A Lutheran Says What?

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

Unraveled by Christ, Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B, John 3: 1-17, May 31st, 2015 May 31, 2015

Frayed heart

Last time I preached here at Lord of the Hills, I was a newbie seminary student. I had about two whole years under my belt and as can happen in graduate school, you start to think that you know stuff. With all of the reading, writing, pontificating, and conversations, one can convince oneself that you have quite a bit of knowledge rattling around in your brain.  In the past five years, I’ve been on internship, graduated and served a congregation on the west side of town for nearly three years, so hopefully, I’ve learned a bit more.  But sadly, here is what I have actually learned in all of my learning….I’ve got nothin’. Now don’t get me wrong, I can explain some of the finer points of doctrine, I can outline what changes should be in a constitution, or what leadership skills are necessary in a congregation, or what the Greek says about certain words in our reading today, or what topics should be covered in confirmation or in Sunday school. Yet, I’m acutely aware that the more I know, the less I know, as each encounter with a new situation or new person can remind me of how quickly “knowledge” can be unraveled through an experience that doesn’t quite fit with what I think I know. Maybe you’ve had that that experience of being unraveled too.

I think about this unraveling that can happen in life in our Nicodemus story this morning. Here is a Pharisee, a teacher in the rabbinic tradition, a man whom many relied upon and came to with questions about following God’s law, doctrines, festivals and all sorts of other ponderings on the religion of the Israelites. Nicodemus had a lot of theological education, if you will, was part of the leadership and the inner circle and probably felt pretty secure in who he was and his status. And then along came this Jesus fellow. Nicodemus would have seen other famous street preachers come and go, Jerusalem was full of them around the time of Jesus, even those who could allegedly perform magic. But there was something different about Jesus that when Nicodemus encountered him, this experience began to unravel all of what Nicodemus thought he knew about God in the world. Jesus didn’t just perform magic, Jesus performed miracles, he healed, he brought the dead back to life, he fed thousands of people with two loaves and five fish. Jesus didn’t just preach what the people wanted to hear, what made them feel good about themselves or their lives, Jesus proclaimed that God knew and saw their brokenness, all of the ways that they get it wrong, and loves them, forgives them and promises more than just the material wants of the world or status in the Roman Empire. No, Jesus was someone the likes of whom Nicodemus had never seen or heard before. Jesus didn’t really fit into all of the education that Nicodemus had attained. Could this man, whom some were calling the Messiah, really be the one whom God promised would come to redeem, claim, make whole and save God’s people? Is this the one who will overthrow the powers of this world and set things right? This homeless, uncouth, street preacher who hangs out with the riff raff of society? This unraveled what Nicodemus knew about the promised messiah!

So Nicodemus decides to see what he can learn about Jesus and meets up with him in the cover of darkness so that no will see that there is something that this well educated man doesn’t understand or know. Jesus and Nic have this little back and forth where it becomes clear that the two of them are not having the same conversation. Nicodemus is stuck in his earthly paradigm of what he can concretely know and cling to and so can’t follow Jesus down the road of what the Holy Spirit is up to through Jesus in the world. Born of the Spirit? How is one born again? How can this be?

If we’re all honest, there is much about God in our lives that we don’t understand, much about the work of the Holy Spirit that mystifies, perplexes and unravels us no matter how much we read, learn and study. As human beings we have a deep need for assurance, security, planning, knowing and information. We have constructed a whole culture in information databases, Google, Wikipedia, etc to feed these needs. Nicodemus thought that he had all that he needed to know about God contained in the Torah, his education and his daily life as a Pharisee. Then he encountered Jesus, God incarnate, who offered him something that all of his knowledge and security could not, a true encounter and relationship with the living God.  Jesus didn’t just write Nicodemus off when Nicodemus didn’t quite “get it” the first time, no, Jesus accepted Nicodemus right where he was with his questions, wondering, and misunderstandings. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus revealed that what he knew and experienced in this world is fleeting and uncertain, but God promises that in the midst of all of uncertainty is the promise of being woven into unconditional love, grace and mercy.  So too, Jesus’ encounter with us proclaims that God takes the unraveling of all that we don’t understand about what God is doing in the world, ourselves and our future and promises being woven into restoration and wholeness-what we often translate as salvation.

We think that we can create wholeness ourselves through what we can know, control and understand. We plan, accumulate and prognosticate, but wholeness, our salvation, only comes through God, in whose image we are all created, in Jesus, whom God sent to be with us and to gather us to God and the Holy Spirit who sustains and blows us out into the world with this good news that wholeness is available not just for some but for all. We like Nicodemus will ask over and over: What does this mean? How do we know? We know because God so loved the world that God withholds nothing from us, not even Godself in Jesus Christ. This love of God is what we know and experience each and every day. Each day we are given the gift of new life by the power of the Holy Spirit , born new, with each breath that is from God. This love is what Jesus says we know and are called to tell, to testify, to others about. We tell others of this love of God in simple ways in our daily lives: a smile to someone who seems disgruntled at the grocery store, unconditional love and patience to our children or spouse, offering a kind word to a co-worker or friend, helping a neighbor in need with yard work, or offering a meal to someone ill. Offering this love of God first given to us is as simple as those actions and yet, as complex as revealing that every action and interaction is an opportunity to testify to the love of Christ from our own experiences. We don’t have to “get it” fully to share it. We simply rest and trust in God’s promise.

Nicodemus didn’t fully understand everything that Jesus said to him here in chapter 3. No, Nicodemus didn’t have to have all of the answers first to be offered wholeness by Jesus, Nicodemus was a work in progress, as we all are. Nicodemus had been unraveled, undone by his encounter with Jesus Christ, but the gift and the promise is that through this same encounter he was woven into wholeness in a relationship with Christ, an experience of the love of God incarnate and so woven into the community that Jesus creates.

Our unraveling through our encounter with Jesus in our lives weaves us into the wholeness of unconditional love of God in Christ, fills us with the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, and relationship in the very life of God no matter what we know or don’t know. We are woven into a tight relationship with each other, the people of God, for the purpose of being the love and breathe of God in the world so that ALL people know and experience the wholeness that is available to all through God. In our encounters with Christ, we are unraveled to be made whole. Thanks be to God, Amen.

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There Is Not One Good Story, Pentecost Year B Acts 2: 1-21, May 24th, 2015 May 25, 2015

Sometimes we just don’t know what is going on or what’s happening. For me, that’s most of my life honestly. When I began to pray, think and write this sermon, I spent some time wondering… “when was a time where I didn’t understand what was happening and it felt like a rush of violent wind or being burned by a refining fire? When was a time when I was shaped and informed by the people around me who are different? When was a time when I was astonished and amazed? When was a time I questioned or offered the cynical comment of someone being a off their rocker?” I  was searching for one good story of one of those times to go with this story of God’s Holy Spirit blowing into those gathered for the festival, unifying them, pushing them outside of what they could concretely know, understand and searching for what scripture had to say about all of this. I thought I needed one story to try and make sense of this scripture passage.

But I couldn’t come up with one good story. Not one.  I realized there is not just one story of this in my life and I suspect in yours. If we’re completely honest—everyday is like Pentecost for us. Each morning we wake up and we think we can predict what our day will be like (and sometimes we’re pretty close!) but it’s never exactly what we predicted. Each day we face the unknown, the amazing, the astonishing, the heartbreaking, the cynicism, the confusion, the clarity, and the questioning. Sometimes, all at once. Our days are messier, more outside our boxes and less controllable than we like to think about over our morning coffee. Anne Lamott wrote these words yesterday on her facebook page about reflecting on turning 61: “ Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it is filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.”

Our Acts 2 story begins with the disciples gathered together in that upper room and they thought that they had a pretty good idea about what their day was about to be like. Maybe more hiding, wondering, fear, waiting, or maybe a cautious trip to the temple for the festival. Pretty predictable. Pentecost came and went every year; nothing new to see. But how their day started and how their day ended they never could have predicted and I don’t think that they would have wanted to. Suddenly, they were caught in what must have felt like a tornado, can you imagine? How many have been in a tornado or a wind storm? It’s frightening when you watch debris thrown at you and you can’t control your own body due to the force. Then fire. Fire is very serious today but in the ancient world, it meant certain death and destruction. Fire couldn’t be controlled at all. At best, you prayed for rain.

Finally, they all heard strange and unknown languages. How many of you have been to foreign countries where you didn’t speak the language or at least not well? It’s disconcerting isn’t it? When you learn a few words or hear English, it’s as if that person speaking is now a close and personal friend. You’ve made a connection; it’s relieving and astonishing. So, welcome to the disciples unpredictable day. Not just one of those things happened, but they all did. In one day, in one moment, in one place. What a story!

Those who witnessed it couldn’t believe it and didn’t have a framework to place this experience into, so I kinda get it when some said: “well, these people have got to be drunk!” Or if they were in CO, these people have to be high! What was going on they wondered? This is not what I expected when I woke up today! Peter (always ready to jump in Peter) thought he’d better try and take a stab at this. He thought that he should give it some sort of grounding from the prophets, because the prophets completely make sense…right…..But what Peter did was connect God’s mysterious presence from the past, to the present and into the future. Peter named the uncertainty, pointed it out, gave it language, and reminded us that God is more than we can predict, more than we can intellectually explain, more than a cosmic slot machine where we put in our questions or prayers and get answers. God is on the move, God is doing a new thing, God is gathering us and making us rub off on each other, learn and literally shape one another. It’s messy and unpredictable and there’s just not one good story that encompasses all of this.

There’s not one good story. No, there are 7 billion great stories of God’s Holy Spirit loose in the world. There’s your story, my story, our story together, the story of LCM in this neighborhood, the story of Lakewood, of Jefferson County, Colorado…you get it. There are all of these stories of what God is doing in our lives and in the world and sometimes, we get to connect our stories together for a time. Sometimes we connect our story to someone whom we marry and we share this unpredictability together for 50 or 60 years. Sometimes we connect our stories with friends in high school for a time, or college or here in this congregation, or in our workplaces and we are perplexed by the wind that is shaping us, we wonder about the fire that might destroy to build something new. We navigate the unpredictability by sharing our stories of past experiences with God, pray together about the present and dream dreams about the future. And we share our stories with the world.

Today we celebrate and send off our graduates with those dreams and we are grateful for the time that they shared their story of God’s Holy Spirit in their lives with us. Quinn, Callista, TJ, Harrison, Heather, and Julie, your stories of God in your lives have shaped, perplexed (at times!), astonished and amazed us all. Thank you for your fire and your wind that is the Holy Spirit blowing in you. God’s story of love and good news that is part of your story is one that the world desperately needs, so go share it and translate it so that all may hear it. Life is unpredictable, you never know what your days may bring, but two things we want you to know:  1) God is with you always 2) You are all very loved by this community always. May that always sustain you and may everyday be a new day in God’s promises-may everyday be Pentecost, new wind and fire of God’s Holy Spirit, in and through you.

There is not one good story. My story of what the Holy Spirit is doing in my life is sending me in a new direction from the story that we have all shared together here at LCM. I am blessed and grateful for the Holy Spirit blowing me here for 2 and ¾ years and for all of the ways that this community has wrestled with me in questions of,  “what does this mean?”, amazement at what God is doing and will continue to do, astonishment at the powerful deeds of God in this place and in the world and, because I’m me, sharing a little cynicism. Your story of God’s Holy Spirit has blown me away, the passion of your fire for God’s work in the world has singed me and allowed for new growth in me, and your words have interpreted to me the depth of your faith in the living Christ. I will take your stories of the Holy Spirit’s wind and fire here at LCM with me always. Our stories will always be intertwined for the sake of revealing God’s love in the world. Thank you for your stories.

So, there is not just a good story. There is only the best story. It is the continuing and eternal story of God at work in all of us. There is the story of Jesus love, forgiveness and hope that is poured out not to only some but to all flesh. There is the story of the Holy Spirit’s wind and fire shaping us, destroying us and giving us new life not just for our own sake but for the sake of the world who is begging to hear and be a part of this great story. There is the story of God’s people being gathered and sent. Yes, it’s unpredictable, yes, we don’t always understand it, yes, it’s a mystery and yes, and sometimes all we have is a little cynicism and our calling on the name of the Lord.  But it’s God’s story of love for all of creation. Thanks be to God.