A Lutheran Says What?

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

Being Surrounded: A sermon for Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, NM December 13, 2020

I had the honor to preach for Peace Lutherand in Las Cruces NM for their midweek Advent 3 worship on Dec. 18, 2020. The text was Psalm 125.

Grace and peace to you beloveds at Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces! I am privileged and honored to share a word of God with you this third week of Advent. I serve Our Saviour’s Lutheran in Salt Lake City, Utah and my congregation sends their love and greetings to you. You might know, if you’re a geology buff, that Salt Lake City sits in a valley surrounded by mountain ranges on both sides. To the west, we have the Oquirrh’s and to the east, the Wasatch. No matter where you look, you can see mountains. It protects SLC and the valley from extreme weather for the most part but also makes it difficult for polluted air to be moved out. Being surrounded by mountains is sometimes helpful and sometimes a challenge. What we are surrounded by matters.

Being surrounded resonates with me in this time. Right now, we are surrounded by circumstances beyond our control: political divisions and conflicts in our society, the sin and injustice of racism and white supremacy, and of course from the reality of the COVID19 virus. A few months ago, I didn’t really know anyone who was affected by it, and now, I’m surrounded by people who have dealt with the disease in one aspect or another. I feel surrounded by the economic, health and death realities of a pandemic. I feel surrounded, as everywhere I look, I see the trials and challenges of our world. I crave to surround myself in what I think is safety and security.

So, I attempt to surround myself with what I think will bring protection and peace: people, environments and material objects. I surround myself with people who affirm my thinking and beliefs, I surround myself in a neighborhood where I’m comfortable, I surround myself with plenty of food, with Amazon deliveries, and with Netflix shows. I surround myself so that the realities of the world can be pushed aside, ignored, put on a shelf, and not be in my line of sight to bother me. But when I surround myself with distractions and false security, I can look past who and what I am actually surrounded by.

The psalmist who prayed Psalm 125, knew what it was to be surrounded. Ancient Jerusalem was nearly always under siege somehow and while yes, it was surrounded by mountains, the inhabitants couldn’t let their guard down and those mountains weren’t a guarantee or foolproof protection. They had to be vigilant as to who might be surrounding them at any given time. This led to living with heightened anxiety and the knowledge that their land was always at risk of being occupied by an invader. The Israelites lived most of their day to day lives surrounded by people who didn’t share their faith and belief in the one God, Yahweh, and they would have been tempted to act and take on the behaviors of the people who surrounded them.

But the psalmist offers another way to think of being surrounded. Yes, they are surrounded by circumstances beyond their control that might seem hopeless, but they are also surrounded by the love and mercy of God. The Lord surrounds them with the truth of being God’s people, that even when life looks bleak, God is at work. God has acted for them in the past and they must trust that God will act again. Being surrounded by loss, suffering and death won’t be the last word.
In Advent, we center ourselves on this truth-that we are indeed surrounded, by God’s promise of surrounding us with the love, mercy and grace as made real in the birth of Jesus. Jesus who entered the world surrounded by smelly animals and shepherds, surrounded by powers and principalities who wanted him dead from the time he was born, surrounded by the songs of angels, and surrounded by the love and care of Mary and Joseph. Jesus came into the world to surround us with the truth of God’s unending and unconditional love for humanity and all creation.
So we surround ourselves in this reality, we trust that when we feel surrounded by events and circumstances that threaten our very lives, we are surrounded by the love and care of each other, from Utah to New Mexico, and we are surrounded by God’s presence, promises and mercy through Jesus Christ. We are indeed surrounded, and we give thanks to God. You are loved, you are beloved, go and be love. Amen.

 

Hard To Stop A Sermon on Luke 11 July 28, 2019

This sermon was proclaimed at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, Utah on July 28, 2019.

The texts were Colossians 2: 6-15 and Luke 11: 1-13

Children’s sermon: Play Red Light, Green Light with a twist! When I say Green light you are going to walk to me. When I say red light you are going to stop but you are going to thank God for something, or ask God for something. Ok let’s play! After the children get to the front: “Normally when we play this game, red light means freeze-don’t move-don’t do anything! But stopping doesn’t always mean that we aren’t doing things. Stopping can be an important part of our lives-when we stop-we have time for other people and God. We’ve been looking at all of these different road signs the past few weeks that help us look for God and God’s love and grace in our lives. But today we have a stop sign and it’s not just because we are at the end of our sermon series! Our bible story this morning is about learning to stop and notice what is important. Jesus and his disciples have been on the road a long time now in the gospel of Luke and our story starts this morning with Jesus stopping and praying. The disciples want to know more about this prayer time! So he teaches them a short prayer and it starts with Our Father-so who do you think is the most important person in Jesus life? God! Yes! And so who is the most important in our lives? God! This bible story is about who God is: God is the one who gives us all that we need, not what we want necessarily, but what we need. We need food, but we might want pizza over vegetables that are healthy for us. We need to be safe but we don’t need to be isolated from everything that might be hard in our lives. Jesus teaches his disciples that God wants us to be bold in what we ask for and know that God hears us and is with us for what we need, even if it doesn’t seem like it. One of the hardest things is when we pray and what we pray for doesn’t happen-we think that maybe God didn’t hear, or didn’t care. But the truth is that God always hears and cares but things don’t always work the way we want them to. There are just some things that we can’t understand and even as adults it’s hard! But Jesus says, God loves you and will care for you and for all people no matter what. So we pray to stop and remind ourselves that this is always true. I’m going to talk to the adults a bit more about that and I want you to listen too as this is really important and hard stuff! I might even ask you to help me in my sermon today! Ok?

We just don’t know when to stop. An interesting phenomena that has been created in the past 10 years or so is the concept of “binge watching” shows on services such as Hulu, Netflix or Amazon. It used to be that you had a show that you watched once a week or so and you had to wait patiently for next week’s episode. Now, a whole season gets released at once and you can watch the whole season in one sitting! You don’t have to stop! And a whole culture has arisen around this concept. You are encouraged to not stop, don’t leave your house, order in food, and have a comfy couch. This was the next logical iteration of our culture when you think about the last 60 years or so. Being on the go and not stopping until everything is done is a strong value in our society. And it’s not a bad thing, unless it goes unchecked and out of balance. And now in our 21st century culture of busyness, stopping isn’t even an option. We have the 24 hour news cycle, constant connectivity that allows (or forces) us to work 24 hours a day, we are convinced that the busier we are, the more we go-go-go, the more worth we have. Being labeled a “go-getter” is a high compliment, isn’t it?

Tv and work aren’t the only thing we can’t stop doing-addictions are on the rise-we can’t stop looking at our phones, we can’t stop shopping, consuming, gambling, overeating, over drinking. And even if we do stop those things, our brains often can’t stop worrying about all the things that we can’t control, we can’t stop complaining about all the things that we don’t like. We just can’t stop.

And why is that? What keeps us from stopping? What are we afraid of if we were to just stop-stop with hyper connectivity, stop with busyness, stop over consuming, stop worrying and stop complaining? If we stop, what will we notice and discover? There is much research that shows that stopping and having nothing to do is recharging and renewing for kids and adults. Ironically, busyness also makes us lonely. This is highlighted such as when the power goes out and there is no internet, tv or things to do but card games and talking? People often talk about how nice it was to be forced to be disconnected from the outside world but reconnected to those close to them. But it can also bring us face to face with some realities in our lives. If we have time and space that is not filled with noise and activity and our brains aren’t obsessing on everything wrong in our lives-we start to have time to reflect on deeper truths in our lives and that can bring pain and uncertainty. When life circumstances force us to stop: physical challenges, job loss, or death of a loved one, it can cause us to wonder who we are apart from the constant “on-the-go” that defines us. Stopping is often something that we avoid rather than embrace.

Our Luke passage begins to today with Jesus stopping to pray. He and the disciples were traveling to Jerusalem where Jesus knew that his time on earth would end. But as he moved toward the event of the cross, he stopped. All the gospels highlight Jesus’ stopping to pray, but Luke emphasizes prayer more than the other three gospels. At every important juncture in his ministry, Jesus stopped to pray to God. This time out seemed to give Jesus reorientation, clarity and vision and the disciples even knew it. Teach us to pray too, they ask. And Jesus stops and gives them these words that we now know so well. These words that gives God a name, Father, loving parent. Words that ask for God’s kingdom, for daily bread, for forgiveness and for help in times of trouble. Notice that pleasantries such as “please” and “thank you” are not present in this prayer. It’s clear and direct for connection to God and for daily needs.

But then Jesus also offers a parable on prayer to clarify what prayer is and what it isn’t. In this parable, a neighbor comes to another neighbor late at night in need. He needs bread for a late arriving traveling guest and hospitality in the ancient world is serious business. Culture dictates that he offer anything his guest could need and everyone hearing this story from Jesus would understand that. The other neighbor had an obligation to help the one in need, despite hardship. Jesus offers that the first man will be helped simply because of the relationship with his neighbor. The word translated as “persistent” really means “shameless.” The first man is shameless in his need and is vulnerable to the mercy of his neighbor. But he also knows that he is part of connected community and the neighbor will stop and help.

Jesus is clear that prayer is trust in God’s mercy, prayer is being shameless before God with our every need. Prayer is relationship and connection at our most vulnerable and needy time to God and each other. Prayer isn’t control of what happens in our lives, prayer isn’t a Magic 8 Ball where we get an immediate answer. Prayer isn’t really about answers at all, which is difficult for us. We want prayer to cure cancer, to heal our marriages and relationships with our children, to get us our next job, to ensure that our lives are easy and what we want them to be. But this isn’t the promise in prayer. Jesus witnesses to this even from the cross-he prays for God to forgive those who are killing him and for God to hold his spirit. Jesus prays to be connected to God’s presence and for the people around him. Jesus knows that it’s hard for us to stop trying to give the illusion of not needing anyone and to stop trying to control every aspect of our lives. Prayer is trust that no matter how hard and painful things are, God is there, even when it’s not the outcome we want, even when it hurts.

When we pray, we are stopping and recognizing our shameless need for mercy, help and connection with God and God’s people. Stopping to pray, Jesus says, reorients us with God’s will and stops us in projecting our own will. Stopping to pray puts all the noise and activity of the world in proper perspective, to be aligned with God’s promises and vision: living into our identity as God’s beloved people who witness to the world. People who stop worrying about only themselves, people who stop giving into their own ego and pride, people who stop hate, people who stop the cycle of fear, people who stop buying into the culture of over-consumerism, people who stop to offer God’s vision of love, generosity and mercy to all people in all places.

It’s hard for us to stop, but stopping to pray, to connect and to stand shameless before the One who is source of our identity, life and hope is exactly what God desires for us to do. And when we stop, we notice that God’s promises to provide for our daily needs, and to respond to us in deep, unending and unconditional love has been with us all along. Amen.