A Lutheran Says What?

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

The Kingdom of God Is Near But the Road Might Be Rough Sermon on Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20 July 8, 2019

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, Utah on July 7, 2019. The texts were Galatians 6: 1-17 and Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

Children’s sermon: Have a large poster board with the words written largely: KINGDOM OF GOD. Have crayons, stickers available for the children to use. Ask them if they have ever felt left out. Talk about today’s gospel from Luke and Galatians where Jesus sends the 70 missionaries out to everyone about God’s kingdom being near and how that message is for everyone, even people who don’t believe it or like it. And how Paul talks about how we are to work for the good of all, we are all together. And this all together-the 70 working with Jesus and Paul telling people about the Kingdom of God, is what joy (Luke 10:17) is all about! It’s not about if everyone we tell about Jesus comes to OSLC or is our friend, but that we are all together in God’s love no matter what! Then ask the children (and adults as a prayer station) to write under each letter of KINGDOM OF GOD names of people, or groups of people who are included in God’s love (hint: everyone! This poster board should be full!)

I asked the children and now I’ll ask you all: have you ever been left out? Rejected? Yep, we all have! Sometimes it’s dramatic such as a break-up or an argument with someone you love, or you didn’t get a job you really wanted, or into a educational program you dreamed about. But sometimes it’s less obvious. You can simply be ignored, or in a place where there is an expectation that you will behave a certain way, or like certain things and when you stay true to yourself, the people around you don’t accept your differences and so don’t accept you. Being rejected, ignored or unaccepted, can make you reexamine yourself and wonder if you should change your thoughts, actions, words, or completely change who you are to fit in.  We all experiment with our identity growing up particularly in the teen years, but if we’re honest even as adults, it’s easy to think that who we are isn’t enough. Or we can judge others by their behaviors, likes and dislikes and criticize them for not being like us. We can subtly and not so subtly, send the message to people that they should change to conform to what makes us comfortable. It takes courage and vulnerability simultaneously to stay grounded in what matters and as our sign for today warns us, it can be a rough road.

Rough roads are not always to be avoided as they can also be a path that leads us to a deeper truth and can help us keep “the main thing the main thing” in our lives. Rough roads can be focusing as if you get distracted, it can lead to even bigger challenges. If you’ve ever driven or hiked on difficult terrain, you know what I’m talking about.

In our Luke passage today, the 70 are sent out to proclaim a very important message. And Jesus is clear that the road will be rough. They will be completely dependent on the people they meet, they will eat food they don’t like, stay in places for an uncomfortable amount of time (Jesus is telling them to overstay their welcome!), they will work hard, curing the sick, and they will more than likely be rejected. Sounds inviting doesn’t it? Sign me up Jesus! But Jesus is clear that the main point of their mission, should they choose to accept it, is to unequivocally declare that the Kingdom of God has come near to all-the welcoming, the strangers, the sick, the unbelieving, the unaccepting. The Kingdom of God is near to all whether they know it or not. This Kingdom is for all.

And when they return to Jesus full of joy, it’s not only because they had some successes (isn’t interesting that they don’t name their failures? Which I’m sure there were many!), but because they experienced this Kingdom of God for themselves in being together in community no matter how rough or smooth the road. Now, they also had a bit of ego tied into this: Jesus, you’re right we can do anything, even the demons submitted to us! Human nature hasn’t changed in 2000 years…Jesus tempers their egos by reminding them that their successes and failures are nothing, what is everything is that they are part of God’s mission to bring the kingdom off love to the world. This is the main thing, even in their own mission.

It seems so simple doesn’t it? All we have to do is proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near. Done. And yet…We know that it’s a rough road to do so, even in the 21st century, or maybe especially in the 21st century. We set up a table at Venture Out to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near and some people love that we are there, and some people walk very quickly past our booth. We proclaim that the kingdom of God is near when we house families experiencing homelessness and we know that four families at a time is only a drop in the bucket. We proclaim that the kingdom of God is near when we welcome and accept all people of every race, color, gender, sexual orientation into this family of faith and there are people who will reject this promise for God’s love for all people. We proclaim the kingdom of God is near when we strive to steward the earth with care and there are people who will deny this as reality. We proclaim the kingdom of God is near with our daily lives, with generosity of time, words, talents and gifts for people we don’t know well or have never met, and there are people who will shake their head at our naivety.  But Jesus declares to us that when the road is rough, God’s Holy Spirit is guiding us and continually reorienting us-through community, bread, wine, water and word-to the main thing of God’s mercy, hope and love for the entire world.

And we can forget that we need to be grounded in God’s community and kingdom as we try and navigate the rough roads alone. We can put our own human egos, rules and boundaries into this mission work as Jesus cautions. We can get stuck in thinking that the success or failure of this message is dependent on us, our own abilities and talents. Jesus reminds the 70, and us, that all power and authority belong to God alone that God gives away for the sake of including all people into this unconditional and transformative love. We are not only recipients of this love but participant as well. This is the good news that the coming of the Kingdom of God is for all, those who accept it and those who reject it. The promise of God coming near isn’t dependent upon the ability of the person to receive it and it’s not dependent on the messenger. God has written our names in heaven, on God’s own heart to declare that our worth in God’s kingdom isn’t dependent on our abilities or gifts but is simply found in belonging to God. This is our true identity that never changes, no matter how we try or what other people might want us to be. We are never left out in God’s kingdom and neither is anyone else.

Paul reiterates this point in Galatians 6. After six chapters of breaking down why Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised to be brought into the new family of Jesus followers and being clear about the subversion of the law, at the end of the day, Paul soundly ends this letter (writing in large letters) that none of that human stuff matters. Follow the law, don’t follow the law, whatever, but just know that you are made new in the love of God through Jesus Christ simply because God loves you. This unconditional love always surrounds you  at all times and in all places-especially when the road is rough. God’s kingdom, where all are made whole, where all are included, where power and authority are turned upside down and where all names are written and known, is for the whole world, no matter what. We can rest in the peace that the Kingdom of God has come near, includes you and will stay. Thanks be to God.

 

This Moment: A sermon on what lies ahead [Luke 9: 51-62] July 2, 2019

This sermon was preached on June 30, 2019 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, Utah. The texts were Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9: 51-62

Children’s message: Gather the children and ask them about showing God’s love. In our reading from Galatians today, Paul gave examples of showing God’s love. Love, joy, peace and patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Fruit of the Spirit song.

Think back on a time that you had a moment of clarity-or a defining moment in your life-where you knew that everything from that moment forward would be different. It could be a joyful one such as an engagement, or the birth of a child. Or a promotion in your career. Or it could have been a painful moment, the death of someone beloved, or the ending a significant relationship.  Or getting fired, rejected or failing. In all these scenarios-positive or negative-there was a moment when you knew that you couldn’t go back to “before,” everything going forward would be different. One could argue that we have smaller moments like these in our daily lives, but we all have experienced what I would call watershed moments. Where one moment you are living one way and the next, well, everything might seem completely different..

Even when it’s a positive shift, it’s often frightening and so to cope, we try to use the skills and ideas from what we’ve always known to help us to make sense of what could be now ahead. But often what can happen is that those skills and ideas that worked before, now are woefully inadequate or simply not helpful. Such as you suddenly move to a new job of leadership and the relationships with the people on your team can no longer be the same as you have different responsibility and accountability. Or in the absence of a loved one, your routines are disrupted and altered. Daily rhythms are not the same. “The way it had always been” simply isn’t true any more.  It’s disorienting to not be able to predict what will happen going forward and it often means resetting your entire framework of living. In other words: the usual stuff ain’t workin’ and it’s time to reevaluate for the future. It might seem painful to shift but staying in what isn’t working has a pain of it’s own.

Our Luke text is such a watershed moment in the gospel, for Jesus and the disciples. Our passage today opens  simply and yet dramatically: “Jesus set his face to Jerusalem.” This sentence isn’t to tell us geographically where he is on the map. It’s not to mention that Jesus and the disciples will need to stock up on snacks and take a potty break before the next leg of the journey. No, it’s a watershed moment of what the rest of Jesus’ ministry will be like. He’s headed to Jerusalem, his death. He is no longer just the itinerant preacher who says mysterious things like love each other, feed each other, include one another. Now Jesus is serious. There is a sense of urgency to his mission-his days are numbered. Nothing else matters but this focus on Jerusalem and the cross. Traditions are moot, material possessions are a distraction and doing what has always been done won’t work going forward.

This is shift for the disciples that they don’t seem to get. Jesus sends some of  them ahead to the Samaritan town to do reconnaissance and take the temperature of the people there. Samaritans and the Jewish people didn’t get along as they both claimed different locations for the true worship of God-which you can imagine was problematic. So naturally, Jesus and his entourage are not well received. In response to rejection, James and John wanted to do what the prophet Elijah did to the worshippers of Baal: rain down fire and brimstone on them. But Jesus says nope-this isn’t what we’re about. That won’t work any more. We’re just going to move on and not worry about them. God’s bigger than all of this and we’ll leave it with God.

Then there are the three would-be followers who each say that they want to follow Jesus but with provisions, conditions and a recurring theme of “but first.” And Jesus each time is clear, those things that they have held dear-religious traditions, family, homes, security-no longer take priority over the mission of God. And maybe they never should have taken priority. But it’s easy to convince ourselves that those things are as important as the work of the kingdom or are the same thing as God’s mission. But in Luke 9, this is a moment of clarity as to what really matters.

The 21st century Church-Church universal-is at a watershed moment in history I believe and like the disciples, I know that I sometimes don’t get it. I want things to stay the same and yet we know, in the mainline protestant churches, attendance is declining, relevancy is waning and the cultural perception of the Christian Church is that we worry more about traditionalism than the kingdom. Theologian Jarslov Pelikan said “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” Jesus isn’t against tradition-Jesus is reorienting the disciples and us to the reality that the tradition that we most need to adhere to is loving and serving God and neighbor. Rituals, sabbath rules, liturgies, worship services are fine, but they are not the traditions that Jesus most wants us to follow. Jesus understands that we like things to stay the same, but that when we try and keep things the same, it leads to changes that aren’t helpful. Will we cling to those things for the sake of our own security and self-satisfaction or will we shed those “but firsts” and get on the road with Jesus, dying to our own wants and comforts for the sake of the mission-God’s reconciliation and redemption of the entire world through the love of Jesus Christ? In Christ, we are free from whatever keeps us from truly participating in God’s mission. We are free from worrying about ourselves, which is really what the list of “desires of the flesh” in Galatians is about. When we get caught in ego and self-centeredness that list is what happens to us all. But we are free to live in the gifts or fruits of the Holy Spirit-which are all about focusing on loving and serving God and neighbor and not ourselves.

This is the moment we find ourselves in as God’s Church in 2019. There is indeed urgency. Not to keep the doors open, not to keep the lights on, but to flood the world with this grace, hope and mercy. This mission of the Church matters, and perhaps is more important than ever in our world. And your participation no matter how young or old, no matter what gifts you think you may or may not have, matters. Jesus says so in our baptisms, Jesus says so in the cross and the empty tomb. People of God, our mission in this time and place matters deeply. We are in a watershed moment. Which is actually not new for Our Saviour’s. We’re in a moment like when Our Saviour’s first began ministry in 1960 and people stepped out on faith that this congregation would matter to the work of God’s kingdom in Salt Lake City. We are in a moment like when Our Saviour’s almost closed a few years later but people stepped out on faith and followed God’s mission. We are in a moment where Jesus is calling us to follow where nothing will be the same, where what we have clung to for security and safety over the years will no longer suffice, where the usual stuff we knew may not work, but the Holy Spirit will guide and reveal to us God’s  grace and promise to make all things new, and to walk with us into this newness even when we doubt, are scared and uncertain. It’s a watershed moment, life will be different going forward. But we’ve been here before and went forward into God’s future, open to the newness that God offered.  Once again, we set our faces to Jesus to be on the road with him, free from what holds us back, and free to be part of the work of the kingdom of God. Thanks be to God.

 

God’s love, children swearing, failure and other realities of sowing seeds July 13, 2014

My first teaching job out of college was as a lead preschool teacher at a childcare center name Over the Rainbow that was shortly bought out by a local church in Lincoln, Sheridan Lutheran. My very first day was Dec.26th, 1993, I had just graduated on the 18th (so you can imagine how happy my parents were that I already had a job!) and honestly, I was fairly confident at 21 in my teaching abilities. I had graduated magna cum laude and had been awarded the outstanding student teaching award. I had it goin’ on. So, I came in my first day with lessons, songs, stories, and lots of lovely ideas of how the children and I would spend our days learning, playing and growing. The morning went fairly well and it was time for recess. Which in NE in the winter is a process with young children. I had 16 four and five year olds to get coats, hats, gloves and boots on. Even that went well. They dutifully made a little line and we went outside. They played well for about 15 minutes and I gave the two minute warning as you should with young children and then called out it was time to line up. All of the children did this except Daniel. Daniel kept doing whatever he wanted. I walked over to him and said, “Daniel, you must not have heard it was time to line up.” He looked up at me and said, “No, I heard you b*^%$.” Well, this was not covered in any of my classes, needless to say. He and I went back and forth for a bit and then I realized I was going to have to break a rule of teaching and simply pick him up and drag him inside. I was fairly certain I would be dismissed and go to jail for child abuse as he fought me and didn’t go quietly. He screamed obscenities in front of all of these other young children. So, on my first day, I was going to need to explain to a young mom why her sweet, four year old princess now knows the F word. The rest of the day did not go any better. Daniel screamed obscenities all the way through nap time, hurt other children and was so disruptive that I couldn’t even get through a lesson, a story and any of my lesson plans. Turns out that Daniel came from a difficult living situation of dad in jail for armed robbery, deep poverty and neglect. Any seeds of boundaries, love and even education seemed to not take root. And I was pretty sure that none of the other kids were getting anything either because all of my time was spent dealing with his behavior. Most of the time I felt like a failure as a teacher (and maybe even as a person) to this class and all they would remember is chaos. I know very little of what happened to Daniel, only that in elementary school his behavior did not improve despite all of the work and love myself and others had done with him. He didn’t thrive and I’ve always wondered what more I could have done.
We live in a culture that tells us to avoid failure at all costs and if you do fail, for all that’s holy, don’t tell anyone or admit it. Blame someone else for the shortcoming. But if you succeed, take all of the credit and know it’s because you earned it and deserve it. But here’s the reality of life: what takes root and grows and what doesn’t, is a mystery. And an example we’re all familiar with is our own faith in Jesus Christ.
In our 21st century pluralistic and global world, Christians are not the majority in many parts of the world. In the US and in CO, Christianity is the minority. And those of us who proclaim Jesus as the way, the truth and the life wonder, why? The story of God’s amazing and unconditional love and grace took root in us somehow at some point. Now maybe we can point to all of the ways that the seeds of faith were scattered to us: Sunday School, or a good pastor, or a loving church community, parents and grandparents who passed on the faith, and those things are good. But how many people around us had the same experiences and yet don’t believe? What do we do about that?
I don’t think our situation as 21st century followers of Jesus is that far off from that of the first followers of Jesus. Those following Jesus were in the minority, most definitely. Jesus was walking around, in the flesh, performing miracles and teaching people and yet far more people didn’t follow than followed Jesus. For the disciples this was perplexing and curious. Why didn’t others see what they saw? What would it take to convince them? Should they work harder? Offer whatever the people want to hear? Was this ministry of Jesus a failure?
In this section of Matthew, Jesus and his message were meeting resistance and it was getting hard. Jesus decides to share this parable of the sower to the large crowd, and the disciples, who heard it very differently than I think we do today. We tend to focus on if we are the seed or the sower or get all hung up on the types of soils that Jesus talks about. We wonder which soil we are or which type our neighbor is, but I don’t think any of that is Jesus’ point. I think that the point of the parable comes in verse three, the very first sentence: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” Or hear it this way: Listen! God went out to love. God went out to spread the seeds of love and mercy in all sorts of unlikely places not worried about the outcome. God wasn’t afraid to go to the hard, rocky places, to the thorny places where one can get hurt; to the hot, dry places where life is difficult. God didn’t stick to the soil where success was assured. God was’t worried about failure, only that the seeds went everywhere to everyone.
Jesus is naming some realities of ministry and of life that we can’t escape. We will go out with this amazing story of God’s abundance, grace and love and there are rocks, thorns, birds, hot sun, lack of water and nutrients, and all sorts of obstacles to the word of God taking root in the lives of people and in us. There will be more failures than successes in ministry. We will try ways to nurture the growth of the word of God in ourselves, the neighborhood and in the world that maybe won’t work. We will try different ways of worship, education, Sunday School, youth group, confirmation, walking with the community, and serving that may or may not take root. But…what if something we try does take root and is more fruitful than we ever imagined? What if we quit focusing on what didn’t go well and focus on what is growing and is bearing fruit right before us? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus ends the parable with the witness of the abundant harvest. Even in the face of failure, there can be a harvest that defies imagination.
Last October when Lois and I went to Aspen for the think tank on faith formation, there was a young lady there, Katie. We got to talking and she mentioned that my name was familiar. After putting together that she was a life long member at Sheridan Lutheran, she realized I had been her preschool teacher in that class with Daniel. But she didn’t mention Daniel at all. She did say she remembered stories I had told, songs I had taught and the prayer we did before snack and lunch. She told me how much she had loved going to preschool and that she used to cry on the days she didn’t go. It seems despite what I thought of as failure was a seed taking root in Katie.
She was at the time the worship leader for a mission development in Lincoln and she is now spending this year with Young Life and then will be going to seminary. I’m not taking credit for the Holy Spirit’s work in Katie, but I was sure I was such a failure of a preschool teacher to that class and I have thought about that many times. But God says what might look like failure to us, look again, for God is at work. Don’t miss what God is doing abundantly right in front of us because we are obsessed with the failures. That doesn’t mean that we give up on the Daniels but we shouldn’t lose sight of the Katies either. We keep following God out to all kinds of places for God’s seeds of love to be sown through us in people and places we would never expect. God understands that following Jesus is hard and won’t always take root how we expect but God promises to be with us on the path, in the rocks and in the thorns and to love us no matter what. God says there is always more than we can imagine, always more than enough and always room for everyone. And Jesus proclaims to us “Listen! God is going out” with us, to sow seeds in us and through us for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God.