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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Too Much of a Good Thing? Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23 Pentecost 14B August 30, 2015 August 31, 2015

Many of you know that I was a teacher before I went to seminary. I loved (still do!) teaching the younger children-mostly preschool up to third grade. One issue with younger children is that they are literal little people. You tell them a rule and they apply it to everything. If you tell them on a field trip that they need to hold hands with their “buddy” they will think that they need to do that every single second of the field trip-including snack time and going to the bathroom. There is no such thing as nuance with young children and it can get in the way of learning. For example, we didn’t let the children play with rocks on the playground for reasons you can deduce. If a little boy picks up a rock, it will get thrown, it’s just how little boys are. So we had a pretty strict no picking up rocks or the ground bark rule.
But one fall day we were going to make a nature collage in art and do some nature science projects. So we took the preschoolers on a nature walk around the church, gave them each a paper lunch sack and told them to pick up objects from nature that they would like to use in their art project or just explore. We got back to the classroom and one little boy had nothing in his sack. We asked him why and he said, “because you always tell us not to pick up rocks or bark and that was the only thing I wanted!” This particular little boy had a penchant for throwing things, so he did hear the words “put the rock down please” a lot. Perhaps that rule for him was too much of a good thing as it impeded in his ability to understand the different context of the nature walk. Rules gone astray.
Rules most definitely have their time and place but often they can also become barriers to common sense. Rules are necessary to shape us, to keep us in check, from hurting other people, and to hold us to some standard of behavior. While rules affect us individually, they are in reality, more about how we live together, how we interact with each other and the well-being of the whole community. But when we adhere to certain rules in an individualistic strict sense , that can also harm others. Whether we like it or not, we tend to never out grow the right/wrong paradigm of rules and don’t quite ever grasp the concept of nuance.
The Pharisees are struggling with context and the nuance of the religious purity rules or laws in Mark 7. Some of Jesus’ disciples were eating without washing their hands. Now that is considered just gross in our culture, but the Pharisees were taking a purity law regarding how the priests in the temple had to wash their hands before handling ritual food and applying it to everyone who considered themselves Jewish. No nuance, only that there is a rule about washing and everyone should therefore do it or be unclean and thus far from God. The Pharisees were completely befuddled as to why Jesus, who claimed to be teaching about God, had followers not adhering to what they considered basic rules for relationship with God.
Jesus calls them out-actually calling them hypocrites. Is it hand washing that’s really all that important when it comes to being close to God and showing God to other people? Does demanding that other people follow some arbitrary rules reveal God’s love to them? Or is it something else?
As human beings who love rules, we often use rules to draw boundaries between ourselves and other people. Some of these rules still perpetuate systems of racism, gender and LBGT bias and denigration of anyone who is not culturally normative. Who falls inside the rules (some of which can be unspoken) and who doesn’t can be a dividing line between who is welcome in our community and who is not. While we like to think that we offer rules for the sake of being healthy community together, I sometimes wonder if our rules are too much of a good thing. Real people get hurt with these kinds of rules or traditions. It’s not just culture that has rules that can be harmful. In the ELCA, we have rules regarding when and who receives holy communion, we have rules regarding membership, we have rules regarding budget, etc. It can seem that we have a rule for everything and for everything a rule. Jesus asks the Pharisees and us, what then becomes our guiding principle? Our rules or God? Do we focus on ourselves and what we think keeps us close to God or do we recognize the diverse needs of our neighbor? What’s in our hearts? Are we more concerned with being safe and comfortable than proclaiming the Gospel?
The list of evil intentions that Jesus offers at the end of the reading, is not exhaustive, unfortunately, but is a lens through which to understand the purpose of rules or the law. The list all are ways that we use creation and other people for our own building up and gratification and not the building up and health of other people and the community. Laws and traditions that don’t build up your neighbor and show them God’s love but exclude them and denigrate them are not part of God’s law. The problem is that we can take a perfectly fine law and turn it into a source of pride or piety for ourselves. I talked with a woman this week who told me as a younger woman how hurtful it was that she was excluded from Holy Communion at a Catholic Church because she wasn’t baptized Catholic, actually she wasn’t baptized at all. The law of only certain people participating in the body and blood of Christ did not reveal God’s love to this woman, but only showed the pride and exclusiveness of the law. To be clear, this could have just as easily been a Lutheran or any mainline church. Jesus is clear that God’s boundaries are wider than we can ever imagine and God’s law is that of pure love and inclusivity.
Many of our rules, laws or traditions go unexamined. They become simply what we do without question or deeper thought into why or what the consequences of our traditions might be-such as communion, confirmation, worship, or even how I preach. A quote I love from theologian Jaroslav Pelikan is “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.” Traditions are not bad in and of themselves and Jesus is not suggesting that we live willy-nilly with no compass or grounding principles. Jesus is holding a mirror to why we do what we do and does it reveal and point to the work and love of God in the world for the whole world.
How do we reveal God’s love here at LOTH? How do we examine what we’re doing or what we’ve always done to ensure that we are pointing to God’s work and love in the world and not our own need for rules and boundaries for our own sense of order? Our mission statement is a great lens through which we can examine all of our ministries and traditions. Do you know it? By heart? It is a little long-I’ll grant you but do you know the thrust of it? “Lord of the Hills is a welcoming home rooted in Jesus Christ. We honor the past, meet the present and change for the future. Young and old, we have joined together in mission to: proclaim the Gospel, serve the needs of the community, grow in faith, experience God’s grace through worship, welcome the visitor, and celebrate our diversity.” This is truly a Christ centered mission statement. And one that doesn’t allow us to become stuck in unhelpful or excluding traditions but admits that change might be necessary.
What I also love about this statement is that it’s clear that God is the focus of our lives together. We fully believe, just as we heard in our Deuteronomy text, that we have a God who is always near to us and hears us when we call. This good news of a closer than close God, orients us toward how we do live together, how we do ensure that the gospel-the good news that God with us all always- is proclaimed in our community and in our homes. This statement reminds us that diversity and nuance is needed, too much of a good thing can be life denying, when the gospel is all about offering life and offering it abundantly. This statement focuses our hearts on other people, all of God’s people, and not ourselves and what we want or think we need. It reminds us that God crosses boundaries to come to us in Jesus Christ and so we too cross boundaries to reveal Christ to the world.
Sometimes as humans we can have too much of a good thing in the rules, traditions and laws that we impose and can deny life and freedom to people. But Jesus proclaims that we can never have too much of the good thing of God’s love for us. In God’s good thing of love and grace, there is an overwhelming abundance that flows out from Jesus for the inclusion and reorientation of our hearts to the only rule that matters: God’s love. Thanks be to God.