A Lutheran Says What?

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

Just Tell the Story: Let God Do the Rest, Acts 11: 1-18 Easter 5C April 24th, 2016 May 7, 2016

*Preached on April 24th, 2016. I’m a little behind in posting! Catching up!

 

Stories are powerful. Stories are how as people we make meaning and sense of our world and are how many of the truths of human existence have been handed down to us from previous generations. One of the great privileges of being a pastor is that I get to hear people’s stories. It’s an honor and I am often humbled by the courageous trust that is given to me to hold the sacred texts of people’s lives. The ups, the downs, the good decisions, the poor ones, the heartbreaks, the joys, the pain and the learning.  You may not believe me, but for each of you who has told me any part of your story, I carry it with me in some way. When we share our stories with one another, we intertwine our themes, open our hearts and offer chapters that resonate with each other and we say, “me too!” Whether we are conscious of it or not, pieces of each other’s stories become part of our own in large and small ways. Hearing someone else’s story, can’t help but to shift, even a little, how we ponder our own story and how we view the world. Stories break us open to reveal the very core of our being-our humanness, our brokenness, our connectedness, our searching-and remind us that we have more in common than we don’t.

Stories are powerful, more powerful than a dry list of rules, laws, policies or regulations. There is currently a task force working on Bethany’s Safe Haven policy. Safe Haven is a document of guidelines from the ELCA, whose purpose is to keep vulnerable populations such as children, youth and some adults protected in our community. The policy itself is boring, doesn’t have any emotional connection and certainly isn’t something that will ever make the NY Times best seller list. But behind that policy are stories of those who have been hurt, injured, and abused. Those stories move the people on this task force to spend their own time creating policy so that these kinds of devastating stories will no longer be told. It’s hard to not carry the stories of abused children with you and not be changed in some way or want to bring change in some way. You can’t sweep it under the rug and you can’t say “well we’ve never had these policies before so why now?” No, once we’ve heard the stories, we have to respond, change, do a new thing and not be the same for the sake and care of those whom God sends to us and to whom we are sent. The policy doesn’t move us, the stories do, or more accurately, the people who were courageous enough to share their stories, shifts our perspective of the policy.

Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem were struggling with policy if you will. They knew the Torah, the laws and how they thought God worked in the world. Follow the laws, go to temple, believe correctly, act correctly and God will save you. There was protocol, boundaries, certainty and safety. If they were honest, God had never actually worked this way, even the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that all nations would be gathered to God, but the Israelites had always assumed that the rest of the people would be assimilated to their way of being community and the people of God. Then comes this story of Peter with the Roman Centurion. In Acts 10, we get the firsthand account of Peter being opened up to God doing a new thing, abolishing the food restrictions and calling Peter to enter an unclean household. In Acts 11, we hear a recounting of what Peter experienced, this is so important for Luke, that he tells it again! Actually, he tells pieces of it a third time in Acts 15. Anytime Luke says something three times, you know that you need to pay attention.

It IS important. The apostles were criticizing Peter, not for preaching to Gentiles, that was fine, it was the fact that he entered into a Gentile’s home, sat at the table and ate unclean food, that had the leaders in Jerusalem in a tizzy. I mean, how could Peter have done that? Doesn’t he know that the Gentiles must change their ways and be like them in order to receive the grace of Jesus Christ? The Jews have always done life this way! It can’t change! Peter heard the criticism and he heard the defense of the doctrine and the rules. But Peter then did an amazing thing…he didn’t argue with them. He didn’t get defensive or list all of the ways that they were wrong. Peter simply told them his story. Peter vulnerably and courageously offered his own experience of the work of the Holy Spirit without laying any claim to what’s right or wrong. Peter simply told them what was.

The story was powerful. They recognized a bit of their own story with God  and knew that it was the work of the Holy Spirit. They recognized the essence of God’s graciousness, mercy, hospitality and love at the core of that story and it was undeniable. They had to admit that it wasn’t the Jewish doctrine that brought Cornelius to God, and opened up Peter, it was their encounter with God. This recognition of God’s story at work in the world and in all people from different places, reframed all of their right beliefs and right actions. God’s story at work in Peter and Cornelius laid bare their own deep desire for God, who is more interested in relationship with us than in rules and doctrines. The apostles in Jerusalem were changed, moved and transformed by this story not because they had studied and thought themselves into a new way of experiencing what God was doing in the world, but because they had a personal encounter, through their relationship with Peter and with God. Doctrine, right belief and right actions don’t draw us to God, only God’s love, mercy and presence with us, gathers us to God.

But we get caught; we get caught in our own comforts, preferences and thought patterns. Like the apostles in Jerusalem, we think that everyone who walks through our doors will need to learn how to fit in, how to do the liturgy correctly, how to think correctly, how to follow our rules, how to experience God how we have always experienced God, so that nothing will change for us. Or even when we go out of our doors, we, like Peter, take our worldview with us and struggle when God sends us to someone who will most certainly change us, challenge us, enrich us and ultimately reveal Christ to us. We hear their stories and can recognize the essence of truth that resonates with our own truth and experience of God’s love for the world. God will open us, move us, transform us and show us that in the post-resurrection life, God promises to continually be doing a new thing. This newness of life is one where God promises to be present in the ordinary and even the profane. God makes all things new and holy. This newness of life in God’s love, encompasses the entire world; salvation means a return to wholeness not just of ourselves as individuals, but wholeness as a unified, yet diverse people, wholeness as part of the life of God that swirls through all of creation.  This newness of life is one where God is continuing the story of love and we, as God’s people, are at the heart of that story.

We are sent into our communities each day with this story. We embody it, we courageously share it, and we reveal God’s love story to the world. We tell the story when we pray with a neighbor who is of a different faith. We tell the story when we take time to really listen to our coworkers without judgement. We tell the story when we let go of our worry of getting our beliefs correct and our actions perfect and simply offer our own courageous story of God to one another.  We tell the story when we all share in the bread and wine at Christ’s table. We tell the story when we sing praises for what God is doing among people and places that might make us uncomfortable. We are sent into the world to proclaim this story, this story that breaks rules, erases lines and gathers us all in the unconditional and unending love that is given to all people and leads us to true life in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

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Why Am I Here? Acts 10 April 20th, 2016 April 24, 2016

“Why am I here?” Have you ever asked yourself that question? I know that I have in many different situations. Maybe you’ve asked it at the funeral of a loved one. Or asked yourself that question in meetings where it doesn’t seem to matter what you do or say. I’ve asked myself that question more times than I can count about parenting teenagers. I’ve asked myself that question when following Jesus seems to have put me in tricky or risky situation with people whom I’ve been acculturated to be wary of, or when I’m sleeping on the floor in a run-down apartment with 10 other youth as we serve in Chicago.

This question can also be asked existentially can’t it? What is my purpose? What difference do I make on a planet with 8 billion people? Who will notice if I’m not around? Why am I here? For those of you who are younger and in your teens, you might ask yourself this often. If you think when you graduate from college, or turn 21 or 30 that you will have the answer to this, allow me to burst your bubble. I’m 43 and I still wonder about my purpose, my role, what I bring to others and if I matter. This is the crux of our human experience I think. It’s part of our journey and while it can be painful and hard work, these questions are actually necessary, healthy and what keep us open to growth, learning and transformation. If we quit asking questions and wondering, we stagnate and run the risk of becoming closed to others around us and what God might be up to in our lives and in the lives of other people.

Peter was wrestling with this question of “why am I here” in our Acts 10 story. Previous in his stay in Joppa, he had brought Tabitha back to life and had proclaimed the good news of new life in Jesus to all who had witnessed the event. We read that Peter then stayed with Simon the tanner, in Acts 9: 43. The tanning of hides was not something that orthodox Jews would do, so it’s safe to assume that this Simon was probably a Gentile. For Peter to have even entered the house of a Gentile would have been considered taboo, and Peter, himself, would be considered unclean. Yet, this is where Peter found himself.

Why was Peter in an unclean house? Why was he there? He went to the roof to pray while he awaited his lunch. My guess is that he had some anxiety about what would be served in this unclean house. He might have been plotting how to refuse the unclean food despite his hunger. I can sympathize with this having food allergies. You want to be a gracious guest, yet you know odds are you will have to inspect and ask for a direct accounting of where the food came from. Those kinds of barriers are exhausting. Peter might have also assumed that this was his opportunity to explain to Simon the tanner and his household all of the dietary laws necessary to be a devout Jewish follower of Jesus. Remember, they were not Christians in the way that we consider Christianity. This was a Jewish movement at this point. They were still wrestling with purity laws, food laws, temple laws and the list goes on. Despite Jesus over and over again breaking boundaries and including the ritually unclean, the forgotten and the outcast, the apostles couldn’t quite overcome their Jewish worldview since birth of who’s in and who’s out. The culture and the viewpoints ingrained in us from the moment we draw breath are often difficult to reshape, reform and reimagine.

But here Peter was, on the roof with all of his questions, when God shows up and says the unimaginable to Peter: don’t worry about all of those laws-they aren’t what matter to me. There is no such thing as in or out Peter. All are in. In a very brave, daring and typical Peter response, Peter tells God no! No, I will not cross that boundary. Peter decides that God has gone a little crazy and so refuses to believe what God is saying to him. I mean, we’ve never told God no right? Oh Peter…

Peter has little time to stay in his confusion however, as Cornelius’ men arrive and share with Peter all that Cornelius had experienced. I’m always curious why Peter went so willingly to a Centurions house as it could have easily have been a trap. But something niggled in Peter and even while he asked himself, “Why am I going there?” he put one foot in front of the other in faith-not faith in himself and his own abilities but in what God was doing in an unexpected place, in an unexpected person. God was pulling Peter out of his worldview, his culture and into God’s view of creation and humanity. God was revealing to Peter that human culture is also part of God’s plan and there is not one cultural view point that is right or wrong, in or out. But God works in every culture, just not always in congruence with Peter’s own experiences.

Verses 34-35 are telling. Peter suddenly gets a glimpse of why he might be there in the presence of Gentiles, in the presence of a representative of the Roman Army. Perhaps he’s there because God already was there! God was already present with Cornelius, we read from the beginning of our story that he was a devout believer. God was already at work outside of the Jewish purity laws. God was already transforming hearts and minds in the name of unconditional and unending love and grace. Perhaps Peter was there for his own transformation, his own conversion to what God was doing outside of what Peter knew. Peter suddenly had an inside peek behind the curtain at God’s expansive vision for all of creation-every nation, every person, every time and every place. God was tearing down barriers and crossing boundaries.

Why am I here? Or why are we here? Are we here to show others the error of their ways and teach them the proper way to follow Christ? Are we here to lead others to Jesus in such a way that we understand and make sense to us? Can we see God already at work in places that make us uncomfortable or we don’t agree with? Like Peter, we are called to proclaim that God shows no partiality and it’s up to God to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not, not us. Perhaps this is the hardest part of following Jesus. It means asking the hard question of “why am I here?” and being willing like Peter to be open to the possibility that we are in a risky, transformative place in order for God to show us something new and to work something new in us.

Maybe we’re called to new patterns of worship, maybe we’re called to new patterns of language, maybe we’re called to new ways of thinking about being Church, maybe we’re called to be Church with those whom make us uncomfortable. Maybe we’re called to cross boundaries and be curious about what God is doing and why we are here. God reveals that God is present in our lives and in the lives of other people around us. God promises to stay with us as we wrestle with why we are here and why we matter. God promises that we DO matter and that we are here not only to offer God’s unconditional love but to receive God’s unconditional love, to be guests of this love-even when we are puzzled. God promises to keep transforming us, calling us and gathering us so that we aren’t a homogeneous, generic, boring group of people, but people created in the image of God to revel in our diversity, celebrate our varied gifts and to live joyfully in our rich cultural differences. We are here, all together because God’s love, mercy, grace and hope through Jesus Christ matters and needs to be heard and experienced by all people, even us. Thanks be to God.

 

God’s Work, Our Questions March 16, 2014

What parts of your life do you consider holy or sacred? Do we always know holy when we see it, hear it or experience it in some way? What do we consider not sacred, holy or from God? We all have ideas about what is holy and in God’s realm and what is not. We try to keep these things separate in our heads, hearts and daily lives thinking that if we have a clear idea of holy versus profane that it will help us to be better followers of God somehow. And let’s be honest, there are some very real, harmful experiences and situations that we live with because of the brokenness of humanity that we need a place to put. That harmful brokenness is not God’s intention for us in anyway but we know that God understands the reality of those experiences and promises to be with us in the midst of real pain, harm and sorrow.
Because we wrestle with real brokenness, it’s easier in some ways for us to assume that God only works through certain places and people: like the church, charities, Christian music, who we might consider devout believers, pastors, but maybe not at our workplaces, schools, or the people there, or people who have never even heard of God. We like to know that we can pinpoint what God is up to and where God is present. We like black and white, right and wrong distinctions-a clear path to belonging to and loving God.
How is that really working out for us? Do we see the path to serving God clearly? Do we know how we should be following God? We have more questions than answers on this journey of faith and luckily we’re in good company. This story that we are working through in Lent from Acts is one of my favorite stories in the Bible and here’s why: Peter-the chosen one upon whom Jesus says he will build his church-is clueless. He is a good Jewish boy who over and over thinks he’s got it all figured out and over and over again God sighs and gives Peter glimpses of a new way of being in the world. Every time Peter gets one of these glimpses (remember the Transfiguration story a couple of weeks ago?) it sends him into astonishment, questioning, fear and a little bit of an existential crisis. Can anyone else besides me relate to Peter? In Acts 10, Peter is waiting for lunch and praying on the roof. God lowers a sheet filled with animals that the Jewish people consider unclean to touch, let alone eat, and tells Peter to kill and eat them! God is telling Peter that these untouchable animals (that non Jewish people eat) are ok, they are not bad and can actually connect him to the Gentiles to whom God wants him to proclaim the good news of love and grace.
If God suddenly used our screens in our worship space to communicate with us-what images would God show us? What do we think is untouchable but God knows really separates us from other people and ultimately from God? This is not just about what we consider unholy but also what would we never dream of giving up or doing? Who are we not connecting with in our neighborhood because we think we can’t or shouldn’t? It’s perplexing because we don’t even know what we don’t know!
But again, we are in good company in our questions and wondering. Peter too, was puzzled and didn’t know exactly what to make of these visions and words from God. The good news is that God didn’t just leave Peter in his wondering without any direction at all. God continued to work: in the midst of Peter’s puzzlement, Cornelius’ men showed up on his doorstep. Peter still had his questions but God was moving forward and bringing (maybe dragging) Peter along. Peter did trust God enough to invite the strangers, these Gentiles, into his life. He trusted God enough to take a risk. He had seen enough to know that God was up to something in these unlikely people from an unlikely source-a Roman Centurion.
God was proclaiming to Peter that God’s realm was wider and more expansive than Peter could grasp. Peter was living deep in the mystery of what God was doing in the world with all of the puzzlement, questions and wonder, as well as the glimpses of unity, peace, mercy, grace and love that Peter, himself, had witnessed from Christ’s ministry, death and resurrection. Mystery doesn’t always mean the complete unknown. Mystery also is about revelation when we are ready to experience it, thinking about life in a different way and being open to what we may not presently understand or know. There can be excitement, promise and hope in living in the mystery of God’s work in the world.
As we see with Peter, we don’t have to have all of the answers to participate in God’s actions, just a willingness to be shown something new, to risk being changed and to keep puzzling through the journey, confident that Christ promises to be with us in the mystery of God at work in the world and in our lives, at all times and in all places. This is the promise that we will proclaim for Riley today at his baptism into this great mysterious journey of relationship with God and the people of God. Christ is present not just in our certainty but in our uncertainty about where God is calling us— to the people, places and situations that we would least expect.
As you know, we have a ministry, the Neighborhood ChurchTask Force (they are using the book that Pastor Rob wrote The Neighborhood Church) that is listening and looking for what God is up to in our neighborhood. The members of this ministry are asking many questions about where God might be calling LCM to be. As we ponder where God is at work in Green Mountain, we thought this might be an opportune time for an update from this ministry.
(To end the sermon time, Jeff from the task force gave a report about how the local high schools have asked to partner with Lutheran Church of the Master to mentor the youth in career exploration. LCM adults would offer their insights and expertise in career fields that the high school young people may want to go into. This is an exciting opportunity to be a part of what God is doing in the lives of the young adults in our community!)