A Lutheran Says What?

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

Slot machines, Cars, and the Promises of God February 16, 2016

 

Donald Miller is an author who writes about Christian spirituality in our post-modern, post-Christendom, polarized culture. His breakout book, “Blue Like Jazz,” is a look at his own faith journey in the less than Christian culture of Portland, OR and his time at the less than Christian, perhaps even hedonistic, Reed College. Reed College is known for an anything goes culture and an official policy that allows drugs and alcohol openly on campus. Donald Miller tells of “coming out of the closet” as a Christian there and how people pushed him all the time about believing in a God that allowed bad things to happen to good people, didn’t seem to always answer prayer, allowed poverty, violence, hunger, disease, war, and any other horror that humanity could invent. He was pushed on how the Church just bilked good, hard working people out of their money and forced guilt for not following rules and going to Church on Sundays. When faced with those accusations, Donald admits that he struggled with those views on God and how God doesn’t seem to do what we think God should do. After all, wanting those things to end is not a bad thing.

But he realized something else in talking to people, Christian and non-Christian alike: we all seem to have an agenda with God. We all seem to have this idea who God is and what God should do and it shapes our relationship with God and with other people. Don says that his first image of God as a young person was that of God as a cosmic slot machine. We put our prayers, demands, wishes into God and want to pull the lever to get our answers and our reward. A transactional God if you will. We do A then God will do B. Very simple, neat clean, and predictable. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is more than prevalent and saturates our culture. One of my favorite artists, Janice Joplin, highlights this with her iconic song Mercedes Benz: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all drive Porsches; I must make amends. Worked hard all my lifetime, with no help from my friends. Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” (This will be sung.)

She then asks for a color tv and then simply a night on the town. She lowers her expectations with each verse but she hits on the crux of the human condition: we want what we want when we want it and we aren’t even to ashamed to ask God for these things with the presumption that God will fulfill our every whim. After all we’re good people, we pray, we give to our church, we teach Sunday School. Shouldn’t God give us something back in return or to use the verbiage from what is known as the prosperity gospel, if you do the right thing, believe correctly, and of course give enough money to their ministries God will bless you with whatever you ask. You will get a reward.

Only that doesn’t hold up for very long. Eventually that image of God will let you down. That image of God has more to do with ourselves and what we think we want and need than about what God is actually doing in the world. That image of God isn’t about unending grace, unconditional love and eternal life. That image of God is one that the world can control, manipulate and ultimately dismantle. But the good news is that this is not who God is:  we don’t have a transactional God, we have a relational God. We have a God who doesn’t confuse relationship and love with rewards.

I think that this is point of this story that shows up in Luke 4 as well as in Matthew and Mark. I wonder if this passage is not about Jesus setting an example of resisting temptation, or about how we should be like Jesus, or that we will be tested like Jesus was tested. We can discuss all of those concepts and that would be fine. However, when we ask ourselves why was this story is included in the three synoptic gospels, I think the answer is relationship. The world operates on transactions and quid pro quo, and we often, even in our closest relationships operate on that premise as well. If the other person does something (or doesn’t do something) then we will react in kind. We think that if we do a good job, or ask nicely, we should get our Mercedes Benz.

Jesus refuses to even entertain that way of being and play that game, if you will. At every turn with the devil, Jesus points back to God and what God desires for us: deep and abiding relationship. We don’t live by bread alone, Jesus says; we are wired for connectivity. We worship and serve God, Jesus says; which means gathering as a community for worship and serving our neighbors. Don’t test God, Jesus says, don’t confuse God with an ATM, or a Magic 8 ball or think that God is about answers and rewards for good behavior. God is about relationship; being on the journey with us whether we are in the wilderness or in the lap of luxury, whether we behave or not; whether we deserve it or not. God knows that what we really need and God simply gives as pure gift: grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.

Jesus who reveals the promise of life, freedom and grace from God that only God can give us. Jesus who heals, feeds, weeps and loves all people so that God’s love can be known in the world. Possessions, power and yes, even food, are fleeting and temporary. They lead to a cavern so deep that we spend a lifetime trying to fill it with more and more, never satisfied. But Jesus, as God’s perfect gift, fills us with living water, fills us with God’s word and fills us with himself through bread and wine, gathering us as one people of God for the sake of the world so that the world is filled with love. This is what it is to be blessed. To be loved and to belong to the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

Just as Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and led by the Spirit into the wilderness, God’s promise is that the Holy Spirit fills us and always stays with us everywhere we journey.  We celebrated that Jesus is God’s promise of relationship and love forever with pouring water over Will Patrick this morning. Reality is that believing in God won’t make all of our problems go away or that we will get a reward; there will be cancer, depression, not enough money, not enough time, not enough power. The promise is that God fills us with the Holy Spirit to be with us no matter what, especially in our wilderness wandering. Reality is that we will experience earthly death. The promise is that God will transform our tears into abundant joy, our sorrow into extraordinary hope and our death into life forever with God. The promise is that we belong to God and with God, forever, no matter what. Amen.

Advertisements
 

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere! February 13, 2016

I promised to blog and give up dates as to how this journey is going so far. You will find brutal honesty the only way I roll. This. Is. Hard. I went to the grocery store tonight and ran out of the mesh produce bags that I had diligently bought. Even doubling up on produce in the bags! I scrambled looking for more to purchase at the store, but they did not have any….except…I realized they are essentially mesh laundry bags! So, I bought a pack of three and continued on. As I shopped, I was overcome with all of the packaging. A plastic bag for an item and an item for a plastic bag. When I checked out, the bagging person, on auto-pilot asked, “Meat in a plastic bag?” placing the one meat item I purchased into a plastic bag as she asked it. “NO!” I proclaimed to her amazement. “I’m not using plastic bags for Lent.” She was literally stunned and stuttered…”I don’t know what to do then…” “Just put it in this grocery bag (reusable) and it will be fine. It’s already wrapped in plastic.” She stared at me for a minute and then placed the salmon in the bag. Let’s just say that this might have been the strangest interaction she had had all day.

I arrived home and started unloading the car. Mike came out to help me and as we put away the food, it occurred to me that I really hadn’t spoken to him about my Lenten discipline. (In my defense, I’ve been out of town, it was Ash Wednesday and he had a CO Wind Ensemble rehearsal last night. One of those weeks.) I began to tell him about my experiment and how the one place I’m struggling is with the garbage bags. “Well, I guess we could use paper bags…” I began and Mike without even turning to look at me said, “No. We’re not adding smell and mess into our Lent.” So, I guess I’m off the hook there. I might look for some biodegradable plastic garbage bags though. Just don’t tell Mike.

(I have not done much reading on social justice yet, I hope to get to some tonight or tomorrow.)

 

 

Divine Dust Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016, Year C February 11, 2016

False and True Worship

58 Shout out, do not hold back!
    Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

 

Maybe these phrases resonate with you tonight: “I don’t know how much more studying I can do, I’m so burned out.” “I’m exhausted from arguing with my teenaged daughter. I’m burned out on the fights.” “My supervisor just keeps piling on the requirements without allowing enough time or resources for the project. I’m burned out on her not listening.” “I can’t listen to any more political commercials. I’m burned out on the nonsense.” “I keep going back to drinking, gambling, overeating. I’m burned out on trying to change.” “I’m never going to be as good as my friend, colleague, classmate, neighbor. I’m burned out on not feeling good enough.” “I don’t know if I can make it one more day without my husband, wife, mother, father, child. I’m burned out on being sad.”

“I’m burned out.” It’s become a phrase that we throw around with our friends, family and colleagues pretty casually. Sometimes we use it as a badge of honor in relation to our busy and so obviously important schedules. Being burned out means that we’re so vital in whatever little kingdom we inhabit and so of course all of our resources are simply not only crucial but must be depleted. Otherwise, nothing will get done, right?

We also use this phrase to highlight our distaste and the repugnancy of whatever situation we are witnessing or are caught in. Politics, religion, money, taxes, are just a few venues in our lives where its seems that our capacity for engagement has a limit. We gaze out at the socio-economic-political landscape and what catches our sight is often less than hopeful, less than joyful, and less than secure. It’s difficult to near impossible to hear past the rhetoric and posturing of the political candidates to uncover anything of substance, anything that might be life-giving or anything that we might be able to grab on to for security and hope. We yearn for conversations of integrity, honesty and truth. We optimistically listen for what the future might bring for our children, grandchildren and even ourselves and then gut wrenchingly realize that perhaps we’re the only ones who are concerned for those who come after us. We begin to wonder that maybe change isn’t possible and this is the best that we can expect from our systems of government, education and yes, even the Church.

Or maybe you’ve used this phrase as a whisper of desperation for a relationship with a loved one or….yourself. When we’ve hit rock bottom and all we have left is the crippling knowledge that we are caught in a cycle that we alone, all by ourselves without any help, can’t break. When we’ve cried the last tear, because we’ve cried so hard, for so many days, that there is nothing left but long, dry, heaving sobs. When our hearts are not just broken, but shattered into so many pieces that we’re fairly sure that not only will it never go back together again but that there WILL be pieces forever missing. You’ve screamed the words in the car, in the woods or in the bathroom, “God, I’m burned out! I can’t do this anymore!”

God, we’re burned out. We’re depleted. We’re spent. Some days it seems that there is nothing left of our lives but ashes. Those dusty, dirty remnants of an object or thing that used to be, that used to be something of substance, of importance, of usefulness. Now, a pile of ashes, useless, easily scattered and easily blown away. What good are we as ashes and where is God when we are burned out, burned away to what feels like nothingness?

Isaiah writes, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” God hears us, listens to us, walks with us, cries with us, and sees us. God sees that we are burned out, that we are stuck in only going through the motions, that we spin our wheels and only send more dirt and muck flying up into the air, covering ourselves and those around us with the grimy specs of our attempts to take care of ourselves, go it alone, tricking others and ourselves into thinking that we have it all together, and that we can clean ourselves up at any time.

Ash Wednesday is the intersection of our dust, dirt, mess and fear of death and the reality of God’s promises for life . It’s when we admit not only our humanness and mortality but that we are being killed each day in millions of little and big ways. It’s when we run smack into the what it means when we pray “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil.” God promises to be our rescue. Not in a super hero sort of way swooping in at the last minute to take care of the bad guy or to fix a helpless situation and then dashing off until needed again. God’s rescue is on-going relationship with us each and every moment of our lives. God’s rescue involves a cross, suffering, death and then an empty tomb. God’s rescue is the promise to witnesses our ashes, the ashes that we keep hidden and secret from the rest of the world, and proclaim our beauty, love, and worth. God’s rescue is a return to our true identity as God’s very own children as well as a return to wholeness for all people as one people and creation.

God doesn’t see us as spent or used up but proclaims that we are created in God’s image, we are made from dust, dust that created the earth and all of the cosmos, divine dust. As divine dust creatures, it means that in baptism our lives and our deaths meet God’s promises for soaking love and for eternal life with God where sorrow and suffering is no more. We are showered with these promises so that we shower the dusty world with this life-quenching reality. There is enough in the river of life for all to be fed, clothed, housed and treated with justice and dignity. God’s justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an every-flowing stream (Amos 5: 24) and we are swept up in that tide. That tide that transforms us and the world, that tide that demands that we do not ignore God’s vision for wholeness but participate in radical justice and peace for the sake of our neighbor, who is also burned out on being pushed aside, transparent and scapegoated.

God takes our ashes and re-creates us, molds us, and enlivens us to shine with Christ’s light through our dust, to bring love and life into a world that is dying, dying to hear that brokenness is not the last word. Burn-out is not the last word. Oppression is not the last word. Death is not the last word. It is God who speaks the last word into our days spent in the messiness and chaos of life as God spoke the first words into the nothingness, chaos and dust and brought forth all of creation and life. God’s word always brings life; God’s word always brings hope; God’s word always whispers in your ear when you are screaming that you are burned out: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. I can do a lot with dust. You are mine, I see you, I love you and I am here.” Thanks be to God.

 

Only For God Jeremiah 1: 4-10 Epiphany 4, Year C, January 31st

 

Jeremiah’s Call and Commission

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

 

Some of you know that before I went to seminary I was a director of a Lutheran early childhood center. When I started the school in 2003, one of the visions for the school was to proclaim God’s work in the community around St. Matthew Lutheran located in a first ring suburb of Portland, OR, one of the least churched areas of the world. Surveys have shown that if every pew was full on a Sunday morning in Portland it would be only 4% of the population. It is a mission field indeed. We knew God was at work in Portland and we knew that proclaiming God’s word of love and grace was an important way we could participate with God. And so, in the DNA of the school were faith practices. Early on in the program we decided to teach the preschoolers the Lord’s Prayer and have the children lead the prayer in worship on Palm Sunday, followed by a potluck brunch, of course! We started teaching the Lord’s Prayer as part of our snack time prayer right away in September. We would sing our “Thank You” song and then pray the Lord’s Prayer. We used actions to help them learn it and our first Family Faith Night of the year was centered on the faith practice of prayer and specifically the Lord’s Prayer.

In this diverse and mostly secular Pacific NW culture, curiously we would have about 80% of our families attend to play games, make remembrances of the scripture (otherwise known as crafts-but anything that is made with their hands and goes home is important) and of course, enjoy treats. We had diversity in the abilities of the children as well as diversity in the faith backgrounds: from the nones (completely unchurched), Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, other Christian denominations to lifelong Lutherans.

One year, a family registered for the school in which the mom was a lifelong Lutheran and dad was a none. Their oldest child was an adorable three year old little girl named Ella. Mom wanted the children brought up in the Christian faith and dad frankly didn’t see the point. He was not thrilled to have Ella at an overtly Christian school and told me so. We began teaching the children the Lord’s Prayer and held our first family faith night. Dad did not attend with mom and Ella. Ella began to know the prayer pretty well and started insisting that they say it before dinner at home. Dad confessed he didn’t know it and Ella told him that they could learn it together. Even though Ella herself didn’t know it perfectly, Ella taught her dad what she knew of the Lord’s Prayer. She wasn’t concerned about details or exact words, she simply wanted her dad to pray with her because he didn’t know about God. Being only three didn’t stop her.

Palm Sunday arrived. The children were all excited and some parents were nervous as for many it was their first time in worship. We came to the point of the worship service where we had the children move up front for the communion liturgy. As we were organizing 60 three through five year olds, Ella began to call to her dad from the front. “Daddy, come up with me! You learned it too!” Dad gestured and shook his head no, of course, not wanting to take anything away from the hard work of the children. But Ella persisted, “Daddy you have to come up! You learned it just like me!” It was obvious that worship would not continue until dad came up. So, this six foot plus dad came and knelt beside his petite three-year-old daughter and together they all prayed the Lord’s Prayer, from memory, to God who was, who is and who will be forever. The presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable and everyone had tears in their eyes, including Ella’s dad. Pastor Eric choked his way through the rest of the liturgy.

We had all been witnesses to what our faith is really about: being together on the journey and learning from each other along the way. Life in God is this: God working through a child to open up an adult to the love and presence of Christ. An adult being offered hope through the ancient words prayed by children embodies the mystery of our faith. God did this, even though Ella didn’t have a theological degree; even though she couldn’t read; even though she was only three.

“Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” I am only a parent; I am only a grandparent; I am only a new believer; I am only a teacher; I am only an IT person; I am only a pastor; I am only a real estate broker; I am only a child; I am only…” We get easily caught into thinking that we don’t have what God needs to really do wondrous things and proclaim God’s word of salvation and wholeness for the world. We come up with a list of “only’s.” If I only knew the Bible better; if I only prayed more; if I only went to worship more often; if I only could get the courage to invite my neighbor to bible study; if I only had eloquent and encouraging words; if I were only more giving; if I only served selflessly. We make faith practices into a to-do list, or a prerequisite for being able to participate in God’s redeeming work.

Jeremiah also fell into that trap of the “only’s.” He knew that he was inadequate, without the proper training or lineage, of a priest. He knew that left on his own, he had nothing. He was only a boy; if he only had the right words. But God didn’t call Jeremiah because of his education, his lineage, his age, his skill set, or his piety. God called Jeremiah because Jeremiah belonged to God. God called Jeremiah because God calls all kinds of people, a motley crew, if you will, to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. God knows that in order to reach all people, not just the Israelites, not just the ones who show up to church on a Sunday morning, not just the ones who know the Bible, not just the ones who pray, but to reach all people, God calls all people from all kinds of backgrounds, ages, stages, and abilities. God calls you.  God proclaimed to Jeremiah and to us that God removes our “only’s.” God proclaims that the only “only” that matters is that we belong and are beloved by God. Jeremiah was known by God before he ever drew breath. Jeremiah would have heard while in the womb the prayers from the temple, the words from the scroll of the Torah, the songs of worship and the promises of God. These faith practices didn’t qualify him for the work to which God called him, but rooted him in his only identity, a child of God who always loves us and removes our fear.

Faith practices remind us that with God, a boy can tell a whole nation that they must repent or fall to the coming army. With God, a boy can proclaim that God will not forsake God’s people. With God, a three-year-old can open up her dad to God’s love. With God, a baby giggling down the aisle to communion can point us to the joy in the Lord. With God, a retired person can help a youth uncover their God given gifts. With God, a congregation of faithful followers of Christ can reveal to a cynical and hardened culture that hope, faith and love are real, are here, and those promises from our ever present God will not fail. With God, death on a cross can be new life and with God, an empty tomb can be the end of all separation from God.

Faith practices aren’t so that we can know enough, but remind us that with God, we are enough. Faith practices connect us to what God is doing to transform the world through the love of Jesus Christ. Faith practices bind us, young and old, in community to share the journey that is not always easy. We are moved by the wonder of the child and the wisdom of the adult and marvel that God literally wired us for one another in all stages of life. Faith practices root us, nurture us and send us out bursting with love, hope and grace into a world that is desperate to hear that they too are known and loved by God, even if our words are imperfect. Like Ella, do not be afraid that you are “only you,” but go with the confidence that you are called and loved by the one and only God of all creation, who will remove all of your fear. Amen.