A Lutheran Says What?

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

So Many Questions, Baptism of Our Lord Sunday Year A January 19, 2020

This sermon was preached on January 12, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. The texts were:

Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 3-17

Children’s sermon: Play 20 questions with the answer being Jesus.(FYI a little girl asked the very first question: “Is it Jesus?” Ha!) Asking questions helped you to realize that I was thinking about Jesus. Asking questions helps us to learn things and understand things differently. Do you think you know everything there is to know about God? What do you wonder about God still? I have a lot of questions about God too! Well, really I have a lot of questions for God if I’m honest. Our bible story today is about Jesus being baptized. Now that seems like a straightforward thing but when Jesus came to John for baptism, John had a question for Jesus! Why do you come to me for baptism, you’re Jesus! John asking Jesus a question reminds us that even people who we think know a lot about God, still have things to learn and so do we! John didn’t quite understand that Jesus’ baptism shows that we don’t have to go to God, God always comes to us-every day.  We are baptized like Jesus to know that God is with us always and that every day is a new beginning to learn more about God in our lives and in the world. God doesn’t expect us to know everything, and our baptism isn’t about having answers but loving God and sharing God’s love with other people. Baptism gives us a job to do, and that job is to love. To splash other people with God’s love-that is our most important job-no matter what you grow up to be a teacher, a doctor, an accountant, a musician, our big job is to make sure that everyone knows God’s love: what are some ways that we can do that as children and adults? Those are all great ways to share God’s love! Let’s pray:

I’m noticing an interesting trend in our culture in the past few years: everyone wants to claim that they have all the answers, even if it’s not possible. From celebrities, to athletes, to nation leaders, to religious leaders, to random people on the internet. Someone always has the answer-for weight loss, younger skin, better relationships, to more complex issues such as wage equity, taxes, foreign policy, civil rights, and the list goes on. When these answers are shouted loudly enough, with certainty, and projecting that other people’s certainties are wrong, it has a devastating side effect: it shuts down relationships. When we are dug in about what we know and won’t ask questions of one another, we aren’t willing to learn something new or be in hard conversations we are cutting ourselves off from each other.

For me, and maybe most of us, asking questions is a posture of vulnerability, of admitting that we don’t know something. Not knowing something can leave me feeling useless, or that I have nothing to contribute. And as a pastor, people expect me to have all the answers about God. And the truth is that I don’t! I have as many questions as you, maybe more! You will also hear me say, “I don’t have answers, but I have some responses” as responses invite others to respond as well.  I tend to get into a lot of conversations with people who are very certain what the Bible says or what God is thinking and that to be a “Christian” I have to understand the Bible or God in a specific way-their way. And when I question their certainty-their response is to claim that I don’t have faith. Faith for many is to have all the answers, certainty and to never question. I love the Anne Lamott quote “The opposite of faith is not doubt: It is certainty. It is madness. You can tell you have created God in your own image when it turns out that he or she hates all the same people you do.”

John in our gospel story and Peter in our story from Acts, remind us of the importance of questions, curiosity, wonder and that certainty has never been part of the faith equation. The story of Jesus’ baptism from our Matthew gospel this morning was an embarrassment in the early church because of all the questions it raised. Why would Jesus, who is supposed to be without sin, need a baptism for repentance? What would Jesus need to repent from? And how could an ordinary person such as John, be worthy of baptizing the son of God? Jesus needed John?

The other gospel stories of Jesus’ baptism offer a picture that doesn’t raise as many questions. But Matthew wants us to be uncomfortable, to wrestle and to float in the questions and uncertainty of what we think we know about Jesus and baptism. John’s question to Jesus of “how can I baptize you?”, sparks more questions of what John did or didn’t understand about Jesus, his own cousin, whom he, himself, had been paving the way for all these years. Shouldn’t John have been certain in his role by now? Shouldn’t he have faith in who Jesus is? Yet, when the reality of God coming close, when the reality of being pulled into the work of God’s kingdom was palpable, John realized perhaps in a split second everything he didn’t know and that he might be in over his head. And Jesus didn’t offer John an answer or certainty but simply relationship and connection into God’s mission.

And then in Acts we drop in on Peter, oh dear Peter, right after his certainty rug had been pulled out from underneath him. This mini sermon in Acts 10, is the culmination of Peter’s encounter with Cornelius and God opening Peter up to question what he knew about who was included in God’s grace and love through Jesus Christ. Peter had been praying and during that prayer time God confronted him with a vision of animals to eat that were forbidden by Jewish purity laws. Peter was greatly puzzled by this vision as it brought into question his whole understanding of living as God’s people and his faith. Cornelius, at God’s bidding, sent people to bring Peter to him. Peter went and in the interaction with Cornelius and his household, Peter was opened up to God’s work in all people, Gentiles and Jews alike. What we read for scripture this morning is Peter working out that there were things he didn’t understand and maybe still doesn’t, but he is learning a new way through Jesus. Peter had to set aside his certainty and ego to see what new thing God was doing, that God had a role for him in this kingdom expanding work, and that faith in Jesus, ultimately is a gift from God and not in his to control. When Peter let go of his certainty, he was able to fully witness to God’s radical inclusion, care and grace for all people, even those whom Peter had previously considered outsiders. God and God’s law was no longer in Peter’s image but had taken on the image of the Gentiles in his midst. God used Peter’s confusion and uncertainty to proclaim the good news of Jesus and to bring Peter into deep relationship with people different from himself.

It’s hard for us to admit when we’re in over our head or that what we thought we knew with certainty perhaps has another response. But God coming to us in Jesus pulls us into relationship with God where questions, wonder and curiosity are the heart of our faith and the heart of baptism. Baptism isn’t about our certainty and our answers-baptism is a response from God of who we are and whose we are. This is why we baptize infants in the Lutheran tradition, baptism is all about God and not about us or what we know. The scandal of the Matthew text is that Jesus was baptized by an ordinary and questioning human to reveal God’s extraordinary love and need for relationship with us. Jesus came to John to be baptized because that is the promise of baptism-God comes to us wherever we are, nothing separates us from God, and we simply float in the waters of faith and love. Baptism frees us from needing to have pat answers, from worrying if we have enough or the correct faith or wondering about our worth. Baptism frees us for relationship with God and one another. Baptism frees us to live into our true identity: beloved. Baptism washes our eyes and our hearts so that we see all people how God sees them, in God’s very image. Through our baptisms, God takes us by the hand and brings us into the beloved community and into the work of proclaiming God’s grace, peace, mercy, hope and love to a world who is in bondage to the need to be certain and right instead of in relationship with each other. Baptism is the promise that God comes to us through Jesus Christ to be with us, to connect us and to draw us all into new life today and always.

Jesus fully immerses himself in our humanity to dwell with us in the questions of life and to open to us the reality of God’s loving response to us and creation. God’s response to Jesus’ baptism says it all “this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We have worth because we are God’s. We are important in God’s kingdom not because of what we know or what we do but because of what God does through us. Amen.

 

 

Why Am I Here? Acts 10 April 20th, 2016 April 24, 2016

“Why am I here?” Have you ever asked yourself that question? I know that I have in many different situations. Maybe you’ve asked it at the funeral of a loved one. Or asked yourself that question in meetings where it doesn’t seem to matter what you do or say. I’ve asked myself that question more times than I can count about parenting teenagers. I’ve asked myself that question when following Jesus seems to have put me in tricky or risky situation with people whom I’ve been acculturated to be wary of, or when I’m sleeping on the floor in a run-down apartment with 10 other youth as we serve in Chicago.

This question can also be asked existentially can’t it? What is my purpose? What difference do I make on a planet with 8 billion people? Who will notice if I’m not around? Why am I here? For those of you who are younger and in your teens, you might ask yourself this often. If you think when you graduate from college, or turn 21 or 30 that you will have the answer to this, allow me to burst your bubble. I’m 43 and I still wonder about my purpose, my role, what I bring to others and if I matter. This is the crux of our human experience I think. It’s part of our journey and while it can be painful and hard work, these questions are actually necessary, healthy and what keep us open to growth, learning and transformation. If we quit asking questions and wondering, we stagnate and run the risk of becoming closed to others around us and what God might be up to in our lives and in the lives of other people.

Peter was wrestling with this question of “why am I here” in our Acts 10 story. Previous in his stay in Joppa, he had brought Tabitha back to life and had proclaimed the good news of new life in Jesus to all who had witnessed the event. We read that Peter then stayed with Simon the tanner, in Acts 9: 43. The tanning of hides was not something that orthodox Jews would do, so it’s safe to assume that this Simon was probably a Gentile. For Peter to have even entered the house of a Gentile would have been considered taboo, and Peter, himself, would be considered unclean. Yet, this is where Peter found himself.

Why was Peter in an unclean house? Why was he there? He went to the roof to pray while he awaited his lunch. My guess is that he had some anxiety about what would be served in this unclean house. He might have been plotting how to refuse the unclean food despite his hunger. I can sympathize with this having food allergies. You want to be a gracious guest, yet you know odds are you will have to inspect and ask for a direct accounting of where the food came from. Those kinds of barriers are exhausting. Peter might have also assumed that this was his opportunity to explain to Simon the tanner and his household all of the dietary laws necessary to be a devout Jewish follower of Jesus. Remember, they were not Christians in the way that we consider Christianity. This was a Jewish movement at this point. They were still wrestling with purity laws, food laws, temple laws and the list goes on. Despite Jesus over and over again breaking boundaries and including the ritually unclean, the forgotten and the outcast, the apostles couldn’t quite overcome their Jewish worldview since birth of who’s in and who’s out. The culture and the viewpoints ingrained in us from the moment we draw breath are often difficult to reshape, reform and reimagine.

But here Peter was, on the roof with all of his questions, when God shows up and says the unimaginable to Peter: don’t worry about all of those laws-they aren’t what matter to me. There is no such thing as in or out Peter. All are in. In a very brave, daring and typical Peter response, Peter tells God no! No, I will not cross that boundary. Peter decides that God has gone a little crazy and so refuses to believe what God is saying to him. I mean, we’ve never told God no right? Oh Peter…

Peter has little time to stay in his confusion however, as Cornelius’ men arrive and share with Peter all that Cornelius had experienced. I’m always curious why Peter went so willingly to a Centurions house as it could have easily have been a trap. But something niggled in Peter and even while he asked himself, “Why am I going there?” he put one foot in front of the other in faith-not faith in himself and his own abilities but in what God was doing in an unexpected place, in an unexpected person. God was pulling Peter out of his worldview, his culture and into God’s view of creation and humanity. God was revealing to Peter that human culture is also part of God’s plan and there is not one cultural view point that is right or wrong, in or out. But God works in every culture, just not always in congruence with Peter’s own experiences.

Verses 34-35 are telling. Peter suddenly gets a glimpse of why he might be there in the presence of Gentiles, in the presence of a representative of the Roman Army. Perhaps he’s there because God already was there! God was already present with Cornelius, we read from the beginning of our story that he was a devout believer. God was already at work outside of the Jewish purity laws. God was already transforming hearts and minds in the name of unconditional and unending love and grace. Perhaps Peter was there for his own transformation, his own conversion to what God was doing outside of what Peter knew. Peter suddenly had an inside peek behind the curtain at God’s expansive vision for all of creation-every nation, every person, every time and every place. God was tearing down barriers and crossing boundaries.

Why am I here? Or why are we here? Are we here to show others the error of their ways and teach them the proper way to follow Christ? Are we here to lead others to Jesus in such a way that we understand and make sense to us? Can we see God already at work in places that make us uncomfortable or we don’t agree with? Like Peter, we are called to proclaim that God shows no partiality and it’s up to God to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not, not us. Perhaps this is the hardest part of following Jesus. It means asking the hard question of “why am I here?” and being willing like Peter to be open to the possibility that we are in a risky, transformative place in order for God to show us something new and to work something new in us.

Maybe we’re called to new patterns of worship, maybe we’re called to new patterns of language, maybe we’re called to new ways of thinking about being Church, maybe we’re called to be Church with those whom make us uncomfortable. Maybe we’re called to cross boundaries and be curious about what God is doing and why we are here. God reveals that God is present in our lives and in the lives of other people around us. God promises to stay with us as we wrestle with why we are here and why we matter. God promises that we DO matter and that we are here not only to offer God’s unconditional love but to receive God’s unconditional love, to be guests of this love-even when we are puzzled. God promises to keep transforming us, calling us and gathering us so that we aren’t a homogeneous, generic, boring group of people, but people created in the image of God to revel in our diversity, celebrate our varied gifts and to live joyfully in our rich cultural differences. We are here, all together because God’s love, mercy, grace and hope through Jesus Christ matters and needs to be heard and experienced by all people, even us. Thanks be to God.

 

God’s Work, Our Questions March 16, 2014

What parts of your life do you consider holy or sacred? Do we always know holy when we see it, hear it or experience it in some way? What do we consider not sacred, holy or from God? We all have ideas about what is holy and in God’s realm and what is not. We try to keep these things separate in our heads, hearts and daily lives thinking that if we have a clear idea of holy versus profane that it will help us to be better followers of God somehow. And let’s be honest, there are some very real, harmful experiences and situations that we live with because of the brokenness of humanity that we need a place to put. That harmful brokenness is not God’s intention for us in anyway but we know that God understands the reality of those experiences and promises to be with us in the midst of real pain, harm and sorrow.
Because we wrestle with real brokenness, it’s easier in some ways for us to assume that God only works through certain places and people: like the church, charities, Christian music, who we might consider devout believers, pastors, but maybe not at our workplaces, schools, or the people there, or people who have never even heard of God. We like to know that we can pinpoint what God is up to and where God is present. We like black and white, right and wrong distinctions-a clear path to belonging to and loving God.
How is that really working out for us? Do we see the path to serving God clearly? Do we know how we should be following God? We have more questions than answers on this journey of faith and luckily we’re in good company. This story that we are working through in Lent from Acts is one of my favorite stories in the Bible and here’s why: Peter-the chosen one upon whom Jesus says he will build his church-is clueless. He is a good Jewish boy who over and over thinks he’s got it all figured out and over and over again God sighs and gives Peter glimpses of a new way of being in the world. Every time Peter gets one of these glimpses (remember the Transfiguration story a couple of weeks ago?) it sends him into astonishment, questioning, fear and a little bit of an existential crisis. Can anyone else besides me relate to Peter? In Acts 10, Peter is waiting for lunch and praying on the roof. God lowers a sheet filled with animals that the Jewish people consider unclean to touch, let alone eat, and tells Peter to kill and eat them! God is telling Peter that these untouchable animals (that non Jewish people eat) are ok, they are not bad and can actually connect him to the Gentiles to whom God wants him to proclaim the good news of love and grace.
If God suddenly used our screens in our worship space to communicate with us-what images would God show us? What do we think is untouchable but God knows really separates us from other people and ultimately from God? This is not just about what we consider unholy but also what would we never dream of giving up or doing? Who are we not connecting with in our neighborhood because we think we can’t or shouldn’t? It’s perplexing because we don’t even know what we don’t know!
But again, we are in good company in our questions and wondering. Peter too, was puzzled and didn’t know exactly what to make of these visions and words from God. The good news is that God didn’t just leave Peter in his wondering without any direction at all. God continued to work: in the midst of Peter’s puzzlement, Cornelius’ men showed up on his doorstep. Peter still had his questions but God was moving forward and bringing (maybe dragging) Peter along. Peter did trust God enough to invite the strangers, these Gentiles, into his life. He trusted God enough to take a risk. He had seen enough to know that God was up to something in these unlikely people from an unlikely source-a Roman Centurion.
God was proclaiming to Peter that God’s realm was wider and more expansive than Peter could grasp. Peter was living deep in the mystery of what God was doing in the world with all of the puzzlement, questions and wonder, as well as the glimpses of unity, peace, mercy, grace and love that Peter, himself, had witnessed from Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection. Mystery doesn’t always mean the complete unknown. Mystery also is about revelation when we are ready to experience it, thinking about life in a different way and being open to what we may not presently understand or know. There can be excitement, promise and hope in living in the mystery of God’s work in the world.
As we see with Peter, we don’t have to have all of the answers to participate in God’s actions, just a willingness to be shown something new, to risk being changed and to keep puzzling through the journey, confident that Christ promises to be with us in the mystery of God at work in the world and in our lives, at all times and in all places. This is the promise that we will proclaim for Riley today at his baptism into this great mysterious journey of relationship with God and the people of God. Christ is present not just in our certainty but in our uncertainty about where God is calling us— to the people, places and situations that we would least expect.
As you know, we have a ministry, the Neighborhood ChurchTask Force (they are using the book that Pastor Rob wrote The Neighborhood Church) that is listening and looking for what God is up to in our neighborhood. The members of this ministry are asking many questions about where God might be calling LCM to be. As we ponder where God is at work in Green Mountain, we thought this might be an opportune time for an update from this ministry.
(To end the sermon time, Jeff from the task force gave a report about how the local high schools have asked to partner with Lutheran Church of the Master to mentor the youth in career exploration. LCM adults would offer their insights and expertise in career fields that the high school young people may want to go into. This is an exciting opportunity to be a part of what God is doing in the lives of the young adults in our community!)

 

Google, the apostles and who we are January 13, 2014

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It’s probably not going to shock anyone if I tell you that our world and culture has undergone radical change in the past 50 years or so. We have experienced massive shifts in nearly every aspect of our lives and it has molded, shaped and reoriented how we think, relate to one another, our vocations and how we communicate . In these shifts, we have learned to take in information at a rate that was unthinkable 50 years ago. Today’s teenagers absorb more data in a day than those of us that are over 30 did in a month at their age. We have these powerful computers that we carry in our pockets. Don’t know something? Google it! Want people to think you know something? Google it! We can know almost anything for our selves and the idea of “experts” is a thing of the past. We can find out how almost anything works in a matter of seconds and we love it! We are now our own expert and because of this we now think that we can control more of our lives and able keep up with the all the changes around us.
Some of the side effects, if you will, of the ability to see and know how everything works, is that we get overwhelmed by the amount of information, by the amount of change, the amount of what we can’t control and we begin to doubt what it is that we actually DO know. So, we put on blinders and think that if we can just figure out how to control our little corner of the world, our daily lives, then we might be able to navigate all of this. But question that I think remains is, if everything around us is changing rapidly then who are we in all of this? What is our role and identity?
All of these massive culture shifts have impacted the institutional church in profound ways and the clash of culture and institutional church has caused many to completely rethink or walk away entirely from a relationship with God. Many people now claim that any sort of God or deity, holy scriptures or faith community doesn’t make a dimes worth of difference in their daily lives and any identity as a child of God is irrelevant. They can just be good people, living a good life, and they don’t need the hypocrisy of Christianity or so called Christian people. Here’s the rub-in some ways that’s all true. It is possible to just toodle along in life without reading ancient words, praying, eating, sharing joys and sorrows with a community of people who proclaim that above all the technology, science, medical advancements is a God who simply wants to love all people and draw all people into relationship. It’s possible to think that this life is all that there is and nothing more. It’s possible to rationalize anything that can’t be explained readily by science and to ignore the mystery of our full humanness-physical and spiritual. It’s possible to just think as people, we are who we are and nothing can change that. I think if we were all honest, we have to admit to at one point or another wondering what difference Jesus makes in our lives and in our identity.
I don’t think our time is so different than that of the early church that we read about in Acts this morning. The first apostles were now dealing with the fact that they were proclaiming a messiah that was now no longer visible-God’s son that had come to dwell among them in the flesh had been crucified, buried, raised and had returned to God. The tangible evidence was gone and so now it rested on them to tell people were about their experiences with Jesus, the difference he had made in their lives, the importance of the community together, how Jesus had changed their whole outlook on themselves, and the world around them. And in doing this, their very identity had shifted from disciple of Jesus to apostle-sent into the world.
The early apostles were struggling with how and to whom to tell this story of God’s amazing love and grace to a world that didn’t really want to hear it, couldn’t understand it but was desperate for it at the same time. Initially, they shared it only with other Jewish people. Kinda an easier sell because the Jewish people already believed in God and knew the prophets and the story of God. But here in chapter 10, Peter and the others have a new problem: they discover that God is working outside of their expectations and their comfort zone. They discovered God started working in the secular, Gentile, unbelieving world. Now what? Can God work through these people who have never even read the Torah or the prophets? But what if they don’t believe and act the same way as us? They will eat different food and use different language and just are…different.
An existential crisis for sure. The apostles probably intrinsically knew that these Gentile’s differences were bound to rub off on them and cause them change somehow too. How much change is ok while still being faithful to the core message? What were they to do?
In a rare moment of clarity for Peter, he catches a glimpse that this message of love, grace and mercy cannot be contained and kept neat. That the love of God in Jesus Christ has been let loose in the world and DOES make a difference in the world-more than he could even realize! So much so that even Gentiles-gasp-wanted to know more, wanted to care for those who are on the outside of society, wanted to hear the story and know that they were loved. In Jesus, they realized there is a hope that can’t be found anywhere else. Not just hope for life after death, but hope for the world not to always be what it is, hope for peace to be the rule, hope for the sick to be whole, hope for the hungry to be fed and the lonely to be in community. What difference Jesus made for the Gentiles was that God offered them, these supposed outsiders, the opportunity each and everyday to participate fully in this hope. They were a part of something beyond themselves.
The apostles themselves were awakened to how much Jesus does make a difference– because in Jesus Christ, God says that all people are loved and have worth, not just those with whom the apostles were comfortable. In Jesus Christ, God showed us how we live together as God’s people. The Gentiles grasped that in midst of everything else in their lives– what was foundational was this love and belonging and opened up the apostles to the depth and breadth of Gods love.
In Acts 10, we hear Peter’s moment of suddenly realizing that God was truly for all, no matter what. Just when we think that we know how God will work in the world, God will do a new thing. Peter and the apostles and later Paul, recognized this shift, that God was working in questioning, in wondering, in the secular, in the stranger, in the outsider and in the unknown. God’s love was transforming the world in ways that looked like shifting sand to the apostles but was more certain than ever to those experiencing it for the first time.
Our culture and society has changed and is still changing and it is important that we acknowledge that and, like the apostles, learn how to proclaim the good news of Gods love in this particular place and time. But our basic identity of beloved children of God is the unchangeable promise that we all share. We know from the Bible that God’s love and grace transcends culture and that God promises to be with us always. We are reminded of this in the waters of baptism, in the bread and in the wine, in the hearing together of the story of God’s unconditional love. This is what we know will never change even when everything else around us does. Thanks be to God.