A Lutheran Says What?

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

We Are Who We Are Sermon On Matthew 5: 13-20 Epiphany 5a February 16, 2020

This sermon was preached on February 9, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. The texts were
Isaiah 58: 1-9a
1 Corinthians 2: 1-12
Matthew 5: 13-20

 

Children’s sermon: Gather the children up front. Have a couple of different light sources (light up legos, glow sticks, electric tea lights). What does light do for us? (Accept all answers) Light shows us the way, light lets us see things more clearly. Jesus says that we are this kind of light-we show the way to God, we let people see God in us and God’s love. But what if I put this light in this box…does that work? No! Jesus tells us today that we can’t hide ourselves, we can’t hide our light. When we baptize people, sometimes as babies, sometimes as older people, we light a candle and give it to them and say the words from our bible story this morning “Let your light so shine before people so that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” How can we shine our light? What are good things that we can do to show people about God’s love? I have a light for all of you today to remember that you are light and love and go and shine! Let’s pray:

I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan, but everyone else in my family is and they dragged me to one movie many years ago. I don’t even remember which one it was, but I do remember that in that movie one of the scenes was when Harry (and maybe his friends too) got ahold of the “Cloak of Invisibility.” Harry used it to move freely around the Hogwarts and to do his investigative work on whatever intrigue he and his friends were trying to figure out. Harry was able to hear conversations without being noticed and see goings on without the people knowing of his presence. Being invisible had its advantages for Harry and even had an element of fun for a while. Being invisible often sounds to us like fun and we think about all the possibilities of what we could see, do and hear with no one noticing us. Oh, we could have dirt on our friends and enemies, we might learn things that otherwise we wouldn’t. But being invisible has its down sides as well. If Harry were to be permanently invisible, such as the old “Invisible Man” movies and tv shows, that would come with some serious drawbacks. No one would see what you do, you would *never* be noticed and it would seem as if you didn’t matter. To truly be invisible would be lonely, without purpose and unfulfilling.

But being invisible does have a certain appeal at times in our lives. To just be wallpaper, unnoticed and unremarkable can seem like a better alternative to people knowing you exist and then demanding certain things from you. It’s a difficult time in our world today to find our voices as people of faith and I must admit that even as a pastor, a public figure there are times I would prefer to just fly under the radar, not speak up, keep my head low, and then no one will see or hear me and life will be peaceful and easy. Except that’s not quite how it works I find. Hiding my voice, my thoughts and my faith leaves me feeling disjointed, inauthentic and wondering if those things really matter. There’s a definite tension. Last week in Phoenix my best friend and I had rented a VRBO were there was as permanent tenant. Ask me about that after church, the set-up in the house was a little odd, but at one point the tenant asked me, as we were headed out the door to meet my family for dinner, if I had a job and I said yes, I am a pastor. Well, then I had to hear for the next 15 minutes about his faith growing up, his opinions on religion, questions on female ordination and other things. Leta looked at me in the car and said, “next time just say you manage a large non-profit.” Which is true and is less conversation provoking than saying you are a clergy person, particularly as female clergy. But hiding, keeping my vocation and call invisible doesn’t feel right either. I am who I am and that can’t be hidden.

Last week in the Beatitudes that Pastor Gordon preached on, we hear Jesus proclaiming that the people whom the world calls less then, God calls blessed and loved. Those whom the world wants to be invisible, God sees and values. Jesus then goes on in our passage today to say that the community of God’s people, are salt and light. Notice that isn’t something we strive to be or Jesus says we should look into becoming, but we already are. Period. End of story. And not individually, but together. The “you” is “you all” plural. We are salt and we are light. We are who we are in the life and love of God.  And who we are in community matters in the world, just like salt and light matter in every day life, Jesus says.

Salt was an important resource in the ancient world. Salt had more value than gold. Salt can preserve, sanitize, disinfect and in ancient folklore-ward off demons and other evil spirits. People were paid in salt which is the root of our word “salary.” Salt literally made the world go around. Light was a commodity in the ancient world as well. Night-time was very dark, no street lamps, no ambient light, only what candle or oil lamp you had. So every little source of light meant safety, security and illuminated what was important. Hiding light would be wasteful and unthinkable. To be called salt, meant that you had value, worth and importance, and to be called light meant a prominent place in a room or household. Jesus was intentional about these words spoken to people whom the rest of society deemed valueless, what’s more these words highlighted that hiding oneself, staying invisible or under the radar wasn’t an option for God’s people. Salt is of no use in a container on a shelf in a pantry behind a closed door and light doesn’t work covered up. God’s people are called to sprinkle themselves throughout the world, to light up whatever space they may be in to point to the reality of God’s kingdom in the world.

By recalling the importance of the law, Jesus is reminding the people and us, that God has been revealing God’s kingdom of redemption, reconciliation and mercy for generations. Jesus fulfilling the law and lifting up how we are to uphold the law, roots us in God’s proclamation that God’s people are indeed the light to the nations, all nations and God promises to be our God and we will be God’s people no matter what. This is about the covenant, God’s desire to be in relationship with us and Jesus is renewing, in a deeply personal and intimate way, this covenant with people for all time. AND Jesus proclaims the reality that when we are in relationship with God, we are who we are: people who can’t hide, who must be bold, who will be different, set apart, salt, light, and we won’t, can’t be invisible. Baptism highlights this covenant and calls us to be in the community of God’s people and in mission with God. Baptism soaks us in God’s promises for the sake of dripping this love on other people.

It’s not easy to be different, set apart, bold, salty, and shiny. Salt can also sting as it cleanses, and people may recoil in pain as the infection of hate, fear, and divisiveness is healed. Refusing to be invisible in a world that would rather we keep quiet about God’s laws of loving God and our neighbor more than ourselves, will draw criticism and contempt from some. Being seen and refusing to be extinguished brings risk but God promises to be with us as we advocate for just systems, for truth and for wholeness. Shining our light means refusing to hide, to illuminate the truth of God’s work in the world through Jesus Christ, the one who came to proclaim that the way the world had been, the way the world is, isn’t God’s way. The truth of God’s light in the world is to scatter the darkness, the darkness of hard hearts, the darkness of human power, the darkness of ego, the darkness of selfishness, so that hearts shine with love, human power shines for justice for our vulnerable neighbor, ego shines with humility, and selfishness shines with abundance of grace, mercy and joy for one another and for all people.

We are who we are, dear ones in Christ. We can’t be anything but who God created, called, and proclaimed us to be in the waters of baptism. We are salt for the earth and light to the nations. We are God’s people: visible, bold, salty, valuable, important and we shine with God’s love for justice, mercy, forgiveness and love for all creation. Thanks be to God.

 

Holy Relationship Sunday June 12, 2017

Last week, I had the privilege to go up to Sky Ranch and offer staff training on child/adolescent development and faith formation stages. I’ve done this a couple of years now and even though I’m not always thrilled for the three hour drive up and back, I’m always glad when I’m there. If you have any concern or doubt about the future of the Church or our world, spend time with these gifted, bright, generous young adults who give their summers to spend with children and youth in our camp ministry for not a lot of money, and you’ll feel very optimistic! I come away each time knowing that I’ve received more from them than this old lady could possibly give them! They are very gracious with this nerdy pastor, who also has an education degree and geeks out on brain development, and gives them more information than they want or need. Now, don’t worry, I do also give them practical ideas for engaging children and youth with their summer curriculum, as well as tips and tools for discipline and caring conversations.

I always stay for a meal with the staff, talk to them, getting to know them a bit. They love having an adult who doesn’t HAVE to hang out with them, but chooses to hang out with them. They think I’m cool, and I always let my own children know that other young adults find me cool. Even after teaching for two or more hours straight, I always leave camp feeling refreshed, energized and renewed for my own ministry. Relationships that are life-giving and supportive have this effect on us. As much as I might teach them some nitty gritty concepts of brain development and James Fowler’s six stages of faith development, mostly what I spend time teaching is on how faith is all about relationships.

Faith development or even lack thereof, is grounded in the quality and depth of relationships from the people whom we are in contact with from the time we are born and our relationship with God. Erik Erickson, a psychologist, names the first stage of emotional development in infants as trust vs. mistrust: knowing whether you will be cared for or not. James Fowler’s faith stage parallel in infanthood is Undifferentiated Faith, which means your being is completely without boundaries from others and you are solely grounded in God. From our very beginning, God wired us to need caring community with God and with one another, and my time at camp exemplifies this reality.

As we heard in the Genesis creation story this morning, we are created in God’s image, every single one of us-just as we are, in beautiful and rich diversity. Created male, female, short, tall, black, white, with a variety of gifts, a variety of opinions and a variety of viewpoints. But all equally in God’s image and all equally loved, called and gathered. We’re created individually in God’s image, but we are also created communally in God’s image as well. God’s very being is relationship-this is what we celebrate today, on Holy Trinity Sunday. It’s not a day to get bogged down in dogma or doctrine or to try and explain the unexplainable, no, it’s a celebration day of who God is and who we are as the people of God. It’s really Holy Relationship Sunday, or Holy Creation Sunday. Creating is always messy, think of artist’s studios and creating community, with actual people is even messier!

God’s very existence is community: three persons or expressions that we often refer to as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and we also hear God described in the Bible as creator, nursing mother, caretaker, rock, anchor, redeemer, the word, lamb, light of the world, mother hen, sustainer, animator, Lady Wisdom, sender, gatherer. God only knows relationships and so this is why God’s biggest desire is to be with us and for us to be in loving community with one another.

But community is messy, it’s chaotic and it’s unpredictable. We have this idyllic picture in our mind of harmonious community, even within our own families and it pops like a balloon within about 2.4 seconds of being in a room full of people, doesn’t it? For one thing, we each have OUR own idea of what the perfect community looks like, and often it’s one that revolves around us, our own needs, our own wants, our own preferences. So, we get frustrated, we form unkind opinions of one another and decide that perhaps a deserted island is the way to go, and so we end up creating this in our lives in many ways. We sit at home and watch tv with no interaction, we segregate ourselves in activities by age, by choices, by economic status, by neighborhoods. We stay out of certain parts of town, or don’t talk to certain types of people. We explain this in a rational way to ourselves that it’s about safety, or common sense, or who is worthy of our time, but if we’re honest, it comes down to trying to keep control and maintain a façade of autonomy, not needing anyone else and having all that we need without any assistance.

But God has no concept of autonomy, singularity, or isolation. God from the beginning of creation goes all in on relationships and interdependence. The more the merrier! Sea creatures, plants, trees, birds, creepy crawly things (which I could do without but not GOD!), large animals, small animals, microscopic life, and humans! Animals that eat plants, plants that supply oxygen, water to nourish plants and animals alike, people to care for the land, which in turn cares for them-all interconnected. And God took delight in this and saw that it was very good!

Not perfect, but very good. Community in the life of God is not about perfection but about goodness, which means it’s all about forgiveness, openness, and joy in being together. God delights in creating, delights in taking on human form to dwell with us and delights in being the breath that fills us and connects us for mission in the world. This breath that sends us to indeed Be The Blessing to our neighbor, all of our neighbors, yes, those neighbors who voted for Clinton, those neighbors who voted for Trump, those neighbors who are Lutheran, those neighbors who are Catholic, those neighbors who are Muslim, those neighbors who drive a fancy car, those neighbors who haven’t worked in five years, those neighbors who can eat nothing but cake and not gain weight and those neighbors who despite best efforts are always sick.

We need to remember that conflict is nothing new! Paul had to write time and again, we think at least five times, plus a couple of more visits, to the people of Corinth because they kept fighting, they kept dividing themselves, they kept arguing which way of doing church was better, who knew more, which preacher they should the follow. Paul had some stern words for these people who I’m sure were on Paul’s very last nerve with their bickering and wayward activities. Paul wrote to them and said to the Corinthians: it’s not about what you want or what a different preacher wants or what even what I want-it’s what God wants for you-love and grace and inclusion of all through Jesus Christ-even at costs to your personal comfort.

And yet, despite the exasperation he must have felt, at the very end of 2 Corinthians that we read this morning, Paul leaves them with a blessing, words of hope. Greet each other with a holy kiss, live in peace, and the words that we hear at the beginning of worship each week: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Conflict is real but so is the reality of loving relationship that first flows from our communal God that binds us together in community. We begin with these words each week to remind us of the reality of this messy community that is grounded in the promises of God.

It’s why here in a moment we’ll baptize Violet with the words Jesus spoke in  Matthew 28: 20 and why we as Lutherans, don’t do private baptisms, we baptize into community– first and foremost the community of Godself: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but also the community of saints, this specific community who promises to love Violet no matter what and promises to be there for her, even when it’s messy, even when she might be an angsty teenager, and especially when she needs us the most. The promise of this kind of radical, counter cultural community is that Jesus promises to be with us always-to the end of the age and so we get to live as “Jesus People” together to witness to the world a new possibility-one where there is more that unites us than divides us and we yield to reality that we are bound up together in the life of God and we celebrate it, not just today, but every day.

We celebrate our connectedness when we listen before we speak, when we suspend judgment, when we open ourselves up to new ideas or admit that there could be more than we currently know. We celebrate our connectedness when we pour water from the font, when all people are gathered at the table for bread and wine, when we ponder the needs of our neighbors more than our own. It’s not easy, but easy isn’t the promise, the presence of Jesus with us always is.  It’s not easy but it’s worth it; it’s worth it because God says to us first that we’re worth it, that creation is worth it. Interconnected creation in unbreakable, unshakable and unconditional relationship grounded in bonds of the Father Creator, Son Redeemer and the Holy Spirit sustainer. May we live every day in this Holy Relationship and Holy Creation. Amen.

 

Changed by Water: Baptism August 31st, 2016 Romans 6: 3-4 September 8, 2016

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*You can go to http://www.bethany-live.org to watch the worship service.

Have you ever walked in the rain? Being from WA and OR, I have a lot. When you walk in the rain, you see how water changes things. Water makes plants and crops grow, water sustains our lives, water cleans the earth, water cleans us. We also know that water causes things to be destroyed: water erodes rocks, in LA we see how too much water destroys homes, water even causes death to animals and people. The news rarely shows us the good that water does, only the harm. Water is everywhere on earth, even if it’s just small amounts, water is powerful and is a source of death and life, it’s constantly changing the world. We use water in our sacrament of baptism (a sacrament is an action that we do as a community to reveal God’s promise of love and life) and it’s a curious thing isn’t it that we pour water, something that can cause us harm, on babies and young children (sometimes older youth and adults).
We tend to think of baptism as part of God’s promise of something a long way off-when we die from this body and earth and live with God. It’s easy to think of this as not something that affects our daily life-today Wednesday August 31st, 2016. Baptism IS partially about what happens when we die from our earthly bodies-baptism reminds us that we are never separated from God and God will gather us up in God’s arms when we die and offer us resurrection-life with God forever. But baptism is even more than that! The new life that Paul is writing to the church in Rome about is about our lives today, right here, right now. Baptism changes our todays, not just our tomorrows.
Baptism is a public proclamation for what God has done for us and for all people. When we pour water over a baby, child, youth or adult, we are saying to the whole world that God names them as a child of God, claims them forever as belonging to and being in the life of God, and is sent out with the love of Christ to be a part of a Christian community, what we call Church, and into the world reflecting the light of Christ. It’s not that before we poured the water, they weren’t part of God’s promises for life, love and belonging, they were, God has taken care of that, we don’t have to worry about who’s in or out. Baptism is important, though, because it’s not about how we die, but it’s all about how we live, how we are changed by God to share love with the world.
Some of this is about earthly death, but it’s also about how sometimes things have to die in us in order for us to do something new. For those of you who are middle schoolers, right now some of your habits are changing, what’s dying is that you’re no longer a young child, but are a new youth. You’re changing! When you were born, your parents way of living without children died and they took on a new life as your mom and dad. Their life changed. Or when you realize that something you do isn’t helpful to you or people around you, you quit doing that habit, or it dies, and you do a new thing, you change. Baptism declares that God wants us to be new, changed people every day. God says to each of us, “I love you and I want selfishness, hate, and fear to die, to be changed to love, sharing, and joy that will grow in you so that other people can be changed by your drenching them in love, sharing and joy.” And here’s the cool thing: God says that we get to try again to change every day, even if we didn’t do that well the day before!
Water poured over us at baptism washes away, destroys, the messages from the world that tells us to look out for only ourselves, keep all our stuff to ourselves and get more stuff, and to be afraid of not being perfect, of not having enough, of all kinds of stuff. Water not only destroys these messages, but also opens us up like a cavern to be filled with what God wants to grow in us. And not someday, but every day! And we do this together, we live in faith together to ensure that all people in the world know the power of what God offers everyone: belonging, love and hope.
Baptism declares that we are changed from grave people to grace people. We don’t look for death in water like the world does, but life. God’s love poured out on us, brings us to life. When we say we’re grace people, not grave people, it means that we look for life, new life, everywhere. After Jesus died and was buried, the women went to the tomb expecting to see death but instead saw that God had raised Jesus to life! Jesus told the women and later the disciples to not look for death when God’s promise of life is everywhere. The followers of Jesus, men, women, boys and girls, saw this new life clearly in their everyday lives, and we too look for new life in all of the seemingly ordinary places we go.
We look for new life in our friendships at school. I’m sure you have all had the experience of not getting along with a classmate or a friend for a while-grace people look for how to pour out forgiveness to change the relationship. Who has fought with their parents, or brothers or sisters? Yep! We all have! Grace people look for ways to say “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” in order to pour out a new beginning, new life with those family members. When you think that you’ve messed up beyond a second chance, remember that God says “new life is always here for you. Just as water is everywhere changing what the world looks like, so am I.” There is no where you can go that God won’t be there with the good news that your past mistakes, sorrow and worries die in the promises of God for new life, love forever and joy that grows in us all each day, over and over no matter what to change us and the world. Walk as grace people: wet in new life, drenched in love, and changed by joy. Amen.

 

“Now What?” 1 Corinthians 15: 1-26, 51-57, May 4th, 2016 Narrative Lectionary May 7, 2016

We have a saying in our house that gets used in a multitude of different situations. We’ve been known to say it when we’re on vacation and are between exciting adventures. We’ve said it when we’re in the process of fixing something and it’s not going according to the YouTube video. We’ve said it when we don’t know what to do next with parenting, our vocations, or even health issues. Perhaps by now you have guessed our phrase: “Now What?” It does most often get said in a sense of irony or amusement but there are times when this question for us has been quite profound. It is always said in relationship to something not going quite according to our plan or when we know that we don’t have a good plan going forward. The astonishing thing that Mike and I have noticed every time we’ve asked this question is that the situations have (so far) worked out somehow. Not always how we envisioned it or wanted it to be, but always, always, even when the “now what” is answered with exactly what we don’t want, always answered with God preparing us for the next step, even though it might be a step into the unknown and unexpected. I highly doubt that our family has the corner market on this question either. I’m sure that if I polled this group of all ages, you have all asked yourself or someone else, “Now What?”

We like to know what’s coming next, what we should do, what choices should we make, what will the future hold, what certainty can we count on? Sometimes this question holds excitement and possibilities and sometimes it holds sorrow and fear. “Now what?” reveals for us the reality that we can’t see into the future with any real predictability or clarity and the best we’ve got is questions and some experience of the past. In some situations, that’s enough, but often we want more.

In this part of the letter to the people of Corinth, Paul addresses the “Now What?” that they are asking. We’ve heard the story Paul, now what? We know that Jesus is resurrected, now what? We know that we don’t understand it all, now what? It’s tricky, and Paul has already dealt with so many misconceptions and issues with this fledgling church. He’s told them that Jesus is found in the hard places of our lives, offered that the cross is God’s wisdom in a world that sees it as foolishness. Paul has told them that radical, counter cultural unity is at the heart of God’s community. Paul has told them that all are equal at the banquet that Jesus lays out, Paul has talked extensively about love, not love as the world gives but love that only Christ can give: love that is unconditional, unending and self-sacrificing. He’s laid out for them the story of what God has done, what God is doing and now he turns his attention to what God promises to continue to do in our lives and in creation forever.

You see, the Corinthians were confused. They had been told that Christ would return and they all assumed that it would be imminent…yet saints, apostles and other important leaders in this nascent movement were beginning to die. If these witnesses to Jesus’ ministry were dying before seeing Christ return, what did that mean for them, newbies to the community? What did it mean that they were struggling with getting along and understanding all that they had heard and seen? They didn’t have a long-term strategic plan for Jesus not returning immediately. This was not what they had envisioned. Now what?

It’s tricky for Paul, as he’s living in the “now what” too. Now what indeed? People are dying, we don’t know what’s next, what’s the plan? What’s God’s plan? When we don’t understand something we fill in the gaps ourselves. We make up a story that we can latch on to and we do grasp it with every fiber of our being, even if it’s not that helpful a story. The Corinthians were filling in the gaps of what happens when they die and this is still true today. Does our soul drift skyward like Casper the ghost? Do we become shapeless globs of spirit only? Do we become young and beautiful again? Do we stay in our graves yet able to know what’s going on around us? Are we more like zombies? If we’re cremated can we be resurrected? When does this resurrection thing happen? Immediately? What we refer to as the “last day”? There are as many ideas about the afterlife as there are people sitting in this room, I suspect. We wonder about this, if we’re honest, we worry about this. We’re scared of death. We’re scared to death about death.  We get so preoccupied with what happens when we die, that we, like the Corinthians, forget to live.

Paul is clear that we are baptized in the DEATH and RESURRECTION of Jesus Christ. Both! Yes, we will share in a death like his, but we also share in a resurrection like his! God will do a new thing with us too! Paul doesn’t give us a step by step instruction manual on how this resurrection thing works, because that’s not what’s important. What’s important and his response to the “now what” is God’s promise to transform our death into life, God’s promise that in our grave, we are not alone, in pain or in sorrow. Paul in 1 Corinthians as in Romans 8 tells us that God promises that there is nothing that separates us from the life and love of God through Jesus Christ.

This is not just the “now what” response about what happens when we die, though. It’s the response on our lives as well! If the promise is that God doesn’t let death be the final answer to our lives, then God can transform and bring new life from any circumstance no matter how impossible it seems, then isn’t this good news for today. This free us to be bold with how we live our lives in this good news that transformation of any situation in our lives and the world is all in God’s power. How will you live your life knowing that God frees you from not just physical and earthly death, but death from our sins, death from our egos, death from our selfishness, death from our personal agendas, death from disunity, death from loneliness, death from whatever is keeping you from being all who God created you to be for the sake of telling the world about Jesus Christ? How will we engage our neighbor differently? Now what?

“Now what,” is that we are truly freed to be one people, gathered in this promise of new life, not just someday by and by but right here, right now. Freed to live your life for the gospel. Freed to risk inviting those who make us uncomfortable to worship, freed to risk being generous with our time, our gifts and our material resources, and freed to risk reckless and boundary crossing love for those who our society deems unlovable. “Now what,” is that no matter what you are caught in the promises of God that were splashed on you at baptism, that you ingest at the table, and that you live out each and every day in simple or more complex ways. “Now what,” is that God says no matter what happens to you today or tomorrow, God’s got you. God will be there. God will transform sorrow into joy, pain into wholeness and death into life-real life now and forever. Amen.

 

Released and Loved John 12: 1-8 March 18, 2016

We all have what we consider priorities. Each day we juggle those priorities and the squeakiest priority will often get our attention. Family, school, work, housework, fitness, health, paying bills, volunteering at church or elsewhere, are often the needs that get our time and attention. Now, none of these are bad priorities or wrong to pay attention to in any way, but I sometimes wonder for myself, when I get caught up in thinking that something has to be attended to right now, if that is really true. Discernment around what is important in our days and weeks that seem to fly by all too quickly, seems to be a luxury, an opportunity not afforded to us or at least one that we don’t stop to take. I can be become completely engulfed in thinking that if I don’t get my laundry finished, if I don’t wrap up details on a project, if I don’t get my son to all of his activities on time, if I don’t get this sermon perfect or a list of a hundred other things that seem to demand time that I’m not good enough or I’m not really doing what I should be. Or worse yet, I’m not fulfilling my purpose and people will not see me as useful.

If we’re honest, we not only judge ourselves but we judge other people’s priorities too, don’t we? We notice the actions of people at work, at church, in our neighborhood and even in our own families and wonder how they can make the decisions that they do. Don’t they know that they are not choosing the correct action? The thing about priorities is that they are subjective. They are distracting and often not even fulfilling or life-giving to us. Priorities often come from an outside source, outside pressures, such as co-workers, family members and our society at large and are often more about how the world sees us, or what image we project than about who we really are and what we really need.

How often do we really get our priorities straight? How often do we succumb to what others tell us is a priority for the sake of appearance, harmony or simply conflict avoidance? How often are we worried that if we really lived the way our heart begs us to, we’ll be ridiculed, judged or worse yet, dismissed? Mary must have had some trepidation as she pulled out that pot of perfume that cost her everything she had. It must have felt reckless to even purchase it. How many of us would spend that kind of money, our whole year’s wages on something that is quickly used up? But buy this exotic, lavish perfume she did. Her priority wasn’t what people would think or talk about the next day, it was Jesus. The second Jesus walked through the door to her home that she shared with her siblings, priorities of worrying about tomorrow, 401K’s, retirement, social norms, gender roles, and self-dignity vanished. Mary’s priority was her relationship with the one who was all about abundant life. It didn’t matter to her that women don’t touch men to which they are not related. It didn’t matter to her that a woman didn’t allow her hair to be loose in public. It didn’t matter to her that she used up the whole jar of perfume. It didn’t matter that the dinner guests were now also permeated with the scent of this perfume. Mary’s only concern was her relationship with the one whose very presence ushered in the reality of life from death, sorrow to joy and hopelessness to hopefulness.

Judas couldn’t let her misguided priorities go without comment and correction. Where was Mary’s priority to the poor? Where was her priority of appearances? I mean, Jesus was famous or infamous now, and we can’t have the people get ahold of this kind of scandal? A year’s worth of money on perfume? How will that look? Will people stop following and giving money to their ministry and mission? Besides how much of that money would have been Judas’ take? We all know or have been at one time or another, THAT person who has to point out the error in someone else’s choices, especially if we can make ourselves look better in the process. “That money should be for the poor Jesus! Tell Mary how she didn’t use her money wisely! Tell Mary how she’s not being a good follower of you.”

I love John’s aside about Judas. You can almost hear John’s eyes rolling as he explains that Judas’ real priority was himself. He didn’t prioritize the poor or the suffering over himself. Judas’ motivation was Judas. If I love John’s aside, I love Jesus’ response even more. In our NRSV Jesus says, “Leave her alone,” but the Greek might be better translated as “Release her.” Release her Judas from your priority of keeping face. Release Mary from the oppression of gender roles in first century Palestine. Release her from your judgment of how she chooses to share her resources. Release Mary from your judgment of how she chooses to worship God.

You see, when Mary released the fragrance of that perfume from the jar, she was heralding in the promises of God. The promises of release of the captives, the promises of release from oppression, promises of release from being invisible, promises of release from hopelessness, promises of release from separation from God and community and promises of release from death. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of release from what crushes us, the priorities of the world that don’t fill us, that take our life and don’t permeate our lives with abundance of love, grace and peace. Mary’s anointing of Jesus is active love in response of being released. When your truly free, love doesn’t have a cost, relationships aren’t steeped in obligation or the expectation of reciprocity and vulnerability is held as sacred space.

Jesus will stoop to wash the disciples’ feet just a few days later, releasing them from the old way of being, to a new way, a new commandment, “love one another as I have loved you.” Be released from worrying about who might take advantage of you and be released from what this world says about priorities of looking out for yourself and your own preferences, wishes and agendas. You are released to live in a different way, released to be who God created you to be, pure love poured out into the world for the sake of releasing others from systems of bondage. This is what we will pour out on Addison, Jamison, William and Stephanie at the 10 a.m. worship. In the water, word and promises made, they are released from the old way of sin and death to the new life and grace with God and the people of God forever.

It’s vulnerable, it’s risky this kind of release. Being released to live with our focus not only Jesus and his actions, but also on the words of Jesus to remember God’s priority that we are to include everyone in God’s promises, the poor, the rich, the outsiders, the hurting, the different from us, the ones that we will always have with us, as we are all in need of mind, body or spirit at some point each and every day. No one escapes the suffering and traumas of the broken world. But we are to remember that we all shine the light of Christ to one another and we all have an important part in the community of God’s people. We know the abundant and extravagant love and grace of God for all people, in all times and in all places. We know the release of sin, brokenness and shame to live in wholeness, vulnerability and authentic relationship with God and with one another. May the fragrance of Jesus’ love permeate us and release us. Thanks be to God.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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