A Lutheran Says What?

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

A Pack of Gum and the Kingdom of God, John 6: 35-51, Pentecost 11B, Aug. 9th, 2015 August 9, 2015

My son Andrew’s love language is gifts. If you know anything about the Five Love Languages Book you’ll know that someone whose love language is gifts, love not only to receive gifts but to give them. It’s more than just a gift exchange at Christmas. If I go to the grocery store and bring back a pack of gum for Andrew, he is as happy as it were Christmas morning and he received everything on his list. He finds joy in the everyday ordinary gifts that might come his way, even second hand gifts. I recently gave him an old netbook and he was as happy as a clam even though it is slow and doesn’t really have a battery life anymore. You see, what Andrew really likes about gifts is that someone is thinking of him. When you offer him a pack of gum you picked up at the grocery store that says to him, “I was thinking about you even though we weren’t together.” For Andrew, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary, this has been a great reminder to me as his parent. He naturally sees the special where I see mess, ordinariness or something to complain about. How many of us would look at a pack of gum and say, “This isn’t a special gift! Isn’t this just some Trident from the impulse buy section by the cash register at King Soopers?” When really we shouldn’t complain because the gift isn’t really the object but the relationship the object implies.
I think we often miss the extraordinary in the ordinary. We look at the world so practically, logically and we attempt to make sense of all of our interaction with each other and even with God, through the lens of ourselves, our perspectives and our own motives. But God reaches down to us and disrupts our way of seeing the world. This is being revealed as we move through the 6th chapter of John a bit more and we see Jesus in the aftermath of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus fed them all and had leftovers, walked on water, and began explaining that it is God who has sent Jesus and promises to fill them with good things always. And in our latest installment of the story, Jesus reveals that God’s way is different from our way. God’s promises are richer than we could ever imagine, God’s love is deeper than we will ever know and God’s grace is more expansive than we can wrap our heads around. Jesus is using the very ordinary, everyday bread to try and get the crowds to catch a glimpse of what God is up to in the world through Jesus. This isn’t about following certain rules, being in the right place at the right time, or some sort of magical experience. No, this is about the reign of God that really frees those who are in any captivity, that really feeds all who are hungry, that really gives hope to the hopeless and mercy to the brokenhearted. This is God walking around with us in our ordinary lives, loving us and forgiving us in concrete, ordinary ways that reveals more plainly than we are willing to admit that God is in everything, in everyone, and is everywhere, all of the time. God is in the ordinary bread and the crowds, more accurately translated as the Judeans than the Jews, won’t believe it.
Jesus is special? This carpenter’s son? This boy with whom we used to go to synagogue? This dirty, scruffy, rough around the edges guy who hangs out with even dirtier, scruffier and rougher people is going to give us the eternal life with God? God has come down to us here on this ordinary countryside and not in the temple?
Like the Judeans, we don’t recognize Jesus all of the time because we like God clean, in pure white robes, holy in a special place and only on high holy holidays. You know so that we can control and keep track of where God is, what God is doing and who or what God is working through. We like God in a nice pretty box with a bow. That makes more sense to us. After all, that’s how we think about our lives with each other, some people have more status and clout and they often look like it. There are just certain people who should be kept at a distance, such as celebrities, politicians and those whom we might admire.
But praise God, that’s not how God works. God sees the extraordinary in the ordinary. God created us, ordinary people, in God’s extraordinary image for relationship with us. Jesus, as God made flesh (you’ll recall from John 1), is all about God’s deep desire to be with us. God’s motive is only to offer us all of Godself, as everything and the only thing that we need, even if we can’t recognize it. It’s not magic, it’s not self serving, it’s not God in a special place with special things, it’s God in the ordinary, objects and people so plain, that we are apt to miss it as the crowds did.
It’s completely extraordinary that Jesus gathers us, ordinary people, with ordinary lives, each week around an ordinary wooden table, with bread we bought at an ordinary grocery store and frankly pretty cheap, ordinary wine and grape juice. But don’t miss it, the ordinary becomes the extraordinary because the love and mercy of Jesus reveals our relationship with God. Jesus is present and promises to be in the ordinary each and every day of our lives, not just in beautiful worship spaces on Sunday mornings. It’s extraordinary that Jesus is sent to gather all people to God for eternal relationship with God and, extraordinarily, with each other, since all are created in God’s image. The extraordinary work of God is not nice and neat, it’s not linear, we don’t always see it, or get it but Jesus says that God is always at work where you least expect it. It might look like a pack of gum from the impulse aisle or a dirty, messy throng of people eating bread and fish with bare hands on the ground.
God is always at work in our relationships at our jobs, our schools, and in our neighborhoods. God is at work in our political systems, our social systems and anywhere two or three are gathered, so yes, even the DMV! I saw God at work this weekend as I ran the Ragnar Relay Race with 11 other pastors in the mountains. You would think that it would all be very competitive at a running race, but it was a place where I watched strangers offer encouragement, water, accompaniment, food, rest, and relationship. Ordinary water shared, revealed God’s work of relationship with us and for each other, ordinary food shared God’s work of nourishing us and each other, ordinary words of encouragement shared God’s work of caring for our spirit and for each others spirits.
Where will you see God’s extraordinary work in the ordinary this week? How will we as a community reveal the work that God is doing in us, for us, and with us for the sake of the world? Ordinary bread, ordinary wine, ordinary water, ordinary words do extraordinary things in the kingdom of God. We are transformed by these ordinary things to be the extraordinary people that God created us to be. God’s extraordinary love is at work in you, in me and in all of creation. Jesus has indeed come to us from heaven, from God’s kingdom as an ordinary person, not be set apart but to walk with us, each and every ordinary day, offering us deep and real relationship with God, now and forever. Thanks be to God!

 

Unraveled by Christ, Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B, John 3: 1-17, May 31st, 2015 May 31, 2015

Frayed heart

Last time I preached here at Lord of the Hills, I was a newbie seminary student. I had about two whole years under my belt and as can happen in graduate school, you start to think that you know stuff. With all of the reading, writing, pontificating, and conversations, one can convince oneself that you have quite a bit of knowledge rattling around in your brain.  In the past five years, I’ve been on internship, graduated and served a congregation on the west side of town for nearly three years, so hopefully, I’ve learned a bit more.  But sadly, here is what I have actually learned in all of my learning….I’ve got nothin’. Now don’t get me wrong, I can explain some of the finer points of doctrine, I can outline what changes should be in a constitution, or what leadership skills are necessary in a congregation, or what the Greek says about certain words in our reading today, or what topics should be covered in confirmation or in Sunday school. Yet, I’m acutely aware that the more I know, the less I know, as each encounter with a new situation or new person can remind me of how quickly “knowledge” can be unraveled through an experience that doesn’t quite fit with what I think I know. Maybe you’ve had that that experience of being unraveled too.

I think about this unraveling that can happen in life in our Nicodemus story this morning. Here is a Pharisee, a teacher in the rabbinic tradition, a man whom many relied upon and came to with questions about following God’s law, doctrines, festivals and all sorts of other ponderings on the religion of the Israelites. Nicodemus had a lot of theological education, if you will, was part of the leadership and the inner circle and probably felt pretty secure in who he was and his status. And then along came this Jesus fellow. Nicodemus would have seen other famous street preachers come and go, Jerusalem was full of them around the time of Jesus, even those who could allegedly perform magic. But there was something different about Jesus that when Nicodemus encountered him, this experience began to unravel all of what Nicodemus thought he knew about God in the world. Jesus didn’t just perform magic, Jesus performed miracles, he healed, he brought the dead back to life, he fed thousands of people with two loaves and five fish. Jesus didn’t just preach what the people wanted to hear, what made them feel good about themselves or their lives, Jesus proclaimed that God knew and saw their brokenness, all of the ways that they get it wrong, and loves them, forgives them and promises more than just the material wants of the world or status in the Roman Empire. No, Jesus was someone the likes of whom Nicodemus had never seen or heard before. Jesus didn’t really fit into all of the education that Nicodemus had attained. Could this man, whom some were calling the Messiah, really be the one whom God promised would come to redeem, claim, make whole and save God’s people? Is this the one who will overthrow the powers of this world and set things right? This homeless, uncouth, street preacher who hangs out with the riff raff of society? This unraveled what Nicodemus knew about the promised messiah!

So Nicodemus decides to see what he can learn about Jesus and meets up with him in the cover of darkness so that no will see that there is something that this well educated man doesn’t understand or know. Jesus and Nic have this little back and forth where it becomes clear that the two of them are not having the same conversation. Nicodemus is stuck in his earthly paradigm of what he can concretely know and cling to and so can’t follow Jesus down the road of what the Holy Spirit is up to through Jesus in the world. Born of the Spirit? How is one born again? How can this be?

If we’re all honest, there is much about God in our lives that we don’t understand, much about the work of the Holy Spirit that mystifies, perplexes and unravels us no matter how much we read, learn and study. As human beings we have a deep need for assurance, security, planning, knowing and information. We have constructed a whole culture in information databases, Google, Wikipedia, etc to feed these needs. Nicodemus thought that he had all that he needed to know about God contained in the Torah, his education and his daily life as a Pharisee. Then he encountered Jesus, God incarnate, who offered him something that all of his knowledge and security could not, a true encounter and relationship with the living God.  Jesus didn’t just write Nicodemus off when Nicodemus didn’t quite “get it” the first time, no, Jesus accepted Nicodemus right where he was with his questions, wondering, and misunderstandings. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus revealed that what he knew and experienced in this world is fleeting and uncertain, but God promises that in the midst of all of uncertainty is the promise of being woven into unconditional love, grace and mercy.  So too, Jesus’ encounter with us proclaims that God takes the unraveling of all that we don’t understand about what God is doing in the world, ourselves and our future and promises being woven into restoration and wholeness-what we often translate as salvation.

We think that we can create wholeness ourselves through what we can know, control and understand. We plan, accumulate and prognosticate, but wholeness, our salvation, only comes through God, in whose image we are all created, in Jesus, whom God sent to be with us and to gather us to God and the Holy Spirit who sustains and blows us out into the world with this good news that wholeness is available not just for some but for all. We like Nicodemus will ask over and over: What does this mean? How do we know? We know because God so loved the world that God withholds nothing from us, not even Godself in Jesus Christ. This love of God is what we know and experience each and every day. Each day we are given the gift of new life by the power of the Holy Spirit , born new, with each breath that is from God. This love is what Jesus says we know and are called to tell, to testify, to others about. We tell others of this love of God in simple ways in our daily lives: a smile to someone who seems disgruntled at the grocery store, unconditional love and patience to our children or spouse, offering a kind word to a co-worker or friend, helping a neighbor in need with yard work, or offering a meal to someone ill. Offering this love of God first given to us is as simple as those actions and yet, as complex as revealing that every action and interaction is an opportunity to testify to the love of Christ from our own experiences. We don’t have to “get it” fully to share it. We simply rest and trust in God’s promise.

Nicodemus didn’t fully understand everything that Jesus said to him here in chapter 3. No, Nicodemus didn’t have to have all of the answers first to be offered wholeness by Jesus, Nicodemus was a work in progress, as we all are. Nicodemus had been unraveled, undone by his encounter with Jesus Christ, but the gift and the promise is that through this same encounter he was woven into wholeness in a relationship with Christ, an experience of the love of God incarnate and so woven into the community that Jesus creates.

Our unraveling through our encounter with Jesus in our lives weaves us into the wholeness of unconditional love of God in Christ, fills us with the Holy Spirit, the very breath of God, and relationship in the very life of God no matter what we know or don’t know. We are woven into a tight relationship with each other, the people of God, for the purpose of being the love and breathe of God in the world so that ALL people know and experience the wholeness that is available to all through God. In our encounters with Christ, we are unraveled to be made whole. Thanks be to God, Amen.