A Lutheran Says What?

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

Freed to Tell the Story Acts 12 September 4, 2020

This sermon was preached on Sept. 6, 2020 at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:

Psalm 119: 45-56
Acts 12: 6-19

Woman after woman filed into the multipurpose room where rows of chairs had been set up in three distinct sections and the women sorted themselves into either section 1, 2 or 3 according to their designation. I had decided to sit in section three, as this was my first time there and I didn’t want to appear frightened, judgmental or frankly, a white middle class overly educated privileged person, which, of course, I am, and I don’t think I fooled anyone, only myself. Women filled in around me and I smiled and said hello. Some returned the gesture, others, well, others simply stared at me with understandable suspicion. I was kinda suspicious of myself at this point. My bravado faded when a young woman sat down next to me, not because she wanted to, but because it was the only chair left. She was irritated and it showed. My smile was met with a scowl, which once again, I understood. How many times had this young woman had someone pretend to like her, be nice to her only to use or abuse her? I looked down at my bulletin as my friend and colleague Pr. Emily welcomed us to worship at New Beginnings, a worshiping community inside the walls of the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. She reminded the women that they had to stay in their assigned sections-she had earlier explained to the volunteers that the section numbers had to do with their behavior in the prison and did not reflect the reason for their incarceration. “One’s” had exemplary behavior, “Two’s” were doing pretty well, “Three’s” were struggling with self-regulation and “Four’s” and “Five’s” were struggling to the extent that they had lost privileges such as attending worship. As I said, I purposefully sat in section three. My reasoning was sometimes people just need to know that they are loved even when they try and push others away.

Worship began, led nearly entirely by the women. A petite, blonde and charismatic woman who was a fantastic guitar player and singer led the music. She shared her story of how she was incarcerated for killing her boyfriend, who was abusive, and how prison had really set her free. She started coming to New Beginnings simply to get out of her cell at first (very common in the prison) but then God started working in her, speaking to her, freeing her heart, freeing her soul and mind. She recounted all the things that the Lord had done for her in prison and her joy was contagious. Other women also shared their stories and while the details changed, the stories were essentially the same: what the Lord had done for them when they were scared, at rock bottom, or seemingly at a dead end. God had provided new opportunities, new pathways and new life. I was struck that in their stories, I heard my own. Again, the details were different, but the emotions, were not. I too knew what it was like to be scared, to be at rock bottom, and at what seemed like a dead end. I, too, knew what it was to have God release me from those realities for a new one. No, I have never been institutionally incarcerated, but I have been a prisoner to my own fear, shortcomings, actions, and feelings. Maybe you have too. And I know what it is to have God free me from my own baggage to undo the shackles of false idols of pride, ego and self-sustainability. I know that it’s the Lord who helped me. God has sent angels, people to walk with me along the way, even if for only a little while. But that is what God does. These women of New Beginnings knew that God had sent them angels, the volunteers, the pastor, the outside board, the synod, partnering congregations, and each other. Yes, angels come in all forms and are in all places.

The story of Peter’s release from prison recounts that we are all in bondage to something and can’t free ourselves. Peter was wrongfully imprisoned for proclaiming that Jesus is the son of God who turns the world upside down, brings rulers and authorities down from their thrones, lifts the people who are thrown away by society and says that in the kingdom of God, our story is the story of what God has done, is doing and will continue to do for us and creation, no matter our status, what we have or haven’t done, who likes us and who doesn’t. Peter’s release freed him to tell another chapter of the story far and wide in the world. Peter’s story forces us to rethink our human systems of incarceration and authority. So many in this country are wrongfully imprisoned.
This story pulls at the threads of our stories and weaves them with the stories of people who live a different life than we do, who have had different experiences and yet are part of the same fabric of God’s story of restoration, redemption and love for God’s people, all of us. This story, takes seriously listening to stories that seem fantastic, incomprehensible and requires critical thinking to uncover what the Lord is doing in the life of that person. Stories reveal our commonalities and our interconnectedness. God’s story, the story that we all love to tell, is the ultimate story that tells us that love wins, forgiveness reigns, mercy flows, and hope abounds.

A couple of year later, there was another chapter to that woman’st story that Mike and I were privileged to hear it when we attended a fundraiser for New Beginnings and she was the musical guest. Yes, she had been released and reunited with her family. She had been freed from incarceration but she told the audience how God had freed her long before her release date. She had been freed to tell more people her story in God. To declare that God was powerful and could and would do anything to show the world God’s love through Jesus Christ. God will go to great lengths to transform us and the world, to wrap us in promises of love and abundant life today and forever. This is the point of God’s story, of the woman’s story, Peter’s story, and our story. God frees us and we love to tell the story. Amen.

*If you would like to support New Beginnings ministry please go to http://www.newbeginningswc.org. This is an important and vital ministry!

 

Who’s Image? Mark 12: 13-17 October 11, 2015 October 12, 2015

Denarius

*This week is the first week out of six, of focusing on discipleship at Lord of the Hills Lutheran Church in Centennial, CO. We are expanding our stewardship focus to recognize that generosity is a spiritual practice and part of being made in the image of God. We will be using alternate texts to the Revised Common Lectionary.

The Question about Paying Taxes

13 Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

On Friday evening I attended the annual New Beginnings ministry fundraiser dinner gala. New Beginnings is a congregation that worships inside the walls of the Women’s Denver Correctional Facility. I have attended worship there a couple of times and each time I am left speechless and in awe of these women who have, through many different paths and circumstances, have landed behind bars. They have made bad choices; they broke the law; they harmed others and themselves. Yet, as they walk into the cafeteria turned worship area, sit in plastic chairs and suddenly they are like any other congregation of God’s people gathered for worship. They are in desperate need of forgiveness, they are in desperate need of love, they are in desperate need of newness; they are in desperate need of Jesus.

These women had tried creating an identity for themselves on the outside that ultimately landed them on the inside. They wanted others to see them in a certain way; they wanted to see themselves a certain way. Image is important when it seems that’s all we have left. Maybe it was the image of being tough, hardened, daring or risky. Maybe they had been told that they were not good, that they couldn’t be anything other than broken, worthless, and lawless. I am always struck by how many of these women aren’t that different from you or me. Perhaps the biggest difference is simply luck, a bit more of a stable family or a few more resources available. These visits of worshiping with the women at New Beginnings, always humble me with all of the privileges and resources that I have that allowed me to make better decisions. We all make poor decisions from time to time, but we have to admit that it’s our context in which we have been immersed that boundaries us. Our view of ourselves partially dictates if our decisions have the potential to land us incarcerated or not. If we are in a context that says we have agency, choice, dignity and worth, we are less likely to take away someone else’s agency, choice, dignity or worth. To whom do we truly belong? A family, a gang, or no one? And what is our true identity?

The world wants us to have and to uphold a certain image: one of wealth, power, status, beauty. We are bombarded each and every day with what we should look like, act like, believe, do, and say. Some of those things are fine and can be life giving. Some of those concepts are ones that tug at our core, that mask who we really are, that deny the pieces of ourselves that hold to a different standard of beauty, power and status.

Just like we heard last week, the Pharisees, once again come to try and trap Jesus. What is it with people who won’t give up trying to get you to be who they want you to be or try and pick at you until every flaw is revealed? This time the Pharisees and Herod’s people were looking for Jesus to denounce the emperor. Now, in the Roman Empire the Emperor was also called Lord, as he was considered a god. To denounce Caesar is to denounce a deity and is punishable by death. Jesus knew this, of course, and also knew the reality of the image of him with the leadership: he was a rabble rouser, a controversial figure, a dissenting voice, but could they also get him to live into an image of a criminal needing punishment?

Jesus saw that the Pharisees, Herod’s people, the crowds, and even the disciples were already trapped; trapped by the world’s economy of keeping up with the Joneses, falling in line with what someone else told you, belonging to an empire, belonging to a system that dictates who you are and what you should try and be. Jesus astutely asks: “Whose head (or image in the Greek) is this?” Of course they answered, “The emperor’s image.” By using the word “image” Jesus is pointing back to Genesis 1-the creation story where humans are made in God’s image. Humans only belong to God, not to a political system, not to a certain economic system, not to a church system, not to any other organization-just God.

The difficulty comes in when we attempt to separate parts of our lives as religious and parts of our lives as secular. We don’t recognize that all people are created in God’s image and belong to God-Criminals, politicians, dictators, those in government, economics and other seemingly ungodly systems. We like to think that we can predict whom and what God loves. Author Anne Lamott writes, “You can safely assume that you’ve created a God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all of the same people that you do.” God creates us, not the other way around and we belong to God, and not the other way around. There is nothing that doesn’t belong to God in our lives. Nothing. God who created the whole earth and universe out of nothingness, declared it good, also declared that everything is part of the very life and heart of God. It’s difficult for us to remember that the people we dislike, the systems we dislike, the organizations that we dislike, also belong to God.

Jesus back and forth on what seems to be about paying taxes, what we do with our money, is really about reorienting the disciples and us to the fact that we cannot separate any part of our lives from God, not our daily lives, not our possessions, not our relationships, and not our money. Our worth to God is simply that we are God’s: not what we wear, not what we own, not what we do, not what we say. Whatever image of ourselves we are trying to project to the rest of the world that isn’t rooted in belonging to fully to God will ultimately lead us to confusion, sorrow and brokenness. I heard stories Friday night that drove that point home. It was only when the women at New Beginnings truly embraced that the only image that matters is that of being in God’s image was when healing, wholeness and clarity began to take root. God’s image included forgiveness, grace, love and most importantly hope.

Living as someone created in the image of love and belonging to the source of that love, God, is powerful. Being in God’s image reminds us that it is God  who is worthy and so we and all people have ultimate worth to God.  It transforms every relationship in our lives;  from relationships with other people, to our relationship with how we share our time and passion for God, to our relationships with our material resources. It transforms our lives from segregation to wholeness where the promise of unconditional love, grace, and hope of Christ permeate each and every second of our lives. These promises from God that began when God blew Holy Spirit breathe into adamma, transform all of creation into the very life of God, where we participate in offering our whole selves, all aspects of our lives for the revealing of God’s kingdom.

In this transformation, we withhold nothing, as God has withheld nothing from us. We answer the invitation into a life of prayer, study, service, generosity, and worship not because it improves our image or gets us anything-what God gives God gives freely-but to invite everyone we come into contact with into the transformation of knowing that the only image that matters is one of being made in the image of God. Give to the world what is the world’s-give back the fear, anxiety, greed, scarcity and hopelessness and give to God what is God’s-joy, abundance, generosity, hope and your whole self. You are God’s precious child, now and forever. Amen.