A Lutheran Says What?

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

Divine Dust Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016, Year C February 11, 2016

False and True Worship

58 Shout out, do not hold back!
    Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

 

Maybe these phrases resonate with you tonight: “I don’t know how much more studying I can do, I’m so burned out.” “I’m exhausted from arguing with my teenaged daughter. I’m burned out on the fights.” “My supervisor just keeps piling on the requirements without allowing enough time or resources for the project. I’m burned out on her not listening.” “I can’t listen to any more political commercials. I’m burned out on the nonsense.” “I keep going back to drinking, gambling, overeating. I’m burned out on trying to change.” “I’m never going to be as good as my friend, colleague, classmate, neighbor. I’m burned out on not feeling good enough.” “I don’t know if I can make it one more day without my husband, wife, mother, father, child. I’m burned out on being sad.”

“I’m burned out.” It’s become a phrase that we throw around with our friends, family and colleagues pretty casually. Sometimes we use it as a badge of honor in relation to our busy and so obviously important schedules. Being burned out means that we’re so vital in whatever little kingdom we inhabit and so of course all of our resources are simply not only crucial but must be depleted. Otherwise, nothing will get done, right?

We also use this phrase to highlight our distaste and the repugnancy of whatever situation we are witnessing or are caught in. Politics, religion, money, taxes, are just a few venues in our lives where its seems that our capacity for engagement has a limit. We gaze out at the socio-economic-political landscape and what catches our sight is often less than hopeful, less than joyful, and less than secure. It’s difficult to near impossible to hear past the rhetoric and posturing of the political candidates to uncover anything of substance, anything that might be life-giving or anything that we might be able to grab on to for security and hope. We yearn for conversations of integrity, honesty and truth. We optimistically listen for what the future might bring for our children, grandchildren and even ourselves and then gut wrenchingly realize that perhaps we’re the only ones who are concerned for those who come after us. We begin to wonder that maybe change isn’t possible and this is the best that we can expect from our systems of government, education and yes, even the Church.

Or maybe you’ve used this phrase as a whisper of desperation for a relationship with a loved one or….yourself. When we’ve hit rock bottom and all we have left is the crippling knowledge that we are caught in a cycle that we alone, all by ourselves without any help, can’t break. When we’ve cried the last tear, because we’ve cried so hard, for so many days, that there is nothing left but long, dry, heaving sobs. When our hearts are not just broken, but shattered into so many pieces that we’re fairly sure that not only will it never go back together again but that there WILL be pieces forever missing. You’ve screamed the words in the car, in the woods or in the bathroom, “God, I’m burned out! I can’t do this anymore!”

God, we’re burned out. We’re depleted. We’re spent. Some days it seems that there is nothing left of our lives but ashes. Those dusty, dirty remnants of an object or thing that used to be, that used to be something of substance, of importance, of usefulness. Now, a pile of ashes, useless, easily scattered and easily blown away. What good are we as ashes and where is God when we are burned out, burned away to what feels like nothingness?

Isaiah writes, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” God hears us, listens to us, walks with us, cries with us, and sees us. God sees that we are burned out, that we are stuck in only going through the motions, that we spin our wheels and only send more dirt and muck flying up into the air, covering ourselves and those around us with the grimy specs of our attempts to take care of ourselves, go it alone, tricking others and ourselves into thinking that we have it all together, and that we can clean ourselves up at any time.

Ash Wednesday is the intersection of our dust, dirt, mess and fear of death and the reality of God’s promises for life . It’s when we admit not only our humanness and mortality but that we are being killed each day in millions of little and big ways. It’s when we run smack into the what it means when we pray “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil.” God promises to be our rescue. Not in a super hero sort of way swooping in at the last minute to take care of the bad guy or to fix a helpless situation and then dashing off until needed again. God’s rescue is on-going relationship with us each and every moment of our lives. God’s rescue involves a cross, suffering, death and then an empty tomb. God’s rescue is the promise to witnesses our ashes, the ashes that we keep hidden and secret from the rest of the world, and proclaim our beauty, love, and worth. God’s rescue is a return to our true identity as God’s very own children as well as a return to wholeness for all people as one people and creation.

God doesn’t see us as spent or used up but proclaims that we are created in God’s image, we are made from dust, dust that created the earth and all of the cosmos, divine dust. As divine dust creatures, it means that in baptism our lives and our deaths meet God’s promises for soaking love and for eternal life with God where sorrow and suffering is no more. We are showered with these promises so that we shower the dusty world with this life-quenching reality. There is enough in the river of life for all to be fed, clothed, housed and treated with justice and dignity. God’s justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an every-flowing stream (Amos 5: 24) and we are swept up in that tide. That tide that transforms us and the world, that tide that demands that we do not ignore God’s vision for wholeness but participate in radical justice and peace for the sake of our neighbor, who is also burned out on being pushed aside, transparent and scapegoated.

God takes our ashes and re-creates us, molds us, and enlivens us to shine with Christ’s light through our dust, to bring love and life into a world that is dying, dying to hear that brokenness is not the last word. Burn-out is not the last word. Oppression is not the last word. Death is not the last word. It is God who speaks the last word into our days spent in the messiness and chaos of life as God spoke the first words into the nothingness, chaos and dust and brought forth all of creation and life. God’s word always brings life; God’s word always brings hope; God’s word always whispers in your ear when you are screaming that you are burned out: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. I can do a lot with dust. You are mine, I see you, I love you and I am here.” Thanks be to God.

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Off the Beaten Path, Mark 13: 1-8 Pentecost 25B, November 15th, 2015 November 17, 2015

*This sermon was preached on Nov. 15th at Bethany Lutheran Church, Cherry Hills Village, CO

Each summer since 2010, my husband, Mike, and our son, Andrew, take a father/son road trip. They have been to the Black Hills, Roswell, Moab, Yellowstone and everywhere in between. While they have specific destinations in mind, it’s really the journey itself that they focus on. Early on in their yearly trips, they discovered a website called Roadside America. This site offers a plethora of “off the beaten path” sites that you won’t find on AAA, or necessarily on a billboard alongside the highway. I’m talking about alligator farms where you can hold a real alligator. Or a man who has a 150 sculptures made of mufflers in his front yard. Or statues of headless chickens. Or alien watch towers.  Often, they have to travel many miles out of their way to encounter these wonders of the modern world and they are not always easy to find. These places would be easily missed by most people if you don’t know what to look for or aren’t willing to veer from your original path. Some of the sites are not as exciting as Mike and Andrew had hoped, but even when it’s a dud, they still have a great story of a quirky experience. If they had stuck to the obvious signs along the highway they wouldn’t have seen what many other people have missed. I’m always amazed that they have the openness to notice and experience these fun places that are not the usual tourist options.

It’s interesting what we notice and what we don’t notice in our lives isn’t it? What we chose to focus on in our lives often becomes our filter for everything we notice. Our media feeds us a constant stream of what they think is important or what we need to be content and happy: Lose weight, buy a car, get that new phone, get a security system, make more money, get a bigger house, and the list goes on and on. And I don’t know about you, but it’s so easy to get sucked into that focus-the focus that is all about us, how we can be better, smarter, thinner, younger, better looking, or richer. We sell ourselves the idea that if we only focus on ourselves, fix, right here right now, what we don’t like about our lives that we can control not only today but tomorrow. We get sold the falsehood that we are the ones in control of our wholeness and can fix ourselves.

The basis of all of this, if we’re honest is fear. We’re afraid of what we can’t control, namely the future. We want some sort of certainty about what tomorrow will bring and some sort of sign of what is to come so that we can prepare. So we focus on what is obvious or what the world puts in front of us: our institutions, economic systems, family systems, even our churches. So when we experience major shake ups in these supposedly unshakable monoliths, it can seem like the end of the world as we know it and then our fear and need for control takes over and can focus us on the wrong thing.

The disciples were no different than we are today. In our gospel story, Jesus and the disciples are leaving the temple, where they had just witnessed the widow putting in all that she had into the treasury and what did the disciples immediately notice? The great, glorious and permanent the stones of the temple! “Jesus, isn’t this temple amazing?? I’m sure it will be here forever!” I can almost see Jesus either rolling his eyes or shaking his head. After all of the revelations of God’s kingdom the disciples had seen and witnessed by being with Jesus, this temple was what they chose to notice and focus on.

When the author of Mark wrote this gospel, it’s likely that this very temple that the disciples were staring at in wonderment had been very recently destroyed. The temple was the center of all religious life for the Jewish people: it’s where they believed that the actual connection and intersection of God and God’s people through the priests in the Holy of Holies took place. It’s where sacrifices for the atonement of sins were offered. The temple had become the main focus of the religion in many ways. Jesus is reminding the disciples past, present and future that no matter what system breaks down, even the central religious system such as the temple, God is still present, God is the center of their lives and God is still at work in the world.

Jesus cautions us to stay focused on God as when we are focused on God, our worries, our concerns, our fears of the future will be kept in perspective. Jesus came to proclaim through flesh that God is with us always and to not look at what’s wrong or needs to be fixed but what new thing God is doing in our midst. Jesus’ presence invites us to get off the highway of fear and status quo. There are many events that can make us focus on our fear that the end of the world is indeed happening and we worry about what we should do. There are wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, terrorist attacks in Paris and on Kenyan universities, airplanes destroyed while in flight, bankruptcy, diseases, loss of jobs, and all of the other daily challenges that seem to demand our full attention. But Jesus tells us, “Do not be alarmed.” Don’t focus on these things. Don’t forget that God is with you. Don’t forget that it is God that is bringing salvation to you and to all of creation. No matter what the world wants you to believe, it is God who brings you into life with God and with one another for transformation and wholeness-which is true salvation.

God is doing a new thing, bringing in peace and love for all people in all times and in all places, even when all we can focus on is disaster, destruction and death. Jesus proclaims to the disciples and to us, the new life that God is birthing, right here, right now! Can we see it? Can we notice the selfless acts of generosity and love in our midst? Feeding the hungry through Metro CarRing, loving our neighbor in need through the Angel Tree, celebrating the miracle of the new life of a baby with the Rulla family, the promises of God poured out on Michael Donovan in the waters of baptism, the giving of God’s love story found in the Bible to our second graders this morning.  Jesus walks with us and dares us to boldly live differently than the world: “Look for newness, not destruction! Look for life, not death! Look for abundance, not scarcity!” Jesus reminds us of this so that not only can we see it but we can live our lives to witness to what God is doing so that God’s promise of life, hope, forgiveness and mercy is revealed to the whole world. Living this way is not the usual road traveled but each and every day God invites us and embraces us in the new life and transforming work God is already doing.

God promises to not leave us alone in our fear, in our worry and in our uncertainty and will always speak words life and hope where we only see death and despair. God’s presence with us in our daily lives is certain and unshakable. God’s love offers us a way to get off the road of fear, loneliness, scarcity and death. God’s road offers us hope, life and community through ordinary signs of water, bread, and wine, to refocus us time and time again on what is the true center of our lives, the forever and unconditional love of God that is bringing wholeness to all of creation. Thanks be to God.

 

Looking for Power in All the Wrong Places Mark 6: 14-29 Pentecost 7B July 12, 2015 July 16, 2015

When I was two, I learned a new word and couldn’t wait for an opportunity to use it. (Now don’t worry this is a family friendly sermon.) One day I had my chance. My parents had taken me to a beach in northern CA where we were stationed at Vandenberg AFB with some friends. After a full day of playing on the beach and in the water, it was time to go home. My mother went to scoop me up and put me in the rather rudimentary 1972 car seat and I realized my chance to try out this word. I did not want to get into my car seat and I now had the vocabulary to articulate my desire for power and control. I put my hands on my hips and looked at my mother and said, “Now, wait a minute dumb-dumb.” Where I had heard that pejorative word, who knows, (older kids probably) but my two year old brain had quickly recognized that I could own more power by trying to take away someone else’s. What my two year old brain had not processed is that my parents were still bigger and waaaaaay smarter. I ended up in the car seat, screaming I’m sure, with my parents wondering why they bother to ever leave the house with me. *Kids-it is never ok to call names or say something mean to anyone-especially your parents! *Parents-you’re welcome.

Figuring out what you have power and control over in your life starts nearly at birth. Learning to control our limbs, head, and neck is about three months of work right there! Then there’s rolling over, crawling, walking, running, toileting, riding a bike and all of the gross motor skills. Alongside control of our physical bodies, we learn that our emotions can control our actions and how that can be good and bad. As we mature, we begin to want more power and control in our lives. The teen years are all about power and control. Figuring out what you can and can’t do without negative consequences is a major part of adolescence, as well as learning where you don’t have power in your life.

We are wired to like power, control, and agency. Unfortunately, we struggle to move past what my two year old brain had put together, that in order to have power, control and agency, we must diminish someone else’s.

On a cursory reading of today’s gospel text, we could say that the theme is power. Herod’s power over John, John’s unlikely power over Herod, Herodias’ (Herod’s wife) power over her daughter, Herod’s daughter’s power over Herod, the power of keeping up appearances, and then we have the power of Jesus and his disciples with the crowds that frightened the puppet king. Power is indeed a key player in this text. We see people entangled in a system solely based on the need for personal power over and against other people. In this ancient soap opera, the most powerful person-the person with the most political clout, the most agency, the most status-wins. And it’s all about winning with Herod. He is in a power struggle with Herodias and John. John had exposed Herod’s wrong doings in marrying his brother’s wife (Days of Our Lives, anyone?)  and that threatened Herod’s power. Herodias had obviously traded up in husbands and married for money and power. In first century Palestine, Herodias only had as much power as her husband, so if Herod lost power so did she. Herod must maintain control and agency over John, even though Mark tells us that he kind of liked John. John told the truth to Herod of his abuse of his power; Herod deep down knew it but was too afraid to act. What if he lost all of his friends, his pawn throne of the Roman Empire, the lavish banquets, and all of the royal trappings? What if he became a nobody in Jerusalem?

At the end of the day, power is about ensuring that we are a somebody. We are worthy, important, special, famous, a mover and a shaker. This means that if I am all of those things, then you can’t be. There is not enough power for all of us to share. We can’t all be important! What if you have more influence and control than I do? Then what?

Power is definitely a theme in this story. But not the power that Herod desires, Herodias fears and kills John. It’s not power that is control and agency over and against someone else, but it’s the power of presence. The kind of presence that is hard to grasp, seems elusive and yet is palpable all through this story that seems to be about human power at its worst, human agency at its worst and human fear at its worst.  There is another power at work that is barely named and appears to not be part of the equation: Jesus. Counter to the power of humanity that seeks power for its own sake, for its own elevation, for its own sense of control and self worth, Jesus offers the power of his presence. This presence gives away power instead of accumulating it. Jesus and the disciples are busy giving away God’s power of healing, mercy, grace and love, while Herod is busy hoarding his power. Power of presence is power that seeks to elevate others, offers freedom to others and empties itself out to others.

Too often we think of power as personal, individual and scarce. Just like I was sure that I needed to assert power over my parents to be happy and have well being, we look for ways to take power and not share it and the world encourages us to do this. But God proclaims that in God’ creation and kingdom that is a lie that we choose to believe. God emptied power into the most powerless creature on earth, a newborn baby. Through Jesus Christ, God reveals over and over again how real power is given away. When we put other people’s needs first, when we understand and say “no” to the world’s system that wants us to compete with our neighbor for money, resources and status, when we stand in solidarity with people whom are told that their lives don’t matter, when we act to support the black churches that have burned down, when we see past labels and see people as God sees them, beloved, no matter where they live, what they believe, whom they love and who loves them, we reveal the power of the presence of Christ. God’s power is love for all people no matter what and this power conquers all fear, all hatred, and all sin, which is anything that separates us from this power of love in Christ.

This power of love is not a theoretical concept or a sappy philosophical thought but is embodied in Jesus and his actions on the cross where the loss of worldly power became the ultimate of God’s power of love, reconciliation and presence in the systems that lead to suffering in this world. This power of God’s presence is tangible in the waters of baptism, in the bread and the wine and in each one of us. Through the Holy Spirit we live this powerful presence that is Christ’s power of love. In Christ’s power, God declares that we are all somebody; we are all somebody in the body of Christ and beloved children of God marked the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Christ’s power is at work in you, in me and in the world. Thanks be to God.

 

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.

 

The Crisis of “For God So Loved the World” Lent 4B John 3:1-21 March 16, 2015

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How many of you can remember either your first year of college, or the first year you lived on your own? It was scary at first wasn’t it? We longed for the familiarity, comfort and security of living at home with our family (even though we probably pushed back on them). We didn’t know who we were, what we were doing or where we were going. Being on our own was a completely new way of living for us. It was frightening and exciting all at the same time. In a sense, this new found freedom and new way of living was a crisis for many of us. But it was a crisis that moved us from where we were as teenagers into adulthood. It was a crisis that opened up for us the possibilities of who we were and who we could become. If not for that crisis though, we might not have met our spouses and had our own children otherwise, or had the vocations that we now have. I know my parents were supportive but out of love, knew I had to be in the crisis and risk a little in order to grow and be all God created me to be. I think all of us would say that was worth the risk of moving out of our family’s homes.
A crisis can be caused by a positive event in our lives, as well as a negative event. It’s a defining period of time where we see the world differently, see our lives through a new lens and are open to new possibilities. Moving away from home, getting married, a new job, a new baby, a uncertain diagnosis, job loss or death of a loved one or any new experience invites us to think, be and live in a different way. Sometimes we handle a crisis well; we open up to the new way of living and explore it, learn from it and grow. Sometimes not so well. Sometimes we choose to go back to what we know and are familiar with, stay stuck if you will in the comfortable, even if that is not ultimately what is best for us, or the people around us. The system of what we know runs smack into something we have never seen before, and in that crisis, we are presented with a choice of what to do next.
Nicodemus, in John 3, is in such a crisis. He is a Pharisee, steeped in the Jewish system of the temple, the law and what he thinks it means to be God’s chosen people. Nicodemus, as a leader, personally benefits from this system; he’s comfortable, he has status, power and probably some financial security. But he admits that when he experiences Jesus and what Jesus is doing in the world, it puts him in crisis. He sees that everything Jesus does points to God and is part of who God is, despite the fact that it doesn’t follow the system Nicodemus currently knows and takes part. So, Jesus’ very presence causes a crisis for him; what he knows is running head long into a new way and what does it all mean?
Jesus affirms for Nicodemus that he does indeed recognize God’s work and
Jesus also affirms his crisis. Yep, Jesus says, this is new, God is doing a new thing
and let me tell you a bit more because it’s not what you think and it’s going to put the whole system that you know into a deeper crisis. God has come to be among you and so you cannot stay the same, the world cannot stay the same and the system that you cling to, cannot stay the same, no matter how hard you try to cling to it. The world cannot stay the same because God loves the world too much to leave it, and us, alone. God sees who God created us to be and wants that transformation for us.
John 3:16 is probably the most quoted Bible verse and yet, is the most misunderstood. Cherry picked from the middle of this rich story of the encounter of Jesus and Nicodemus, it loses it depth, breadth and role of God shaking up the world’s system and gets used to set up and support our own comfortable system that we can control and cling to. It becomes an indictment or a measuring stick for who’s in and who’s out. We focus our attention on the “who believes” and we gloss over God’s sacrificial and unconditional love for the whole world. And we completely ignore verse 17, that this in breaking of the kingdom of God through Jesus for the purpose of all people being gathered to God. We dilute this whole story down to one of pointing our fingers at people who think different than us, we use it as a self-justification that what we believe is correct and therefore makes us ok with God. We make it about us and not the world.
In doing so, we are attempting to keep ourselves comfortable and ignore the crisis at hand. The root of the words condemnation and judgment used in John is the same as our English word of crisis. Jesus coming into the world, the spirit blowing where she chooses presents a crisis, judgment or condemnation for us all. The light of God is now in the world and now everything is exposed whether we like it or not. The whole world, our whole system that we think keeps us comfortable, safe, and secure is in crisis. God is doing and showing us a new thing through Jesus and it’s a good thing but it presents us with some choices, even though that makes us uncomfortable to think about.
One of the tensions in this story is that Jesus acknowledges that not everyone will be on board, there will always be the naysayers, those who will resist the change to the system and will respond to the crisis of the light and love of God coming into the world by doubling down on the system that keeps them in their safe cocoon of the illusion of having power and control. It doesn’t mean that salvation is not theirs because Jesus is equally clear on that: God’s love, forgiveness, mercy and grace are for all-the whole world whether they like it or not or acknowledge it or not. That’s done; no one needs to worry about that. But Jesus invites all people now thrown into the crisis of God’s presence with them always, to be transformed, to grow, learn and made new, not just so that we can say that we believe and are ok, but to transform the world around us with God’s love and mercy. Our participation in God’s new system of love matters, God’s system won’t leave us alone to our own devices but offers us a way of truly responding and being a part of what God is up to around us. It’s risky because we will be set free from the world’s system and transformed by God’s presence and God’s system.
It’s risky when we step out of our comfort zone to volunteer at the Denver Rescue Mission, when we think about new ways of doing confirmation such as our Lakewood Lutheran Confirmation Cluster, when we put relationships with each other first and disregard our differences in preferences for how we live our lives, how we do Bible study, or worship, when we admit that we don’t know exactly what God is raising up but are willing to look for signs of new life and nurture them. It’s risky by the standards of the world to live this way and you need to know that. But love is always worth the risk. God risked through the cross and the empty tomb God’s very own son, Jesus, because loving us and the whole of creation is worth the risk. You, me, and all people are worth the risk to God. Like Nicodemus, we aren’t able to imagine that Jesus’ death on the cross is really about life and that the empty tomb is really about no separation from God and God’s system, but is about God’s imagination for life, hope and forgiveness. This carried Nicodemus and carries us through the crisis of the new way of system of living in Jesus. God is here no matter what and invites us each and every day to imagine and participate with God in this risky endeavor of love. Thanks be to God!

 

We Have Lent All Wrong Mark 1: 9-15 Year B Lent 1 February 24, 2015

I think we have Lent all wrong. On Ash Wednesday I was in a really good mood and when it came time for worship, I honestly wasn’t feeling all that penitential or somber. Now, I’m not really known for reverence or piety anyway and as someone that evening pointed out to me, why did I have to act differently than I normally do? Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that some times and places are sacred and holy and not all behavior is acceptable at those times, but I do sometimes struggle with the seemingly artificial somberness of Lent for me. This week on Facebook and in general conversations, I heard people talking about what they are giving up or adding for Lent in order to spend more time with their family (such as in giving up FB or all social media), to lose weight, to be more productive at work, to give their Starbucks money to a charity, or even to start a new spiritual practice that they are sure will bring them closer to God. None of these things are in and of themselves bad but it got me to wondering what Lent is all about. Is it a time of Christian New Year’s resolutions? Is it really self help disguised as piety for Jesus? Is it the modern day equivalent of the medieval practice of self flagellation?  If that’s what it’s about, then do these scripture readings simply support the fact that we have temptations (not the musical group) that we have to overcome for God to love us or to experience Jesus? Is there nothing of God in chocolate and Facebook?

So, “what is Lent, really”? And what does this Mark 1 story have to do with giving stuff up so that we are closer to God? Do you know what the word Lent means? Spring! Hope! New Life! Green grass, tulips, baby animals, baseball and short sleeves! Lent does not mean suffering, denial, death, sadness, and let’s all be Eyeore’s for six weeks under a gray gloomy cloud. I think we have Lent all wrong.

We are once again revisiting Mark 1 the baptism of Jesus that we just read a few weeks ago at the beginning of Epiphany. This time we lose the John the Baptist stuff and gain the four verses of Jesus in the wilderness and proclamation of the Kingdom of God coming near. I, frankly, preferred dealing with the loveliness of Jesus’ baptism versus wilderness and temptation.  Let’s talk about glory a little bit more, Lent is so sad and dismal! I miss Epiphany with the light and the revelation and the shine Jesus shine.  But here’s where once again, we get Lent all wrong.

We hear these two verses of Jesus being driven out to the wilderness by the Holy Spirit and tempted by Satan and immediately ask the question “why”? Why would God drive Jesus to the wilderness for temptation? We tend to interpret these verses to mean that maybe we are to accept that God causes us to be tempted and tested for strengthening our faith. Or that it means that we need to rid ourselves of any temptations in Lent that might be from Satan.  A popular theory in our culture is that God has a purpose for our own personal time in the wilderness, whether that is physical or mental disease, joblessness, financial insecurity, loneliness, fear of what’s going on in our world, or just fear in general. What if we have this wilderness thing all wrong?

Yes, the Holy Spirit did drive, or the Greek is hurl which I love, Jesus out to the wilderness but it’s not that God was tempting Jesus or giving him difficulties to make him stronger in faith or to make a point. Jesus was sent out to the hard, barren places because they exist in our lives. This IS reality whether we like it or not, even for Jesus. And God didn’t tempt Jesus or cause or allow Satan to tempt Jesus, Satan just did because evil is real, the unknown and brokenness of our world is real. What if Jesus was sent to the wilderness not for Jesus but for Satan? What if the Spirit hurled Jesus to confront the reality of evil and brokenness with God’s love? God is proclaiming that Jesus is even for Satan and God will meet Satan right where evil is, with love. There is no where that God’s love can’t be hurled and to no one that God’s love will be denied.

There are wilderness times and places for us all. God doesn’t cause them, allow them or use them to teach us a lesson or for a purpose. Why there are wilderness places, I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that other than we live in a world that is broken, the kingdom of God is near but not yet fully come. I don’t know why people get sick and die, I don’t know why groups of people think that they have the right to kill other people in God’s name, and I don’t know why people go to bed hungry, lonely, cold or with no bed at all. I don’t know why evil exists and why we fight with one another over silly and inconsequential things that don’t really matter at the end of the day. All I know is that I have wandered in the desert, I have experienced those places where I was sure that God didn’t exist or was sure that when God said that everyone is loved, God didn’t mean THOSE other people who cause suffering and harm. I have been in the wilderness and I was met with God’s unconditional love and grace.

I think we have this journey of Lent all wrong, it isn’t about us and what we add on or give up.  This journey of Lent is the journey of God being with us always even if we are in the reality of the wilderness with wild beasts.   Lent is not about what we think we need to do differently to be closer to God but the reality that the kingdom of God is nearer than you think. Lent is about the good news that the love of Jesus will meet you wherever you are, whoever you are, no matter what you do or don’t do. This journey of Lent is about how everything in our lives is of God even if we don’t see it, experience it or recognize it. Everything. Even the people, places and situations you don’t like and feel like barren wilderness with wild beasts.

The wilderness exists and when we are in those places of wilderness, as God’s people, we bring the love and light of Jesus with us. The spirit drives us out to places we don’t want to go because we are people also hurled into the world, not people called to sit in safety. We go to places in our world that are hard because that’s part of all of our life’s journeys but they are places where God already is at work with love, hope and mercy. We are the ones who point to God’s loving work in those broken times and places that exist and we don’t know why.

I think we might have Lent all wrong because we make it about us and not about God. But the kingdom of God has come near even when we get it wrong and God offers us over and over the story each and every day of God’s promise of hope, new life, continual presence, unconditional love and forgiveness. This Lent, let’s tell the story, the kingdom of God is near and near us all. The kingdom of God is at work in the world, in the joyful and peaceful places and situations and in the hard, difficult and barren places. God is everywhere at all times and in all places and that is the good news to proclaim. Amen.

 

“You’re so vain, you probably think this sermon is about you.” Matthew 18:18-35, 14th Sunday of Pentecost, Year A, Sept. 14th, 2014 September 15, 2014

So, I’m a child of the 70’s and I love 70’s music. You’ve heard me say before that being in the car a lot I like my XM radio (if you hold out long enough, it comes down to a cheap monthly rate). The 70’s station is my favorite, a time when talented singer/songwriters such as Carly Simon were common. One of her hits was “You’re so Vain.” It’s a classic breakup song that regals us, with sarcasm and wit, the damage this former boyfriend (and the speculation of who that was) did to her. We all identify with her plight, as we all know people who only think of themselves and don’t really give much thought to how their words or actions might possibly affect someone else. We all have people in our lives who annoy us, lie to us, or wound us in some way and somehow belting out the words “You probably think this song is about you, don’t you? Don’t you?” as you roll down I-25 is slightly cathartic.
Carly Simon puts into a three minute song the microcosm of life with other people. It’s messy, complex and humans tend to be self absorbed. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that in Matthew 18 we move from “where two or three are gathered in my name,” to Peter asking how many times he has to forgive these other people who are ostensibly gathered in Jesus name. I’ve been saying all week, “where two or three are gathered…you’re gonna need forgiveness.” We are focused on ourselves and so we bump into one another in ways we’re not even always aware we’re doing and we leave scars to show for it. We wound each other in small and large ways. What are we to do when this happens? Do we forgive the person who gossiped about us? Probably. Do we forgive the person who stole $20 from us? Again, probably. But what about my friend who asks me if she should forgive her ex-husband who killed their children? Honestly, I don’t know. Or what about a victim of abuse, should they forgive their abuser? I don’t know. I guess it depends what we mean by the word “forgive”. Is it to forgive and forget? Is is a clearing of the balance sheet of wrongs done to you by someone or wrongs that you have committed? Is it a second chance? Or is it something else entirely?
Peter is wrestling with this too apparently, and I bet he had a specific incident in mind when he asked Jesus about how many times to forgive someone. Peter must have had a repeat offender in his life. Jesus’ initial answer is frankly a little too school yard playground for me: you should forgive over and over. Well, that’s great if someone just takes your juice box and cookie but I’m not sure that speaks to some of the real abuse and damage that people can inflict on one another.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there with that seemingly oversimplified response. He continues and tells Peter and the others, this over the top parable of the “unforgiving servant.” It’s so steeped in ridiculousness that we know it’s not to be read literally. So we pay attention to the theme of the parable. The amount of debt this slave owes the king is more than a servant can actually ever rack up in a life time. It would be like you or me garnering a billion dollars in debt. We would actually have to work really hard at accumulating that amount of debt. This slave that owes so much, throws himself at the mercy of the king and the king responds out of pity-he feels bad for him and releases him from his overwhelming debt. The slave is free.
What’s the first thing the slave does with his newly found freedom? He takes a fellow servant by the throat and threatens him. In his freedom, he chose to continue worrying about himself. The other slaves told the king of course, who was furious. This slave, who for a brief bit of time, had it all, and lost it all just as quickly and is handed over to be tortured. And then Jesus, not being the touchy, feely, pacifist that I prefer, says that this is what will happen to us if we don’t forgive from the heart. Ok, about now all I’m hanging on to is that this is just a parable.
See here’s the thing. We all hear this story and immediately start to worry about ourselves. So, I have to forgive or lose God’s grace? I have to forgive no matter what the circumstance? How do I know if I’ve really forgiven someone? But I’m still mad, broken and hurt! We want forgiveness to be easy, clear, and neat. I forgive you and the pain goes away. You forgive me and I stop feeling guilty. I forgive myself and I can finally have peace.
But that is not our human reality. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily end the damage that has been done to each other. God forgives us completely and unconditionally each and everyday; more than the 77 times Jesus talks about, unless you’re under 2 months old. God knows that forgiving us is actually about acknowledging and entering into our brokenness and pain of our past and present, and offering us radical hope for a different future. God walks with us into that future. God also calls us to walk together into that future. When we can offer forgiveness to someone else, we are being honest about our pain; not burying it, not denying it and not ignoring it. We are also calling out the other person’s real brokenness that affects us. Forgiveness is a new way to be in relationship together, built on the grace and hope first offered us by God through Jesus over and over.
We are created for community, to be gathered together to reflect and reveal the loving presence of Christ wherever we are. The kingdom of heaven is God’s mercy for all God’s people and God’s desire for her people to fully live in hope, love and grace at all times and in all places. But this kingdom of heaven is not yet fully here, so we continue wound each other and must struggle with our human frailties of thinking only about ourselves, realities of violence, cheating, lying, and all of the other ways that we unfairly deny each other abundant life. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse any of our harmful behavior or means that we have to allow harm to be done to ourselves or others. Actually, in community we are compelled to call out wrong when we witness it and stand with those in harms way. But there is also this difficult reality that because of our interconnectedness, when we withhold forgiveness, when we deny anyone hope, we ultimately deny it to ourselves. It can feel like torture to live without hope for a tomorrow filled with the promises of God.
God extends to all of us radical forgiveness that is difficult for us to even receive because it is rooted in the very heart, the very being, of our unconditional loving God. If we truly receive this forgiveness, it compels us to offer it to someone else because it’s too important, too meaningful and too life giving to keep it to ourselves. We will want with our whole heart, with our whole being, for our neighbor to have this gift. Because ultimately, this forgiveness is about you and about all of us rooted in God’s mercy and love. Thanks be to God.