A Lutheran Says What?

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

Living Connections Sermon on John 15:1-8 April 30, 2018

*This sermon was preached on April 19, 2018 and can be watched on http://www.bethanylive.org. The texts were John 15:1-8 and 1 John 4: 7-21.

Children’s sermon: Have you ever been alone? Maybe in your room, at night, or another time? What is it like to be alone? Yes, it can be fine for a while, and sometimes being alone for a little bit is good and ok. But what would happen if you were alone ALL THE TIME? As in everyday all day, no one to talk to, no one to help with meals, no one to wash your clothes, no one to play with, no one at all. What would THAT be like? Yes, I think that would be sad, hard, lonely and ultimately, we can’t live by ourselves can we? Can you grow all your own food, raise cows for hamburgers, never go to a grocery store, because if you are alone, there is no one to put food in the grocery store! God created us to not be alone, but to be together.

Today in SS you will hear the bible story Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches. We are always connected to Jesus and Jesus wants us to always be connected to him. This is because God loves us! Let’s go look at the tree in the corner. Do you see the branches coming off the main trunk? Yep, Jesus says that he is like the trunk. The trunk of the tree sends food, water, and other things the branches need to grow and to have leaves and some trees give us fruit, like apples, peaches, pears, bananas. Jesus wants us to know that Jesus will give us what we need to grow and bear fruit. Now will you grow apples from your arms?? NO! don’t be silly, but the kind of fruit Jesus wants us to grow is love. We know that God is love and love is the most important thing to God. God knows that when we are connected to Jesus, like branches on a tree, then we are connected to love! Just like branches grow off of other healthy branches, if we are connected to love we will grow more love! And when we are connected to Jesus, we are also connected to each other and show love to each other and grow love in each other! How can we show love and help each other grow love? How about when we are kind to a friend, even if they are not being kind to us? How about helping someone in class with math, reading or science? Or how about sitting with a classmate at lunch who no one else sits with? All kinds of ways to show love! God shows us love, connects us to love in Jesus and we are this same love of God. I want you to write your name on this ribbon, and we are going to tie the ends of our ribbons to one anothers ribbons to make a chain and put it on the tree to show that we are connected to Jesus and each other. The adults will do this in a minute too. You can go back to your seat when your done, I’m going to talk to the adults a bit more about this.

 

Connections. We often say in our lives that it’s not what you know but who you know. Who you are connected to. We love connections, mostly. The rise of social media is a testament to this. We can be reconnected to high school and college friends, connected to colleagues all over the world, family, even complete strangers whom we find interesting in a two-dimensional sort of way. The downside of digital connections is that they tend to replace face to face interactions and we are wired for personal connection. As neurological research continues to reveal, being in community is vital for health. There is a Ted Talk by Susan Pinker where she reveals that the secret to longevity is a social life. This is the most important factor for longevity beyond diet, exercise, smoking, drinking, positive thinking, gratitude or genetics. Close relationships, connections, belonging, community are a vital life source. Even casual interactions such as talking to your barista, or the cashier at Target are more important than any of those biological factors. Being connected is life itself.

This is a truth that is not an accident. God created us in community, saying “let us make humankind in our own image”and then: “go forth and multiply.” God’s very self is relationship and community as we proclaim in the Creeds: God father, creator, Jesus redeemer, and the Holy Spirit who gathers us as one. God became flesh in Jesus to dwell with us, to abide with us, or a more accurate translation, to make a home with us. To move in so to speak. Jesus is moving in! Better finish the basement! Jesus moved in with us to show us that this belonging in God’s community, this deep and powerful connection is all about love. 1 John 4: 8 sums up the whole of God’s being and the bible: God is love. And this love is not just fluffy, sentimental, Valentines day love, no, it’s agape love. Agape love is self-sacrificing love, resilient love, love as actions. God, through Jesus, shows us actions of healing, actions of casting out demons and fear, actions of servanthood, actions of risk, actions of dying on a cross, actions of being raised from the dead. Love that will go to great lengths, literally to death and back, to be connected to us so that we may know this love and live connected to this source of love.

The stakes are high in this love. Jesus is clear that without being connected to this source of life and love, we will wither and die. When we cut ourselves off from Jesus, we are indeed like a branch that is disconnected, dies and is only good for firewood. We cut ourselves off when we listen to the society around us that tells us that we should be able to go through life alone and not need other people to journey with us. Pull ourselves up from our own bootstraps, be smarter, quicker, and better than everyone else. Be self-made people. Worry only about ourselves. We don’t want to be dependent, reliant or co-dependent. There are times that I believe this lie from culture and think that it’s all about what I alone can produce, and what I alone can produce is a statement about my worth. When I fall into this trap of self-reliance, I project it on other people around me and that’s when real disconnection can happen. I forget that I have gifts that people need me to share and that those people have gifts that I desperately need to be all whom God created me to be. This is what it means to be connected to Jesus the true vine, the source of all life and love. Connected to this life source, we live in a state of mutual and intertwined relationship with God and each other.

I need to be reminded constantly that I am part of a bigger whole, as I bear more fruit of God’s love when I am in mutual, giving, and loving relationship with Jesus and the people of God. John 15: 5 was my confirmation verse I chose when I was 14 years old. I was an Air Force brat and when I was confirmed in May, at the end of my ninth grade year and chose this verse, I had just learned that my dad had orders for us to move again soon. I would get to finish my first year of high school but then leave shortly after school let out. I would be losing all the connections from the previous four years. We had read this verse in church after Easter and I latched onto it with a vice grip. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus said. “Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” I heard “You are connected to me Jesus says, whether you like it or not and vines rarely their drop branches and as the vine grows, branches intertwine with other branches, and become so intertwined, you can’t tell which branch is which and where the vine begins and the branches end. This verse told me that I was connected to the true vine no matter where I was.

So Jesus says it is with our relationship with him and each other. The gift of being in this community of faith, based on the reality of love, agape love that flows from first from God to Jesus the vine and then to us the branches, is not only about us but about the fruits of love we bear. Love in action, not just in words. Love in action is fearless, for when we are filled with love, there simply isn’t room for anything else; no room for hate, apathy, greed or fear. The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear. Fear can cause us to see the world through tunnel vision and lose sight of the expansive and fearless love that we are connected to and are called to be.

Fearless love in action is when we risk our reputation to speak out for the dignity of all people. Fearless love in action is when we sacrifice our own wants so that our neighbors have what they need, whether that is safety, food, shelter, clothing. Fearless love in action is praying for those whom you don’t like and who don’t like you. Fearless love in action is working for justice and standing with people who lack power or voice in our culture due to gender, race, faith tradition, or sexual orientation. Fearless love in action is looking beyond first impressions or our own biases and seeing each other as God sees us, all branches on the vine, all useful, all with worth, all created in God’s image of love. And God’s perfect love casts out all fear.

You are already connected to this source of life and love. You are already connected to all the other branches on the vine, some that are like you and some that are very different. Some are right next to you and you can see and touch, and some branches that are so far down that vine that you don’t even know that they exist but Jesus says they matter. You already have everything you need to bear fruits of love. You have been splashed with the waters of baptism as we will do for Miles this morning, and proclaimed a branch on the vine of life, you are nourished body and soul with bread, wine and words of promise and forgiveness to grow in love and bear fruits of God’s love.

Beloved, love one another, for God’s love through Jesus Christ has moved in and this perfect love is here to stay, to cast out fear, to connect us to Jesus the true vine, and each other, now and forever. Amen

*During the hymn of the day/or communion, you are invited to come to the prayer station in the corner. Take a green ribbon and write your name on it in the center. You will tie one end of your ribbon to the end of someone else’s to create one chain of ribbons on the tree as a visual that we are connected to each other and Jesus sustains us all. When you tie your ribbon onto someone else’s, notice the name on the ribbon. Pray for that person this week to bear the fruit of God’s love.

When you leave the station, there are baskets of key tags, please take one. They have the verse of John 15:5 on one side and “We are connected to Jesus” on the other as a reminder of being the beloved community no matter where your life takes you.

 

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There Is Not One Good Story, Pentecost Year B Acts 2: 1-21, May 24th, 2015 May 25, 2015

Sometimes we just don’t know what is going on or what’s happening. For me, that’s most of my life honestly. When I began to pray, think and write this sermon, I spent some time wondering… “when was a time where I didn’t understand what was happening and it felt like a rush of violent wind or being burned by a refining fire? When was a time when I was shaped and informed by the people around me who are different? When was a time when I was astonished and amazed? When was a time I questioned or offered the cynical comment of someone being a off their rocker?” I  was searching for one good story of one of those times to go with this story of God’s Holy Spirit blowing into those gathered for the festival, unifying them, pushing them outside of what they could concretely know, understand and searching for what scripture had to say about all of this. I thought I needed one story to try and make sense of this scripture passage.

But I couldn’t come up with one good story. Not one.  I realized there is not just one story of this in my life and I suspect in yours. If we’re completely honest—everyday is like Pentecost for us. Each morning we wake up and we think we can predict what our day will be like (and sometimes we’re pretty close!) but it’s never exactly what we predicted. Each day we face the unknown, the amazing, the astonishing, the heartbreaking, the cynicism, the confusion, the clarity, and the questioning. Sometimes, all at once. Our days are messier, more outside our boxes and less controllable than we like to think about over our morning coffee. Anne Lamott wrote these words yesterday on her facebook page about reflecting on turning 61: “ Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it is filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.”

Our Acts 2 story begins with the disciples gathered together in that upper room and they thought that they had a pretty good idea about what their day was about to be like. Maybe more hiding, wondering, fear, waiting, or maybe a cautious trip to the temple for the festival. Pretty predictable. Pentecost came and went every year; nothing new to see. But how their day started and how their day ended they never could have predicted and I don’t think that they would have wanted to. Suddenly, they were caught in what must have felt like a tornado, can you imagine? How many have been in a tornado or a wind storm? It’s frightening when you watch debris thrown at you and you can’t control your own body due to the force. Then fire. Fire is very serious today but in the ancient world, it meant certain death and destruction. Fire couldn’t be controlled at all. At best, you prayed for rain.

Finally, they all heard strange and unknown languages. How many of you have been to foreign countries where you didn’t speak the language or at least not well? It’s disconcerting isn’t it? When you learn a few words or hear English, it’s as if that person speaking is now a close and personal friend. You’ve made a connection; it’s relieving and astonishing. So, welcome to the disciples unpredictable day. Not just one of those things happened, but they all did. In one day, in one moment, in one place. What a story!

Those who witnessed it couldn’t believe it and didn’t have a framework to place this experience into, so I kinda get it when some said: “well, these people have got to be drunk!” Or if they were in CO, these people have to be high! What was going on they wondered? This is not what I expected when I woke up today! Peter (always ready to jump in Peter) thought he’d better try and take a stab at this. He thought that he should give it some sort of grounding from the prophets, because the prophets completely make sense…right…..But what Peter did was connect God’s mysterious presence from the past, to the present and into the future. Peter named the uncertainty, pointed it out, gave it language, and reminded us that God is more than we can predict, more than we can intellectually explain, more than a cosmic slot machine where we put in our questions or prayers and get answers. God is on the move, God is doing a new thing, God is gathering us and making us rub off on each other, learn and literally shape one another. It’s messy and unpredictable and there’s just not one good story that encompasses all of this.

There’s not one good story. No, there are 7 billion great stories of God’s Holy Spirit loose in the world. There’s your story, my story, our story together, the story of LCM in this neighborhood, the story of Lakewood, of Jefferson County, Colorado…you get it. There are all of these stories of what God is doing in our lives and in the world and sometimes, we get to connect our stories together for a time. Sometimes we connect our story to someone whom we marry and we share this unpredictability together for 50 or 60 years. Sometimes we connect our stories with friends in high school for a time, or college or here in this congregation, or in our workplaces and we are perplexed by the wind that is shaping us, we wonder about the fire that might destroy to build something new. We navigate the unpredictability by sharing our stories of past experiences with God, pray together about the present and dream dreams about the future. And we share our stories with the world.

Today we celebrate and send off our graduates with those dreams and we are grateful for the time that they shared their story of God’s Holy Spirit in their lives with us. Quinn, Callista, TJ, Harrison, Heather, and Julie, your stories of God in your lives have shaped, perplexed (at times!), astonished and amazed us all. Thank you for your fire and your wind that is the Holy Spirit blowing in you. God’s story of love and good news that is part of your story is one that the world desperately needs, so go share it and translate it so that all may hear it. Life is unpredictable, you never know what your days may bring, but two things we want you to know:  1) God is with you always 2) You are all very loved by this community always. May that always sustain you and may everyday be a new day in God’s promises-may everyday be Pentecost, new wind and fire of God’s Holy Spirit, in and through you.

There is not one good story. My story of what the Holy Spirit is doing in my life is sending me in a new direction from the story that we have all shared together here at LCM. I am blessed and grateful for the Holy Spirit blowing me here for 2 and ¾ years and for all of the ways that this community has wrestled with me in questions of,  “what does this mean?”, amazement at what God is doing and will continue to do, astonishment at the powerful deeds of God in this place and in the world and, because I’m me, sharing a little cynicism. Your story of God’s Holy Spirit has blown me away, the passion of your fire for God’s work in the world has singed me and allowed for new growth in me, and your words have interpreted to me the depth of your faith in the living Christ. I will take your stories of the Holy Spirit’s wind and fire here at LCM with me always. Our stories will always be intertwined for the sake of revealing God’s love in the world. Thank you for your stories.

So, there is not just a good story. There is only the best story. It is the continuing and eternal story of God at work in all of us. There is the story of Jesus love, forgiveness and hope that is poured out not to only some but to all flesh. There is the story of the Holy Spirit’s wind and fire shaping us, destroying us and giving us new life not just for our own sake but for the sake of the world who is begging to hear and be a part of this great story. There is the story of God’s people being gathered and sent. Yes, it’s unpredictable, yes, we don’t always understand it, yes, it’s a mystery and yes, and sometimes all we have is a little cynicism and our calling on the name of the Lord.  But it’s God’s story of love for all of creation. Thanks be to God.

 

Creative or connective? November 19, 2013

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Creativity is an elusive thing for me. I love to challenge myself to look at biblical texts, community events, teaching lessons, virtually everything I do, through a lens that is perhaps unique or unconventional. I think this is where innovation and growth lives. The unconventional idea often resonates with me the most and is the place where connections to seemingly unconnected ideas are made. But there are times that I can’t seem to make that happen. Last week was one of those times. I had confirmation curriculum to write, an Advent cross + generational event to plan, a sermon to start thinking about and worship text reflection time to plan. Now ask me how much of that got done. That’s right: zero, zilch, zip.
I did all of my “usual” creativity sparking go-to’s: take a walk on the trails behind my house, do some reading, look at Pintrest (seriously a visual learners dream), take a nap, get done some menial tasks and yet not one single solitary creative thought crossed my little brain. What if I never have another creative thought again and people figure out that I am useless?
I honestly worry about this from time to time. What if I never have an original idea again? What is it that allows for creativity and how do I keep that flowing? When I think about it, it’s not really so much that I have that many original ideas, because I don’t. It’s that I am able to take other ideas, make them unique to my context and situation and personalize the it. So perhaps I am not creative at all, maybe I am just able to read my context.
I admire people who can come up with completely new and innovative ideas out of mid-air it seems. Yet, when you listen to their story of how their idea came to fruition, many times the “new” idea came from a very ordinary issue, question or situation. They had a problem, looked at their resources and came up with a solution. Yet, there is still an element of “je ne sais quoi that can’t be articulated about creativity. What makes someone like Jimi Hendrix so different? Or a Mozart? A Picasso? The answer of course is the one thing I lack…genius. Genius is what takes something or someone from good to great. It’s the “x” factor so to speak. You either have it or you don’t. 99.5% of us don’t. Hendrix took the music he knew and connected it with a culture. Picasso connects art and an alternate world view. Mozart connected the basic music he had been taught with what he figured out the medieval string instruments could really do. We don’t know how these connections are made for them, but we know genius when we see it don’t we?
The other piece to creativity for me I have learned is collaboration. The ability to verbally process and think through an event, a lesson or worship idea is crucial for me in the creativity process. Many corporations are going to large rooms with just long tables for people to sit together all day long and bounce ideas back and forth. Gone are the solo offices or cubbies. It would seem like more socializing would happen than work but many businesses understand that “socializing” and just chatting is the crucible where innovation is born. Someone gives a “crazy idea” and someone else connects it with something a bit more doable and all of the sudden you get an ipad.
It wasn’t until I finally called my best friend (who is also a pastor) on Friday that the ideas began to flow. I gave her my extremely thin concept and she began to ask questions and spit out ideas. Then the creative spark returned and I was able to even look at other materials, look at Pintrest and visualize how the idea with some tweaking will fit where I want it to. She helped me to see connections where I had previously been unable to. So really my “creativity” is not so much true creation as much as it is connecting people and ideas. Connections are vital. Connections are where space is created for growth, learning and newness to take root. So, I’ll take it and not take it for granted when it happens.

 

Working myself out of a job November 2, 2013

Yesterday, I told you a little about my journey to seminary and my ministry foundations. Today, let me tell a little about what I am currently up to in ministry. I finished seminary, was ordained a little over a year ago and I am the part-time associate pastor of youth and household ministry at this really great (and fun!) church in a Denver suburb. My senior pastor is Rob Moss (honestly, you should stop reading my blog and go read his, it’s better: The Neighborhood Church) and so far it’s going great for me but you will have to ask Rob if it’s going as well for him. Seriously, go read his blog. You’re still reading this? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you….

We do have one of the longest church names in the history of the free world though: Lutheran Church of the Master. So, it gets shortened to LCM. Mostly that is fine, except it is also the acronym for “Lutheran Campus Ministry” in the Rocky Mountain Synod. Confusion can occur.

LCM is a place that when the Holy Spirit decides she is going to move-she moves and you had better be able to keep up. It can be exhausting but mostly it is a lot of fun and fulfills my need to be creative and “outside the box.” Actually, my favorite thing to say is that I have left the box and set fire to it so that no one can get back in. We are in a place and time in the greater Church where status quo is not even a possibility and I honestly have very little patience for it. This is where LCM and I are a great ministry match.

So what does this mean for youth and household ministry at LCM? Well, several things. One, is that we recognize we are in a culture where there is no longer a sacred time of the week (or two if you think about Wednesdays) when a large population will come to worship or participate in faith education. Two, we recognize that our under 30 generation does not want our worship or institution and that is ok. We don’t know completely what that will look like but we are willing to step out onto the edge. Three, what the under 30’s DO want is to be relevant, useful and to engage in something meaningful. In reality, isn’t this what we all want, regardless of our age? It just takes on a different flavor in this generation (as it has in every preceding generation). Four, age segregated, one hour education (i.e. Sunday school and/or confirmation) doesn’t form faithful followers of Jesus. We are acknowledging that we have to resource, empower and equip families to have faith conversations in their homes. Five, we are not the only church undergoing these culture shifts. It’s us and every other church in the Western Hemisphere. Comforting and yet…

I could list more but this is enough to keep me busy for a few years I suspect. As I mentioned yesterday, my passion is for Christ-centered, stable families, so everything I do in a day, week or month is to work toward a vision of families reading the Bible, praying, serving and loving their neighbors for the sake of the community and world around them. A vision that includes families and households (whatever configuration or number of people in a home) who so naturally serve and engage the community around them, that LCM becomes known not just as a place to come on Sunday mornings or other times but is a place where people leave to fill the world with the love of God. I also say that my job is to work myself out of a job. What if people so naturally participated in God’s mission that they didn’t need me (or any pastor) to walk beside them? I would hope that they would want me to walk with them as part of the body of Christ.

I won’t bore you with specifics of how I work toward that vision but one of the key components for me in ministry is relationships. I think that we are all so hungry for connectivity that has been lost in our “leave our house box, for the car box, for the cubicle box, and then return to the house box, to stare at the TV box” culture that we look for it in anyway possible-healthy or unhealthy. Hence the rise of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. It’s interesting to me that the newest social media sites, such as “Meet-up,” are about people actually connecting at some point-what for it-in real life! We are created by the Triune God for relationship with God and one another. We are only as whole, healthy and happy as we are connected to God and others. We cannot be whole alone. This globalization that has emerged only proves the point. It matters what happens to children in Syria, it matters what happens to the rice crop in China, it matters when women in India are not safe, it matters when our neighbor across the street suffers from depression. It matters to God and it should matter to us as God’s people.

This is what propels me to walk beside families in this complex world that we live in. The gospel of Jesus Christ has something to say about our relationships: the love and mercy of God are for all, in every time and in every place. We are freed from worrying about our salvation and so we GET to simply be the love of God in the world. We are freed from worrying about if we will get it 100% correct (we won’t) because God is in the midst of our attempts. That is a HUGE praise God for me as I mess up frequently. Ok, daily. OK, OK, I have probably messed up 8 times just in the time I have taken to write this post. But this is the message that I think the world desperately needs to hear and needs leaders willing to be transparent in our own failed attempts. We are not alone, we are in this together and most importantly-God is and promises to always be with us.