A Lutheran Says What?

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

Let Go to Prepare: Sermon on Luke 3: 1-6 Advent 1 December 2, 2018

This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO on Dec. 2. It can be viewed at http://www.bethanylive.org.

The texts are Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 3: 1-6

Children’s message: Have a basket of balls (about the size of ball pit balls-the light plastic ones) and a volunteer. (I prefer to use adults as asking a child or youth on the spot is not really fair, or consent.) Explain that you are going to throw the balls one at a time to the other person to see if they can catch all of them (about 4-5 is plenty). Start pitching to the volunteer. They will probably be able to catch two but then will need to drop a ball to catch another one. “It’s hard to catch another ball when you already have something in your hands isn’t it? How could Jeff catch each one? By letting go of each ball after he catches it? Ok let’s try that! Have the catcher catch a ball and then put it down (have another basket for them so that they don’t roll). Hmmmm, (to the catcher) was that easier? Why? (Have them say that when they let go of the ball, they could be prepared for the next one coming their way.) yes! That is best isn’t it? Our life is like that too. Sometimes we have to let go of something in order to be ready for the next thing that God wants to give us. Maybe it’s letting go of being a first grader to get to go to second grade, or stop doing soccer to have time for ballet, or letting go of your room for a new baby brother or sister, or here in the Advent season we are preparing for Christmas and so we might let go of some space in our living rooms for a tree or let go of and give away toys that you are too old for and someone else can use, or let go of those delicious cookies your family makes to share with someone. In our Bible story today, John is telling people that in order to prepare for Jesus, they have to let go. They have to let go of worrying about if they are good enough, they have to let go of what people might think of them and they have to let go of worrying if they are keeping all the rules perfectly for God to love them. They have to drop those things so that they are prepared to catch all of the love and grace that is coming at them from Jesus. Just like Jeff’s hands were open and ready to catch a ball, our hearts have to be open and ready to catch God’s love from Jesus because God’s love is coming no matter what! Let’s pray:

Life can feel like we constantly have balls being thrown at us to catch. Balls to catch of expectations from others and of ourselves. This time of year, it seems that the expectations are high to have the perfectly decorated house, tree, perfect gifts, cards to send out, food prepared, and the list can go on and on of all the preparation expectations we feel from culture and we put on ourselves. Little secret: I haven’t sent Christmas cards in 14 years. It’s so freeing! Try it! I let it go. So much of life is letting go. There has been a lot in my life (besides Christmas cards) that I’ve had to let go of. Whether is was my childhood dream of being a professional violinist, letting go of my children as they have become young adults, letting go of the idea that our parents will be around forever, letting go of what my own aging and mid-life is like. And there have been many times that letting go was the scariest and hardest thing I did, and I was convinced that it was simply the end of everything. And then it wasn’t. When I let go of my fear and the story I was telling myself of what life should and would be like, I could be ready, open and prepared for what was actually happening next: and it was usually something I never expected.

We often think that preparation is a long task list of to-dos that we have to check off or is making sure that we have all of our ducks in a row. But John the Baptist offers the people and us a different view of preparation. Preparation for what is next, is really about letting go.

Luke gives us the setting for John’s ministry by providing a list of several of the rulers of the Roman Empire that were prominent in the region as well as the chief priests of the Jewish Temple Institution. Luke does this to remind us that there were indeed secular and religious powers at work whose main agenda was control over the population in order to maintain status quo. Luke then states of John that he is the son of Zechariah, a priest from the back country and that John, himself, is in the wilderness. John is a nobody from nowhere. But his proclamation is so compelling that people are flocking to him in the middle of nowhere. He baptizes them for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness means letting go-letting go of sin-what separates them from God. He tells the people to let go of their sin because it’s not what defines them. And while you’re at it: let go of who the Roman Empire says you are, let go of who the Temple system says you are. Let go of those definitions of yourself. Let go of all of that because the Messiah is coming to proclaim the truth of who you are. You are more than your sin, the things you have done and left undone. You are more than your wealth or poverty, your ethnicity, your gender or status in the Empire. You are more than the sacrifices you offer at the Temple, or whether you are deemed clean or unclean. When you let go of those identities you can then be prepared for the gift that is coming to you: the gift of being the beloved child of God through Jesus and free to be who God created you to be.

This seems so simple and yet it is the most difficult thing that we can do. To let go of what we think has value in our lives or gives us value: our jobs, homes, cars, family members, what we wear, eat, where we live, our hobbies, our opinions is to prepare for what God values: us just as we are and God comes to us over and over again with this message of love, wholeness and grace. This message indeed levels the playing field: valleys and mountains, rough places and crooked paths are no match for God’s love. But in our culture, this word of the Lord that tells us to let go of what doesn’t give us true life can seem like the words of a lunatic, a crackpot or a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness where no one wants to be. That voice is one that is hard to hear.

A spiritual practice I began a few years ago was to at the beginning of each new liturgical year, to choose a word or short phrase that would help me to hear the voice of God in my life. Last year my word was “breathe,” as I found when I was stressed or anxious, I held my breath instead of breathing in and connecting with the Holy Spirit. I even had a bracelet I wore with that word on it so that I could be reminded. This text made me realize that my phrase for this year will be “letting go.” What do I need to let go of to hear the voice of God? What do I need to let go of in order to be my true and authentic self? Maybe it’s letting go what other people think of me, what the world says I should be, expectations of others, perfectionism, my ego? Maybe it’s letting go of whatever keeps me from truly connecting with others. Letting go is not just about me. Letting go means being open to people around me who think differently, act differently, live differently. The world wants us to hold on tightly to the lie of power, status quo, control and homogeny for the sake of our self-preservation. It’s letting go of my vision of righteousness and justice and, as Jeremiah proclaimed to the Israelites, and being open to God’s vision of wholeness for all people-or as Isaiah says: all flesh. In the love of God through Jesus Christ, I am prepared to let go of bias, bigotry and fear and can be open to receiving the truth that God’s power, righteousness and justice straightens the pathways, levels the valleys and mountains and draws us all into a loving relationship with God and one another.

Letting go will be a powerful spiritual practice for me this year. I invite you to into this spiritual practice and choose a word or phrase that orients you to God’s presence, love and grace.  In Advent, we prepare indeed for this gift from God by letting go of what separates us from God and each other and opening our hands and hearts to receive this unconditional and eternal love through Jesus Christ freely. Amen.

 

 

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Words Matter Sermon on John 1: 1-14 Christmas Day December 31, 2017

This sermon was preached on Dec. 25, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO.

John 1:1-14New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Word Became Flesh

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.[b10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth.

We’ve all heard the phrase “words matter.” As a trained educator, I learned early on to never underestimate the power of words. When I was a student teacher 25 years ago, I remember my mentoring teacher telling me that for each one negative word a child heard about themselves, it takes 10 positive words to counteract the one negative word. That is a very daunting reminder for all of us who work with children and youth or speak to others for a living. Words matter. Even as adults, in important conversations we search for just the correct word to say, or avoid using certain words for fear of being misunderstood. We tend to think of words as lifeless, inanimate objects just sitting on a page waiting to be read, or things to be glibly offered and then discarded. How often have we heard the words of a poem or a book read out loud and we synthesized it differently, had the words hit us more emotionally in our hearts and in our souls than just reading them silently by ourselves? Words do matter, words are powerful, and words given life by human utterance matter.

Words matter. We wait to hear words of reassurance from a loved one when we are worried about them, or we listen for words of reconciliation after a fight, or words of hope in a dire situation, or words of love from someone whom we love. Words matter because they fill in gaps of who we are and who others are to us. Words matter because they intertwine to tell a story about our lives together. Words matter because one simple word has the power to uplift us or crush our spirits. Words spoken to us offer us an experiential encounter with another person. Words connect us.

God created us people of words, people of stories, and people of The Story, the story of God’s love. In the passage from John this morning, we hear the importance of this truth. The Word was present from the beginning with God because words and The Word matters. The Word that speaks life and light into chaos and darkness matters and this word speaks to us over and over again connecting us to this truth in every time and place. The Word from God that tells us the story that we belong to God and are deeply loved by God. The Word from God that offers us life altering encounter and deep connection with God.

God speaks this word in a myriad of ways because the world speaks words of fear, scarcity, and unimportance to us all day long. God sent Jesus to us to be the alive, fleshy, embodied word of God’s love and abundance to us, in order to counteract whatever else we might hear from the world. Jesus as God’s very Word with us, not just in the past as the human Jesus, but right here, right now, fills us with this story of truth of who we are and who’s we are.

This Living Word that promises to be with us always even to the end of the age and to be living water, the bread of life, the good shepherd, the true vine, comes to us as every word of love, mercy and hope. This Living Word goes beyond mere words to be a living encounter in the waters of baptism. We will speak these words of God’s promises today on Brynn, Emma and Deacon and they will live in the words of God’s Story that began at creation and continues through time. This Living Word comes to us in bread and wine and has the power to gather us as one people, in abundance, inclusivity and joy; as Jesus’ very body and blood reminds us that bodies do indeed matter as each one of us are bodies who contain the Living Word of God.

Jesus as God’s Word of love, joy, mercy, forgiveness and hope to the world matters more than ever. Jesus as God’s Living Word matters to those who only hear negative things about themselves because the world tells them that they aren’t good enough, aren’t important and have nothing to offer. Jesus as God’s Word matters for us, so that like John, we testify to people who need to hear they are part of God’s story, the truth of the Word that is for all people in all times and in all places. Jesus as the Living Word matters to illuminate the darkness of our world, to cast out the words of fear and death that try and negate the life that God freely gives us. Jesus as the Living Word matters as this is a Word that lives in us for the sake of our neighbors encountering Jesus through us.

Words matter. Jesus as God’s Word of love, grace and truth to the world, matters. There is power in this Living Word, power to heal, power to love, power to speak truth, power to cast out all darkness, power to turn despair into joy and power to turn death into life. God displays this power by speaking transformational words of mercy, hope and love into unexpected people and places: an unwed teenage girl, lowly shepherds outside an unimportant town, an outcast prophet in the wilderness, and a tiny vulnerable baby born in a smelly, dirty stable.  Words matter. Words have power.  Jesus Christ as God’s living Word with us and in us, is all that matters. Amen.

 

“Hold On: Here is your God!” Sermon for Advent 2, Dec. 10, 2017 Year B December 11, 2017

This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village. To view the sermon go to http://www.bethanylive.org and go to the correct date.

Children’s time. Gather the children and ask where do you see God around you right now? Point God out to me. It can be hard to see God sometimes can’t it? And we forget that God is with us always. Walk to the font. In the bible story I just read, there was this guy, Jesus’ cousin, who was telling people that God was with them always, forgiving them when they did wrong things and holding on to them. He was splashing them with water, what’s that called? Baptism! And the water that clings to us reminds us that God clings to us too. BUT John told the people something else. That God does hold us but that through Jesus who was coming, we will be not only be baptized with water, but God’s Holy Spirit will cling to us too! This means that we have work to do with God and for God. Just as you helped me to see God right here, right now, we have to tell everyone we meet Here is your God and God holds on to you! This is why we light a candle and say to the newly baptized person, even if they are a baby “Let you light so shine before others that they might see your good works that glorify your father in heaven.” We are part of Jesus’ light and work in the world! Jesus wants us to hold on to that truth that each one of us has important work to do. Here is a glow stick to help you remember to hold on to God. I’m going to talk some more about this and every time you hear me say “Hold on Here is your God!” I want you to wave your glow stick, ok? Let’s pray:

In many facets of our life, it might seem like we are barely holding on. I know that when our children were young, I was serving full-time in a congregation, my spouse was working full-time, we had piano lessons, ballet, t-ball, church choir, and all of the school activities, most days I felt like I was barely holding on to sanity and let alone time management to get done the mundane activities such as laundry, grocery shopping and house cleaning. We grasp each day with both hands and hope that we can just hold on through another day.

And then there are the times when we hold on because we just can’t let go of someone or something even when we should. Relationships that aren’t healthy, jobs that is no longer life giving, long held beliefs about groups of people or ourselves. Or we hold on to the way life used to be or to our vision of the way life should have been, or even the way church used to be and it can be painful or harmful to continue to hold on to those ideas. Sometimes we have to let go in order to hold on to what God is doing.

And then there are times when we don’t even know what to hold on to: what we should hold on to might be risky or down right overwhelming. Maybe a new vocation at an older age, I started seminary at 36 with two young children! Maybe a move out of state away from family for an exciting opportunity. Maybe leaving what is comfortable and known for unknown and but perhaps will be meaningful and fulfilling.

Our theme for Advent is “Hold On.” Exploring how we hold on to God and God’s promises in our lives. When we are in distress or overwhelmed with our lives or the world we live in, it can be difficult to know who or what to hold on to. In Isaiah 40, the Israelites have been taken to Babylon in exile and they feel as if they have lost their grip on God or more accurately, that God has let them go. The opening lines of our Isaiah text are words of comfort to a people who are decidedly uncomfortable with their current state of affairs. They are away from Jerusalem; the Temple is destroyed and they can’t practice their religion they way they used to or think they should.

But then the voice of God breaks in with a word of hope and words of mission for the prophet and the people. Cry out! God says.  Which can translate to Preach! The prophet responds what shall I preach? Or again a better translation is Why shall I preach! The people are turning away. Why God says? Because “Here is your God!” Right here, right now holding on to you even if you can’t feel it, or see it or know it. I am here with you, even in exile, even in discomfort, even in your own lack of faith, I am here and always have been and always will be God says! Preach this good news from the highest mountain top! Hold on to this good news that God is holding on to you, to all of you, with the power of God’s mighty arms and with the tender care of a shepherd caring for his sheep.

Our gospel of Mark this morning invites us right off the bat into our theme. Mark’s gospel begins with a bang with these words: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark then immediately moves us into the mission and work of John the Baptist who essentially says to his community and to us: Ready or not, here we go! Hold on! It’s about to be a wild ride with God!

The people who were flocking to John, were desperate to hold on that perhaps their lives meant something. In first century Palestine, baptism was not a new thing. This was part of a Jewish ritual of cleansing, but John was drawing people out to the wilderness, away from the seat of government and religious authority with this message of repentance or a clearer definition is having a change of heart. Mark writes that people from the whole of Judean countryside and ALL people of Jerusalem were coming. This was extremely inclusive, it was not only the Jewish people, not only the elite, not only the poor, not only the educated, not only the religious, but all. And to this diverse crowd John proclaims something even more amazing than the forgiveness of sins: Hold on! There’s more! Not only are your sins cleansed and you can turn around to God, but through the one who is coming, all of you will be baptized by the Holy Spirit who comes and brings you all into what God is up to in the world. Here is your God! Breaking into the world, coming to you, to hold on to you, to never let you go and to bring you into the purpose and mission of the kingdom of God. Hold on!

The world around us is looking for such good news to hold on to. People are desperate for this good news, desperate for the truth, capital T truth for their lives.  As people called by God, what shall we preach to them? Or why shall we preach to them? Does it matter in a world that seems to have turned away? God tells us through our baptisms, yes! It matters that our lights shine and we hold on to our call to preach and be the good news of Emmanuel, God with us. We preach it not only to others but perhaps most importantly to ourselves. We can preach the truth of “Hold on: Here is your God” who breaks into our lives as a baby from a backwater town in Palestine. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we bridge divisions for true dialog and healing. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we speak out against injustices so that the road is level for all people and particularly for those who face discrimination based on color, religion, gender or sexual orientation. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we step outside our comfort zones and hear someone else’s story of pain and are willing to share our own. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we let go of how we think the world should be and reach out for new thing that God is up to. We preach Hold On: Here is your God when we follow Jesus and stand with the poor, the marginalized and the forsaken.

We preach Hold One: Here is your God when we receive and offer to all the signs of the promises of God for us to hold onto, even when it’s hard to grasp them. Hold On: Here is your God in water, in the bread and in the wine for us to hold on with both hands to the truth of God’s presence with us no matter how difficult, treacherous, or steep the road of our lives may be. Preach this truth of the good news of Jesus Christ with me this week “Hold on! Here is your God.” Preach it with every aspect of your lives, preach it at work, preach it at school, preach it! Preach it and hold on with your whole being to the good news of God breaking into our lives and the world with promises of love, forgiveness, mercy and hope. Hold on! Here is your God.