the coming of the kingdom, God will use her authority to free the imprisoned, give voice to the oppressed, bring light to the darkness. Jesus stood speechless before Pilate instead of using authority to save himself. Jesus suffered and died on the cross in solidarity with all who suffer and die, revealing the power, strength and authority of God to swallow up death, and as we are reminded today in Isaiah 25, and bring us all through suffering to eternal life. Jesus constantly used his authority for the sake of other people and Paul urged the Philippians and us to keep doing those things that we have learned from Jesus, using the authority of love and grace given to us from Jesus, for the sake of bringing in the peace, shalom, of the kingdom of God.

It might seem easier, like the man without the robe at the banquet, to remain silent when asked how we are included as a child of God and how we or others belong. But remaining silent is not our call-we are called to speak out against injustice, to speak out in solidarity for the oppressed, the weak, the powerless, the voiceless. To not speak is to be in the outer darkness, to be separated from the truth of God’s kingdom. But more than our words, God calls us to action. What we do matters. We wear the robe of Christ, as given to us in our baptism. We sometimes forget that baptism is not only about personal salvation but is a public proclamation for what God has already done through Jesus Christ and that we are co-workers in community with God for the sake of reconciliation, justice and peace for all people-no matter what. God wants us to use the authority that we have through our baptisms, authority that only comes from God, for the furthering of this mission. Colton, you will now have an active role in this mission from God. Your actions matter little man, not because your salvation is at stake but because God’s mission in the world is at stake. People desperately need us to not only open our mouths about God’s love and mercy, but even more desperately need us to boldly use our lives to show them God’s love and mercy.

Our busy lives distract us from our own invitation and from extending the invitation to our neighbor from God to participate in the abundance, joy and rejoicing that is offered to us all. Our busy lives tell us the falsehoods of scarcity, worry, entitlement, status, autonomy, independence and using our authority for our own gain. We lull ourselves into complacency that little ol’ us doesn’t matter. Jesus says different, you matter, because you are a part of something bigger, more abundant, more creative, more than you can ever imagine in the heart and life of God. Your actions do matter: Go to candlelight vigils, speak prayers and sing songs of healing for those who grieve from tragedies, go to a sick loved one’s bedside with tears, prayers and a casserole, go to the Red Cross to donate blood or money for fire or hurricane victims, go to the funeral, or more importantly, go and visit with the grieving several weeks later, go talk to the beggar on the street corner and ask her how she is, go to a memory care unit and listen to stories for the hundredth time with a smile, holding hands and a tear, go and offer compassion and reassurance to youth as they struggle growing up in a world that demands perfection above all else, go and bring Christ with you to the outer darkness, go to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth in order to point to the light that the darkness cannot and will not overcome.

Yes, sometimes our words may not seem eloquent, or adequate but we are not to be left speechless or powerless in the grace, mercy, love and authority of Jesus Christ. Rejoice in the Lord always, let what we have learned from Jesus be known to people around us; use our words, tasks, lives and authority for healing and uplifting of people on the margins; God’s power and strength surrounds us always with peace that goes beyond the end of conflict and moves us all into the wholeness of the kingdom of God where all are invited, included and loved.

 

Listen to Me (or I’m Sorry) August 27, 2017

*This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO, on August 27. To watch it please go to http://www.bethanylive.org

Isaiah 51 

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
    you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
    and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
    and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
    but I blessed him and made him many.
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
    he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
    her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
    thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Listen to me, my people,
    and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
    and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
    my salvation has gone out
    and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
    and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
    and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
    the earth will wear out like a garment,
    and those who live on it will die like gnats;[a]
but my salvation will be forever,
    and my deliverance will never be ended.

Listen to me, you who know righteousness,
    you people who have my teaching in your hearts;
do not fear the reproach of others,
    and do not be dismayed when they revile you.
For the moth will eat them up like a garment,
    and the worm will eat them like wool;
but my deliverance will be forever,
    and my salvation to all generations.

 

Matthew 16:13-20

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,[a] the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter,[b] and on this rock[c] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was[d] the Messiah.[e]

 

About a year ago I joined a group called Together Colorado. It’s an organization of interfaith, interrace clergy in CO. Each month we meet to discuss how we together as people of faith work to promote and further human dignity and human worth in our communities. It’s rich in diversity, not only religious and ethnic diversity but diverse thoughts on how to accompany one another. It’s completely non-partisan and so all voices are heard equally. Each time we gather we begin by reading together our credentials, that is our reason for being together despite our many differences. Together Colorado meets at a different location each time and looks at community needs to address: health care, education, housing, civil rights and anything else that calls to us needing attention. In this first year for me, I have mostly listened. As I arrive at someone else’s place of worship and community, I am aware that I am a guest on sacred ground. I am aware of my perspective that I bring, that I have much to learn and I bring my biases. So, I listen.

We met most recently this past Tuesday at a Seventh Day Adventist church in north Denver, a predominately black congregation in a predominately black neighborhood. Once again, I took a listening stance. I sat across the table at lunch from Rabbi Brian, from Temple Emmanuel, as he, with a shell shocked look on his face, talked about how he couldn’t even process what had been going on in our country the past couple of weeks, as he’s too busy facing the real fears of the people in his congregation. They are terrified of the rise of violence against Jewish people and some have been on the receiving end of hate mail. They wait in fear for what might happen next to them, a friend or a family member.

I listened as the pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church shared with us how he and his congregation discuss ways to meet racism with love and share the love of Jesus Christ even with those who look to hate them for no other reason than the color of their skin. I listened to the pain and fear of not knowing if their children are safe when they are away from home because of someone who believes that their lives don’t matter as much as their own.

I listened to a fellow ELCA clergy who is dying of a rare form of cancer and she can’t get the treatment that she needs with the gaps in healthcare. We laid hands on her and prayed for healing, but I received notification that she is now in intensive care.

Listen to me, God says three times in our Isaiah reading today. Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, listen to me my people, listen to me you who know righteousness. Listen to me. The word for “listen” in Hebrew is “Shema.” To hear, to take heed, to harken. The Jewish people refer to Deuteronomy 6:4-9 as the great Shema, the great “harken” from God. Hear O Israel the Lord your God is one. Tell one another and the children of God’s great love, justice and redemption of God’s people when you are at home, when you are away, when you rise, and when you sleep. Put these words on your hand, on your forehead, and in your heart. Love the Lord with all of you heart, soul, mind and strength. Listen to God, listen to one another to hear what God might be saying to you through someone different than you.

It’s hard to listen. It’s hard to listen in world that sends us so many messages all day long. What do we listen to? Who do we listen to? What has authority? Who has authority? When we listen, truly listen to one another, my brothers and sisters, we can’t help but to be moved, to be changed, to wonder, and to even fear a little. I listened to all these stories on Tuesday and I will confess, I didn’t know what to think or say. I listened to a reality very different from my own and yet, I know that these stories that they tell are also true. These stories from other people are as authoritative as my own, but I feel myself getting caught in the need to speak my authority over and above someone else’s. This is where our gospel story today struck me. Jesus asks the disciples: Who do the people who have been listening to me say I am? Are they really listening? The disciples answer with the good Jewish answers of Jeremiah, the prophets, Elijah whom they believed would return. Then Jesus asks them, but who do you say that I am? Peter immediately answers “the son of the Living God!” Peter had been listening! And then Jesus goes on to talk about how Peter will be the rock upon whom Jesus will build his church and then the authority of binding and loosing. We listen to this and we assume that this passage is about WHO has authority. Indeed, much ink has been spilled over this question of the who of authority in the past 2000 years of church history. But listen again, Jesus isn’t actually worried about the who of authority, Jesus is concerned with the what of authority. The “you’s” in this passage are plural, not singular. All are given authority, the keys of the kingdom. Authority to bind and loose. In our Lutheran tradition, we call this the “office of the keys” or confession and forgiveness.

In our Milestone ministry here at Bethany, I teach the office of the keys to our preschoolers. I teach them about two sorrys. We say sorry to God and we also say sorry to the person whom we need to seek forgiveness. I tell them that we will mess up with each other and need to say I’m sorry. That’s life with people, but God always forgives us and so we forgive each other out of this great love. I have them make a fist and tell them that this is their heart when they are tight with feeling sorry or guilt. But when they say “I’m sorry”, and they hear God and the other person say, “I forgive you,” it’s like a key that unlocks their heart to be opened up to receive more love and joy.
Jesus says, you, all of you (that means us!) indeed have authority to open our hearts and the hearts of others. You matter, but not for your own gain, comfort or status. You have authority to give your authority away. Jesus is the prime example of this giving away of power. Just as the Israelites bound the word of God on their hands and forehead, we bind ourselves to God and the people of God. Bind yourselves together and listen, listen to one another seeking righteousness, right relationship with one another. This kind of relationship can only come when we quit worrying about who has the authority or if we have enough authority or power and worry more if we can use our authority for justice for our neighbor. Is. 51:4 “my justice for a light to the peoples.” God sent Jesus, the Son, to be this light of justice, to show us how to do justice, how to live justly so that the lowly are lifted up, the sick receive care, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the Canaanite woman is seen, a Samaritan is called good, demon possessed people are brought back into community, lepers are healed and restored, the powerful of the Roman Empire and the Temple are challenged and all people are given dignity in the body of Christ.

The Son of the living God to all peoples, binds us together in God’s love as one body needing each other and looses us from whatever keeps us from God and one another, which is sin and death. Jesus looses us from the stories that the world tells us to listen to, so that we hear the story of who we truly are, all created in God’s loving and diverse image. Whenever we, or our neighbor, hear a story that tells us that we are anything less than this image of God’s love, we have the authority and the obligation to say no. Now, this kind of authority won’t make us popular, but Isaiah 51:7 tells us to not be dismayed when we are reviled for speaking this truth. This proclaiming the truth of God’s way of justice for all people, not the Roman Empire or the Temple’s way, is what got Jesus killed. The truth of this justice calls us to this same binding and loosing in Jesus’ name. We bind together in order to loose our brothers and sisters from the sin of racism, from the sin of intolerance of different faith traditions, from the sin of violence, from the sin of homophobia, from the sin of sexism, from the sin of economic disparity, from the sin of disease, from the sin of fear, and from the sin of hate.

Listen to me, God says. Listen to me my people. My beloved people. You, all of you, are too precious to listen and to be bound to any other story than the one of forgiveness, love, reconciliation, shalom, justice, freedom and joy. Listen to the story of the empty tomb and know that anything is and will be possible with me, says God. Listen to the stories of each other and hear my voice from the lips of your neighbor. Speak words of mercy to each other.
And so Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the ways that I don’t loose those around me from my own bias and judgements. I’m sorry for the ways I don’t use my authority for the sake of loosing my neighbor from the sin that keeps them from having justice and from being seen fully as a child of God. I’m sorry for being afraid and looking the other way instead of engaging in God’s righteousness. This is why I’m grateful that each time we gather here, at Bethany as God’s people, we confess our sins, our omissions, we say we’re sorry to God and to one another. And I’m desperate for the words from God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that tell me I am forgiven. I am loosed from sin, I am loosed from my story, I am loosed from death but I am bound to God and to you, the beloved community.
Brothers and sisters, let’s bind ourselves to God and one another and loose ourselves and our neighbor from sin and death, to listen for God’s words of tender forgiveness and to open our hands and hearts to more fully receive the joy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus.

 

Communion on Guam August 12, 2017

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I’m not preaching this week, but literally, this “sermon” came to me tonight as I reflected on the events of our world. It is based on the gospel for this week, Matthew 14: 22-33.

I took my First Communion on Christmas Eve 1982 at the age of ten on the island of Guam. I moved there when I as almost 9 and it became a pivotal moment in my faith life. My dad was stationed on Guam as the public affairs officer at the Air Force Base from 1981-83. Guam, a US territory since WWII, is a strategic asset for the US and NATO and has two military bases. Guam is an island 36 miles long and 8 miles wide and has been sought after by super powers for nearly a century. The native language is Chamorro, and when I lived there, the Catholic church had a presence that were Lutheran missionaries. Guam was a shock to my system in many ways. School was not as I was used to: classrooms had concrete walls, tin roofs, and louvers were windows would be. Houses were concrete and sparse. Some supplies were rationed. There were not stores for shopping (outside of the BX) and the only American restaurant was the lone McDonalds. Oh, and it’s a SAC base, in the Cold War. Which means that in the chess game were the relations between the US and Russia, turns out where I lived, was a pawn on the board. It was not necessarily a common topic of conversation, yet we all knew that we were a first strike location. At nine, I had the realization that someone wouldn’t hesitate to kill me and not think twice and I wouldn’t even have a chance to save myself. This is a hefty epiphany for an elementary age child. I can remember lying in my bed worrying about dying, being killed and the childish concern of what would happen to my beloved stuffed animals (these were my companions as a military brat) if I was no longer around to care for them? (I didn’t really put together that they would be annihilated as well.)

The fear of death wasn’t about non-existence as much as it was about being alone or abandoned. Or perhaps it was the fear of the unknown or what I couldn’t control. I articulated some of this in a hesitant way to my parents, who tried to comfort me the best they could (in full disclosure, I didn’t share with them all of my thoughts as I didn’t want to worry them…), but in the end I internalized most of this fear.

We were a family who went to church every Sunday and even on Guam, there was no exception. We went to the base chapel and the chaplain happened to live on my street. He was a wonderful man, a Baptist, whom I remember he and his wife fondly. They were older and sort of the surrogate grandparents of the block. Many of us wouldn’t see our grandparents for years as one does not just “go to Guam.” So, Mrs. McGraw would bake us cookies, pies, and take care of us when our worn out mothers needed a break. The McGraws were stationed stateside back to the mainland after our first year into our two year assignment.

Enter the Lutheran pastor. I honestly don’t remember his name, but he quickly discovered that there were four Lutheran families on the base and we started a very early Sunday morning worship service with the Lutheran liturgy. I was fifth grade by then, and it was time for First Communion instruction. So I met with the pastor (it was only me) once a week for three months for communion class. My anxiety over living on Guam increased. I had spent most of the first six months of our tour very sick with what the doctors shrugged and chalked up to the “Guam crud.” In other words, my body wasn’t adjusting to different water, food and environment very well causing unpleasant and chronic side effects that I will leave to your imagination. I had fear in spades. The peak of this stress can be epitomized in the following episode that I remember from my fifth grade class. Now remember, there are no windows, no air conditioning, the doors on each side of the classroom opened up to the outside and really to the jungle, so critters wandered in and out and there was a constant breeze. One day we were taking a test and the wind kept blowing my paper off of my desk. After the third time or so, I had had it. In a fit, I tore up my test, waded it up into a little ball and threw it away. I then went back to my desk and as loudly and angrily as I could, sat down in my chair with my arms crossed. My very wise teacher, said nothing. At the end of the day, she called me over to her desk. She simply said, I want you to write an essay about stress this weekend.

I went home and asked my parents what stress was. They were immediately concerned and I had to come clean about my behavior. My dad (an English lit major) told me to write what worries me, what I think stress is and how to cope. I had no idea. I was completely overwhelmed by fear of nuclear war, being sick, getting hurt in a place where serious injuries meant going to Japan, away from your family, and death. And I had no idea that this level of worry was not normal for a ten year old.

But I was in communion class. I asked the pastor about stress in my next Sunday afternoon class with him. He was thoughtful and said that stress is normal but what matters is how we handled it. He asked me if I prayed to God. I did actually. I don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t talk to God. I told God all of the things that I was ashamed to tell anyone else. The pastor asked me if I had talked to God about my stress and fear. I hadn’t. My ten year old brain parsed those things separate from my faith. Fear of death seemed not anything like faith at all. But like Peter in this week’s gospel, fear was sinking me faster than I could handle. The pastor told me that part of the story of the Last Supper is Jesus reminding the disciples that through the bread and the wine, Jesus was with them always and everywhere, and they didn’t need to be afraid. “Jesus was with us everywhere?” I thought. Even Guam?

This isn’t a nice neat story of how this revelation eased my fears and I quit worrying or being stressed. Nope. I still worried (still do!), I was still afraid (still am!), and was still stressed (yep). BUT also like Peter, I learned that keeping my eyes on Jesus in the midst of this worry, fear and stress would remind me that I am not alone in my chaos. The bread, wine, water and prayer reorient my vision to Jesus, the one who comes to us everywhere (even Guam) across chaotic and volatile waves to give us his hand, to lift us up and to speak words of “Don’t be afraid.” Jesus speaks these words to Peter and to us, not because we can simply stop being afraid, but precisely because we can’t. We can’t stop being afraid in our world where death, worry and stress are prevalent. But you see, with Jesus, our fear doesn’t paralyze us, doesn’t keep us from walking to Jesus with confidence, doesn’t become the dominant voice in our lives, doesn’t rule our decisions, and sure as hell doesn’t win.

The journey that began on that island was one that I am still on. This week has reminded me of the necessity for the message of Jesus in our world. Guam is once again a target and I pray for the military 9 year old little girl lying in her bed under the palm trees (and all people on the island) who doesn’t know why someone wants to hurt her. I pray for the black little girl in Charlottesville who doesn’t understand why someone wants to hurt her. I pray for us all and that we quit hurting each other. I give thanks for those who proclaimed the truth of the gospel to me. The truth that Jesus will walk across the most seemingly impossible terrains to come to us with hands outstretched and words of comfort. The truth that nourished and gathered in bread and wine that fear doesn’t win and death will never have victory. Thanks be to God.

 

Enough Sermon on Matthew 14: 13-21 August 7, 2017

I had the privilege of leading worship at Epiphany Lutheran Church in Denver, CO today August 6, 2017. The picture attached is everyone’s placecard with their name on it on the altar. We all have a place at the table and a role in God’s Kingdom!

I need to confess something to you: I hate to cook! Love to eat, love to eat, love to eat. But the actual process of making a meal? Ugh. So it’s ironic that as someone who is constantly trying to figure out how not to cook, my vocation as a pastor working primarily with families, requires that I figure out feeding large groups of people on a regular basis. Youth dinners, confirmation evening of honor dinner, Advent Festival, Epiphany worship and Party, we’re hosting the ELCA mission developer conference in august and they asked me to figure out catering for 300 people for four days! Food is not my gift and every time I think about having to figure out food for large groups, I want to curl up in the fetal position. It completely stresses me out! And yet, it always comes together. I don’t think that anyone I was supposed to have fed, ever went away hungry-even when you throw in all the now common food allergies. And although I have a pretty strong track record of getting people fed, each time an event arises that requires food, I have the exact same feeling of worry if I can pull it off, if it will be ok, do I have what it takes to do this?

I can so relate to the disciples in our gospel text today! The people had followed Jesus out to the desert, a place with no food, no water, no food trucks or grocery stores. The people were so hungry for what Jesus had to offer, healing, comfort, compassion despite his own weariness, that they followed him with no thought of needing food or of how long they might be away from home. After all day of being with Jesus in the desert, it was beginning to get dark, and in addition to no food, the desert would be dangerous, animals, people of ill-repute, no shelter. This situation was less than ideal and probably overwhelmed the disciples. So they very practically said hey Jesus, enough with the teaching and healing for the day, send the people home to eat, and then we can go get something to eat too! But Jesus looked at them and said, “You feed them.” But Jesus, we don’t do that! We don’t have anything that is of any real use! There are too many people, and we’re overwhelmed, Jesus!

Feeling overwhelmed and powerless is more common than not I think, especially when we recognize some of the seemingly momentous challenges in our nation and in our world. I can become either so engaged that I obsess about what I can do or so paralyzed by the weight of it all that I check out altogether. There is so much: famine in South Sudan, North Korea, healthcare, civil and human rights, homelessness in Denver and elsewhere, human trafficking. And then there are my own day to day worries of the rising cost of college now that I have two children in college, retirement, work/life balance with allowing time to volunteer with agencies that address some of the bigger issues I listed a moment ago. There seems to be not enough time, energy, resources, knowledge, to tackle these challenges with the hope of making a dent into the solution. Jesus, all I have is a little, and I am confident that it is not enough!

But Jesus looks at us all and says, what do you have? Give it to me. Trust in me. You may see the world as either all or nothing, but God doesn’t. God sees creation and us as good, as enough, possessing enough and all that we need to make a difference, to be the difference in someone’s life and in creation. Do we believe that through Jesus, God has given us enough to make a difference or are we afraid that God will let us down?

So what do you have? What does God say you have? Not what the world says you have. God declares that we do have enough, because it’s not about us as individuals. It’s about all of us together. One disciple couldn’t feed the crowds, 5,000 plus women and children. All of them together in the power and care of Jesus fed the crowds. I don’t feed large groups on my own, never, it’s a team of people who do have that gift that offer their time and talents to provide the meals and this is how it happens every time, even though I worry about scarcity. Everyone is needed and we’re called to use all that we have for the sake of people’s daily, physical needs as well as spiritual needs. The kingdom of God is not about when we die, or satisfaction of our spiritual hunger, no Jesus says, “you feed your hungry neighbor, you care for your sick neighbor, you visit the lonely.” The kingdom of God is about caring for those who are suffering right here, right now and that takes all of us. Not only the pastors, the church wide staff, the synod staff, the church council-it takes everyone.

Jesus’ banquet in the desert where all, regardless of status, gender or importance were fed equally and fully, draws us to the table of Holy Communion, where we are all gathered, filled until satisfied and nourished with the true presence of Christ. Christ’s presence in the bread and in the wine enters into us, fills us with God’s love and abundance and reveals that we don’t need to be overwhelmed, we aren’t hopeless or helpless, we aren’t alone, we have enough, we are enough and we are loved wholly and unconditionally. Even the pieces of ourselves that we think are broken and useless, like the left over broken of pieces of bread and fish, Jesus will gather up, and use to reveal the promises and glory of God to all people. God’s power is revealed in the abundance and gathering  of broken pieces. Jesus says his broken body is power to connect us together in love. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy, God sees our true value and our gifts and calls us to live into them with freedom and joy and calls us to the table over and over again to be reminded of this abundance, that we are enough and we have a place at the table. Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

 

 

Children’s time:

How many of you help out at home? Do you have chores? Do you do every chore that has to be done in the house? NO! You share the work! One person can’t do everything! What about here at church? Do you help out sometimes, either by singing, or reading or giving smiles or hugs? Yes! In our bible story today over 5000 people, it said 5000 men plus women and children so maybe closer to 15000 people, were listening to Jesus and Jesus was healing them, teaching them and telling them about God’s love. Then it got to be dinner time and there was only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Is that enough food for 15,000 people? No probably not! But Jesus knew that God would provide and that if everyone worked together, there would be enough. So he told the disciples to get to work, he prayed to God, said thank you for what they DID have and handed it out. Do you know what? Everyone had enough food! No one was left out. Now it could be that when some food was shared, other people who also had food shared too, that still makes it a miracle of people sharing and loving each other. But it also reminds us that God says we are to know that we have everything we already need to help people, even if it doesn’t seem like it, even if we’re little and young. How can you help people?
A reminder of having enough and Jesus being with us is holy communion. God calls everyone to the table to remind us that we are one people in God. Have you ever seen a name plate on a table at a party so that people know where they are to sit? Well, we’re all going to fill out name plates and put them on the altar to show us that God says this is where all of us, all people sit, at the table with Jesus forever! Write your name and put it on the altar before you sit down. Let’s pray.

 

Weeds, Wheat and God’s Field July 24, 2017

This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church on July 23rd, 2017. You can watch at http://www.bethanylive.org. I personally think that the 10:00 a.m. went better! 🙂

 

Matthew 13:24-30New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat

24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Jesus Explains the Parable of the Weeds

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears[a]listen!

You’ve perhaps heard the saying that “a weed is any plant that is growing where you don’t want it to.”  Such as a rose bush in the middle of your cucumbers, while beautiful, can seem obtrusive and obnoxious. We like things orderly, rose bushes where rose bushes go and cucumbers where cucumbers go. Then we get this parable this morning about weeds that intrude on wheat. I think on so many levels this parable strikes at the heart of our personal fears. How do I know if I am weeds or wheat?  What about the person sitting next to me in the pew, or at work, or on the train, or my next door neighbor or the person who thinks politically differently from me, are they weeds or wheat? We want to know who’s in the correct place!

We like to think that we can discern between who is doing God’s good work and who is not, or we think that we already know, thank you very much. And it’s always the person who thinks differently from us, or what we might call “wrong” and so we don’t want to be around them. Upon first glance, this parable seems to support this kind of dualistic thinking. Those who are wheat will be gloriously gathered to God in heaven and those who are weeds will be sent to be burned where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those weeds will get what they deserve-punishment. Done. We desperately want to hang our hats on such certainty so that all can be right with the world.  The weeds and the wheat have no business together! God, fix this! Don’t let these weedy people be around me!

It would be very comforting and escapist for us to read this parable with the mindset that this is about some are right and some are wrong. But we know that life and people are not that clear cut and relationships are hard and messy. But mutual relationships with those who are different from ourselves requires us to examine and know ourselves fully. We want or need to believe that God will punish those who deserve it, and if we follow all the rules perfectly, we will be gathered as wheat. Jesus told parables to make the listener of any century do some hard work. But parables are not designed to be taken at face value. The word parable means to “throw alongside.” Jesus throws this parable alongside our daily lives to stop us in our tracks and wrestle with God for a while.

Martin Luther struggled with the dualistic thinking of his time of whom God gathers and whom God throws to the fires. Part of Luther’s genius is his epiphany that we are both wheat and weeds simultaneously and that God will continually forgives us and offers us unending grace. In our Lutheran theology, we proclaim that we are at any given time a weed, or a sinner and wheat, a saint. Sometimes an action that in one setting is saintly, can turn around and be sinful in another setting. And we don’t always even know we’ve done that!  Paul speaks of this as doing the evil he doesn’t want to and not doing the good he wants to do. No matter how we try, we can’t quite hit the mark it seems. But Paul is confident that God will use his (and our) weediness and transform it into wheat.

We desperately want to be wheat and yet, deep down we fear that we are the noxious weed. We project that fear on others-proclaiming them to be weeds, the ones not doing God’s work, the ones not following Jesus, in order to secure our own place in the field as wheat. We fear that if there are too many wheat, that there won’t be room for us. And we do this even in our church community! If I’m using my gifts, then there can’t be room for your gifts, there is only so much room in the field, you know. Our egos like to judge who are weeds and who are wheat. My actions are REALLY serving God, so your actions can’t be. What if there are different kinds of wheat and all can bear good fruit?

We also get hung up on the fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth imagery as some sort of reference to hell but in truth, I think it refers to our inward thoughts on ourselves and others. We can stir ourselves up into a frenzy comparing ourselves to others, judging other people’s decisions and actions, shaking our head at our own decisions and actions that we aren’t proud of and, if any of you have ever been awake at 3 a.m. with all these thoughts going around your head, you know what weeping and gnashing of teeth is all about. It’s that long, dark night of the soul, it’s the constant grudge holding and scorecard keeping that we do with each other. But when you let go of judging, comparing and ego, peace and grace flourish. Not only peace and grace to others, but perhaps more importantly, to ourselves.  We can’t offer others true grace and non-judgment until we can first offer it to ourselves. When we stop holding ourselves up to unrealistic standards of perfection, whether those standards are societal (wealth, health, body image, etc.) or religious (keeping all the commandments, doing whatever religious practices you believe will make you a better Christian) when we let go of that, is when we can truly live in God’s promise that God created us in God’s image and we are enough, more than enough and loved just the way we are. And so is our neighbor, co-worker, and family members even the ones who drive us crazy.

You see, this parable isn’t about who’s in or who’s out. It’s about God and God’s field. God’s field, where all are allowed to grow, no matter what. Weeds and wheat are side by side. What if when we see weeds, God sees wheat? What if we need those who seem planted out of place as we grow in God’s field? In rich diversity, we can hold each other accountable, learn from one another, forgive one another and be authentic community.  Childern’s Sermon: Invite children: cards, change cards, “does it matter who has the label weeds or wheat? Does it matter that we are all together and God loves us? Can we learn from each other, share our mistakes and our learnings to love God and each other even more?”  Explain the sermon notes.

 

The word seminary, means “seed bed.” God’s field, God’s seed bed, is about learning and going deeper into relationship with God and one another. It’s not a fancy theological degree. It’s engaging the world with all the complexity, uncertainty and gray areas through God’s vision.  It’s God’s patience and hope that floods the field, the seed bed, and everyone and everything growing in it, with love, forgiveness and grace freely poured out no matter of our actions, our status or who we think we are, weeds or wheat. We don’t have to worry about judging ourselves or others. God will come to judge, which is different from punishment by the way. Judgement is God’s proclaiming reconciliation of creation and humanity back to Godself in love. Punishment is what we do to ourselves when we try and be God, dividing ourselves out of fear, not looking with love upon our neighbor, judging actions we don’t understand, putting our own needs and wants ahead of others, allowing our ego determine our thoughts and actions.

Jesus understood that this is the human condition. We think that we know more than we do and put more trust in ourselves and our ego than in God. Jesus says, go deeper, go where it’s complex, go beyond black and white thinking, go and confront your ego, your hubris, your arrogance. Go and be confronted by the breathtaking foolishness of God’s love and grace to let weeds and wheat grow together. Audaciously live in the faith and hope of what we cannot yet see, where everyone will be gathered in God’s life-giving kingdom as adopted children of God, unconditionally loved and cared for, where none are left out, all live side by side, and God clothes all in righteousness. Go and recklessly share this reality in whatever part of the field you may live in-give your time and your resources to people not because you think they deserve it, but because God loves them (and you!) and loves the diversity  of all of us growing together in God’s field. Thanks be to God.