A Lutheran Says What?

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

We Have Lent All Wrong Mark 1: 9-15 Year B Lent 1 February 24, 2015

I think we have Lent all wrong. On Ash Wednesday I was in a really good mood and when it came time for worship, I honestly wasn’t feeling all that penitential or somber. Now, I’m not really known for reverence or piety anyway and as someone that evening pointed out to me, why did I have to act differently than I normally do? Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that some times and places are sacred and holy and not all behavior is acceptable at those times, but I do sometimes struggle with the seemingly artificial somberness of Lent for me. This week on Facebook and in general conversations, I heard people talking about what they are giving up or adding for Lent in order to spend more time with their family (such as in giving up FB or all social media), to lose weight, to be more productive at work, to give their Starbucks money to a charity, or even to start a new spiritual practice that they are sure will bring them closer to God. None of these things are in and of themselves bad but it got me to wondering what Lent is all about. Is it a time of Christian New Year’s resolutions? Is it really self help disguised as piety for Jesus? Is it the modern day equivalent of the medieval practice of self flagellation?  If that’s what it’s about, then do these scripture readings simply support the fact that we have temptations (not the musical group) that we have to overcome for God to love us or to experience Jesus? Is there nothing of God in chocolate and Facebook?

So, “what is Lent, really”? And what does this Mark 1 story have to do with giving stuff up so that we are closer to God? Do you know what the word Lent means? Spring! Hope! New Life! Green grass, tulips, baby animals, baseball and short sleeves! Lent does not mean suffering, denial, death, sadness, and let’s all be Eyeore’s for six weeks under a gray gloomy cloud. I think we have Lent all wrong.

We are once again revisiting Mark 1 the baptism of Jesus that we just read a few weeks ago at the beginning of Epiphany. This time we lose the John the Baptist stuff and gain the four verses of Jesus in the wilderness and proclamation of the Kingdom of God coming near. I, frankly, preferred dealing with the loveliness of Jesus’ baptism versus wilderness and temptation.  Let’s talk about glory a little bit more, Lent is so sad and dismal! I miss Epiphany with the light and the revelation and the shine Jesus shine.  But here’s where once again, we get Lent all wrong.

We hear these two verses of Jesus being driven out to the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and tempted by Satan and immediately ask the question “why”? Why would God drive Jesus to the wilderness for temptation? We tend to interpret these verses to mean that maybe we are to accept that God causes us to be tempted and tested for strengthening our faith. Or that it means that we need to rid ourselves of any temptations in Lent that might be from Satan.  A popular theory in our culture is that God has a purpose for our own personal time in the wilderness, whether that is physical or mental disease, joblessness, financial insecurity, loneliness, fear of what’s going on in our world, or just fear in general. What if we have this wilderness thing all wrong?

Yes, the Holy Spirit did drive, or the Greek is hurl which I love, Jesus out to the wilderness but it’s not that God was tempting Jesus or giving him difficulties to make him stronger in faith or to make a point. Jesus was sent out to the hard, barren places because they exist in our lives. This IS reality whether we like it or not, even for Jesus. And God didn’t tempt Jesus or cause or allow Satan to tempt Jesus, Satan just did because evil is real, the unknown and brokenness of our world is real. What if Jesus was sent to the wilderness not for Jesus but for Satan? What if the Spirit hurled Jesus to confront the reality of evil and brokenness with God’s love? God is proclaiming that Jesus is even for Satan and God will meet Satan right where evil is, with love. There is no where that God’s love can’t be hurled and to no one that God’s love will be denied.

There are wilderness times and places for us all. God doesn’t cause them, allow them or use them to teach us a lesson or for a purpose. Why there are wilderness places, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that other than we live in a world that is broken, the kingdom of God is near but not yet fully come. I don’t know why people get sick and die, I don’t know why groups of people think that they have the right to kill other people in God’s name, and I don’t know why people go to bed hungry, lonely, cold or with no bed at all. I don’t know why evil exists and why we fight with one another over silly and inconsequential things that don’t really matter at the end of the day. All I know is that I have wandered in the desert, I have experienced those places where I was sure that God didn’t exist or was sure that when God said that everyone is loved, God didn’t mean THOSE other people who cause suffering and harm. I have been in the wilderness and I was met with God’s unconditional love and grace.

I think we have this journey of Lent all wrong, it isn’t about us and what we add on or give up.  This journey of Lent is the journey of God being with us always even if we are in the reality of the wilderness with wild beasts.   Lent is not about what we think we need to do differently to be closer to God but the reality that the kingdom of God is nearer than you think. Lent is about the good news that the love of Jesus will meet you wherever you are, whoever you are, no matter what you do or don’t do. This journey of Lent is about how everything in our lives is of God even if we don’t see it, experience it or recognize it. Everything. Even the people, places and situations you don’t like and feel like barren wilderness with wild beasts.

The wilderness exists and when we are in those places of wilderness, as God’s people, we bring the love and light of Jesus with us. The spirit drives us out to places we don’t want to go because we are people also hurled into the world, not people called to sit in safety. We go to places in our world that are hard because that’s part of all of our life’s journeys but they are places where God already is at work with love, hope and mercy. We are the ones who point to God’s loving work in those broken times and places that exist and we don’t know why.

I think we might have Lent all wrong because we make it about us and not about God. But the kingdom of God has come near even when we get it wrong and God offers us over and over the story each and every day of God’s promise of hope, new life, continual presence, unconditional love and forgiveness. This Lent, let’s tell the story, the kingdom of God is near and near us all. The kingdom of God is at work in the world, in the joyful and peaceful places and situations and in the hard, difficult and barren places. God is everywhere at all times and in all places and that is the good news to proclaim. Amen.

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People of a Pretty Good Story: Transfiguration Mark 9: 2-9 Feb. 15, 2015 February 16, 2015

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One of the challenges of being a Christian in the 21st century is that in this age of scientific reasoning, logic, strategic plans and Gallup polls is that there is little room for mystery. Now we do love a good story and we have plenty of television shows, movies and books such as Supernatural, Grimm, Once a Upon a Time, or Twilight that might spark some conversation around things that go bump in the night or other things we can’t understand but it seems easier to talk about the premise of these shows than our experiences and encounters with God. I’ve been thinking about how we don’t know how to talk about God in our lives without thinking that we need some sort of proof to back it up, how we talk more about what we do as Christians or how as an institutional church we get stuck in talking more about strategies for bringing people to church (Sunday School, music, programs, groups, how to be seen in the community). We love to suck the mystery right out of life and our relationship with God. How easily we lose sight of what is central to who we are and who Jesus is. We often don’t know what to say about Jesus in our lives and the thought of talking about Jesus terrifies us.

Apparently this issue in not new to the 21st century as Peter reminds us. Peter experiences this supernatural, mysterious event of being in the presence of a transfigured, transformed Jesus. Peter, James and John witness the kingdom of God being revealed through Jesus as well as the presence of Moses and Elijah, Israelite heroes long dead but herald the coming of a new age. The disciples were given a glimpse of who Jesus is for them and for the world. Jesus is more than just a teacher, healer or nice guy, as the disciples hear proclaimed by the voice from the cloud: “This is my Son, the beloved;  listen to him!”  Peter’s gut reaction to this encounter was to suck all of the mystery of Jesus out of the event as it’s clear that no one would ever believe him and so proof, a way to capture this moment in time was necessary; just his story would never be enough. Building a hut for each of these important figures ought to do it! Maybe Peter thought he could give tours to people of the mountain top with the three dwellings and then that would bring people to faith in Jesus? Without some sort of tangible object to point to this was a story that would surely get a few raised eyebrows and ignored as a figment of these three disciples imagination. This thought alone would terrify them, they would be thought of as crazy if they told anyone; they have no proof that Jesus is God’s son-the promised messiah, other than their own account from this day. At the end of the day, all they had left was Jesus-is that enough?

We, too, worry that our own encounters with the living Christ, are not enough. We think that we don’t have adequate words to give life to our stories, we don’t have a hut, a picture, we don’t know what to say and it scares us to death that we will look crazy, or in my case, crazier than usual. Yet, we all do have these encounters, each one of us, I am confident has a story to tell about God in our lives. But we know that talking about Jesus in our culture is not all that popular and so we let fear of trying to explain the mystery of faith distract us. We know that we can’t quantify for the world how Jesus showing up in our lives is not about pie charts, strategies, empirical data or proof but is about deep emotion, deep connections with other people, deep mystery and deep love that is beyond what is celebrated on Valentine’s Day.

But what Peter didn’t quite get and what we struggle with too is that we are not people of proof,  but people of the story. Not just any story but God’s story. When God says to the disciples, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him!” it’s not to listen to Jesus for rules, or commands but to listen to Jesus’ life, listen to the story of God’s love for the world that Jesus’ words and actions convey.

God sent Jesus as tangible proof of God’s love, yes, but it’s more than that, Jesus with humanity personally continues to tell us the story begun at creation; a story that includes all of us, God and how we are intertwined into this story. Stories connect us, person to person, age to age, generation to generation. Jesus came with words and actions of healing, teaching, praying, suffering, dying and rising to share God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and hope. Our story with God encompasses times when we are high on a mountain top, moments of bright light and clarity, journeys down into a valley with uncertainty and questions and moments of fear. Our story is one where we look up and there is only Jesus, Jesus who promises to be with us always, offers us community to share our faith journey and our stories of our encounters with God that defy words and proof.

God’s story is one that the world needs to hear, can change the world and we bring with us into our daily lives whether we know it or not. I wonder if we really believe that this story-our stories of Jesus can change, transform or transfigure the world. What if we offered our community the mystery of God who loves them just the way they are, who is with them always, even when they can’t feel God, the mystery of unconditional love and acceptance from the people of God and the hope that God is at work and won’t stop until all is reconciled and the kingdom of God is fully revealed? What if we believed that we tell it every day, wherever we are. What if we believed that we tell it at work, school, and in how we choose to spend our free time. Jesus’ story of eternal life for all, mercy and forgiveness lives through us all of the time. We don’t necessarily have tangible, concrete huts to prove God’s story, but what we do have is who we are as people of God and the promises of Jesus Christ. And it’s enough. Thanks be to God.

 

#likeachildofGod Mark 1:29-39 #preachlikeagirl February 8, 2015

An interesting first occurred at the Super Bowl last week. No, it wasn’t the extremely misguided decision to pass the football instead of running it one yard, although seriously. No, it was a commercial from a company that made history. I’m probably about to make some men in my midst uncomfortable but you’ll be fine. For the first time in Super Bowl commercial history, a feminine care product was advertised. Ok, everyone cough and don’t make eye contact. The company Always spent about 3 million dollars of their precious advertising budget for a commercial that didn’t even directly show or talk about their product. Instead, they took head on the gender and the gender gap issue during the most consumer and arguably patriarchal television event of the year. Their premise was the idea behind the phrase “like a girl.” Now, this phrase is commonly used in a pejorative way such as “you run like a girl, you throw like a girl, you cry like a girl, you hit like a girl,” and it’s often directed at our young men.

They asked some grown young women to do some athletic activities that are normally associated with men, “like a girl.” They showed clips of women running kind of silly, throwing poorly, swinging a bat poorly and laughing at themselves. Then they asked some 9 and 10 year old girls to do these things “like a girl.” The difference was astounding. The young girls did these activities to the best of their ability, with a look of determination and grit on their faces and taking it very seriously that they were very good at these activities. All of who they were as a girl was a positive and life giving identity no matter what activity they were doing. Research shows that girls think that they can do and be whatever and whoever they dream until about age 13. At age 7 an equal number of boys and girls think that they can be president of the US. By age 14 only about 7% of girls think they could be president as compared to 50% of boys. Leadership ambition peaks for girls at age 8. Who we are as a female in our culture is tightly linked with what girls and women think we are capable of being and doing. Being who you are, your identity, and what you do are woven closely together.

The Always company has actually had this ad campaign on Youtube for about a year with the hashtag #likeagirl. The idea that women are enough in their own bodies and can do anything is an idea that the executives at Always thought was worth their time and energy. Is it completely altruistic? Of course not! They want to sell their product! But they purposely subverted the cultural meaning of “like a girl” and turned it into a national conversation. One of my preaching professors from Luther Seminary, Karoline Lewis, even started a hashtag #preachlikeagirl which I love!  Who we are as women, means that we do everything like a girl and that is not only enough, but it’s good enough just who we are as God created us to be, in all aspects. Women, as well as men, should be freed from how culture and society thinks we should act.

At first glance, verses 29-31 of our Mark story might appear to smack of cultural norms around the roles of women in the time of Jesus. It’s still the Sabbath, and after casting out the demon and teaching in the synagogue, Jesus goes to the home of Andrew and Simon (along with the other two so-far called disciples James and John) to find Simon’s mother in law (completely identified only through her son in law Simon with no name of her own) in bed with a fever. Fevers were serious business and often deadly. More than that, it would have isolated her from anyone else out of fear of contamination. If you’ve ever had a high fever, you know that you are not yourself. You can’t do much of anything.

Jesus was at once, Mark writes, told about Simon’s MIL and Jesus didn’t even hesitate to go to her. No one else had thought or even tried to help her. For one thing it was still the Sabbath and so work was strictly prohibited plus the problem that she was unclean. But Jesus isn’t worried about the cultural rules or what people will think and only is concerned about this woman. Jesus takes her by her hand and lifts her up, the same word used in 16:6 for Jesus being raised, and the fever leaves her. She is free from what kept her from being all she could be. She is returned to community and made whole despite Jewish laws of Sabbath.

But then this woman actually does something that is not only bold but is a statement about who she is and what this day for her and us all, really means, she serves. Not just makes dinner or cleans up her own room, but the word here is the same as in 1: 13 when the angels waited on Jesus-she is a devoted servant and follower of Jesus, God incarnate. I read that she could be called the first deacon or true follower of Jesus. So this is a first in the gospel of Mark for someone to actively respond to Jesus. In her serving, she was a leader in how we should respond to Jesus who came to serve. This unnamed woman gets that Jesus came to serve, had served her and now she proclaims with all who she is the good news of Jesus’ presence in the world.

She doesn’t ask permission to work on the Sabbath but serves without a thought to the possible consequences for not following the rules because of who now she truly is freed from the fever, she is part of Jesus’ radical announcement that the kingdom of God is breaking into human lives and human rules. This day heralds a shift in how we live together as the people of God and how we live in the world. We quit worrying about rules, ourselves, what others might think of us and love and serve each other as Jesus first loves and serves us. Simon’s MIL, because of whom she knew she was as a person made whole through Jesus, was unafraid to be and act in response to being made a whole child of God, she was unafraid of what others might think of her blatant and bold dismissal of cultural norms, she didn’t worry about fitting into the system.  All of who she was, was enough, she ignored the cultural restrictions and she responded like a girl, if you will.

The coming of Jesus and of the kingdom of God, proclaims that we are more than what the world tells us that we are: we are more than just male, female, sick, healthy, rich, poor, white, black, gay, straight, outspoken, meek, athletic, intellectual, leader or follower. Over and over again in the gospel of Mark and the other Gospels we read of story after story of Jesus proclaiming that in God’s kingdom, such distinctions don’t exist-the only identity that matters is that of child of God. With these casting out of demon and healing stories, we can be tricked by our own humanness into thinking that Jesus came to perform radical miracles that will do for us exactly what we want, when we want it, for our own purposes. But Mark is clear that is not it at all: Jesus came to dwell among us to reveal that in the kingdom of God, our human restrictions, cultural taboos and social boundaries are false, all are children of God and God desires to lift us up-to resurrect us- to our whole selves as made in God’s image, free from death and anything that separates us from God, for the sake of serving God and God’s whole world. Who we are, just being a whole child of God, informs our actions.

So, while the Always Company wants women and girls to do things “#likeagirl,” God calls us to be #likeachildofGod, whose whole life bears witness to God’s grace, love and forgiveness for all. #likeachildofGod who serves not just people in need but partners with another child of God in a full relationship, and so is served by them as well. #likeachildofGod who offers community, love and belonging to everyone, even if they make us uncomfortable, challenge our thinking and change us. #likeachildofGod who can rest in the trust that God is present always and that the promise is that God will take us by the hand, lift us to be with God forever and love us no matter what. Thanks be to God!

*This week let’s Tweet, FB and Instagram all of the ways that we are grateful to be freed in the love and mercy of Jesus to serve God and the world at #likeachildofGod Let’s see if we can get it to trend!

 

OS 2.0 God’s Operating System Mark 1: 21-28 February 1, 2015

I always am amused when the newest iPhone or iPad or gadget de jour is released; everyone waits in line for hours or days, with excitement that rivals that of Christmas or their birthday, and the confidence that THIS newest version of technology will be awesome, exactly what they want it to be and will change their lives for the better. And then it’s released and people have a day or two learning their new gadget and then the complaints start rolling in. “Why doesn’t my iTunes sync like before? Where is the weather app? Oh I really don’t like the new keyboard layout. I have no idea how to actually answer a phone call. The map app drove me into a lake!” While many features of the new technology are wonderful, what people inevitably focus on is the newness of the operating system that causes them to have to do something different from before. Some will complain, but learn from someone else (like a grandchild) and adapt, some will go back to their old technology and operating system and some will keep the new technology but ignore whatever it is they don’t understand about the new system.
This is the human cycle around something new in our lives. We are bombarded with “new” at an ever increasing rate in our 21st century world. Something “new” is discovered, revealed, and integrated nearly daily thanks to social media, the inter-webs, television, and our global networking. It can be exhausting, even for this Gen Xer. Luckily, I have teenagers all around me who will coax (ok, harass) me into learning, growing and embracing the newness when I think I’ve reached my capacity for change.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, this cycle of how we adapt to new isn’t new. In the educational psychology realm it’s referred to as “disequilibrium” and it’s actually necessary for learning. Our brains have to be a little thrown off, if you will, in order to absorb and integrate (that’s key in education) new information or experiences. Alongside disequilibrium is the necessity of group think. If you experience disequilibrium in a vacuum all by yourself, odds are you won’t integrate as much information, reject more of it and frankly, have better odds of becoming stagnate and resistant to new information. Our brains are actually wired for community. So upsetting whole systems of people is the quickest way to integrate new ideas. Apple and Facebook are the reigning champions of this in our culture. They keep pushing new ways of thinking on us and we keep accepting it-albeit sometimes begrudgingly.
The gospel of Mark heralds what change can do to a large group of people quickly. I love the gospel of Mark. Pastor Rob asked me if it was my favorite gospel and I realized, yes, yes it is. Couple of reasons: 1) it’s the Reader’s Digest version of Jesus-16 chapters-neat and tidy. 2) Things happen quickly! Jesus gets stuff done! Hallelujah! 3) Status quo is so blatantly ignored and challenged that it makes your head spin. Yes, this is the gospel for me. And this episode from Mark 1 highlights all of these things-eight verses and the whole world changes for a group of people in a synagogue.
Jesus, fresh from baptism and gathering a few companions for the journey, decides to go to synagogue on the Sabbath. Status quo enough, right? But the second Jesus opened his mouth to talk and teach; status quo was disrupted. The system was altered. His teaching was different, new, astounding, and de-centering. It was so new that an unclean spirit in a man took notice and was immediately aware that it’s time was up. Jesus teaching was so different that people began to talk amongst themselves and wondering what to do not just with the teaching that they had heard with their ears, but the teaching that they had seen with their eyes. The people were used to coming to synagogue and hearing about God and being taught, but for the words of God’s presence to be made into actions right in front of them? No real framework for that! This was not a magic trick or an illusion of a demon being exorcised-Jesus’ commanding word made healing, freeing and life-giving stuff-happen. What is this, they kept asking each other? What do we do with this new information? Who is this? Is Jesus the Holy One of God as the unclean spirit said? Can you hear the den of conversation in that synagogue on a Saturday as they grappled with this new operating system? The man who was freed from the demon was changed forever, right there in everyone’s presence. Abundant life was offered him freely, the man didn’t participate or promise to do anything to be freed from his demon. Jesus simply did it, revealing that something new in the earthly system was happening and everyone was confused.
Jesus’ very presence on earth, God dwelling among us, sets the whole world into disequilibrium. Jesus reveals that the world’s system of what separates us from God: the demons of fear, scarcity, consumerism, ego, self-preservation, materialism, (what are other demons you deal with?) are no longer the dominate system that we live in. God proclaims that the system of love, abundance, wholeness, community, and joy is now being revealed and available to all. But this system will change us, we will have to do things differently. God’s system is one of transformation, being made new every day, constant integration of our identity in God’s system as a beloved child of God above and before anything else. God’s system isn’t afraid of change and confronting what demons need to go, in order for this new way of being the people of God to be not just heard, but seen, lived, and experienced by all.
God’s system will and does transform us-it throw us into disequilibrium here at LCM in Lakewood, CO in 2015. Each and every day we are invited into the newness of God’s operating system through the love and mercy of Jesus Christ to be amazed at what God is up to and we wrestle as a community with the questions “what is this? Did you see what Jesus did?” We might be swept up into this system and try to ignore what we don’t understand, try to adapt and realize that we need all the voices of all the generations and demographics around the table to reveal to one another how astounding God’s new system is compared to the world’s operating system.
We might be tired and unsure if we have the capacity for much more to be new. But Jesus assures us that he is leading the way in this new operating system and has done the hard work of removing the demons of fear and death that keep us from God’s offer of abundant life. Instead of being pushed along as the world tries to, the Holy Spirit accompanies us and walks with us so that as we live our lives we are participating in God’s work of loving our neighbors, feeding those who are hungry, being with the lonely, standing with those who others ignore, and all of the ways that our very lives are a new way of operating in the world. Jesus’ new teaching promises that God’s system of love, mercy and forgiveness can be accessed, experienced, and lived into by all and will make us different. Jesus teaches us that God is transforming us and the whole of creation right here, right now and each and every day; revealing who God is and who we are as God’s people for the sake of the whole world. Thanks be to God!