A Lutheran Says What?

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

Being Offended and God’s Story of Grace John 6: 56-69 Pentecost 13B, August 23rd, 2015 August 23, 2015

If you're going to be offended all the time. maybe the internet isn't the place fot you

 

We are people who get offended pretty easily it seems. I saw a meme on FB, a random picture with a pithy statement, that was Star Trek The Next Generation’s Captain Picard with the words, “If you’re going to be offended all of the time, maybe the internet isn’t for you.” I got a chuckle out of that, as how many of us can knock out going from “ohhing and awwwing” over cute cat videos one minute  to being  absolutely incensed the next minute by someone’s opinion on politics, war, poverty, religion or Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. I mean really, are they going to name this next baby South West to go with her sister North West? But I digress. We enter into any conversation, situation and environment (virtual or actual) with a preconceived set of ideas about the world according to us. We have to admit that we all have a story that we tell ourselves and live into that shapes how our lives should be, how our interactions with one another should be, even how people around us should be. We have an awful lot of “should’s” if we’re completely honest.  

We are bombarded all day long with other people trying to tell us stories of who we are and what we should be too. Media tells us the story that we aren’t rich enough, smart enough, thin enough, successful enough, strong enough, etc. We are told stories at work or school of what we need to learn or change about ourselves in order to fit in, or make others happy. We internalize these stories and begin to believe them. We filter all of our actions and interactions through these stories that may or may not even be true. We allow others-including other people we don’t even know- to write our story. These stories that we are told from the culture all have one thing at their core and foundation: they are written on the premise of fear. These are stories that are intentional about striking fear into us, often under the guise of being motivational, or good for us or what we really need to hear. So we become people of the story of fear; fear of being alone, not enough, and fear of not  being lovable. We internalize these stories of fear and perpetuate and transfer our fear onto other people. We don’t want to be alone in this fear, so we ensure that others are just as fearful as we ourselves.

The crowds that had been gathered around Jesus throughout this long discourse in John 6 are receiving Jesus’ words and message through the filter of the story that they told themselves in order to make sense of their world. We read that Jesus was in the synagogue telling the large crowd of his disciples (the assumption here is that there were more than the 12 who had been following Jesus, this was a group who had probably been following him for a little while) about how Jesus (as God incarnate) would dwell, abide, with them always if they ate his flesh and drank his blood. This story did not even come close to jiving with what they knew of God from the Torah and the story from Exodus about manna from heaven. (Not to mention the cannibalistic undertones!)That story was one of finitude, the Israelites still died as that bread was only about their physical bodies. Jesus was telling them a sequel to that story, that God was doing a new thing in Jesus. God was writing a story of gathering all people to God through Jesus. God was expanding the story from being about only abiding with those of Israelite descent to abiding with all of creation.   

That was not the story that some of these people knew or with which they were comfortable. The story they knew was that some were in and some were out of God’s kingdom depending on if they followed the rules. In John 3, Nicodemus had also struggled with this when Jesus told him that God loved the whole world. But Jesus is pointing out that the only rule is that Jesus is for anyone and everyone. Through simple bread and wine, not complex rules, Jesus gathers everyone to God  and offers life with God forever. This would be a story that would be difficult to hear and internalize indeed. If God declares everyone part of God’s redemption, then what about their story that they had been living with all of their lives that they had to act and think a certain way for God to love them? What did that mean for them? Were they not as special as they thought? Is there enough of God’s love, mercy and grace to go around if we’re now including everyone-even people with a radically different story from themselves? This was not only difficult for those gathered with Jesus in the synagogue that day; it’s difficult for us today.

It can be offensive to us that someone that we don’t like, don’t agree with or don’t understand could receive the same love, grace and acceptance from God that we do.  But here’s what I think offends us even more: that God’s story of unconditional love, grace and mercy is OUR STORY no matter what we say or do. That God declares that the stories we tell ourselves that are egged on by the narcissistic, fearful culture are null and void. It’s offensive to us that God’s story overrides whatever story we tell ourselves and it’s God’s story that changes us, not anything we ourselves do. God’s story transforms our stories and writes anew each and every day on our hearts the truth-the whole beautiful, yet painful and often self-shattering truth that our fear does not free us, our actions are not what save us and our thoughts are not the story that God tells about us.

God’s grace through Jesus Christ is indeed offensive! It arrives right smack dab in the middle of whatever story we are living with and declares that the only story that matters is the one that God tells. Period. But it’s not the end, it’s only the beginning. God’s story is that of coming to dwell with us in the very messy, and offensive flesh of a human being.  God’s story is Jesus revealing that God dwells with us and in us and in all people. Bread, wine and word are not only about sustenance for today, but when ingested not just through our mouths but through our hearts is God’s story literally inside of us, transforming us. God transforms us from worrying about ourselves to living for and with our neighbors. We are transformed from the inside out-to reach out to those different from us, to offer our time at Habitat, Ronald McDonald House, or Denver Rescue Mission. Or to stop and take the time to know and care for those in our community whom we know that no one else will take the time for. Transformed to truly love those we find unlovable, maybe even ourselves.

These teachings that transform us are difficult to accept-they are risky because they rewrite our story. It might seem easier to keep walking in our story and not continue in God’s story-the world wants you to think so. But even when we might think we can choose to go away, Jesus stays with us. Peter had a sense of this, that even if he left, Jesus wouldn’t leave him. It wasn’t that Peter had more faith, or knew the secret handshake with Jesus that gave him the inside scoop, but Peter had watched Jesus over and over go to people whom the rest of the world found offensive and offered them life with God.

Peter was hearing the story-the words of eternal life-the story of God doing a new thing and Peter was resting in the hope that this story was true because the story that the world had sold him about his life up to this point, only brought certain death, rejection and a lifetime of fear. Peter was willing to see what the next chapter of this story might be, because Jesus was telling a story that offered hope for the journey, accompaniment for the road, abundant life and most importantly, the promises of God to never leave him and to love him forever.

Lord of the Hills, to whom shall we go? Jesus is telling us a story right here, right now of eternal life, telling us a story of generosity, a story of abundance, a story of being enough and having enough. God’s story is smack dab in the middle of our story as a congregation. Lord of the Hills, to whom shall we tell this rich and achingly beautiful, yet offensive story? We know it by heart as we hear it over and over each week. We heard the story of God’s redemption and claiming in water at Eleanor’s baptism, we hear the story of God’s actions for liberation from sin and death at Holy Communion, and we hear the story of God’s love and grace as we gather together for coffee after worship. We experience the story of God’s promises for presence and eternal life now and forever each and every day, with each breath and heartbeat, for Jesus is the Holy One of God. It’s a best story ever told and we live it with God everyday. Amen.

 

What Do You Fall For? Mark 5: 21-43 Pentecost 5 Year B June 28, 2015 June 28, 2015

What kind of things do you “fall for”? I don’t mean literally fall necessarily, although as a naturally clumsy person known to trip over nothing, I do fall more than my fair share in the actual sense. But we use the term “fall” in all kinds of positive and negative ways. We “fall in love,” we “fall for a prank,” we “fall for a sales pitch,” we “fall for a lie.” We use this term to describe about how we as human beings can get tripped up by situations in life, good and bad, situations that we don’t have control over, don’t have all of the information about or are events that mystify us. I fall for all kinds of things, such as sometimes I’m not sure if I’m being teased or not and I’m fairly certain that the first used car Mike and I bought we “fell” for the sales pitch. I have, of course, fallen in love with my spouse and our three children and would do anything for them. Falling in this sense has to do with a reorientation of priorities and elevating the needs or place of others in your life before yourself. This can be a tricky step, but if you are in relationship with someone who has “fallen” for you too, then there is a mutual respect and dignity for each other. This falling is the acceptance of your life being so deeply connected to someone else that you don’t care if you are made the fool as long as the other person knows your devotion and love for them.
There is a lot of falling down in our gospel story this morning. First Jairus, a leader in the synagogue, a man of some standing in the community, is desperate. He is desperately grieved that his beloved daughter is dying and despite his religious knowledge, education and status, he doesn’t know what to do. He is out of options for his daughter, so he runs to Jesus. Jairus sees Jesus and immediately fell at his feet. He gave up his status and his dignity for the sake of the life of his daughter. His love for his daughter drove him to fall at the feet of someone who could offer hope in this hopeless situation.
Then we have the woman who has been suffering from bleeding for twelve years and she is also desperate. She is desperate to not suffer any longer, to not be an unclean outcast and to not be all alone, that she decides to see if this Jesus about whom she had heard so much, could heal her. She has nothing to lose as she is out of money, out of doctors to try, out of the community by being unclean and mostly out of hope. This woman also fell at Jesus’ feet, for she had been healed by merely touching his clothes and when Jesus realized this had occurred, he demanded to know who had done this. I like to think that Jesus knew exactly who had touched him but wanted this desperate, isolated and excluded woman to be seen by her God who loved her very much. When she realized that she couldn’t hide her healing, she fell in front of the one who had restored and reoriented her whole life in a split second. Jesus had not just offered her physical healing but healed her status and returned her to community. Jesus called her daughter, publically claimed her as God’s own and proclaimed her true identity.
These two people in our story fall in front of Jesus, they fall to his love, fall to his power of healing, fall to the mystery of God in their midst and they fall to the idea that they could control their lives all by themselves without God. Falling to these realities is very powerful and yet is also an admittance of being powerless. So much in our lives make us feel powerless, desperate to the point that we will try or do anything, and terrified of what might happen if we do nothing. We can’t control whether or not we will get cancer, or if the housing market will crash, if we will be in an accident, if people do what we want them to do, what people say about us, what pastor we will have next, who will hate us based on how we look or act, who will deny us basic dignity or human rights and the list goes on and on. We fall everyday to the illusion that we can control those things and we “fall” for those lies that the world tells about what life should be like.
It can seem like we have nowhere to turn and we don’t know what to do so we fall for the wrong things: we fall for our own wants, preferences, desires and fears. We fall for worry over having enough money, power, control or friends. In our congregation we fall for worrying about the future, who will lead us, are we making enough changes right now so that we have enough people in the pews, are we sustainable.

But Jesus says: Do not fear, only believe. Why do you make a commotion and weep? Fall for loving your neighbor, fall for comforting all who grieve, fall for caring for the sick, fall for ensuring that all people are treated with dignity, equality and equal rights, fall for feeding the hungry, fall to loving God and fall for pointing out Jesus in our midst, in every place and time.
These healing stories can be hard because we don’t always get the concrete physical healing that we hope and pray for in our own lives and we don’t always know why. I can’t tell you why Jairus’ daughter lived and not other children. I can’t tell you why this woman was healed after 12 years and someone else will suffer for 30 years. Healing is not always what we expect it to be, it’s not always the answer we want or in the time frame that we want it in. Life on this side of the kingdom is broken, unpredictable and there is suffering. But here is what I do know: Jesus is in our midst. Jesus didn’t hang out in the synagogue, he was in the streets with the crowds where he could be seen, heard and touched. Jesus was where there was any need and any suffering. Jesus went to the desperate Jairus’ house, went to his daughter, took her hand and said “Get up.”
Jesus is in our midst right here, right now. Jesus is in the midst of the grief in Charleston as the nine beloved children of God lives were celebrated and mourned this. Jesus is in the midst of our nation being more just and grace filled by declaring equal rights for all. Jesus is in the midst the excitement, anxiety, weariness and anticipation of the LOTH call process. Jesus promises to always be in our midst and when we fall, whether we fall for the what the world tells us about our lives or we fall to Jesus, the one who reorients our lives with love, mercy, grace and hope, Jesus will take us by the hand and say, “Get up. I am with you and you are mine.” Thanks be to God.

 

Unraveled by Christ, Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B, John 3: 1-17, May 31st, 2015 May 31, 2015

Frayed heart

Last time I preached here at Lord of the Hills, I was a newbie seminary student. I had about two whole years under my belt and as can happen in graduate school, you start to think that you know stuff. With all of the reading, writing, pontificating, and conversations, one can convince oneself that you have quite a bit of knowledge rattling around in your brain.  In the past five years, I’ve been on internship, graduated and served a congregation on the west side of town for nearly three years, so hopefully, I’ve learned a bit more.  But sadly, here is what I have actually learned in all of my learning….I’ve got nothin’. Now don’t get me wrong, I can explain some of the finer points of doctrine, I can outline what changes should be in a constitution, or what leadership skills are necessary in a congregation, or what the Greek says about certain words in our reading today, or what topics should be covered in confirmation or in Sunday school. Yet, I’m acutely aware that the more I know, the less I know, as each encounter with a new situation or new person can remind me of how quickly “knowledge” can be unraveled through an experience that doesn’t quite fit with what I think I know. Maybe you’ve had that that experience of being unraveled too.

I think about this unraveling that can happen in life in our Nicodemus story this morning. Here is a Pharisee, a teacher in the rabbinic tradition, a man whom many relied upon and came to with questions about following God’s law, doctrines, festivals and all sorts of other ponderings on the religion of the Israelites. Nicodemus had a lot of theological education, if you will, was part of the leadership and the inner circle and probably felt pretty secure in who he was and his status. And then along came this Jesus fellow. Nicodemus would have seen other famous street preachers come and go, Jerusalem was full of them around the time of Jesus, even those who could allegedly perform magic. But there was something different about Jesus that when Nicodemus encountered him, this experience began to unravel all of what Nicodemus thought he knew about God in the world. Jesus didn’t just perform magic, Jesus performed miracles, he healed, he brought the dead back to life, he fed thousands of people with two loaves and five fish. Jesus didn’t just preach what the people wanted to hear, what made them feel good about themselves or their lives, Jesus proclaimed that God knew and saw their brokenness, all of the ways that they get it wrong, and loves them, forgives them and promises more than just the material wants of the world or status in the Roman Empire. No, Jesus was someone the likes of whom Nicodemus had never seen or heard before. Jesus didn’t really fit into all of the education that Nicodemus had attained. Could this man, whom some were calling the Messiah, really be the one whom God promised would come to redeem, claim, make whole and save God’s people? Is this the one who will overthrow the powers of this world and set things right? This homeless, uncouth, street preacher who hangs out with the riff raff of society? This unraveled what Nicodemus knew about the promised messiah!

So Nicodemus decides to see what he can learn about Jesus and meets up with him in the cover of darkness so that no will see that there is something that this well educated man doesn’t understand or know. Jesus and Nic have this little back and forth where it becomes clear that the two of them are not having the same conversation. Nicodemus is stuck in his earthly paradigm of what he can concretely know and cling to and so can’t follow Jesus down the road of what the Holy Spirit is up to through Jesus in the world. Born of the Spirit? How is one born again? How can this be?

If we’re all honest, there is much about God in our lives that we don’t understand, much about the work of the Holy Spirit that mystifies, perplexes and unravels us no matter how much we read, learn and study. As human beings we have a deep need for assurance, security, planning, knowing and information. We have constructed a whole culture in information databases, Google, Wikipedia, etc to feed these needs. Nicodemus thought that he had all that he needed to know about God contained in the Torah, his education and his daily life as a Pharisee. Then he encountered Jesus, God incarnate, who offered him something that all of his knowledge and security could not, a true encounter and relationship with the living God.  Jesus didn’t just write Nicodemus off when Nicodemus didn’t quite “get it” the first time, no, Jesus accepted Nicodemus right where he was with his questions, wondering, and misunderstandings. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus revealed that what he knew and experienced in this world is fleeting and uncertain, but God promises that in the midst of all of uncertainty is the promise of being woven into unconditional love, grace and mercy.  So too, Jesus’ encounter with us proclaims that God takes the unraveling of all that we don’t understand about what God is doing in the world, ourselves and our future and promises being woven into restoration and wholeness-what we often translate as salvation.

We think that we can create wholeness ourselves through what we can know, control and understand. We plan, accumulate and prognosticate, but wholeness, our salvation, only comes through God, in whose image we are all created, in Jesus, whom God sent to be with us and to gather us to God and the Holy Spirit who sustains and blows us out into the world with this good news that wholeness is available not just for some but for all. We like Nicodemus will ask over and over: What does this mean? How do we know? We know because God so loved the world that God withholds nothing from us, not even Godself in Jesus Christ. This love of God is what we know and experience each and every day. Each day we are given the gift of new life by the power of the Holy Spirit , born new, with each breath that is from God. This love is what Jesus says we know and are called to tell, to testify, to others about. We tell others of this love of God in simple ways in our daily lives: a smile to someone who seems disgruntled at the grocery store, unconditional love and patience to our children or spouse, offering a kind word to a co-worker or friend, helping a neighbor in need with yard work, or offering a meal to someone ill. Offering this love of God first given to us is as simple as those actions and yet, as complex as revealing that every action and interaction is an opportunity to testify to the love of Christ from our own experiences. We don’t have to “get it” fully to share it. We simply rest and trust in God’s promise.

Nicodemus didn’t fully understand everything that Jesus said to him here in chapter 3. No, Nicodemus didn’t have to have all of the answers first to be offered wholeness by Jesus, Nicodemus was a work in progress, as we all are. Nicodemus had been unraveled, undone by his encounter with Jesus Christ, but the gift and the promise is that through this same encounter he was woven into wholeness in a relationship with Christ, an experience of the love of God incarnate and so woven into the community that Jesus creates.

Our unraveling through our encounter with Jesus in our lives weaves us into the wholeness of unconditional love of God in Christ, fills us with the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, and relationship in the very life of God no matter what we know or don’t know. We are woven into a tight relationship with each other, the people of God, for the purpose of being the love and breathe of God in the world so that ALL people know and experience the wholeness that is available to all through God. In our encounters with Christ, we are unraveled to be made whole. Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

People of a Pretty Good Story: Transfiguration Mark 9: 2-9 Feb. 15, 2015 February 16, 2015

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One of the challenges of being a Christian in the 21st century is that in this age of scientific reasoning, logic, strategic plans and Gallup polls is that there is little room for mystery. Now we do love a good story and we have plenty of television shows, movies and books such as Supernatural, Grimm, Once a Upon a Time, or Twilight that might spark some conversation around things that go bump in the night or other things we can’t understand but it seems easier to talk about the premise of these shows than our experiences and encounters with God. I’ve been thinking about how we don’t know how to talk about God in our lives without thinking that we need some sort of proof to back it up, how we talk more about what we do as Christians or how as an institutional church we get stuck in talking more about strategies for bringing people to church (Sunday School, music, programs, groups, how to be seen in the community). We love to suck the mystery right out of life and our relationship with God. How easily we lose sight of what is central to who we are and who Jesus is. We often don’t know what to say about Jesus in our lives and the thought of talking about Jesus terrifies us.

Apparently this issue in not new to the 21st century as Peter reminds us. Peter experiences this supernatural, mysterious event of being in the presence of a transfigured, transformed Jesus. Peter, James and John witness the kingdom of God being revealed through Jesus as well as the presence of Moses and Elijah, Israelite heroes long dead but herald the coming of a new age. The disciples were given a glimpse of who Jesus is for them and for the world. Jesus is more than just a teacher, healer or nice guy, as the disciples hear proclaimed by the voice from the cloud: “This is my Son, the beloved;  listen to him!”  Peter’s gut reaction to this encounter was to suck all of the mystery of Jesus out of the event as it’s clear that no one would ever believe him and so proof, a way to capture this moment in time was necessary; just his story would never be enough. Building a hut for each of these important figures ought to do it! Maybe Peter thought he could give tours to people of the mountain top with the three dwellings and then that would bring people to faith in Jesus? Without some sort of tangible object to point to this was a story that would surely get a few raised eyebrows and ignored as a figment of these three disciples imagination. This thought alone would terrify them, they would be thought of as crazy if they told anyone; they have no proof that Jesus is God’s son-the promised messiah, other than their own account from this day. At the end of the day, all they had left was Jesus-is that enough?

We, too, worry that our own encounters with the living Christ, are not enough. We think that we don’t have adequate words to give life to our stories, we don’t have a hut, a picture, we don’t know what to say and it scares us to death that we will look crazy, or in my case, crazier than usual. Yet, we all do have these encounters, each one of us, I am confident has a story to tell about God in our lives. But we know that talking about Jesus in our culture is not all that popular and so we let fear of trying to explain the mystery of faith distract us. We know that we can’t quantify for the world how Jesus showing up in our lives is not about pie charts, strategies, empirical data or proof but is about deep emotion, deep connections with other people, deep mystery and deep love that is beyond what is celebrated on Valentine’s Day.

But what Peter didn’t quite get and what we struggle with too is that we are not people of proof,  but people of the story. Not just any story but God’s story. When God says to the disciples, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him!” it’s not to listen to Jesus for rules, or commands but to listen to Jesus’ life, listen to the story of God’s love for the world that Jesus’ words and actions convey.

God sent Jesus as tangible proof of God’s love, yes, but it’s more than that, Jesus with humanity personally continues to tell us the story begun at creation; a story that includes all of us, God and how we are intertwined into this story. Stories connect us, person to person, age to age, generation to generation. Jesus came with words and actions of healing, teaching, praying, suffering, dying and rising to share God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and hope. Our story with God encompasses times when we are high on a mountain top, moments of bright light and clarity, journeys down into a valley with uncertainty and questions and moments of fear. Our story is one where we look up and there is only Jesus, Jesus who promises to be with us always, offers us community to share our faith journey and our stories of our encounters with God that defy words and proof.

God’s story is one that the world needs to hear, can change the world and we bring with us into our daily lives whether we know it or not. I wonder if we really believe that this story-our stories of Jesus can change, transform or transfigure the world. What if we offered our community the mystery of God who loves them just the way they are, who is with them always, even when they can’t feel God, the mystery of unconditional love and acceptance from the people of God and the hope that God is at work and won’t stop until all is reconciled and the kingdom of God is fully revealed? What if we believed that we tell it every day, wherever we are. What if we believed that we tell it at work, school, and in how we choose to spend our free time. Jesus’ story of eternal life for all, mercy and forgiveness lives through us all of the time. We don’t necessarily have tangible, concrete huts to prove God’s story, but what we do have is who we are as people of God and the promises of Jesus Christ. And it’s enough. Thanks be to God.