A Lutheran Says What?

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

Too Much of a Good Thing? Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Pentecost 14B August 30, 2015 August 31, 2015

Many of you know that I was a teacher before I went to seminary. I loved (still do!) teaching the younger children-mostly preschool up to third grade. One issue with younger children is that they are literal little people. You tell them a rule and they apply it to everything. If you tell them on a field trip that they need to hold hands with their “buddy” they will think that they need to do that every single second of the field trip-including snack time and going to the bathroom. There is no such thing as nuance with young children and it can get in the way of learning. For example, we didn’t let the children play with rocks on the playground for reasons you can deduce. If a little boy picks up a rock, it will get thrown, it’s just how little boys are. So we had a pretty strict no picking up rocks or the ground bark rule.
But one fall day we were going to make a nature collage in art and do some nature science projects. So we took the preschoolers on a nature walk around the church, gave them each a paper lunch sack and told them to pick up objects from nature that they would like to use in their art project or just explore. We got back to the classroom and one little boy had nothing in his sack. We asked him why and he said, “because you always tell us not to pick up rocks or bark and that was the only thing I wanted!” This particular little boy had a penchant for throwing things, so he did hear the words “put the rock down please” a lot. Perhaps that rule for him was too much of a good thing as it impeded in his ability to understand the different context of the nature walk. Rules gone astray.
Rules most definitely have their time and place but often they can also become barriers to common sense. Rules are necessary to shape us, to keep us in check, from hurting other people, and to hold us to some standard of behavior. While rules affect us individually, they are in reality, more about how we live together, how we interact with each other and the well-being of the whole community. But when we adhere to certain rules in an individualistic strict sense , that can also harm others. Whether we like it or not, we tend to never out grow the right/wrong paradigm of rules and don’t quite ever grasp the concept of nuance.
The Pharisees are struggling with context and the nuance of the religious purity rules or laws in Mark 7. Some of Jesus’ disciples were eating without washing their hands. Now that is considered just gross in our culture, but the Pharisees were taking a purity law regarding how the priests in the temple had to wash their hands before handling ritual food and applying it to everyone who considered themselves Jewish. No nuance, only that there is a rule about washing and everyone should therefore do it or be unclean and thus far from God. The Pharisees were completely befuddled as to why Jesus, who claimed to be teaching about God, had followers not adhering to what they considered basic rules for relationship with God.
Jesus calls them out-actually calling them hypocrites. Is it hand washing that’s really all that important when it comes to being close to God and showing God to other people? Does demanding that other people follow some arbitrary rules reveal God’s love to them? Or is it something else?
As human beings who love rules, we often use rules to draw boundaries between ourselves and other people. Some of these rules still perpetuate systems of racism, gender and LBGT bias and denigration of anyone who is not culturally normative. Who falls inside the rules (some of which can be unspoken) and who doesn’t can be a dividing line between who is welcome in our community and who is not. While we like to think that we offer rules for the sake of being healthy community together, I sometimes wonder if our rules are too much of a good thing. Real people get hurt with these kinds of rules or traditions. It’s not just culture that has rules that can be harmful. In the ELCA, we have rules regarding when and who receives holy communion, we have rules regarding membership, we have rules regarding budget, etc. It can seem that we have a rule for everything and for everything a rule. Jesus asks the Pharisees and us, what then becomes our guiding principle? Our rules or God? Do we focus on ourselves and what we think keeps us close to God or do we recognize the diverse needs of our neighbor? What’s in our hearts? Are we more concerned with being safe and comfortable than proclaiming the Gospel?
The list of evil intentions that Jesus offers at the end of the reading, is not exhaustive, unfortunately, but is a lens through which to understand the purpose of rules or the law. The list all are ways that we use creation and other people for our own building up and gratification and not the building up and health of other people and the community. Laws and traditions that don’t build up your neighbor and show them God’s love but exclude them and denigrate them are not part of God’s law. The problem is that we can take a perfectly fine law and turn it into a source of pride or piety for ourselves. I talked with a woman this week who told me as a younger woman how hurtful it was that she was excluded from Holy Communion at a Catholic Church because she wasn’t baptized Catholic, actually she wasn’t baptized at all. The law of only certain people participating in the body and blood of Christ did not reveal God’s love to this woman, but only showed the pride and exclusiveness of the law. To be clear, this could have just as easily been a Lutheran or any mainline church. Jesus is clear that God’s boundaries are wider than we can ever imagine and God’s law is that of pure love and inclusivity.
Many of our rules, laws or traditions go unexamined. They become simply what we do without question or deeper thought into why or what the consequences of our traditions might be-such as communion, confirmation, worship, or even how I preach. A quote I love from theologian Jaroslav Pelikan is “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” Traditions are not bad in and of themselves and Jesus is not suggesting that we live willy-nilly with no compass or grounding principles. Jesus is holding a mirror to why we do what we do and does it reveal and point to the work and love of God in the world for the whole world.
How do we reveal God’s love here at LOTH? How do we examine what we’re doing or what we’ve always done to ensure that we are pointing to God’s work and love in the world and not our own need for rules and boundaries for our own sense of order? Our mission statement is a great lens through which we can examine all of our ministries and traditions. Do you know it? By heart? It is a little long-I’ll grant you but do you know the thrust of it? “Lord of the Hills is a welcoming home rooted in Jesus Christ. We honor the past, meet the present and change for the future. Young and old, we have joined together in mission to: proclaim the Gospel, serve the needs of the community, grow in faith, experience God’s grace through worship, welcome the visitor, and celebrate our diversity.” This is truly a Christ centered mission statement. And one that doesn’t allow us to become stuck in unhelpful or excluding traditions but admits that change might be necessary.
What I also love about this statement is that it’s clear that God is the focus of our lives together. We fully believe, just as we heard in our Deuteronomy text, that we have a God who is always near to us and hears us when we call. This good news of a closer than close God, orients us toward how we do live together, how we do ensure that the gospel-the good news that God with us all always- is proclaimed in our community and in our homes. This statement reminds us that diversity and nuance is needed, too much of a good thing can be life denying, when the gospel is all about offering life and offering it abundantly. This statement focuses our hearts on other people, all of God’s people, and not ourselves and what we want or think we need. It reminds us that God crosses boundaries to come to us in Jesus Christ and so we too cross boundaries to reveal Christ to the world.
Sometimes as humans we can have too much of a good thing in the rules, traditions and laws that we impose and can deny life and freedom to people. But Jesus proclaims that we can never have too much of the good thing of God’s love for us. In God’s good thing of love and grace, there is an overwhelming abundance that flows out from Jesus for the inclusion and reorientation of our hearts to the only rule that matters: God’s love. Thanks be to God.

 

Being Offended and God’s Story of Grace John 6: 56-69 Pentecost 13B, August 23rd, 2015 August 23, 2015

If you're going to be offended all the time. maybe the internet isn't the place fot you

 

We are people who get offended pretty easily it seems. I saw a meme on FB, a random picture with a pithy statement, that was Star Trek The Next Generation’s Captain Picard with the words, “If you’re going to be offended all of the time, maybe the internet isn’t for you.” I got a chuckle out of that, as how many of us can knock out going from “ohhing and awwwing” over cute cat videos one minute  to being  absolutely incensed the next minute by someone’s opinion on politics, war, poverty, religion or Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. I mean really, are they going to name this next baby South West to go with her sister North West? But I digress. We enter into any conversation, situation and environment (virtual or actual) with a preconceived set of ideas about the world according to us. We have to admit that we all have a story that we tell ourselves and live into that shapes how our lives should be, how our interactions with one another should be, even how people around us should be. We have an awful lot of “should’s” if we’re completely honest.  

We are bombarded all day long with other people trying to tell us stories of who we are and what we should be too. Media tells us the story that we aren’t rich enough, smart enough, thin enough, successful enough, strong enough, etc. We are told stories at work or school of what we need to learn or change about ourselves in order to fit in, or make others happy. We internalize these stories and begin to believe them. We filter all of our actions and interactions through these stories that may or may not even be true. We allow others-including other people we don’t even know- to write our story. These stories that we are told from the culture all have one thing at their core and foundation: they are written on the premise of fear. These are stories that are intentional about striking fear into us, often under the guise of being motivational, or good for us or what we really need to hear. So we become people of the story of fear; fear of being alone, not enough, and fear of not  being lovable. We internalize these stories of fear and perpetuate and transfer our fear onto other people. We don’t want to be alone in this fear, so we ensure that others are just as fearful as we ourselves.

The crowds that had been gathered around Jesus throughout this long discourse in John 6 are receiving Jesus’ words and message through the filter of the story that they told themselves in order to make sense of their world. We read that Jesus was in the synagogue telling the large crowd of his disciples (the assumption here is that there were more than the 12 who had been following Jesus, this was a group who had probably been following him for a little while) about how Jesus (as God incarnate) would dwell, abide, with them always if they ate his flesh and drank his blood. This story did not even come close to jiving with what they knew of God from the Torah and the story from Exodus about manna from heaven. (Not to mention the cannibalistic undertones!)That story was one of finitude, the Israelites still died as that bread was only about their physical bodies. Jesus was telling them a sequel to that story, that God was doing a new thing in Jesus. God was writing a story of gathering all people to God through Jesus. God was expanding the story from being about only abiding with those of Israelite descent to abiding with all of creation.   

That was not the story that some of these people knew or with which they were comfortable. The story they knew was that some were in and some were out of God’s kingdom depending on if they followed the rules. In John 3, Nicodemus had also struggled with this when Jesus told him that God loved the whole world. But Jesus is pointing out that the only rule is that Jesus is for anyone and everyone. Through simple bread and wine, not complex rules, Jesus gathers everyone to God  and offers life with God forever. This would be a story that would be difficult to hear and internalize indeed. If God declares everyone part of God’s redemption, then what about their story that they had been living with all of their lives that they had to act and think a certain way for God to love them? What did that mean for them? Were they not as special as they thought? Is there enough of God’s love, mercy and grace to go around if we’re now including everyone-even people with a radically different story from themselves? This was not only difficult for those gathered with Jesus in the synagogue that day; it’s difficult for us today.

It can be offensive to us that someone that we don’t like, don’t agree with or don’t understand could receive the same love, grace and acceptance from God that we do.  But here’s what I think offends us even more: that God’s story of unconditional love, grace and mercy is OUR STORY no matter what we say or do. That God declares that the stories we tell ourselves that are egged on by the narcissistic, fearful culture are null and void. It’s offensive to us that God’s story overrides whatever story we tell ourselves and it’s God’s story that changes us, not anything we ourselves do. God’s story transforms our stories and writes anew each and every day on our hearts the truth-the whole beautiful, yet painful and often self-shattering truth that our fear does not free us, our actions are not what save us and our thoughts are not the story that God tells about us.

God’s grace through Jesus Christ is indeed offensive! It arrives right smack dab in the middle of whatever story we are living with and declares that the only story that matters is the one that God tells. Period. But it’s not the end, it’s only the beginning. God’s story is that of coming to dwell with us in the very messy, and offensive flesh of a human being.  God’s story is Jesus revealing that God dwells with us and in us and in all people. Bread, wine and word are not only about sustenance for today, but when ingested not just through our mouths but through our hearts is God’s story literally inside of us, transforming us. God transforms us from worrying about ourselves to living for and with our neighbors. We are transformed from the inside out-to reach out to those different from us, to offer our time at Habitat, Ronald McDonald House, or Denver Rescue Mission. Or to stop and take the time to know and care for those in our community whom we know that no one else will take the time for. Transformed to truly love those we find unlovable, maybe even ourselves.

These teachings that transform us are difficult to accept-they are risky because they rewrite our story. It might seem easier to keep walking in our story and not continue in God’s story-the world wants you to think so. But even when we might think we can choose to go away, Jesus stays with us. Peter had a sense of this, that even if he left, Jesus wouldn’t leave him. It wasn’t that Peter had more faith, or knew the secret handshake with Jesus that gave him the inside scoop, but Peter had watched Jesus over and over go to people whom the rest of the world found offensive and offered them life with God.

Peter was hearing the story-the words of eternal life-the story of God doing a new thing and Peter was resting in the hope that this story was true because the story that the world had sold him about his life up to this point, only brought certain death, rejection and a lifetime of fear. Peter was willing to see what the next chapter of this story might be, because Jesus was telling a story that offered hope for the journey, accompaniment for the road, abundant life and most importantly, the promises of God to never leave him and to love him forever.

Lord of the Hills, to whom shall we go? Jesus is telling us a story right here, right now of eternal life, telling us a story of generosity, a story of abundance, a story of being enough and having enough. God’s story is smack dab in the middle of our story as a congregation. Lord of the Hills, to whom shall we tell this rich and achingly beautiful, yet offensive story? We know it by heart as we hear it over and over each week. We heard the story of God’s redemption and claiming in water at Eleanor’s baptism, we hear the story of God’s actions for liberation from sin and death at Holy Communion, and we hear the story of God’s love and grace as we gather together for coffee after worship. We experience the story of God’s promises for presence and eternal life now and forever each and every day, with each breath and heartbeat, for Jesus is the Holy One of God. It’s a best story ever told and we live it with God everyday. Amen.

 

A Pack of Gum and the Kingdom of God, John 6: 35-51, Pentecost 11B, Aug. 9th, 2015 August 9, 2015

My son Andrew’s love language is gifts. If you know anything about the Five Love Languages Book you’ll know that someone whose love language is gifts, love not only to receive gifts but to give them. It’s more than just a gift exchange at Christmas. If I go to the grocery store and bring back a pack of gum for Andrew, he is as happy as it were Christmas morning and he received everything on his list. He finds joy in the everyday ordinary gifts that might come his way, even second hand gifts. I recently gave him an old netbook and he was as happy as a clam even though it is slow and doesn’t really have a battery life anymore. You see, what Andrew really likes about gifts is that someone is thinking of him. When you offer him a pack of gum you picked up at the grocery store that says to him, “I was thinking about you even though we weren’t together.” For Andrew, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary, this has been a great reminder to me as his parent. He naturally sees the special where I see mess, ordinariness or something to complain about. How many of us would look at a pack of gum and say, “This isn’t a special gift! Isn’t this just some Trident from the impulse buy section by the cash register at King Soopers?” When really we shouldn’t complain because the gift isn’t really the object but the relationship the object implies.
I think we often miss the extraordinary in the ordinary. We look at the world so practically, logically and we attempt to make sense of all of our interaction with each other and even with God, through the lens of ourselves, our perspectives and our own motives. But God reaches down to us and disrupts our way of seeing the world. This is being revealed as we move through the 6th chapter of John a bit more and we see Jesus in the aftermath of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus fed them all and had leftovers, walked on water, and began explaining that it is God who has sent Jesus and promises to fill them with good things always. And in our latest installment of the story, Jesus reveals that God’s way is different from our way. God’s promises are richer than we could ever imagine, God’s love is deeper than we will ever know and God’s grace is more expansive than we can wrap our heads around. Jesus is using the very ordinary, everyday bread to try and get the crowds to catch a glimpse of what God is up to in the world through Jesus. This isn’t about following certain rules, being in the right place at the right time, or some sort of magical experience. No, this is about the reign of God that really frees those who are in any captivity, that really feeds all who are hungry, that really gives hope to the hopeless and mercy to the brokenhearted. This is God walking around with us in our ordinary lives, loving us and forgiving us in concrete, ordinary ways that reveals more plainly than we are willing to admit that God is in everything, in everyone, and is everywhere, all of the time. God is in the ordinary bread and the crowds, more accurately translated as the Judeans than the Jews, won’t believe it.
Jesus is special? This carpenter’s son? This boy with whom we used to go to synagogue? This dirty, scruffy, rough around the edges guy who hangs out with even dirtier, scruffier and rougher people is going to give us the eternal life with God? God has come down to us here on this ordinary countryside and not in the temple?
Like the Judeans, we don’t recognize Jesus all of the time because we like God clean, in pure white robes, holy in a special place and only on high holy holidays. You know so that we can control and keep track of where God is, what God is doing and who or what God is working through. We like God in a nice pretty box with a bow. That makes more sense to us. After all, that’s how we think about our lives with each other, some people have more status and clout and they often look like it. There are just certain people who should be kept at a distance, such as celebrities, politicians and those whom we might admire.
But praise God, that’s not how God works. God sees the extraordinary in the ordinary. God created us, ordinary people, in God’s extraordinary image for relationship with us. Jesus, as God made flesh (you’ll recall from John 1), is all about God’s deep desire to be with us. God’s motive is only to offer us all of Godself, as everything and the only thing that we need, even if we can’t recognize it. It’s not magic, it’s not self serving, it’s not God in a special place with special things, it’s God in the ordinary, objects and people so plain, that we are apt to miss it as the crowds did.
It’s completely extraordinary that Jesus gathers us, ordinary people, with ordinary lives, each week around an ordinary wooden table, with bread we bought at an ordinary grocery store and frankly pretty cheap, ordinary wine and grape juice. But don’t miss it, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary because the love and mercy of Jesus reveals our relationship with God. Jesus is present and promises to be in the ordinary each and every day of our lives, not just in beautiful worship spaces on Sunday mornings. It’s extraordinary that Jesus is sent to gather all people to God for eternal relationship with God and, extraordinarily, with each other, since all are created in God’s image. The extraordinary work of God is not nice and neat, it’s not linear, we don’t always see it, or get it but Jesus says that God is always at work where you least expect it. It might look like a pack of gum from the impulse aisle or a dirty, messy throng of people eating bread and fish with bare hands on the ground.
God is always at work in our relationships at our jobs, our schools, and in our neighborhoods. God is at work in our political systems, our social systems and anywhere two or three are gathered, so yes, even the DMV! I saw God at work this weekend as I ran the Ragnar Relay Race with 11 other pastors in the mountains. You would think that it would all be very competitive at a running race, but it was a place where I watched strangers offer encouragement, water, accompaniment, food, rest, and relationship. Ordinary water shared, revealed God’s work of relationship with us and for each other, ordinary food shared God’s work of nourishing us and each other, ordinary words of encouragement shared God’s work of caring for our spirit and for each others spirits.
Where will you see God’s extraordinary work in the ordinary this week? How will we as a community reveal the work that God is doing in us, for us, and with us for the sake of the world? Ordinary bread, ordinary wine, ordinary water, ordinary words do extraordinary things in the kingdom of God. We are transformed by these ordinary things to be the extraordinary people that God created us to be. God’s extraordinary love is at work in you, in me and in all of creation. Jesus has indeed come to us from heaven, from God’s kingdom as an ordinary person, not be set apart but to walk with us, each and every ordinary day, offering us deep and real relationship with God, now and forever. Thanks be to God!

 

God’s Power is Love! John 14:1-14 (VBS Sermon) August 2nd Pentecost 10B August 3, 2015

(*This sermon (preached at Lord of the Hills Lutheran Church in Centennial, CO)  was based on the VBS stories from Group’s Everest VBS curriculum. The texts were 1 Kings 17: 1-7, 1 Kings 18:9b-12, 2 Kings 5: 1-14, 2 Corinthians 9: 7-9 and John 14: 1-14. This sermon was written to be intentionally “cross + generational”  for the VBS Sunday where we invited VBS families to worship. The children sang a VB song, sat down up front and helped me with sermon and then sang another song. We showed a slide show of the week during offering. It was great fun!)

At VBS we all talked about and learned that God is powerful. Not the kind of power that we see in super hero movies, God doesn’t use x-ray vision, slings webs everywhere or turns objects into gold. God COULD do those things if God wanted but that’s not how God works. We learned that God’s power is love, and that love is expressed in lots of different ways. We learned from our two Elijah stories that God has the power to provide (HOLD ON!), God as the power to comfort (HOLD ON!), from our Namaan and Elisha story that God has the power to heal (HOLD ON!), from our stories of Jesus that God has the power to forgive (HOLD ON!) and God has the power to love us forever (HOLD ON!). Hmmm, it seems to me that all of these powers of God have very little to actually do with God but have everything to do with US! God’s power is one that God gives away, uses for God’s beloved people and tells us about God’s love for the whole entire world.

We also talked about how Elijah didn’t see God, Namaan didn’t see God and the disciples were confused about who Jesus was and what Jesus was talking about when he says that if you’ve seen Jesus then you’ve seen God. Elijah asked to see God (Did God come in a violent wind? An earthquake? A fire? NO!) but God only came to him in a whisper on the mountain, Namaan experienced God in the healing waters at the Jordan river and the disciples didn’t realize that they were in God’s presence until after God raised Jesus from the dead. But Jesus tells the disciples and us that we have indeed seen God because we have seen Jesus. Now the disciples actually walked around with Jesus, watching him heal the sick, comfort those who were sad, provide bread for everyone, forgiving people of whatever was separating them from God, and offering people God’s love unconditionally. Yet, they still asked Jesus, like Elijah and Namaan, “show us God.”

I can just see Jesus smiling as they asked him that question as they were standing right in front of God! Jesus was showing them God and God’s love every single second of the day! And better than that, Jesus showed them how THEY, the disciples and us, reveal God to the whole world every single second of the day. We think that we don’t see God in our everyday lives, but we do! We see each other and we know that each of us are made in the image of God-not just our bodies but our hearts too! Our hearts are created in the image of God’s heart and so we share God’s love. When the disciples ask or we wonder about seeing God-all we have to do is look around at each other! What are ways that we show each other what God looks like? (God’s Work, Our Hands with all of the other ELCA churches, Habitat for Humanity, Ronald McDonald house, In-Stitches, prayer shawls, school supplies for LFS, supporting the earthquake victims in Nepal, our preschool, sharing our building with other churches, Youth in Detroit doing service,) Yes, I think Jesus smiles when we wonder what God looks like, because all we have to do is look at all of the love around us!

It’s confusing, isn’t it, to remember that we are made in God’s image and can reveal God to each other? We forget, we sometimes just don’t feel like it or just plain old don’t do it. Someone might treat us in a way that we don’t like, or disagree with us, or not think the same way that we do and so we don’t show them God’s love. I do that sometimes and we all do that sometimes. But that’s ok because God says in the waters of baptism that we soaked Calla Lily in this morning that we are all loved and made brand new in God’s image of love EVERY SINGLE DAY and we can try again. God has the power to forgive (HOLD ON!) and promises to forgive us over and over no matter what because God created us to belong to God and to be loved by God forever.

God also promises that we are never alone. Jesus says in our story from John, that there are many rooms in God’s house, which means that everyone is invited into God’s house and no one is ever left out for any reason. Jesus tells us that he is God with us and the only way to God. Some people hear that as prohibitive, which means leaving some people out or that you have to believe exactly the right things about Jesus to go be with God and God’s people forever. But what Jesus is saying is that God sent Jesus so that the whole world is brought to God through Jesus. Jesus died and was raised not just for some people but for all people-even those people who aren’t sure about Jesus. We don’t have to worry about being left out-God leaves no one out. God’s power of love is enough to gather everyone into God’s house forever. God never leaves us and God’s people never leave us.

This morning we promised that to Calla too. We all promised to show her Jesus each and every day and to make sure that she knows the promises of God to provide for her, comfort her, heal her, forgive her and love her forever. We promise to be her community that shows her God.  We may not always understand God’s power but we can trust it and share it with the world because we know that God’s power of love is given for us each and every day, no matter what. Thanks be to God!