A Lutheran Says What?

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

Beyond Our Imagination Sermon on Ephesians 3 and John 6 July 25, 2021

This sermon was proclaimed at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on July 25, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:

2 Kings 4: 42-44
Ephesians 3: 14-21
John 6: 1-21

Young Friends message: I’ve got a fun thing to show you to help us talk about how being together with people, impacts us. I have this plain jar of water and some water colors. If I put in the blue, what happens to the plain water? Yep, it combines with the blue and becomes a new color, one color together, they don’t separate. How about if I put in some yellow with the blue? Yep, it changes to green, do you know exactly what shade of green? Dark or light do you think? It’s hard to imagine the exact color isn’t it? Let’s see….yep its green! Not clear, blue and yellow, but a new color. Well, God created us, people, to be like this water. Every time we come together, we make a new thing. New experiences, new ideas, happen. Every time! We’re always new! We don’t stay the same, we don’t separate and stay our own self, but the parts of us combine. Sometimes we fight that and don’t like it as we don’t always know exactly what we will look like, or what we will do. But God wants to us to imagine, to dream about how we can combine our beautiful colors together and be even more beautiful. God wants us to use our imaginations about how to live together, how to do new things together that help each other, how to remember that God is making us more beautiful than we could ever imagine! We’re going to talk more about that.

“I just can’t imagine…” It’s a common phrase we use, isn’t it? Typically, we use it or hear it around events that seem completely beyond our experiences, positive or negative. It’s an expression that admits that our imaginations are limited, or perhaps that we intentionally limit our imaginations. After all, if we imagine too much, too wildly, too boldly, we could be labeled as unrealistic, a dreamer, or a problem. When we were young, many of us we had vivid imaginations didn’t we? We didn’t try and fit the world into neat categories. We imagined games, imagined that we were superheroes, imagined stories and songs, imagined what life was like on Mars or in the time of dinosaurs. We imagined that life was expansive and without limits. We imagined quite a bit. But then we stopped. We got older and became more practical and pragmatic. We felt foolish letting our imaginations run wild, so we imagined less for ourselves, for the world and yes God. And it seems when we imagine less, less is what we get.

The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand people is in all four gospels and in three of the gospels, it’s followed by the story of Jesus walking on water. Two stories side by side that are fantastical, mysterious, and beyond our imagination, which I think is the point and why each gospel writer decided that these stories mattered in the life of their communities. Perhaps they too were constantly underestimating, under imagining what God can do.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of realism and insist that everything must be grounded in human reality and in what is humanly possible, instead of what God can do. Jesus sees the great crowd and tests Philip. Now, I get itchy with the word test, as tests always seem punitive to me, but that is not how Jesus means the question here. It’s not a trick, it’s a reflection. How will we feed all these people? Philip answers from his limited imagination that it’s not possible. Andrew does a little reconnaissance work and brings up the balance sheet of a young boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fish and says there’s not enough. No imagination there either. I picture in my imagination Jesus sighing with compassion. In response to “how can we feed them?” Jesus basically says, “watch me.” And does. All by himself. In John’s gospel, the disciples don’t help. Jesus alone has the power, the imagination, the will to do what needs to be done, with or without human help. That’s not to say that the disciples aren’t important or not needed, but they won’t stand in the way of God’s power either. God is going to do what God is going to do. It’s better if we have the imagination to wonder and participate with God, but it’s not necessary.

Over the past 20 plus years of ministry, with a decade in pastoral ministry, I find myself wondering what God is up to and if my imagination is too limited. I need to take the prayer in our Ephesians passage to heart. This prayer is for the people to be grounded in the love and power of Jesus, not in human reality, or humanly possibility, but Jesus’ unrealistic, radical love. The prayer also proclaims that we will see God’s power to do more than we can ever ask or imagine. There is no talk of limitations, cost benefits, return on investments, risk management or the other ways that we limit ourselves and God.

How can we spark our own imaginations about the future, what God is doing in our own lives and as a faith community? Our council is embarking on some strategic planning in August, to prayerfully discern who God is calling us to become as OSLC. Part of the difficulty of imagining, I believe, is that we must imagine beyond ourselves and even our lifetimes. Over 60 years ago, a fledging congregation did just that and here we are today. It’s not about us and yet it is about us. God’s imagination for our futures and creation’s future, always encompasses us and is beyond us simultaneously. What do we imagine OSLC to be in five years? Ten? Twenty years? Who are we imagining will be here serving and loving God? Who will be in this room? How do we imagine them here in our midst today?

The disciples found it difficult to understand that Jesus’ imagination was always beyond their own, that Jesus comes to them and to us all, gathers and offer himself to people whom they would rather scatter and not deal with. Jesus sparked the disciples, and our, imaginations of what God is up to whenever two or three are gathered. We will do things differently, respond to different needs, create different ministries and let other ministries cease. We’ll have to reimagine relationships, what it means to dwell, with our neighbors and with Jesus. Jesus coming to us, moving into to our hearts, minds, lives, WILL change us, much like roommates change us, children change us, spouses change us. Dwelling together forces us to consider and to imagine different life patterns. God’s power is at work gathering community right here, right now, and we can’t stop it. That is good news my friends; our limited imagination can’t stop God. And how will we respond? We can double down on how things used to be or be imaginative and excited about what could be. Maybe its worshiping on Sunday evenings with dinner church, instead of Sunday mornings, maybe it’s using our land for unhoused youth or families, maybe it’s considering using our building for immigration assistance, childcare, or elder care. What if God’s call is beyond our imagination?

Jesus will come to us, will walk through any obstacle to meet us where we are in our fear, in our limited imaginations, in our uncertainty. Jesus’ powerful love that is for all people, imagines us as connected as one body, through his body. Jesus will work through us, in us and with us, and around us if necessary, to transform us and the entire world. We are a witness to God’s imaginative, abundant and powerful love for the people of God today, and tomorrow. We pray to imagine and be grounded in this truth. Amen.

 

Memory Loss Sermon on Ephesians 2: 11-22 July 21, 2021

This sermon was proclaimed in the community of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on July 18, 2021. It can be viewed on YouTube on our channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:

Jeremiah 23: 1-6
Ephesians 2: 11-22
Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56

Young Friends Message:

My grandmother died of early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 69. I was 22. The last time I had a chance to visit with her was about seven months before she died on Easter Sunday, 1995. She was already in a memory care facility where she spent her days walking the horseshoe shaped hallway over and over. I went and walked with her for awhile one day not sure how that would be. She didn’t seem to know who I was and spoke mostly of events that happened in her early childhood. I simply listened and kept pace, as she was still quick and spry! Her muscles remembered what to do it seemed, even when her brain could not. Except, occasionally she would look at me or say something that made me wonder if a glimmer of memory was seeping through the cracks of the disease. As our visit was wrapping up, she suddenly and almost dramatically turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, “I love you.” And then just as quickly as that came, it was gone. I don’t know if she really knew who I was. I suspect she had a sudden gut feeling that I was someone she loved even if she couldn’t remember my name, our relationship, why I was there or why she was in a facility. All she knew was on a bodily level was a certitude of love. I think of this experience with her often as in my vocational life as a pastor, as I have similar encounters with folks who have memory loss. The moment I put bread and wine in their hands, their bodies remember what to do. They may not remember their own names or families, but when I begin the Lord’s Prayer, they immediately pray with me, word for every holy word.  Or the sing the words of a favorite hymn. What their brain forgets, their body and heart remember what is true at a core, DNA, base level.

I admit to having spiritual memory loss most days. I go about my day just keeping pace with what needs to happen in my assessment to “get things done.” I see the tasks laid out in my planner: the emails, the sermon prep, the worship prep, planning for faith formation, bible studies, setting up zoom links, keeping the building maintained and the loops that can feel so important, and maybe some of it is. The tasks cause me to think that I’m making progress somehow, that I’m building something that will last with my busyness. Yet, I return to the same thing over and over and maybe that’s not where I’m supposed to be going. I forget that my worth isn’t in my doing but in my being. I forget that at the end of the day, my checked off task list won’t remind me of what really matters at a core, DNA, base level. Maybe you have a similar experience some days.

When my days are filled to the brim of frenetic movement from one task to the next, there are times when my body will indeed remember what my brain forgets is at the core: love. Love that remembers that my heart, brain and body are all connected, love that remembers that I am connected to all of you and your hearts, brains and bodies, love from God that is indeed here to build, but not through a task list, but through love in Jesus. Love that is strong enough to tear down any dividing walls of hostility whether it’s diseases of mind, body or spirit, social diseases, or our own egos and need to be right. Love that remembers that any rule or law that excludes or separates isn’t from God. Love that remembers that buildings don’t contain God, our bodies do. Love that remembers temples and sanctuaries aren’t human made but God created. Love that remembers God’s purpose, plan and will is for humanity, creation and God to be one, to be whole, to be in peace. Love that is at the core, in the DNA at the base level of all creation. Love that is built on the love of Jesus that refused to play the memory game of the world and constantly shook people to remembering that we are not to be pitted against each other for resources, or status or worth. Jesus called us to remember him, to remember that we are his body, wholly and holy his body, on earth and can’t be, won’t be separated by powers and principalities. Remember me, Jesus says, and remember that you are one.

I don’t want to forget this; I need to remember those who have gone before us and left us deep reminders of this truth. Yesterday, I was reminded that it was the one year anniversary of the death of John Lewis, the great civil rights activist, who fought his whole life, literally putting his body on the line, for voting rights for Black people, Indigenous people and other marginalized people. He never forgot that his life was to build a memory of love and justice that would outlive him. Yet, I’m guilty of letting my comfort and privilege give me amnesia and forgetting what Lewis, King, Gandhi, Martin Luther, Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Stanton, Harriet Tubman, and so many others risked their lives to spark our memories that we are to remember that we are all part of God’s kingdom, and we all have worth. I want to remember to get into “good trouble” and not worry about my own reputation, but remember the divinity of my neighbor oppressed by racial, social, gender, economic or any prejudice. I want to remember that Jesus never acquiesced to unjust religious or civil laws but worked to overturn them at every opportunity. Jesus never shrugged his shoulders and figured nothing could be done, but always reminded people that the power of God is at work in them and through them and yes, when they act for love, radical love, injustice can be undone. I want, I need, to remember this truth. I need to remember that God’s love isn’t a nice phrase we say, but a call to action for the coming of God’s kingdom.

I thank God for this memory of love that my grandmother had on that day, as it reminded me of the promise of love from God. I thank God for the memory of love that Jesus poured out to us in the bread and wine and from his own body on the cross. I thank God for the memory of love that lives in all of you. I thank God for God’s memory of love that never waivers, never leaves us, and never forgets, even when we do. Thanks be to God.

 

Never Afraid to Love Sermon for Frank Elwart

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We celebrated the life and baptismal journey of Frank Joseph Elwart on Saturday, July 17, 2021
The texts were: Psalm 121, Romans 8: 31-35, 37-39, 1 John 4: 7-19

Frank Joseph Elwart was born on September 3, 1939 to Frank and Josephine Elwart in Chicago, IL, his kind of town. He was so proud of being from Chicago! He loved to tell stories of living in Chicago, and well if we’re honest, Frank just loved to tell stories! And he was a gifted story teller who told it like it was, he never sugar coated anything and yet always had you laughing. That is truly a talent. And you always knew where you stood with Frank. I loved that about him right away! Anyone who starts teasing me from the moment we meet, is my kind of person. Frank was a person who didn’t take himself too seriously, didn’t try to put on a façade, a person who embrace who he was and will fully embrace who you are, imperfections and all. One of Franks requests for his memorial service is that it told the truth of his life. He didn’t want anyone standing up and pontificating on how perfectly wonderful he was all the time. He had a word for that, and I won’t repeat it here, but come see me during the reception.
Frank understood that he wasn’t perfect, that you’re not perfect, and life isn’t perfect. Since he understood this, he didn’t try to push a square peg into a round hole and I think it’s what made him so joyful. He had let go of falsehoods of perfection that most of us, or me anyway, hold onto and make ourselves miserable trying to attain. He didn’t seem to harbor much fear about anything either. Even the morning before he died, he and I were sitting and chatting, he was jovial and yes, regaling me with stories. He knew his death was coming, maybe not how soon, but he wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t looking for a perfect ending, just an honest one. Frank was confident not in his own abilities, but in God’s. Frank knew that God’s perfect love was enough for him, it would be enough for Robin, Jeff, Kim and Anne, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren in their grief and it’s enough for us all.

A perfect life might be what we all dream about and strive to attain in some way. And we all have different visions and perspectives on what perfection might be like for us. But the writer of 1 John wants the people in the community to know what truly makes for a perfect life: living, abiding, in the love of God through Jesus Christ with each other. This love is the love that Frank lived his whole life, it’s love that sustains us and promises to never leave us. God understands that we do occasionally fear, and it’s ok to fear, and yet God says don’t allow fear to overcome love and hold you captive. Frank never let fear hold him captive; he always let love lead him. He might have been afraid a time or two, but he lived deeply in a love that cast his fear where it belonged, not in control. He trusted in God to watch his going out and coming in. Frank loved fully without fear, whether that was his family, his friends, his church, or his beloved sports teams.

Frank abided in this perfect love, love that now makes him perfectly whole in the life of God. Frank now claims his baptismal promise that God’s love grasps him now and forever and grasps each of us too, all the time. We abide in this love that Jesus perfected in being human, in suffering, and in death. Love that is honest about what matters, love that demands more from us, love that brings joy; love that we share with one another. Love that can’t be conquered by fear, death, division or the world. Love that always comes to us, again and again. This love never ends, and so our love for Frank and his love of us, never ends. This is the promise that each day we proclaim, not perfectly, but boldly. We love, because God first loved us. Amen.

 

Remarks for the CORC Press Conference July 8, 2021 July 9, 2021

This speech was offered at the Salt Lake County Government Building CORC press conference on the American Rescue Plan funding coming to Utah for affordable housing. Below are my remarks:

There is a well-known and loved scripture in my faith tradition that are the words of Jesus to his followers: In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. This passage highlights for us that there is room for everyone, a space of love, security and dignity. Moreover, that each person is seen and valued. Room for all and a room for all. It matters, in my faith worldview, to God and so it matters to me and as a community who professes to care for one another that people have a dwelling place. We try to live this out from our diverse and varied perspectives, and yet, I know that I and we fall short despite good intentions. But we are given opportunities to try again.
We are in such a space right now to try again. We have an opportunity to create dwelling places for our neighbors who are unhoused with the $225 million dollars coming to the state to address the complexity of housing needs the American Rescue Plan. We know from the data that the initiative of Housing First, that is offering housing before other wrap around intervention services, is effective. In particular, stabilizing families with housing allows for the other layers to be addressed, such as health and mental health concerns. Both of which are typically a leading cause of chronic homelessness and without intervention, can perpetuate the cycle. In recent studies over 20% of people experiencing homelessness was diagnosed with a mental illness and 50% were living with a disability.
Data from the Housing First initiative in Utah county reported that 89% of families housed under a Housing First program remain housed 12 months later. SL County and Utah county have both witnessed the success of this initiative, and yet, we are still in need of a deeper commitment to additional housing availability for Housing First programs. Additional dwelling places are needed. This commitment will require outlay of funding at the onset but the county and state will reap the benefits long term when more families are stable, working, receiving education, productive and have dignity and value. Long term, affordable and accessible housing allows the health and mental health challenges to be effectively addressed and mitigated, thus offering a healthier population.

The gift of SL County that I see each day, is the value of community and the health of the people. Now is the time to invest in that value, to say yes to a dwelling place for each family and person, to say yes to a safe, loving space where we all thrive and flourish as intended by our loving God. How we spend our time, our resources and yes, our money, speaks to this value. Let’s value our siblings in need of a dwelling place.