A Lutheran Says What?

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

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.

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People of the Story (And It’s a Good One!) Genesis 1 May 29, 2016 Sermon Series: “I Love To Tell the Story.” June 23, 2016

I love a good story. I don’t think that I’m alone. For millennia stories have been at the center of the human experience. Stories that told around a fire of ancestors, of hunts, treks, beginnings, endings and truths about this human existence. Stories that are passed down from generation to generation. Stories that are written and preserved for the future. Stories that are shared through music, theater, dance and visual art. Love it or hate it, this is the crux of the popularity of television. Stories, stories and more stories! If the story on channel 9 doesn’t appeal to you, try channel 13! We love to share our own stories too. It’s how we really get to know one another and ourselves. We can offer people facts about ourselves: age, marital status, height, weight (well maybe not weight!), education, etc. Facts are great but they don’t convey the nuance of who we are, what our hopes, dreams, visions, passions and gifts entail. When we tell stories about ourselves, we reveal the core of who we are, our primary reason for being. I can tell you that I am 43, have a Master of Divinity and am a pastor but that isn’t the same as telling you that when I was 12, I saw a female pastor for the first time and felt the call to ministry. When I came home from my first confirmation class with her, I said to my parents: “I’m going to be a pastor just like Pastor Julie!” Pastor Julie nurtured this call by having me participate in worship in all kinds of leadership, including reading the gospel lesson on Sunday morning, singing the liturgy and serving communion. She asked me hard questions and allowed me to grow. This story in my life shapes who I am as a pastor today.

And stories do just that: Stories shape us, reveal us, and open us up to new ideas, possibilities and realities. They make room for more stories to bloom from the seeds of the other stories. Pastor Julie’s own story to ministry led to my story.

We forget that Genesis 1-the creation story-is such a story. It’s a story that isn’t about facts, science, concreteness, or details. No, it’s a story that reveals something about who this God of the Israelites in the Ancient Near East is about. You see there are many creation stories from the part of the world what we call the cradle of civilization. Most of them deal with many gods and goddesses who conquer sea monsters as well as lesser deities for control of the earth and humanity. In those stories, creation and humanity are at the whim and disposal of the gods and goddesses and if you anger them, then you get earthquakes, floods, drought, disease and the like. But the Israelites had a different creation story because the Israelites knew they had a different kind of God-they knew one God alone, who interacted with creation and humanity not with vengeance but with grace.

In the Genesis creation story, God, whose very spirit brooded protectively over the face of the waters, created, and not for self-gratification or what creation could do for God, but for the sake of goodness. God’s very word brought land, seas, sky, into being. God created these canvases for more creation. Sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, sea monsters, birds of the air and even creep crawly things were etched on the canvases of sea, land and sky that God first composed. Even when God filled those spaces, more spaces were created in the plants and animals themselves for more creating. God’s creative spirit isn’t a once and done activity, no God loves to see what will happen next and to try new things, witness change and diversity. God created not just one kind of bird but thousands! Not just one kind of animal but millions! And sadly, not just one kind of insect but billions! (We may not understand all that God creates! But that is good news too!)

And God wasn’t done with just plants and animals. God created in God’s very own image. God wanted to know what gift and closeness awaited in the composition of human kind. In creating humans, God was not creating beings to merely perform tasks, to entertain God, or to be scapegoats when things didn’t go well. God created partners for more creation. God wanted more and more creation and so filled humans, us, with the capacity to continue this important work with God. God didn’t need help, but wanted to be full partners and in relationship with us.

In this creation story, the Israelites told the rest of the world what God was truly about. Their God isn’t afraid of sharing power and control. Their God delights in witnessing all of creation living into the fullness of their capacities. God delights in how the lilies bloom in different colors and sizes, how birds have different songs, how elephants sound different than tigers, and how humanity has different languages, gifts, colors and points of view. God delights in sharing the story, sharing creation and sharing the possibilities of new creation.

The Israelites shared with the world a God who didn’t conquer humans but heard their cries, made promises to them, told them when they were wrong, offered a chance to try again, and promised to be with them always. This God was one who was always doing a new, unexpected thing and always offered life, even when it seemed impossible. This God offered hope, mercy and grace from the very beginning-grace is in creation itself. The Israelites loved to tell this story-a story of the truth that God is God of all creation and loves all creation and humanity.

The Israelites could find themselves with God in this story-included and valued for who they were created to be. We, too, find ourselves in the creation story. We find ourselves taken into the promises of God for life, for the opportunity for creative response, and the gift of God’s intimate presence with us. God’s nearness in creation and in us, opens up space for more to be created. God so desires to be near us that God’s creative word of life and promise came to dwell with us, in the flesh as Jesus. Jesus was with God from the very beginning and Jesus’ very presence is creation, creation of tangible love, tangible mercy and tangible grace in order for more love, mercy and grace may be created in the world. Jesus came to show us another way to create with God. We create when we love the outsider, we create when we generously offer our possessions for God’s work, we create when we participate in God’s justice for all to thrive, not just survive, and we create when we trust God’s promises enough to truly rest in Sabbath. Sabbath holds us in the promise that we will have life and have it abundantly not because of our effort, but God’s.

Like the Israelites, we have a different story of creation to tell the world. Not a story of scarcity, fear, entropy, and death that creates more of the same. No, we have a story of God who creates abundance from nothing, hope from chaos, newness from what used to be and life, life forever with God, from death. We don’t simply tell this story, we live it. We practice it here for an hour each week so that we can embody this story, God’s story, the other 167 hours of our week. We splash plenty of water around, as we will on Keira this morning, we offer bread and wine to all and we generously share peace, community and love with one another, no matter what because we know that God continues to create through us. This is the story that the world is desperate to hear. You see the Bible isn’t a fact book or a rule book, it’s a love story. This is why the creation story and the entirety of the Bible is foundational, it contains truth. From beginning to end the whole Bible reveals the truth about who God is: unconditional love that always creates more love. These biblical stories reveal that we are created in this love and continue the story of God’s love that lives in us through the Holy Spirit now and forever. Thanks be to God.

 

Who’s Image? Mark 12: 13-17 October 11, 2015 October 12, 2015

Denarius

*This week is the first week out of six, of focusing on discipleship at Lord of the Hills Lutheran Church in Centennial, CO. We are expanding our stewardship focus to recognize that generosity is a spiritual practice and part of being made in the image of God. We will be using alternate texts to the Revised Common Lectionary.

The Question about Paying Taxes

13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

On Friday evening I attended the annual New Beginnings ministry fundraiser dinner gala. New Beginnings is a congregation that worships inside the walls of the Women’s Denver Correctional Facility. I have attended worship there a couple of times and each time I am left speechless and in awe of these women who have, through many different paths and circumstances, have landed behind bars. They have made bad choices; they broke the law; they harmed others and themselves. Yet, as they walk into the cafeteria turned worship area, sit in plastic chairs and suddenly they are like any other congregation of God’s people gathered for worship. They are in desperate need of forgiveness, they are in desperate need of love, they are in desperate need of newness; they are in desperate need of Jesus.

These women had tried creating an identity for themselves on the outside that ultimately landed them on the inside. They wanted others to see them in a certain way; they wanted to see themselves a certain way. Image is important when it seems that’s all we have left. Maybe it was the image of being tough, hardened, daring or risky. Maybe they had been told that they were not good, that they couldn’t be anything other than broken, worthless, and lawless. I am always struck by how many of these women aren’t that different from you or me. Perhaps the biggest difference is simply luck, a bit more of a stable family or a few more resources available. These visits of worshiping with the women at New Beginnings, always humble me with all of the privileges and resources that I have that allowed me to make better decisions. We all make poor decisions from time to time, but we have to admit that it’s our context in which we have been immersed that boundaries us. Our view of ourselves partially dictates if our decisions have the potential to land us incarcerated or not. If we are in a context that says we have agency, choice, dignity and worth, we are less likely to take away someone else’s agency, choice, dignity or worth. To whom do we truly belong? A family, a gang, or no one? And what is our true identity?

The world wants us to have and to uphold a certain image: one of wealth, power, status, beauty. We are bombarded each and every day with what we should look like, act like, believe, do, and say. Some of those things are fine and can be life giving. Some of those concepts are ones that tug at our core, that mask who we really are, that deny the pieces of ourselves that hold to a different standard of beauty, power and status.

Just like we heard last week, the Pharisees, once again come to try and trap Jesus. What is it with people who won’t give up trying to get you to be who they want you to be or try and pick at you until every flaw is revealed? This time the Pharisees and Herod’s people were looking for Jesus to denounce the emperor. Now, in the Roman Empire the Emperor was also called Lord, as he was considered a god. To denounce Caesar is to denounce a deity and is punishable by death. Jesus knew this, of course, and also knew the reality of the image of him with the leadership: he was a rabble rouser, a controversial figure, a dissenting voice, but could they also get him to live into an image of a criminal needing punishment?

Jesus saw that the Pharisees, Herod’s people, the crowds, and even the disciples were already trapped; trapped by the world’s economy of keeping up with the Joneses, falling in line with what someone else told you, belonging to an empire, belonging to a system that dictates who you are and what you should try and be. Jesus astutely asks: “Whose head (or image in the Greek) is this?” Of course they answered, “The emperor’s image.” By using the word “image” Jesus is pointing back to Genesis 1-the creation story where humans are made in God’s image. Humans only belong to God, not to a political system, not to a certain economic system, not to a church system, not to any other organization-just God.

The difficulty comes in when we attempt to separate parts of our lives as religious and parts of our lives as secular. We don’t recognize that all people are created in God’s image and belong to God-Criminals, politicians, dictators, those in government, economics and other seemingly ungodly systems. We like to think that we can predict whom and what God loves. Author Anne Lamott writes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created a God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all of the same people that you do.” God creates us, not the other way around and we belong to God, and not the other way around. There is nothing that doesn’t belong to God in our lives. Nothing. God who created the whole earth and universe out of nothingness, declared it good, also declared that everything is part of the very life and heart of God. It’s difficult for us to remember that the people we dislike, the systems we dislike, the organizations that we dislike, also belong to God.

Jesus back and forth on what seems to be about paying taxes, what we do with our money, is really about reorienting the disciples and us to the fact that we cannot separate any part of our lives from God, not our daily lives, not our possessions, not our relationships, and not our money. Our worth to God is simply that we are God’s: not what we wear, not what we own, not what we do, not what we say. Whatever image of ourselves we are trying to project to the rest of the world that isn’t rooted in belonging to fully to God will ultimately lead us to confusion, sorrow and brokenness. I heard stories Friday night that drove that point home. It was only when the women at New Beginnings truly embraced that the only image that matters is that of being in God’s image was when healing, wholeness and clarity began to take root. God’s image included forgiveness, grace, love and most importantly hope.

Living as someone created in the image of love and belonging to the source of that love, God, is powerful. Being in God’s image reminds us that it is God  who is worthy and so we and all people have ultimate worth to God.  It transforms every relationship in our lives;  from relationships with other people, to our relationship with how we share our time and passion for God, to our relationships with our material resources. It transforms our lives from segregation to wholeness where the promise of unconditional love, grace, and hope of Christ permeate each and every second of our lives. These promises from God that began when God blew Holy Spirit breathe into adamma, transform all of creation into the very life of God, where we participate in offering our whole selves, all aspects of our lives for the revealing of God’s kingdom.

In this transformation, we withhold nothing, as God has withheld nothing from us. We answer the invitation into a life of prayer, study, service, generosity, and worship not because it improves our image or gets us anything-what God gives God gives freely-but to invite everyone we come into contact with into the transformation of knowing that the only image that matters is one of being made in the image of God. Give to the world what is the world’s-give back the fear, anxiety, greed, scarcity and hopelessness and give to God what is God’s-joy, abundance, generosity, hope and your whole self. You are God’s precious child, now and forever. Amen.