A Lutheran Says What?

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

“Who Are You?” Sermon on Reformation and Repentance October 31, 2018

This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church at Cherry Hills Village, CO on October 28, 2018. It can be viewed at http://www.bethanylive.org.

The texts were Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Romans 3: 19-28 and John 8: 31-36.

Gather the children after the reading of the gospel. Put on the Halloween Cat ears headband! “I love Halloween! It’s fun to pretend to be someone or something else, isn’t it? What are you all going for as Halloween? Wow! Great ideas! Do you ever or did you when you were younger, play dress up? Why do you think it’s fun to be someone different, or try something new? Yep! It’s fun to explore different pieces of our selves, be silly and have fun! But I can wear cat ears all day long and I’ll never be a cat! But have you ever pretended to be someone you’re not to be someone’s friend or have people like you? Or do you hide something about yourself so that people will think that you are a certain way? Such as pretending to like a song, or movie or an activity? Or even pretending to NOT like someone or something? How do you feel when you aren’t really being yourself? Is it hard? We all do this, even or maybe especially adults. If you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, you have to remember to act a certain way, to say certain things all the time and it can feel like your caught in only pretending and not the truth of who you are. Jesus was talking to some people who were pretending to be someone they weren’t. They told Jesus that they were children of Abraham, and forgot some of their past. You see they were really people of God. They had forgotten the truth that they were God’s people and should be acting like God’s people by taking care of and loving each other. The truth is that no matter who we pretend to be: whether is for fun for Halloween or we’re trying to fit in with friends, is that we are children of God first and God loves us always. And the makes us free from worrying about who will like us or not, or who we should be nice to or not because as children of God, who are always loved, then who do we love? Everyone! So that they know the truth of who they are and that they are free in love too! God gives this gift to us all no matter what! I do really love Halloween because it’s silly and fun. So, here’s a little Halloween treat for each of you. But first let’s pray.

As we talked about with the kids, it’s easy to want to pretend to be something we’re not. Many of us probably have stories of pretending to be someone we weren’t. When I was in the 7th grade, I spent about a week pretending I didn’t need glasses. I am very near sighted and a couple of other issues, and I spent a week not being able to see more than about 2 feet in front of me. But you see, I wanted to be someone else, one of the popular kids at school, and none of the cool, popular kids wore glasses and so it seemed to fit in, I shouldn’t either. Now, it turns out, neither did they play the violin, like Barry Manilow as much as I did, were 4 ft 8, were in advanced classes, or were as church nerdy as I was, but somehow I thought my lack of being with the popular kids had to do with my glasses….yeah. I tried to be something I actually wasn’t and, according to my children, will never be: cool. Nope. No matter how hard I try. I’ll always be a bit nerdy, straight laced, blaring Barry down I-25. I was hoping our hymn of the day could be Copacabana…But it’s who I truly am and I did indeed have friends, friends who knew my heart and liked me for who I was, glasses and all.

Part of being human is experimenting and wrestling with our identity, who we see ourselves to be, who we aspire to be, what we want others to see about us. We convince ourselves that our true selves aren’t lovable and that no one will like us as we really are. We want to belong, even if it means not being true to ourselves, owning our identity and revealing our heart. And this can enslave us in many ways.

And it should be no surprise that this struggle unfolds in our biblical witness. The Israelites have this identity crisis in spades in our John passage this morning, and we don’t have time in one sermon to unpack it. But let’s suffice to sum it up this way: When they tried to be anyone other than the people of God, it went awry, as it does for us all. Slaves in Egypt, captured by Assyria and Babylon, destruction of the temple, occupation by Rome. It’s a mess. Oh no, we’ve never been slaves, they tell Jesus. I sometimes wonder how many times Jesus rolled his eyes and if he ever worried that they might stick that way. RIIIIIGGHHHTTTTT, you’ve never been slaves. Ok. Fine. Then who are you? Are you more concerned with your image or with your relationship with God? Because God is more concerned about a relationship with you, than anything else, Jesus says, to those whom John simply called the Jews, but were probably some of the religious elite. And we should be careful to not think disparagingly of them, as are we no better in this kind of self-deceit? This is why Jesus is trying to reveal to them and us that our true identity as a child of God, even with a bumpy past, is truly our freedom. This is the freedom that Martin Luther came to know after years of trying to be something he could never be: a person who never sinned. This truth of simply being a beloved child of God, free from fear of displeasing God, free from trying to earn God’s love, and free from rules from the Church, spurred Luther to proclaim this epiphany to all who would listen. Luther didn’t want people to confuse church with God and that being the best cobbler, farmer, parent, or whatever, is doing God’s work in the world. We are free in God’s grace to be whomever God calls us to be and no one should judge. But even Luther recognized that “freedom” is tricky.

Freedom in God’s kingdom is very different than our western, 21st century concept of freedom. Freedom isn’t about self-realization, self sufficiency, individuality or the ability to do whatever you want. Freedom isn’t only about you and you alone. Freedom is linked to relationship with God and so also to your neighbor. Freedom is vulnerability to show your heart, to admit that you need renewal, and to simply be you. You, and each of us, created in the image of God. Freedom is belonging to community, in God’s family, as Jesus says. Jesus shows us that freedom means revealing who we truly are as God’s people. We are people freed to feed, clothe and house those who are unhoused, to comfort those who come to our land seeking safety, peace and a better future. Jesus shows us that freedom is ensuring that our siblings are not harmed or erased by racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia. Jesus always included in God’s grace people whom the rest of the world dismissed, freeing them from labels and marginalization. Jesus was clear that true freedom is to adhere to the law of love, not just of self, but of your neighbor. Our first graders have spent the last two weeks learning about this freedom in the law of love and will share that today in worship. True freedom is to allow God’s love and grace to transform and reform our hearts and lives daily for the sake of the world. We pray with our Jewish siblings, as we all lament the senseless loss of life of 11 beloved children of God. We must also confess the sin of anti-Semitism that has been perpetuated in the past by our denomination and reform ourselves to do so no more.  May our hearts and lives be transformed and reformed so that we all seek peace, harmony and the abundant life that Jesus offers for all people.

This is heart of the Reformation story from our past and for the Reformation story that we continue to write today. Reformation isn’t a historical action that is completed but is a truth about God’s continuing actions in our lives and in the world today. Reformation is the truth of the soul of God’s Church on earth. Reformation demands that we stop pretending to be anyone but whom God created us to be. Reformation demands that we pour our gifts and hearts into the world despite the risk, despite fear, despite differences, to reveal our true identity as imperfect, broken yet beloved people of God, called to invite all people have an experience of this God who gifts grace, love and mercy unconditionally. Reformation is an invitation to all people to trust in the promises and freedom in God. God’s promises free us to be Reformation people, always being made new, so that we can live into the truth of who we are, and whose we are. As God promised in Jeremiah, God will always be our God and we will always be God’s people, we simply can’t be anyone else. And it’s enough. Thanks be to God.

 

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Speechless A Sermon on Matthew 22: 1-14 October 21, 2017

This sermon was preached Oct. 15, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran Church Cherry Hills Village, CO. You can watch it live at http://www.bethanylive.org

The texts are Isaiah 25: 1-9, Philippians 4: 1-9 and Matthew 22: 1-14

I have been left speechless more times than I would like lately. Sometimes there are simply no words for what we witness around us in the world. What words are adequate for a beautiful new baby? Or for the miracle a loved one was hoping for? What do we say about fires that rage out of control, killing people, destroying not only property, but also livelihoods. What do we say to loved ones diagnosed with cancer, Alzheimer’s, mental illness or heart disease? What do we say about teens taking their own lives believing that is the only answer despite our pleas to the contrary? What do we say about nations at war and innocent people caught in the crossfire? What do we say when dialog seems to only break down to fundamentalism, blaming and shaming? What do we say? Do our words matter? Do our actions matter?

I resonated with the man in our Matthew parable who was speechless and I  wonder if we misunderstand why he was cast out. Jesus tells a parable about a king who invites people to attend a wedding feast for his son and he is refused by people who fancy themselves too busy with their own lives and priorities to attend. Remembering that the parables that Jesus told were steeped in hyperbole, the king became enraged and burned down the city. That is the king decided to see what would happen if the peoples self-selected priorities and tasks were taken away. What happens when everything that we think is important is gone? What happens when priorities, ideas, tasks that we have built our lives around come crashing down? That can render one speechless and in despair.

Then the kings sent his slaves out again, to gather all they could find, the good, the bad and the ugly to come to this feast that the elite, the self-important and self-absorbed had rejected. The king filled his hall with people who did not refuse for whatever reason, and I don’t believe that these people were more altruistic or truly understood better than the first batch of invitees. No, more than likely, these were people of a social rank who wouldn’t normally be included and so how could they say no? This reminds us that inclusion is a tricky thing: to radically include all people regardless of social status, economic status, race, color, gender, sexual orientation, or any other human made category, means that someone else may exclude themselves so to not be included with “certain people.” The slaves of the king couldn’t help who excluded themselves when the first call came to be part of the feast of abundance and love. And the king understood this on some level as well, and so instead kept inviting and including-gathering all that he could.

Then we come to verse 11 with the unsettling tale of the man not dressed correctly for the wedding feast. Scholars have lots of theories on these verses but all admit it’s notion of judgment is troublesome. When confronted with not being dressed appropriately, the man is silent. He has nothing to say. Perhaps he knows that he should say something, but is worried that his words will be inadequate or will spark controversy. Or will his words fall on deaf ears? Or will his words not match his actions and he will be called a hypocrite? After all of this radical inclusion why now is this man excluded for a seemingly small infraction as failing the dress code? After all, he DID respond to the invitation…isn’t that enough? Is it really just about not having said yes to the dress? Or is it his lack of response that sends him to the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth?

The last three weeks we have wrestled with the parables of Jesus around what it means to fully participate in the kingdom of God and by who’s authority we are included. As good Lutherans, we focus on the unconditional grace, love and mercy of our loving God through Jesus Christ, and this is good. But Matthew is challenging us to not stop there. Our theology must not end with comfort for ourselves, peace of mind that we are ok, that since we don’t earn God’s grace, we don’t have to do anything. These parables are a corrective for that line of thinking that I know lulls me to complacency far too often. God’s grace for ME, God’s unconditional love for ME, God’s uses of God’s authority for ME. This is most certainly true and it has seismic consequences for how I am then in relationship with other people and how I am called to live. God most certainly uses her authority to include all people: people I don’t like, people I would never associate with, people I fundamentally think are wrong. It’s also clear that for God it matters how we live together. So much so that God sent Jesus to show us how. Jesus gave away his own power and authority to eat with tax collectors, prostitutes, lowly fishermen, and women. Jesus used his authority to bring the children to him. Jesus used his authority speak up for the voiceless. Jesus declared that in the coming of the kingdom, God will use her authority to free the imprisoned, give voice to the oppressed, bring light to the darkness. Jesus stood speechless before Pilate instead of using authority to save himself. Jesus suffered and died on the cross in solidarity with all who suffer and die, revealing the power, strength and authority of God to swallow up death, and as we are reminded today in Isaiah 25, and bring us all through suffering to eternal life. Jesus constantly used his authority for the sake of other people and Paul urged the Philippians and us to keep doing those things that we have learned from Jesus, using the authority of love and grace given to us from Jesus, for the sake of bringing in the peace, shalom, of the kingdom of God.

It might seem easier, like the man without the robe at the banquet, to remain silent when asked how we are included as a child of God and how we or others belong. But remaining silent is not our call-we are called to speak out against injustice, to speak out in solidarity for the oppressed, the weak, the powerless, the voiceless. To not speak is to be in the outer darkness, to be separated from the truth of God’s kingdom. But more than our words, God calls us to action. What we do matters. We wear the robe of Christ, as given to us in our baptism. We sometimes forget that baptism is not only about personal salvation but is a public proclamation for what God has already done through Jesus Christ and that we are co-workers in community with God for the sake of reconciliation, justice and peace for all people-no matter what. God wants us to use the authority that we have through our baptisms, authority that only comes from God, for the furthering of this mission. Colton, you will now have an active role in this mission from God. Your actions matter little man, not because your salvation is at stake but because God’s mission in the world is at stake. People desperately need us to not only open our mouths about God’s love and mercy, but even more desperately need us to boldly use our lives to show them God’s love and mercy.

Our busy lives distract us from our own invitation and from extending the invitation to our neighbor from God to participate in the abundance, joy and rejoicing that is offered to us all. Our busy lives tell us the falsehoods of scarcity, worry, entitlement, status, autonomy, independence and using our authority for our own gain. We lull ourselves into complacency that little ol’ us doesn’t matter. Jesus says different, you matter, because you are a part of something bigger, more abundant, more creative, more than you can ever imagine in the heart and life of God. Your actions do matter: Go to candlelight vigils, speak prayers and sing songs of healing for those who grieve from tragedies, go to a sick loved one’s bedside with tears, prayers and a casserole, go to the Red Cross to donate blood or money for fire or hurricane victims, go to the funeral, or more importantly, go and visit with the grieving several weeks later, go talk to the beggar on the street corner and ask her how she is, go to a memory care unit and listen to stories for the hundredth time with a smile, holding hands and a tear, go and offer compassion and reassurance to youth as they struggle growing up in a world that demands perfection above all else, go and bring Christ with you to the outer darkness, go to where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth in order to point to the light that the darkness cannot and will not overcome.

Yes, sometimes our words may not seem eloquent, or adequate but we are not to be left speechless or powerless in the grace, mercy, love and authority of Jesus Christ. Rejoice in the Lord always, let what we have learned from Jesus be known to people around us; use our words, tasks, lives and authority for healing and uplifting of people on the margins; God’s power and strength surrounds us always with peace that goes beyond the end of conflict and moves us all into the wholeness of the kingdom of God where all are invited, included and loved.

 

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

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