A Lutheran Says What?

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

Let Go to Prepare: Sermon on Luke 3: 1-6 Advent 1 December 2, 2018

This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO on Dec. 2. It can be viewed at http://www.bethanylive.org.

The texts are Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 3: 1-6

Children’s message: Have a basket of balls (about the size of ball pit balls-the light plastic ones) and a volunteer. (I prefer to use adults as asking a child or youth on the spot is not really fair, or consent.) Explain that you are going to throw the balls one at a time to the other person to see if they can catch all of them (about 4-5 is plenty). Start pitching to the volunteer. They will probably be able to catch two but then will need to drop a ball to catch another one. “It’s hard to catch another ball when you already have something in your hands isn’t it? How could Jeff catch each one? By letting go of each ball after he catches it? Ok let’s try that! Have the catcher catch a ball and then put it down (have another basket for them so that they don’t roll). Hmmmm, (to the catcher) was that easier? Why? (Have them say that when they let go of the ball, they could be prepared for the next one coming their way.) yes! That is best isn’t it? Our life is like that too. Sometimes we have to let go of something in order to be ready for the next thing that God wants to give us. Maybe it’s letting go of being a first grader to get to go to second grade, or stop doing soccer to have time for ballet, or letting go of your room for a new baby brother or sister, or here in the Advent season we are preparing for Christmas and so we might let go of some space in our living rooms for a tree or let go of and give away toys that you are too old for and someone else can use, or let go of those delicious cookies your family makes to share with someone. In our Bible story today, John is telling people that in order to prepare for Jesus, they have to let go. They have to let go of worrying about if they are good enough, they have to let go of what people might think of them and they have to let go of worrying if they are keeping all the rules perfectly for God to love them. They have to drop those things so that they are prepared to catch all of the love and grace that is coming at them from Jesus. Just like Jeff’s hands were open and ready to catch a ball, our hearts have to be open and ready to catch God’s love from Jesus because God’s love is coming no matter what! Let’s pray:

Life can feel like we constantly have balls being thrown at us to catch. Balls to catch of expectations from others and of ourselves. This time of year, it seems that the expectations are high to have the perfectly decorated house, tree, perfect gifts, cards to send out, food prepared, and the list can go on and on of all the preparation expectations we feel from culture and we put on ourselves. Little secret: I haven’t sent Christmas cards in 14 years. It’s so freeing! Try it! I let it go. So much of life is letting go. There has been a lot in my life (besides Christmas cards) that I’ve had to let go of. Whether is was my childhood dream of being a professional violinist, letting go of my children as they have become young adults, letting go of the idea that our parents will be around forever, letting go of what my own aging and mid-life is like. And there have been many times that letting go was the scariest and hardest thing I did, and I was convinced that it was simply the end of everything. And then it wasn’t. When I let go of my fear and the story I was telling myself of what life should and would be like, I could be ready, open and prepared for what was actually happening next: and it was usually something I never expected.

We often think that preparation is a long task list of to-dos that we have to check off or is making sure that we have all of our ducks in a row. But John the Baptist offers the people and us a different view of preparation. Preparation for what is next, is really about letting go.

Luke gives us the setting for John’s ministry by providing a list of several of the rulers of the Roman Empire that were prominent in the region as well as the chief priests of the Jewish Temple Institution. Luke does this to remind us that there were indeed secular and religious powers at work whose main agenda was control over the population in order to maintain status quo. Luke then states of John that he is the son of Zechariah, a priest from the back country and that John, himself, is in the wilderness. John is a nobody from nowhere. But his proclamation is so compelling that people are flocking to him in the middle of nowhere. He baptizes them for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness means letting go-letting go of sin-what separates them from God. He tells the people to let go of their sin because it’s not what defines them. And while you’re at it: let go of who the Roman Empire says you are, let go of who the Temple system says you are. Let go of those definitions of yourself. Let go of all of that because the Messiah is coming to proclaim the truth of who you are. You are more than your sin, the things you have done and left undone. You are more than your wealth or poverty, your ethnicity, your gender or status in the Empire. You are more than the sacrifices you offer at the Temple, or whether you are deemed clean or unclean. When you let go of those identities you can then be prepared for the gift that is coming to you: the gift of being the beloved child of God through Jesus and free to be who God created you to be.

This seems so simple and yet it is the most difficult thing that we can do. To let go of what we think has value in our lives or gives us value: our jobs, homes, cars, family members, what we wear, eat, where we live, our hobbies, our opinions is to prepare for what God values: us just as we are and God comes to us over and over again with this message of love, wholeness and grace. This message indeed levels the playing field: valleys and mountains, rough places and crooked paths are no match for God’s love. But in our culture, this word of the Lord that tells us to let go of what doesn’t give us true life can seem like the words of a lunatic, a crackpot or a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness where no one wants to be. That voice is one that is hard to hear.

A spiritual practice I began a few years ago was to at the beginning of each new liturgical year, to choose a word or short phrase that would help me to hear the voice of God in my life. Last year my word was “breathe,” as I found when I was stressed or anxious, I held my breath instead of breathing in and connecting with the Holy Spirit. I even had a bracelet I wore with that word on it so that I could be reminded. This text made me realize that my phrase for this year will be “letting go.” What do I need to let go of to hear the voice of God? What do I need to let go of in order to be my true and authentic self? Maybe it’s letting go what other people think of me, what the world says I should be, expectations of others, perfectionism, my ego? Maybe it’s letting go of whatever keeps me from truly connecting with others. Letting go is not just about me. Letting go means being open to people around me who think differently, act differently, live differently. The world wants us to hold on tightly to the lie of power, status quo, control and homogeny for the sake of our self-preservation. It’s letting go of my vision of righteousness and justice and, as Jeremiah proclaimed to the Israelites, and being open to God’s vision of wholeness for all people-or as Isaiah says: all flesh. In the love of God through Jesus Christ, I am prepared to let go of bias, bigotry and fear and can be open to receiving the truth that God’s power, righteousness and justice straightens the pathways, levels the valleys and mountains and draws us all into a loving relationship with God and one another.

Letting go will be a powerful spiritual practice for me this year. I invite you to into this spiritual practice and choose a word or phrase that orients you to God’s presence, love and grace.  In Advent, we prepare indeed for this gift from God by letting go of what separates us from God and each other and opening our hands and hearts to receive this unconditional and eternal love through Jesus Christ freely. Amen.

 

 

Advertisements
 

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.