A Lutheran Says What?

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

Where is the Love? Sermon on John 10:22-30 Easter 4 May 14, 2019

This sermon was preached on May 12, 2019 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, Utah.

Children’s time: Gather the children and ask: what does love look like? What does love sound like? What does love feel like? Love is many different things and is all around us! Can it be hard to see/hear/feel love sometimes? Yes. Sometimes we just aren’t aware of it until later or we’re so busy at school, sports or friends that we don’t notice. Sometimes it’s little things or things we don’t think about as love. One time when I was about your age, I was fighting with my sister and I wasn’t being very nice. My mom made me go to my room and I wasn’t allowed to play with my friends after school for a couple of days. Oh that really annoyed me! But now that I’m older, I realize that my mom was showing me love by not letting me be mean to my sister. My mom knew that loving me meant making sure that I also showed love to other people, including my sister. So, love is a bit tricky and annoying! But Jesus wants us to know that love is all around us even when we’re not sure. In our bible story today, Jesus says that he shows us God’s loving actions all the time, but we don’t always see or hear it. But God is always holding us in God’s loving and protective hands and God gives us people around us, like moms and other women, to show us this forever love. Today is Mother’s Day, a day when we celebrate women who show us love with words and actions. But again, we don’t always see it. I have these paper hands and you and all of us are going to write the names of women who show us God’s love and that we are held in God’s loving hands each day. It can be any woman. And then when you come up for communion, you can place the hand with the name on it on the cloth by the altar and we will have so many hands of love to remind us of God’s love for us! Let’s pray:

A favorite musical group of mine the Black Eyed Peas put out a great song in 2003 entitled “Where is the love?” that went to the top ten, with the chorus that begged “Father, Father, father help us, send  some guidance from above ‘cause people got me questioning where is the love?” It’s not always easy to see love in our lives is it? I have to admit that this week has been a tough one with another school shooting in CO that affected some youth from my former congregation. I found out that a bullet narrowly missed a young man in my confirmation ministry whom I used to tease about being our professional acolyte as he loved to be a part of worship and was an acolyte nearly every Sunday. Sadly, this has happened in CO and in our world too often. And there seems to be a lot that can cloud our ability to see love: deadly floods, geopolitical conflicts, the report that a million species are on the brink of extinction due to climate change, harmful words on social media, or on this Mother’s Day, the complexity of familial relationships, the sorrow of broken relationships, separation by death, the grief of not being a mother, the absence of a mother figure.

Wondering about the presence of love is not a new question or existential crisis for the 21st century. In the passage from John 10 this morning the Jewish leaders are annoyed with Jesus’ and the love that he has been spreading throughout the region. (I’m going to take an aside for a moment-when John references “the Jews” he doesn’t mean the Jewish people as a whole, he is always calling out the religious leadership who were oppressing the everyday people, protective of their own status and authority and were fearful of Jesus’ message of equality, inclusion and unconditional love for all.) Their question of “How long will you keep us in suspense if you are the messiah?” can also be interpreted “How long will you annoy us?” I love that and I think it fits a bit better! The religious leaders were indeed annoyed with Jesus! Jesus had spent the last three years (by the time we get to chapter 10 in John) turning their world upside down with God’s love! It didn’t feel very loving to them as all of the rules, guidelines, boundaries, and hierarchies that they had built their lives around were being erased by this Jesus who spoke to outcast Samaritan women, healed the unclean, gave sight to the blind, fed 5000 people with a little bread and a few fish, who turned water in wine, who over turned tables with a whip and chased out the money changers from the temple. This isn’t love, they thought-it’s annoying! How is this what God really wants? In the view of the religious authorities and many of the people-God’s love could only be attained, achieved, and earned by these very rules and practices that Jesus critiqued and ignored. The love the religious leaders had been looking and hoping for looked like a conquering warlike messiah that would establish an earthly kingship where some are in and some are out, or a messiah that would make them comfortable, in power and in control. How can we truly have God’s love if we’re going to allow all people, the sick, the hungry, the poor, the worthless, the non-rule followers, to flagrantly be included where they don’t belong?  We’re supposed to love people we don’t like or don’t like us? If God truly loves us, then we’ll have things the way we want them. But Jesus? How very annoying!

Jesus was a different kind of king and a different kind of love and it was hard for them to see it. Jesus’ answer to them is really an invitation. An invitation to see beyond the rules, boundaries and practices that they know. Look, listen, reach out and touch this love that is all around them. It’s there! Jesus’s followers, the sheep who hear his voice, experience it and these sheep can point others to it as well! But hold on-it’s not what you think.

Psalm 23 gives us glimpses into this radical love: This is love that gives us what we really need, sustains us when we are at our most fearful and vulnerable. This is love that restores our brokenness into abundant life, this is love that never leaves, this is love that gives us a place at God’s table even when there are people in your life who tell you that you don’t belong. This table that gathers us into God’s family-even when we are estranged from our human family and friends. God’s love pursues us, chases us relentlessly, is inclusive, unconditional and forever. Human love and relationships might be finite and broken, but God’s love never fails and holds us. And as Jesus tells us, we can never be snatched away from God’s loving grip.

And how do we know this? How can we tell? Because of Jesus. Jesus is God’s love, mercy, forgiveness and grace in the flesh, meeting us where we are. God and Jesus are one-not in the sense that they are the same person, but they express the same actions: loving actions. Jesus shows us God’s love and calls us, his followers, to be one with Jesus and God in loving actions. Jesus knows that the more followers there are, the more ways that God’s love is revealed in the world. God’s love is everywhere because God’s people and God’s creation are everywhere, we only must have eyes and ears open to it. Last weekend at synod assembly the keynote speaker was Richard Rohr, who reminded us of how God’s love is infused in all of creation. He spoke of how if we are open to this idea then “meditation on even a blade of grass can save us.” God’s love is revealed infinitely.

Knowing that we are held and loved is our foundation so that we can experience and share more of God’s love. Love creates love, creates love, creates love. And love unifies, love heals, love holds us, love makes us whole, love makes us holy, and love never leaves us. Love moves us to see our neighbor’s needs and to love in a way that makes a difference to them. Love means standing in solidarity with people whom society says are unlovable, love calls us to say “no” to that which steals life from others, love looks like demanding loving actions out of others-especially those in leadership. Love stirs us to move beyond worrying about who’s in or out, what’s wrong or right but pushes us to live in the mystery that life with each other and God is always one of learning, exploring and wonder. And it might annoy us, as God’s love is not always what we think it should be. Love is surrendering to the mystery that somehow all people and things belong; all people and things are held together in God’s loving hands and that eternal life begins now. Here is where love is: It’s all around us, it’s you, it’s me, it’s creation. It’s the promise of Jesus to be with us and that God’s love pursues us now and always. Thanks be to God.

Prayer cards can be collected.

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New Perspectives Sermon on John 20: 19-31 Easter 2

This sermon was preached on my first Sunday at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, Utah.

Children’s sermon: Gather the children and introduce myself! Talk a bit about how I’m new to Our Saviour’s, to Utah, to so much right now! I’m seeing all kinds of new things! And I’m so glad to see you! What special day was last Sunday? Easter! Yes! What do we celebrate on Easter? Yes, that God raised Jesus from the dead, the tomb was empty and because Jesus has new life, so do we! We have different ways of thinking about that, different symbols, and one we often use is a butterfly. Do butterflies start out as butterflies? No, what is the butterfly life cycle? Yes, first a caterpillar, then it spins a chrysalis or a cocoon and what happens in the chrysalis? The caterpillar becomes the butterfly! It changes! Then the butterfly emerges and is very different than before. Not just in looks but in what it can see. Where are caterpillars mostly found? On the ground or maybe in a tree but not too high up, so they can only see a little bit around them. Where do butterflies go? Everywhere and up high! Do you think they see the world differently than a caterpillar? Probably! Do you think that is weird for the butterfly until it gets used to the new perspective? Yes! It takes time to sort new things out and to realize that life is different as a butterfly. Our bible story talks about this today. The disciples are locked in a room after Jesus has died and been raised because they were afraid and confused about what would happen next. They don’t know what to do with this new information that Jesus is alive! They know that it’s important but what should they do now? Then Jesus comes to them and says “peace be with you” which reminds them that God is always with them. Jesus knows that they are confused and so helps them sort out their new perspective. Jesus says now that the new life is right here, right now, for them and Jesus gives them the Holy Spirit. The very breath of God will be with them and will send them out to tell the whole world about this good news that God says that nothing-not the things you do or don’t do, not your words, not even death-keeps you from God’s love and care! Seeing Jesus gave the disciples a new perspective on Jesus’ death and resurrection! Now Thomas wasn’t with them and didn’t get to see Jesus, and really wanted this same new perspective! Thomas sometimes gets called doubting Thomas but that’s not really fair-Thomas doesn’t doubt the resurrection of Jesus, Thomas wants to be a part of this new mission of Jesus ! And Jesus does come, Thomas sees him and knows that Jesus is Lord, and God forever! Thomas now has the new perspective of Jesus’ mission for himself and for us all! Thomas’ new perspective led him to share Jesus’ love all over the world!

Like these butterflies, as people who love and follow Jesus, we now have a different way of seeing the world. We see the world as a place to spread God’s love and joy everywhere we go, like the butterfly spreads joy wherever it goes. How can you spread God’s love and joy? Yes! So many ways and you have so many gifts to share! You can each choose a butterfly to remind you that as God’s people we see the world as a place to share love and joy-like the disciples did! Let’s pray:

New perspectives! Mike and I can identify with that over the past two weeks! It seems that one night we went to sleep in CO and then woke up the next day in Utah! While it’s only about 500 miles from Denver, it’s a whole new way of living. We have a new perspective on the Rocky Mountains seeing them on the east rather than the west-that’s going to be directionally problematic for a while…lower elevation means different plants and trees, a different home in a new community, new neighbors, and even mundane things such as a new garbage pick-up day. New perspectives are exciting and as human beings we often seek them out, and at the same time we are overwhelmed by newness. Newness always comes with some risks. It’s a push/pull relationship for most of us with new ways of seeing our lives in a new context.

Our text today struck me as highlighting new perspectives. Yet, this gospel lesson today is often called the Doubting Thomas text and that has never really sat well with me. Whenever a text has a scapegoat, I start looking for why. Why are the couple of verses where all Thomas wants is what the other disciples and Mary Magdalene already have, singled out as a problem? As I mentioned, Thomas isn’t doubting the resurrection-he’s asking to have the same altered perspective as the others. He wants to experience the risen Christ, to be infused with the Holy Spirit which affirms his relationship with Jesus, and to be sent out with this good news of Jesus’ resurrection that most definitely changes everything. After the trauma of the cross, hiding from the authorities, the fear of what would happen next, then the message from Mary, Peter and the beloved disciple of the empty tomb, Thomas is fervently praying/hoping for something new to happen! Anything else has got to be better than the past few days! Even if the newness is risky!

And Jesus comes to Thomas. Jesus once again slips into the locked room and doesn’t chastise Thomas but offers him what he needs, a new perspective-touch my wounds, believe that this new life is also for you, Thomas. Jesus offers him reassurance of their unending relationship. We don’t really know if Thomas touches Jesus, the text never says that he does, but what we get from Thomas’ lips is a new proclamation of truth, of hope, of grace and of mercy for all the world and a new perspective on Jesus: My Lord and My God. The gospel summed up in four words. Our Lord- the one who was risked being truly human and in solidarity with us in our pain, suffering, sorrows, joys and celebrations. And our God, the divine, the one who redeems, gathers us in God’s mercy, love and care. God the one who gives us the Holy Spirit to reorient our perspective again and again to our baptismal identity as God’s beloved and as co-creators in God’s kingdom to reconcile the world into God’s promises. This proclamation is the statement of new life with Jesus not only for Thomas, but for us all.

And so on this second Sunday of Easter, we at Our Saviour’s have a new perspective. It is the end of the transition process for OSLC and today we begin ministry together for the sake of the community around us. It will bring new perspectives for us all as we will see the world differently going forward. We will fully live into the newness of the Easter truth: perhaps like the disciples, not fully understanding what that means or what God has in store, but also trusting in the promises of Jesus to fill us with the very breath of God that sends us to unexpected people and places with forgiveness, grace, mercy and unconditional love which are to what the mission, vision and core values of this community call us.

This new perspective is everything-it’s about how we will live together, witnessing, to the experience of Christ in our lives not for our own sake but so that as the writer of John states in verse 31: So that others will come to believe and have life in Jesus. Resurrection life that is right here, right now, not just someday when we physically die, resurrection life that will shift perspectives, resurrection life that calls God’s beloved to feed the hungry, house the unhoused, visit the imprisoned, care for the suffering, clothe the naked and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and God. Resurrection life that spreads the love and joy of God wherever we go. Resurrection life where Jesus reminds the disciples and us that we have the power to offer forgiveness and to receive it. Resurrection life has power to restore relationships and communities.

Resurrection life and new perspectives will also come with risk, it’s not safe or tranquil. As the disciples experienced over and over as heralded in the book of Acts, this message of unconditional love demands radical justice that pushes human systems and shatters cycles of status quo, violence, religious intolerance, exclusion and discrimination of any type.

Living as resurrection people call us to stand with those harmed by these systems and to give witness to the damage done. We pray for our Jewish siblings today at Congregation Chabad in CA as they lament the evil that entered their sanctuary and we join our voices and spirits to all who mourn this day. With the people of God throughout the millennia, we live into this resurrection life with all its messiness, confusion, challenge, beauty, inspiration, wholeness, and value. This is why God creates community in resurrection life, where we encourage one another, guide one another, forgive one another and love one another. We call one another back to this new perspective, remind one another to look for resurrection, as we proclaim in the Nicene Creed, to seek out where God is cultivating new life through Christ all around us, to witness to it and proclaim with our entire lives “My Lord and my God.” It’s a new beginning. Jesus promises to come to us with peace, forgiveness and mercy and to be with us in this abundant life-giving mission. Thanks be to God.

 

 

Burned Out An Ash Wednesday Sermon March 6, 2019 March 7, 2019

This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO on March 6, 2019. It can be viewed at http://www.bethanylive.org

The texts for the day were Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 6: 1-21

 

We live in what many psychologists call a “burn out” culture. We have 24 hour news cycles, constant connectivity, the ability to work from anywhere, anytime, the mentality of “work hard, play harder,” the idol of busyness, the pressure to have the perfect home, family, physique, diet, the list goes on and on. We have never ending “to-do” lists and feel the pressure of not being worthy or enough. So we put on masks to cover up our unworthiness, the pressure, the tension and even figure out how to glorify the masks. “Oh I’m so busy!” we say! Translated, that means, “aren’t we so important to people and without us it all falls apart.” Another translation could be “I need to be needed and without being busy, needed and noticed by everyone, I’m a nobody.” So, with that tape running through our minds, we think we have to hustle for our worth, we keep on our masks of self-importance and perfection-until we can’t. We burn out. Sometimes it’s subtle and we simply become exhausted and take a break and try to reorder our priorities. But sometimes, it’s more insidious, isn’t it? It’s a health diagnosis, it’s depression, it’s destructive relationships, it’s doubling down on power and control in our own lives or tightening that mask of the image that we show the world, while internally we are literally dying, becoming ashes, dust.

We’ve all experienced some form of “burn-out,” I know that I have. I reach a point where I’m not really me, not the best version of myself to anyone, anywhere. I slip on the mask of strength, perfection, having it all together, the perfect wife, mother, pastor. But here’s the thing about masks: they aren’t built to stay on. Eventually, it will slip, and then I’m grateful for family, friends, trusted colleagues who see beneath my mask and say, “hey this mask isn’t really you. This isn’t who I know you to be. How can I help you recover your true self, your true identity and come into new life?”

On Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, we start with the reality of our masks. We admit that we are burned out of the masks we wear, of trying too hard, and we are afraid of being a pile of ashes. We are weary of being in the dark of our masks. We long for light, life, freedom, truth, grace. We long to be reassured that we are loved but we cling to the fear that we need to earn love. So we end up sliding those masks right back on, even though we know that they aren’t really us.

These masks are not new to modern times. Jesus names these masks in our Matthew reading as hypocrisy. Jesus points out the masks of religious piety, of putting on a mask of self-importance, worth, and pride are as much an issue as the other masks that we might try on. Religious rituals themselves are not the issue, doing religious rituals to prove your worth is wearing the mask of false identity. You are not created to serve you, you created for relationship with God and neighbor. You were created to bring your true and whole self into the light, to be the light of Christ.

Giving alms publicly means nothing if you withhold basic needs from your neighbor in private. Praying out loud with eloquent words and complex sentence structures means nothing if your everyday words to your neighbor are cruel, unloving, oppressive, homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, and hurtful. Showing that you are fasting means nothing if in the rest of your life you serve your own interests, as Isaiah writes, you hoard and take more than you need with no thought of others. It’s a lot of energy and work to act one way in public and be someone else in private. It can burn you out.

Jesus invites us to take off the masks of hypocrisy, to expose our true identity, to be God’s own people of light. The return to our authentic selves, unmasked, vulnerable and beloved. This is a rich gift that never fades, never breaks, and can never be taken from you. It’s from where true life flows. This new life is what God promises to do with the ashes of our masks, the pieces of us that burn away when we turn again to trust God for all of who we are and all that we need. This is why Jesus teaches what we now call the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, Mark and Luke. This prayer has simple and unpretentious words that names us as God’s own, names us as worthy, grounds us in accountable and beloved community and reorients us to the reality that we can’t control our lives, we can’t hide behind our masks of independence, autonomy, busyness, perfection or ego. They are words with which we can cry out from the dark to the Lord, our parent, and God responds: Here I am. They are words that each time we say them together as the people of God, breathe new life into our ashes, the dust of who we are and remind us that the promise is indeed there is abundant life in being who God created us to be, instead of trying to be someone else. The Lord’s Prayer names our treasure that we are God’s here on earth and for all of eternity.

We all come to a place where we burn-out, we are a nothing more than dust and ash. As our masks slide off, we call out to God and God responds with the light of Christ and the truth of being sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever. This cross that is placed on our foreheads is dirty, messy, and imperfect, but it reveals the truth of what is behind our masks: that we are worthy just as we are, deeply and unconditionally loved and set free to be who God truly created us to be. We are reflections of Christ’s light and love to a world that is hiding in the darkness of their masks and to hear the words: Remember you are God’s and to God you shall return. Thanks be to God.

 

 

We Build Up Sermon on the Faith Practice of Encouragement March 5, 2019

This sermon was preached on February 3, 2019 at Bethany Lutheran Church. You can view it at http://www.bethanylive.org

The texts are Deuteronomy 30: 15-20, 1 John 3: 18-24, Luke 12: 22-34

Children’s sermon: Do you ever have a day where everything seems hard and you worry about everything? Maybe even friends say things that aren’t kind and we feel bad. Show me what you might look like on those kinds of days. Yes, we might slump over, hang our head, make ourselves small. But what about when you are having a hard day and someone says something that makes you feel better? Such as “I’m sorry this is hard, but you can do it!” or “I’ll help you!” or “You are good at this!” Show me how you might look then: Yes, we stand up a bit taller! We feel bigger and more solid. We feel built up. We just heard three bible stories on how God wants to build us up. God wants us to have life, love and freedom from worry. All really good things and they are hard to remember. Sometimes we get confused about what is important and we worry about things.  Have you ever worried that you weren’t smart enough, or tall enough, good enough at something or had the right clothes to wear? Yeah, me too! Adults do this all the time too, we just don’t admit it.  Do you know what encouragement or to encourage means? Yep! It means we build each other up! This is the sign language for encourage. It’s the faith practice that we are exploring in worship today and in our cross + Gen faith formation. The middle of the word encourage is courage which means strength and “cour” which means “heart” in French. So when we encourage each other or God encourages us-we are building up each other’s hearts and God builds up our hearts with words of love. And there is plenty to go around! Telling someone that they are special or good at something doesn’t take away from our specialness or talents.

God builds up our hearts by giving us words of life, of remembering to love Jesus, to not worry, to trust God and to build up other people’s hearts. How can we build other people up? We happen to have a holiday that is all about hearts coming up. Valentine’s Day! We give cards and treats that remind our friends and family that they are loved by us and God! These are words and actions of encouragement that build each other up and build us together as a community of God’s people! I have Valentine’s here for each of you.

Encourage is a concept that we often water down to mean cheerleading or affirmation yet, in my own life, I’ve learned it’s so much more than that. I’ve recently discovered the Netflix show Marie Kondo’s the art of tidying up. Have you heard of this? She had a book a few years ago and now she has a show. I didn’t read the book, as I consider myself, especially at home, don’t look in my office, a tidy person. I don’t like clutter and as a military kid, living in military housing, you were not allowed to leave for school unless your bed was properly made, your things all put away and the bathroom picked up. we were inspected once a month and we never knew when. So, I never did the messy teenage room thing and when our kids were teens I couldn’t understand the piles of clothes on the floor and beds unmade. It’s completely foreign to me. So, I honestly eschewed Marie Kondo’s tidying ways at first, assuming the Air Force regulations and my time in Japan were sufficient. But the other night it popped up at the top of our Netflix stream and I was mesmerized. You see, I discovered that it’s not about just tidying, it’s about joy, gratitude, relationships and building people up, giving them courage to be all of who they really are.

Marie begins by entering the home, greeting the family, and then kneels on the floor to give thanks to the house for offering protection and safety and to honor the tidying that is about to occur. Often the home owners tear up. You see this isn’t about how big or fancy the house is or how to make the house better. It’s not Fixer Upper or My Lottery Home, it’s about focusing on the correct thing: what kind of life they want to live.  Houses are simply a place where life is in proper perspective and you can be who you truly are, a space for your heart and spirit to be nurtured and built up. Marie, with her wide, gentle smile and breezy Japanese,  asks people the hard questions about how they want to live and who they are. She tells them to connect with what brings them joy and then discard the rest. She shares with them her own imperfections and struggles, she’s quick to make sure that the families know that she’s not better than them, just on a different point on the path and can walk with them because she knows the way. She reveals her heart to them. Marie is clear that this is hard work but they are not alone. She shows them that their heart and relationships are their treasure and who they truly are, not their things. She gives them courage to be their true selves and not hide behind stuff, worry or fear.

This is the truth of building someone up or encouraging them. Building up is heart work, as I told the children.  It strikes at the very core of who we are and who God is. I was struck this week, that really any bible passage would work, as the faith practice of encourage weaves through the entirety of the biblical witness. God offers prophets such as Moses, community leaders such as the writer of 1 John and Jesus, and God’s own son, to build us up, to reveal God’s heart, to ask us hard questions about how we want to live, to point us to who we truly are and gives us each other as  community on the path of faith together. Encourage is a faith practice that can simply not be done alone. Together we are built up and reminded of the truth that we indeed have life-the joy of living in our identity as God’s children together in community but death-living in the identity of the world that focuses on self, status, material wealth, and privilege, is pulling on us too. Choosing death might seem easier in our culture, after all the world tells us that it’s all about us, our stuff, the size and expensiveness of our homes, cars and other possessions. If we don’t have those things then we are no one and we should worry, be afraid and work harder to attain those things. But it leaves our hearts deep in clutter, over stuffed and overwhelmed by things that don’t bring joy.

In Luke, Jesus encourages us and says don’t worry, don’t be afraid and focus on what matters, true treasure, offering your heart to God and neighbor. Discard everything else. This is courageous behavior and it requires our whole selves. Jesus calls us as disciples and builds us up to live as God’s people so that we can offer our hearts to build up people who need to hear of God’s love and grace-to walk with them, to point to hope and true joy. Not with only kind words but with our actions. It takes real courage, strength of our hearts, to say “no” to our own wants and desires in order to build up our neighbor in need. As God’s people we are called to build up our neighbors who do not have shelter, food or clothes by providing those things without judgment or critique. We build up our neighbors who are invisible to the rest of society: people who are the differently abled, black and brown, LBGTQ or simply different from us by seeing and standing with them. We build up our neighbors when we listen and put aside the need to be right in order to hear their perspective, we build up our global neighbor when we  reflect on how we in the US often live at their expense, and we build up people we’ve never met, even at the cost of our own wants or convenience. Jesus tells us that there is a cost to living as disciples, it takes courage, strength of our hearts, to follow God’s heart for the world. Jesus should know, he paid with his life.

The cost of following Jesus and practicing encouragement will be the death of our egos, desires and privilege but will raise us be courageous witnesses to new life in Jesus of love, joy, gratitude and grace.  Our hearts and lives are built up by what matters, joy in the promises of God for love and life through Jesus Christ, today and forever.  Okage de kami ni narimasu. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

The Gifts We Bring Epiphany Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 January 9, 2019

There are people with the love language of giving and receiving gifts, like my sister and my son. They both of that knack of picking out just the right thoughtful object with a personal touch complete with impeccable gift wrap. I, on the other hand, am not a good gift giver. At Christmas time and for birthdays for my friends and family, I literally freeze up with indecision on what to purchase or offer. And usually it’s lame. I personally love the invention of gift cards, as then I can let other people pick out what they want, but this also feels hallow, insincere and impersonal, even when I don’t intend it to be. And my presents always look like a three year old wrapped them-and now that my kids are grown and I can’t pass it off that I had them help me.

Gifts are important-not for the material objects that are traded back and forth, but for the personal connections that they signal. The proclamation of the deep and abiding relationship that exists between the giver and the receiver. Receiving gifts can be tricky as well. When I receive a tangible gift, my first reaction is almost always guilt. Guilt that I could never come up with as thoughtful a gift as was offered, or was what I offered as thoughtful or equal? Or the worst-I receive a gift from someone whom I never expected and I didn’t have anything to offer in return. Ugh.

Gifts are the center of our Christmas and Epiphany season. Yes, the tangible gifts we give and receive, but the unexpected gift of God’s love made flesh in Jesus. A gift that we tend to take for granted in the Church and yet, when I reflect, meditate and ponder on this gift-occupational hazard-I realize how incomprehensible it is that God would take the form of a BABY. That God would take on human skin, human joys, human sorrows, human sickness, human messiness and human death-all to be with us, redeem us and love us.

And what do I offer in return? Everything I have seems inadequate in comparison to the gift of Jesus-and yet, I’m always stunned by this story of the Magi and how they enthusiastically, reverently and unswervingly simply offered what they had. Gifts that don’t match what a baby or a young family need. Gifts that in many ways seem useless and frivolous. Gifts that we might say (except maybe gold) “now what am I going to do with that?” Even with just straight up gold, you have to go through a process to have it translate into anything useful-a gold bar or necklace isn’t going to buy your groceries without some work.

And we simultaneously get hung up on the monetary value of the gifts-these were not cheap, chinzy, dollar store gifts-these gifts had some value as well as meaning in Jesus’ time. It makes me wonder-what gifts would I bring to Jesus today? How do we respond to the greatest gift we’ve ever received in God’s love incarnate? Do my gifts need to be flashy and expensive? What if we look at these gifts from a different perspective?

Gold was the first gift mentioned: possessing value in nearly every time and culture. Giving money in our time and context has become common place and can distance us from ministry. I can placate myself by saying “well I gave money to the rescue mission, so maybe I don’t have to actually go down there where it’s dirty and feels less safe.” But what if the real treasure is the giving of our hearts to God’s people, what if the true gold is the risk of allowing our hearts to be broken open and offered wholly to God’s people for the sake of sharing the gift of heart moments-deep relational connections?

Bev (8:15) and Keri (10:30) will walk forward at this point and will put an object by the manger that represents their heart work/ministry and say “I offer my gift of connecting my heart with other people’s hearts to be with them on the journey.”

We all have hearts of gold to offer God and God’s people.

The second gift is the perfume, frankincense. It was used in religious worship in the time of Jesus and is still used as an essential healing oil. Traditionally, it is also affiliated with wisdom and spirit. What wisdom do we offer God’s world as disciples? I know that the wisdom of God is often at odds with the wisdom of the world. The apostle Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians. The wisdom of loving one’s neighbor as much as ourselves is in direct opposition of a world that says worry about yourself first, fear anyone who isn’t like you and we must be autonomous and able to take care of ourselves. But like perfume wafts over us and we all breathe in the same fragrance, so the Holy Spirit fills us all and connects us with love, grace and mercy-God’s wisdom that can heal the world. How does God’s wisdom change the world?

Doug (8:15) and Josh (10:30) will walk forward at this point and then place their symbolic object at the manger and use the microphone to say something like: “I offer my gift of connecting with God’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit so that all people know God’s healing love, grace and mercy.”

We all share in God’s wisdom and Holy Spirit to change the world.

Then there is myrrh. This gift is one that points us from life to death. Myrrh is a spice/oil that was used in preparation of bodies for burial. It’s mentioned in John 19 and Mark 15 at the death and burial of Jesus. This embalming oil offered to baby or really toddler Jesus, is a dark reminder of what is to come. Death on a cross, burial in a dark tomb. But it also points us to the resurrection, life eternal with God. God overcomes death, all the little deaths of our daily lives and the finality of the end of this existence to point us to the promise of life without end, life in wholeness, life in love and life in the light of God. Myrrh also heralds that God holds nothing from us and the life of Jesus draws us all back into the life of God. And not just for us individually, or for a certain few, but for all. When we live our lives for God, people notice, even if we don’t say a word about God.  People notice that there is something different, that we aren’t focused on the same things as everyone else, we have different priorities. Our lives are not for us alone but for others. This is hard as we are in some ways wired for self-preservation too. But when we recognize our lives as already belonging to God, what changes? And so how is it that we offer our lives, our whole lives to God too?

Evan (8:15) and Brian (10:30) come forward at this point to the manger and place the symbolic object at the manger and say something like “I offer the gift of my life to God’s work with God’s people so that they will know God’s promises of life, love and light forever.”

We all share in the promises of life forever with God and in the call to live our lives for others.

Gifts. We all have them. God has given each of us something unique and important to share that the world needs. The gift of our hearts, the gift of our spirits that connect with God’s Holy Spirit and the gift of our very lives to live not for ourselves but for others. We have these gifts from God through Jesus. God gave God’s heart, spirit and life in the coming of Christ to reveal that we are part of this great gift, we are offered this great gift unconditionally, and we are free to respond. God doesn’t offer this gift expecting reciprocation, as the honest truth is that we can’t fully reciprocate the splendor of God’s grace and love for and with us forever. But we can respond. We can respond with our hearts, spirits and lives in overt and subtle ways. We respond with a diaper drive for Inner City Health Center, we respond with the Souper Bowl of Caring to feed the hungry, we respond with college and military care packages, we respond by building a Habitat House, we respond by supporting refugees and immigrants seeking safety and stability with our partner churches. We respond with our actions and voices to say “NO” to systemic injustices such as racism, gender and sexual orientation discrimination and like the Magi defying Herod’s order to return to him, we follow God’s way and not the way of powers and principalities. The most powerful response to hate in the world we have as followers of Jesus is radical, risky all-in love and acceptance of all people. Jesus always responded to people with love and so we are called to do the same. We have the gifts the world needs, God has made sure of that. If you think that you don’t have anything to offer, let me assure that you do. And like the Magi, we don’t stay at the manger, we go back to our homes, communities, work places and daily life, bolstered by the gift of God’s love that we receive and we give.  Amen.

*We have a prayer station as part of our Epiphany celebration in the fellowship hall. You can take a star and write the gift you offer to God and place it on the banner. We will fill the banner with our gifts to God!

 

Good News of Great Joy!Sermon for Christmas Eve 2018 December 28, 2018

This sermon was preached on Dec. 20 at 5 p.m. and Dec. 24 and 7 pm. Both can be found on http://www.bethanylive.org

The text was Luke 2: 1-20

Children’s sermon: Bring the children forward and have a plain amazon box.

I’m sure you recognize this! It’s an Amazon box! We seemed to have many of these come to our door this week! And I’m sure you did too! Every time a box came to our home, it was a reminder that someone who lived far away in our family or from our friends was thinking of us! Now, the plain box itself is one thing, but then when we open it, the gifts inside are decorated with fun paper or bows, like this, on them. When we wrap gifts, we often think of how special that person is to us and we hope that the gift we send makes them happy. But it’s not really about the gifts. Maybe in the past you’ve received a toy that you really wanted, fun new pajamas, a new bike or gaming system and that made you happy. But toys break, we outgrow pajamas or bikes and technology will stop working. Does that mean that the person who gave you those things no longer loves you? NO! Those things made us happy, being loved never stops and that is what joy is all about. Joy is about being connected to love: people who love us: moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, friends, teachers, and that we love all of those people too.

In our Christmas story tonight we heard an angel tell the shepherds good news of great joy for ALL people. What was that good news? Jesus was born!!! God loves us so much that God came to us as baby Jesus, to connect us to God’s love and to each other and this is great joy! Everyone, you, me, everyone here, everyone in the world, is connected to God and God’s love and are filled with Great Joy! God wanted the shepherds, Mary, Joseph and us to know that we are loved, and are God’s Great Joy. We are part of God forever. And God’s Great Joy can’t be put in a box or under our tree, It’s so big that it covers the whole world! And so as people who are God’s Great Joy-our job is to tell everyone we see that they are God’s Great Joy too! Just like we put bows on presents to remind the person that they are special, I have a bow for each of you tonight to remind you that you are special, connected to God and God’s Great Joy forever!

It’s easy to feel isolated and alone in our world today. Between long hours at work, everyday tasks at home, child care, caring for aging parents, and the list goes on and on, it’s difficult to find time to deeply connect with friends, family or even ourselves. Researchers have found that we are more isolated than ever in our modern times, despite technology that can connect us instantly. The greatest threat to the health of people over the age of 65 is loneliness. But loneliness isn’t only about geography, not being able to leave your home. Life situations can also make us feel lonely. Have you ever felt alone in a crowded room such as this one tonight? Things like divorce, job difficulties, money issues, health issues, depression, can all make us feel alone and can be isolating.  I remember the loneliness of being at home with very young children who didn’t speak in complete sentences and all I wanted most days was another adult to talk to about anything. I loved playgroups and my Mothers of Preschoolers group where I could actually hear sentences that consisted of more than three words about topics besides Cheerios. I loved being with my children, yet it’s hard to be a parent in the best of situations and I sometimes struggled. Going to MOPS connected me with other moms and they shared their struggles with me and we all felt less alone.

We are wired for connection as human beings. This is not an accident or a coincidence. As humans, each one of us, created in God’s own image, God embedded in our hearts, minds and bodies the need to be together in community. This is the heart of our Christmas story tonight. I can only imagine the loneliness of Mary and Joseph as just the two of them trudged along for miles with a donkey-only to arrive in a town where no one knew them or would welcome them in. The loneliness and fear of having a baby with no mother or mother-in-law, aunt or grandma to hold your hand as a family of two became three. Or the loneliness of the shepherds out in the middle of nowhere, outcast and looked down upon from society because of their vocation with smelly animals. Yes, perhaps two or three of them worked together, but it was still lonely work.

But then, it all changed. An angel appeared out of the dark and proclaimed that loneliness is dispelled, there is good news! God has come to be with you! You are not alone! God’s love, God’s great joy connects you to God and to all of God’s people, no matter what you do for a job, no matter who you are, no matter how much money you make, how much you do or don’t struggle, how large your family is, or where you live. Go and see that you are connected with God’s great love and joy! And the shepherds went to Bethlehem, to connect with Mary and Joseph, to let them know that they are not alone either, that God is connecting unlikely people, in unlikely ways, for great purpose of sharing God’s Great Joy with all the earth!

God’s Great Joy is good news for us all tonight. God’s Great Joy through Jesus connects us, to God and to each other. We matter, our neighbors near and far matter as we are all connected to God’s work of love in the world. This Great Joy is pure gift, it doesn’t depend on what we do or don’t do, because like the angels came to the shepherds, this Great Joy finds us no matter where we are.

This Great Joy is so expansive that it can’t be contained to a manger, to a stable, to the shepherding fields, to the skies filled with angels, to a cross or an empty tomb. God’s Great Joy can’t be contained to you, me, this building, Denver or Colorado. God’s Great Joy blankets the earth and connects us all so that loneliness, darkness, despair and death are no more. Jesus, who is love, light and joy made flesh to be with humanity, is God’s promise that nothing disconnects us from God, or each other. This is grace. This is indeed Great Joy. This is for us all and it is for you.

Like the shepherds, we can’t hold this Great Joy inside, and so we go to glorify and praise God with our whole lives. We share this Great Joy when we offer a smile to a stranger, write a note to someone who needs affirmation, collect food for a those in need, say a prayer for those who suffer, take time to listen to an opinion different from our own, lift our voice for those who are voiceless in our world, or simply say “You are loved” to someone who needs to be reminded.

Good news of Great Joy: God came to us, to connect with us and to connect us to each other. Great Joy is from God and overflows and for all people. You are part of God’s Great Joy, now and forever. Glory to God in the highest.

 

Let Go to Prepare: Sermon on Luke 3: 1-6 Advent 1 December 2, 2018

This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO on Dec. 2. It can be viewed at http://www.bethanylive.org.

The texts are Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 3: 1-6

Children’s message: Have a basket of balls (about the size of ball pit balls-the light plastic ones) and a volunteer. (I prefer to use adults as asking a child or youth on the spot is not really fair, or consent.) Explain that you are going to throw the balls one at a time to the other person to see if they can catch all of them (about 4-5 is plenty). Start pitching to the volunteer. They will probably be able to catch two but then will need to drop a ball to catch another one. “It’s hard to catch another ball when you already have something in your hands isn’t it? How could Jeff catch each one? By letting go of each ball after he catches it? Ok let’s try that! Have the catcher catch a ball and then put it down (have another basket for them so that they don’t roll). Hmmmm, (to the catcher) was that easier? Why? (Have them say that when they let go of the ball, they could be prepared for the next one coming their way.) yes! That is best isn’t it? Our life is like that too. Sometimes we have to let go of something in order to be ready for the next thing that God wants to give us. Maybe it’s letting go of being a first grader to get to go to second grade, or stop doing soccer to have time for ballet, or letting go of your room for a new baby brother or sister, or here in the Advent season we are preparing for Christmas and so we might let go of some space in our living rooms for a tree or let go of and give away toys that you are too old for and someone else can use, or let go of those delicious cookies your family makes to share with someone. In our Bible story today, John is telling people that in order to prepare for Jesus, they have to let go. They have to let go of worrying about if they are good enough, they have to let go of what people might think of them and they have to let go of worrying if they are keeping all the rules perfectly for God to love them. They have to drop those things so that they are prepared to catch all of the love and grace that is coming at them from Jesus. Just like Jeff’s hands were open and ready to catch a ball, our hearts have to be open and ready to catch God’s love from Jesus because God’s love is coming no matter what! Let’s pray:

Life can feel like we constantly have balls being thrown at us to catch. Balls to catch of expectations from others and of ourselves. This time of year, it seems that the expectations are high to have the perfectly decorated house, tree, perfect gifts, cards to send out, food prepared, and the list can go on and on of all the preparation expectations we feel from culture and we put on ourselves. Little secret: I haven’t sent Christmas cards in 14 years. It’s so freeing! Try it! I let it go. So much of life is letting go. There has been a lot in my life (besides Christmas cards) that I’ve had to let go of. Whether is was my childhood dream of being a professional violinist, letting go of my children as they have become young adults, letting go of the idea that our parents will be around forever, letting go of what my own aging and mid-life is like. And there have been many times that letting go was the scariest and hardest thing I did, and I was convinced that it was simply the end of everything. And then it wasn’t. When I let go of my fear and the story I was telling myself of what life should and would be like, I could be ready, open and prepared for what was actually happening next: and it was usually something I never expected.

We often think that preparation is a long task list of to-dos that we have to check off or is making sure that we have all of our ducks in a row. But John the Baptist offers the people and us a different view of preparation. Preparation for what is next, is really about letting go.

Luke gives us the setting for John’s ministry by providing a list of several of the rulers of the Roman Empire that were prominent in the region as well as the chief priests of the Jewish Temple Institution. Luke does this to remind us that there were indeed secular and religious powers at work whose main agenda was control over the population in order to maintain status quo. Luke then states of John that he is the son of Zechariah, a priest from the back country and that John, himself, is in the wilderness. John is a nobody from nowhere. But his proclamation is so compelling that people are flocking to him in the middle of nowhere. He baptizes them for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness means letting go-letting go of sin-what separates them from God. He tells the people to let go of their sin because it’s not what defines them. And while you’re at it: let go of who the Roman Empire says you are, let go of who the Temple system says you are. Let go of those definitions of yourself. Let go of all of that because the Messiah is coming to proclaim the truth of who you are. You are more than your sin, the things you have done and left undone. You are more than your wealth or poverty, your ethnicity, your gender or status in the Empire. You are more than the sacrifices you offer at the Temple, or whether you are deemed clean or unclean. When you let go of those identities you can then be prepared for the gift that is coming to you: the gift of being the beloved child of God through Jesus and free to be who God created you to be.

This seems so simple and yet it is the most difficult thing that we can do. To let go of what we think has value in our lives or gives us value: our jobs, homes, cars, family members, what we wear, eat, where we live, our hobbies, our opinions is to prepare for what God values: us just as we are and God comes to us over and over again with this message of love, wholeness and grace. This message indeed levels the playing field: valleys and mountains, rough places and crooked paths are no match for God’s love. But in our culture, this word of the Lord that tells us to let go of what doesn’t give us true life can seem like the words of a lunatic, a crackpot or a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness where no one wants to be. That voice is one that is hard to hear.

A spiritual practice I began a few years ago was to at the beginning of each new liturgical year, to choose a word or short phrase that would help me to hear the voice of God in my life. Last year my word was “breathe,” as I found when I was stressed or anxious, I held my breath instead of breathing in and connecting with the Holy Spirit. I even had a bracelet I wore with that word on it so that I could be reminded. This text made me realize that my phrase for this year will be “letting go.” What do I need to let go of to hear the voice of God? What do I need to let go of in order to be my true and authentic self? Maybe it’s letting go what other people think of me, what the world says I should be, expectations of others, perfectionism, my ego? Maybe it’s letting go of whatever keeps me from truly connecting with others. Letting go is not just about me. Letting go means being open to people around me who think differently, act differently, live differently. The world wants us to hold on tightly to the lie of power, status quo, control and homogeny for the sake of our self-preservation. It’s letting go of my vision of righteousness and justice and, as Jeremiah proclaimed to the Israelites, and being open to God’s vision of wholeness for all people-or as Isaiah says: all flesh. In the love of God through Jesus Christ, I am prepared to let go of bias, bigotry and fear and can be open to receiving the truth that God’s power, righteousness and justice straightens the pathways, levels the valleys and mountains and draws us all into a loving relationship with God and one another.

Letting go will be a powerful spiritual practice for me this year. I invite you to into this spiritual practice and choose a word or phrase that orients you to God’s presence, love and grace.  In Advent, we prepare indeed for this gift from God by letting go of what separates us from God and each other and opening our hands and hearts to receive this unconditional and eternal love through Jesus Christ freely. Amen.