A Lutheran Says What?

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

Hold On February 28, 2021

This sermon was preached for the community at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on February 28, 2021. It can be viewed on YouTube at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:

Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16
Romans 4: 13-25
Mark 8: 31-38

Children’s message: Have my bag handy:  My children, who are now grown-ups, always make fun of the size of my bag. I quit carrying a small bag after becoming a parent as I felt like I was always needing something I didn’t have. If they got hurt, I would need a first aid kit, snacks for when they were hungry, water for thirst, pen and paper for when they were bored, tissues, hand wipes, and more. If they needed something, I could help. And even after they were grown, I discovered that keeping these things around wasn’t a bad idea, not just for if I need them, but I could help someone else too. We all need help sometimes don’t we? We all get hurt, sick, lonely, hungry, sad, it’s just what happens in our lives. We don’t like it and we don’t like to think about it do we? Well our story about Jesus today is kinda about that. Jesus was walking along with his disciples and started telling them that he was going to be hurt and die, which happens to every person. But Peter didn’t want to talk about that. Peter wanted to believe that Jesus and hopefully himself as a friend of Jesus, would avoid ever being hurt and dying. But Jesus says, no, that’s not how life goes. We can’t pretend that we’ll never be hurt, sad or that people will never die. We have to be honest about that and tell the truth of how God is always with us especially when we are hurt, sad, lonely and dying. Jesus tells the disciples that they can’t pretend that hard and scary things won’t happen, because that doesn’t help. But they DO need to help other people through the hard and scary things, maybe crying with their friends and family, by sharing food, clothes and money, by saying no when someone is hurting someone else. That’s what “picking up our cross” means. Notice how the cross looks like a “t”? Well, Jesus wants us to follow him into the truth that yes, we might get scared and hurt, and the truth is also that God hold us and hold each other and help others when they need it-like what’s in my mom purse. I want you to draw or write what you have that you can share when a friend is hurt, scared or lonely.

 Full confession: I have always possessed a “gallows” sense of humor or maybe what is better described as Gen X snark. It’s probably because I’ve had a few life events that if I didn’t find the irony or the humor in, I’d cry all the time or be jaded. Well, and maybe I am both of those things, but mostly, the snarky thing. Call it irreverent, call it a coping strategy, but it’s all part of my charm. So, when the pandemic first started, and Mike and I would be watching the horrifying news each evening, all the poor decisions or simply lack of leadership happening, I would turn to him and say, “we’re all gonna die.” To which he would say, “yes but maybe not today.” Each day in 2020 would pass with some over the top new low, and I would look at Mike and say, “We’re all gonna die.” “yes,” he would say, “but maybe not today.” There’s been a couple of times with all of the chaos in the past two months where Mike has conceded where we might all die sooner versus later….
Despite my snark, it is true that we are all gonna die. From this life anyway. Yet, I think what is at the root of my snark is our ability as humans to think that we can outsmart reality, suffering, hurt and death. That WE’RE different from everyone else and we’ll escape it. But that’s just not how life works, it turns out. We often ask, “why me?” when bad things happen to us, but I’ve learned the real question is “why not me?” Suffering and death is a part of life and all the major world religions have at their core how we cope with life’s hard realities. But we live in a culture that tells us to deny aging and death: from commercials for anti-wrinkle creams, hair dyes, fat removal, to how we keep dying people hidden away in facilities and sanitize the dying process so that no one is uncomfortable. We are lulled into holding on to the deception that we can avoid the inevitable. We will do anything: any diet, any exercise routine, any procedure, any supplement, and hold on to any illusion or delusion to convince ourselves that we can outsmart aging, suffering and dying. Until we can’t. Until we trip and fall into the reality that we and everyone we know suffers and dies. But even then, our inner dialogue becomes one of rationalization that maybe they didn’t hold on tight enough, that their suffering was teaching them something, or us something, or worse, was God’s will. This is never true.
Peter is caught up in the very human delusion that he can escape the reality of suffering and death, after all he knows Jesus, the Messiah who will conquer all! The Messiah who will hold the Empire accountable and the Israelites will be conquerors and in power at last. But Jesus sees the self-deception that Peter is holding on to, and names it by calling him Satan, the deceiver. You see, Peter was still deceived that he was in control, he hadn’t figured out yet that following Jesus,aligning your life with God, isn’t going to spare you from hurt, suffering, oppression and death, it doesn’t spare you from being human. Following Jesus means that you let go of all the deceptions, all the fears, so that you can pick up your cross; you can pick up the truth that there is suffering in your life and the lives of people around you. The truth that we can’t honestly enter into the hurt of the world if our hands and hearts are clutching our own misconceptions, worries, fears and delusions. Picking up our cross means that we’ve let go of anything that doesn’t bring the fullness of life for ourselves and the people around us.

This isn’t easy, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s a journey that we have to be honest about and commit and recommit to every day. We can’t put our heads in the sand, or hope that someone else says the hard, but true thing. We can’t drive by the tent camps of people living on the streets and hold on to the myth that a solution is too expensive or the people won’t want it. We can’t watch over and over again as black and brown people are unjustly incarcerated and murdered by authorities and hold on to the lie that racism and white supremacy doesn’t exist and we don’t have a role. We can’t witness the denigration and lack of human rights of people who are LBGTQIA+ and hold on to the prejudice that they should be excluded. We can’t ignore the racist or sexist joke because we want to hold on to “niceness” or our need to be liked. Like Peter, we want to hold on to the delusion that following Jesus means that we should be able to hold on to our comfortable life, or hold suffering and death at bay, or that being church is about feeling good, safe, and secure.

We forget what the cross really means in our life. It’s not a sign of holding on to protection, piety, status quo or comfort. The cross was a symbol of abusive power for the Empire, for the powers and principalities as Paul calls it, and was used by the Empire to keep the marginalized people of the society in their place out of fear. But God doesn’t allow abuse to continue, let status quo stand, doesn’t let fear and death win. Jesus picked up the cross to turn it into a symbol of God holding on to God’s vision of justice, of God’s upheaval of worldly authorities and of God’s will for life and wholeness for all creation. Jesus picked up the cross to show us to let go of the myth that suffering is good, God’s will or redemptive, but to show us that suffering is reality AND that God is present; we aren’t alone in our suffering. Jesus picked up the cross to show us that God lets go of everything that doesn’t bring life, empties God’s hands to hold on to us, to reveal that when it’s hard, when it looks bleak, God’s love, justice, mercy and life will find a way to hold on.

We are called to empty our hands, to let go, so that we pick up our cross, we hold on, we hold on to one another when suffering abounds, to hold each other in God’s love and care, clearly name the oppression, abuse and harm being inflicted on our marginalized siblings and speak the truth to the powers of this world in love. Not love that is sentimental and mushy, but love that can hold on in tension, paradox and reality. This is Luther’s theology of the cross, that in the cross of Jesus, suffering, reality and wholeness in God’s mercy and grace can be held together. We pick our cross, the cross that holds us when nothing else can, and we let go of the delusions of what we think life should be. We let go of our false life to hold on to a true life of being held by God’s love, mercy and grace, in the reality of our lives. This is good news indeed. Amen.

 

Forgiveness and God’s Power Sermon on Matthew 18: 21-35 September 11, 2020

This sermon was preached on Sept. 13, 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 103
Genesis 50: 15-21
Matthew 18: 21-35

Forgiveness is officially defined as “the action or process of being forgiven or forgiving.” Ok, that’s a good place to start, but as I ponder forgiveness, I realize that it has a lot to do with power. How we use power, particularly in conflicts. If I apologize, do I give away my power? If you forgive me, am I beholden to you? If I forgive, am I giving you more power, or exerting my own power? What about when one group uses power over another? Do we stay silent or speak up? We are constantly weighing the power dynamics in our relationships. Often, we keep silent, walk away, “mind our own business,” and just worry about ourselves, thinking that is better, even noble. Yet, when nothing is said, when forgiveness is cheapened by repeating bad behaviors,  harmful actions are ignored and allowed to perpetuate and fester, people can remain caught as pawns in systems of abusive power and this doesn’t only damage individuals, but the community.

Peter’s question to Jesus on forgiveness is oozing with power, “if someone in the church (notice this is about people close to him) wrongs me how many times do I have to forgive? Seven times?” Seven is considered a holy and perfect number in Jewish numerology if you get into that sort of thing, which I’m not sure that Jesus does, as he blows it out of the water with his answer of “nope, seventy-seven times” or in some translations seven times seven. In other words, there is no perfect number for this question. Forgiveness is too complex and too much is at stake.

In typical Jesus fashion, he tells a parable. Now, we have to remember that parables don’t contain every response we might be looking for and can only freight so much meaning and I doubt that Jesus intends for this particular parable to tell us everything we need to know about forgiveness or mercy. Jesus tells the disciples about a king (probably not a stand in for God in this parable) who is one with all the power. One of his servants, a high up official, apparently owed him so much that it would take something like 600 years for him to pay it back. The king threatened to sell this man and his family to pay the debt; but the servant boldly and shamelessly begged the king for his life and the life of his family. The king reconsidered-and then forgave the whole debt! Before you think how super altruistic and merciful the king is, consider how much more is this servant now indebted to this king? The king just used his power to buy himself a loyalist for life.
This newly unburdened man goes on his way and encounters a fellow servant (probably on a lower societal rung) who owes him a much more nominal amount and it’s clear that first man has all the power in this relationship. He puts a choke hold on this second man and demands his money. The second man can’t pay and so is thrown into debtors prison until he can…much like our bail system, how in the heck is he supposed to pay his debt if he’s in jail and can’t work? It’s criminal to put him in jail frankly as now his family also suffers. There are witnesses to this event, and apparently these witnesses had heard of the first man’s good fortune with the king and are distressed and appalled that the first man would treat the second man this way. They understand that the balance of power has been shifted, that the forgiveness of the king to the first man had not rippled through the community as it should have. The witnesses knew that if this was allowed to stand, it would only breed more distrust, more injustice and more abuse of power, so they went to the king who is appropriately outraged. And the man gets his comeuppance, a favorite word at our house. The king hands him over to be tortured, not by the king, but by the man’s own actions of exerting abusive power over his fellow human being.

It turns out, Jesus is saying, that forgiveness isn’t only about us as individuals and our feelings. We don’t forgive only to have someone simply more indebted to us. We don’t forgive and keep allowing abuses to occur. We don’t forgive in order to be the better person or to bring ourselves peace or whatever self-help thing we read on the internet. Jesus models that forgiveness is about the empowerment of people to break systems of abusive power. Forgiveness is the power of truth telling and accountability. Forgiveness is about how we live together as messy, complex and imperfect people in community. Forgiveness recalls that what happens to one of us, happens to all of us, good and bad. Forgiveness is deeply rooted in our Lutheran theology of the cross where Luther purposes that part of life with God and each other is the power to “calling a thing what it is.” We have the power in God to call evil as evil and good as good and not get them confused. When they get twisted and mangled, the body of Christ is harmed. Jesus repeatedly says what the world calls is good, God condemns: some in power over many, excessive consumerism, ostracizing the sick, marginalizing women and foreigners, not feeding the hungry, ignoring the children. Forgiveness, breaking the systems of abusive power, is at the heart of Christian community.

Jesus entire mission and ministry reveals how in God’s kingdom systems of power are upended and that using our power for the sake of others is how we love. At the last supper, right before Jesus is betrayed, denied and abandoned by his closest friends, Jesus says his blood is poured out for forgiveness, the power of God’s love to heal, unite and tell the truth. Forgiveness is indeed power, the power to usher in a new system of God’s love that will bring abundant life for all. Thanks be to God.

 

Slot machines, Cars, and the Promises of God February 16, 2016

 

Donald Miller is an author who writes about Christian spirituality in our post-modern, post-Christendom, polarized culture. His breakout book, “Blue Like Jazz,” is a look at his own faith journey in the less than Christian culture of Portland, OR and his time at the less than Christian, perhaps even hedonistic, Reed College. Reed College is known for an anything goes culture and an official policy that allows drugs and alcohol openly on campus. Donald Miller tells of “coming out of the closet” as a Christian there and how people pushed him all the time about believing in a God that allowed bad things to happen to good people, didn’t seem to always answer prayer, allowed poverty, violence, hunger, disease, war, and any other horror that humanity could invent. He was pushed on how the Church just bilked good, hard working people out of their money and forced guilt for not following rules and going to Church on Sundays. When faced with those accusations, Donald admits that he struggled with those views on God and how God doesn’t seem to do what we think God should do. After all, wanting those things to end is not a bad thing.

But he realized something else in talking to people, Christian and non-Christian alike: we all seem to have an agenda with God. We all seem to have this idea who God is and what God should do and it shapes our relationship with God and with other people. Don says that his first image of God as a young person was that of God as a cosmic slot machine. We put our prayers, demands, wishes into God and want to pull the lever to get our answers and our reward. A transactional God if you will. We do A then God will do B. Very simple, neat clean, and predictable. Unfortunately, this viewpoint is more than prevalent and saturates our culture. One of my favorite artists, Janice Joplin, highlights this with her iconic song Mercedes Benz: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all drive Porsches; I must make amends. Worked hard all my lifetime, with no help from my friends. Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” (This will be sung.)

She then asks for a color tv and then simply a night on the town. She lowers her expectations with each verse but she hits on the crux of the human condition: we want what we want when we want it and we aren’t even to ashamed to ask God for these things with the presumption that God will fulfill our every whim. After all we’re good people, we pray, we give to our church, we teach Sunday School. Shouldn’t God give us something back in return or to use the verbiage from what is known as the prosperity gospel, if you do the right thing, believe correctly, and of course give enough money to their ministries God will bless you with whatever you ask. You will get a reward.

Only that doesn’t hold up for very long. Eventually that image of God will let you down. That image of God has more to do with ourselves and what we think we want and need than about what God is actually doing in the world. That image of God isn’t about unending grace, unconditional love and eternal life. That image of God is one that the world can control, manipulate and ultimately dismantle. But the good news is that this is not who God is:  we don’t have a transactional God, we have a relational God. We have a God who doesn’t confuse relationship and love with rewards.

I think that this is point of this story that shows up in Luke 4 as well as in Matthew and Mark. I wonder if this passage is not about Jesus setting an example of resisting temptation, or about how we should be like Jesus, or that we will be tested like Jesus was tested. We can discuss all of those concepts and that would be fine. However, when we ask ourselves why was this story is included in the three synoptic gospels, I think the answer is relationship. The world operates on transactions and quid pro quo, and we often, even in our closest relationships operate on that premise as well. If the other person does something (or doesn’t do something) then we will react in kind. We think that if we do a good job, or ask nicely, we should get our Mercedes Benz.

Jesus refuses to even entertain that way of being and play that game, if you will. At every turn with the devil, Jesus points back to God and what God desires for us: deep and abiding relationship. We don’t live by bread alone, Jesus says; we are wired for connectivity. We worship and serve God, Jesus says; which means gathering as a community for worship and serving our neighbors. Don’t test God, Jesus says, don’t confuse God with an ATM, or a Magic 8 ball or think that God is about answers and rewards for good behavior. God is about relationship; being on the journey with us whether we are in the wilderness or in the lap of luxury, whether we behave or not; whether we deserve it or not. God knows that what we really need and God simply gives as pure gift: grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.

Jesus who reveals the promise of life, freedom and grace from God that only God can give us. Jesus who heals, feeds, weeps and loves all people so that God’s love can be known in the world. Possessions, power and yes, even food, are fleeting and temporary. They lead to a cavern so deep that we spend a lifetime trying to fill it with more and more, never satisfied. But Jesus, as God’s perfect gift, fills us with living water, fills us with God’s word and fills us with himself through bread and wine, gathering us as one people of God for the sake of the world so that the world is filled with love. This is what it is to be blessed. To be loved and to belong to the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

Just as Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” and led by the Spirit into the wilderness, God’s promise is that the Holy Spirit fills us and always stays with us everywhere we journey.  We celebrated that Jesus is God’s promise of relationship and love forever with pouring water over Will Patrick this morning. Reality is that believing in God won’t make all of our problems go away or that we will get a reward; there will be cancer, depression, not enough money, not enough time, not enough power. The promise is that God fills us with the Holy Spirit to be with us no matter what, especially in our wilderness wandering. Reality is that we will experience earthly death. The promise is that God will transform our tears into abundant joy, our sorrow into extraordinary hope and our death into life forever with God. The promise is that we belong to God and with God, forever, no matter what. Amen.

 

Held By the Cross of Christ, Mark 8: 27-38 Pentecost 16B Sept. 13th, 2015 September 13, 2015

I don’t listen to much Christian pop music, to be completely honest. I prefer Rush, Boston, Bruce Springsteen, Colin Hay, Elton John, etc. It’s not that I’m picky about genres, I’m not-I listen to everything from country to gospel to metal to pop. But message matters. Most, but admittedly not all, of the Christian music’s message tends to focus on if you only believe enough, have enough faith, read the bible enough, are generous enough then your life will be wonderful. The focus of the music is on us and what we think and do and not on what God has already done. Now, having said that, there is an artist, Natalie Grant, whom I really love and she has a song from 2005 called“Held.” The chorus goes like this:
This is what it means to be held.
How it feels when the sacred is torn from your life
And you survive.
This is what it is to be loved.
And to know that the promise was
When everything fell we’d be held.
I love these words as they ring true in my life and maybe they do in yours as well. I saw an interview of Vice President Joe Biden by Stephen Colbert during which Mr. Biden opened up about the recent death of not only his son Beau, but the deaths many years ago of his first wife and daughter. He beautifully witnessed to the importance of rituals such prayer and for him the rosary, and how worship, even when he wasn’t sure about God, centered him somehow. He spoke about the community of people who had faith for him when he wasn’t feeling up to it, carried him through some dark days and kept the glimmer of the light of Christ burning for him. His wife, Jill, put a note up on his side of the bathroom mirror one day that was a quote from Soren Kierkegaard: “Faith sees best in the dark.”

You see, something that Mr. Biden has learned throughout his faith journey is that faith isn’t a once and for all sort of event. It’s an ebb and flow, it’s a windy road, it’s confusing, and it’s foundational for who we are as God’s children. Faith doesn’t promise us that everything will be perfect, that we will have all of the money that we need, that we will be healthy forever, that cancer won’t touch us, our loved ones won’t get sick or die, that we won’t lose our jobs, we will have friends and all of the worldly comforts. Faith, it turns out, is complex, a mystery and causes us to have more questions than answers.
Questions, confusion, and the mystery of faith are at the heart of this morning’s gospel text that I will admit is not one of my favorites. Like, Peter, I’m uncomfortable with not only the bluntness of Jesus in his explanation of the suffering and death to come but seriously uncomfortable with this entire take up your cross business, lose you’re your life and shame talk. It seems contrary to the Jesus that we have just seen who relieves suffering, who offers inclusion for all, who points to that fact that rules can’t save us, only God can do that. The language of denying ourselves and taking up our crosses triggers me in many ways. Is Jesus telling us that we MUST suffer? That we need to let others walk all over us, abuse us, deny our own dignity and self worth? To me, that is very dangerous language-especially for those for who are already oppressed by patriarchy, racism, are being told they are nothing by an abuser, or are telling themselves that they are nothing because they don’t measure up in our culture. Dangerous words indeed, Jesus. How much must we and other people suffer to prove that we are followers of Jesus? Go to jail for our beliefs? Be physically harmed? Put to death as many of the disciples would be?
All of that seems contrary to the rest of the message of Jesus. The Jesus who walks on water, Jesus who feeds crowds, heals women and little girls, who is opened up by a gentile woman, who heals the deaf, who makes the blind see and who proclaims that the kingdom of God is near, surely now isn’t saying, “you must prove your faith through suffering.” I think what Jesus is doing is naming the reality of our lives and of our faith. It’s not that we have to suffer, it’s that suffering in life where the kingdom of God is not yet fully come, is inevitable. We will suffer losses, death, lack of material resources, loneliness, diseases and all of the ways that the world takes its toll on us. Jesus will know suffering too. Jesus will know what it is like to be poor, abandoned, suffering in pain and ultimately killed. Jesus runs head on into the reality, our reality of the world and doesn’t shy away or try and gloss over it with pretty or trite words of platitudes such as, “God has a purpose for your suffering,” or “God is testing you,” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” or “If you have more faith then these bad things won’t happen.”
No, Jesus doesn’t say any of those things but instead says “take up your cross; you know the same cross that I will suffer a very human suffering on. Take it up, not so that you will suffer but because you are suffering, your suffering is real and God sees your suffering and loves you.” The cross of Christ is not about suffering but about the promises of God to be present with us when we do suffer. The cross that we take up is not God allowing abuse, hurt or suffering but the cross we take up is the cross of the promises of God to hold us when we suffer, to love us when we are all battered inside and out by the world and not much to look at, to lose ourselves in this reality and not the reality of the world.
“Faith sees best in the dark.” Faith in the dark allows us to stop seeing ourselves how the world wants to see us-perfect, autonomous, happy and shiny, but allows us to finally see ourselves how God sees us: broken, messy, needy, beloved and worthy of abundant life. We can trust that faith is not dependent on us at all but is all about God and how God wants to live with us now and forever. We pray, sing, worship, study, share, serve, love to reorient ourselves as individuals and as a community to those promises of God, as an expression of faith whether times are hard or joyous.
There is good news in these words, “deny yourself and take up your cross.” The good news that it’s not about anything that we do but all about what Jesus has already done to offer us and all of creation the promises of God for abundant life here and now, and forever. The cross isn’t our suffering to carry, no, the cross of Jesus Christ promises to catch and to hold all of our suffering and all of us, always. “This is what it means to be held.” May we all take up our cross and know that it is the cross that takes us up into the life, love, mercy and hope of our God who holds us always. Thanks be to God.

 

Collision course November 5, 2013

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Well, not all my blog posts this month will be deep, introspective and soul shattering. Such as this one tonight probably. So what does a Lutheran say about a day like today where the profane and the sacred collide in the same space? Well, probably just that God is in both-or all-and that is the reality of the tension that we live in everyday on some level or another. Today I went for a run, ate lunch at a sandwich shop, went to the Gap with my sister and gathered with my family at the funeral home for my grandma’s viewing and then to PF Changs. In that order.
The profane (which is not so much about vulgarity as it is the ordinary) is what we do without much reflection, what we might do just for our basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter. It’s what’s necessary on some level and even expected in the most strife ridden times. It’s kind of what keeps us sane when everything else around us makes no sense what-so-ever or is too overwhelming to take in. It’s safe, known and certain.
But the sacred, the holy set apart places in our lives that we don’t visit often enough-those are places and times that stretch what we know to be concrete and certain. The sacred makes us question, wonder, be in awe and often brings us fear. The sacred causes us to stop, reevaluate our existence and even move us in a different and unknown direction.
When the sacred and the profane collide in our lives, as is more common than we realize, it causes us stress, fear, guilt and over all uncertainty. But here is where the grace and mercy of God lives as well. It’s where we live into God present in our suffering. God present in our broken humanity. God present in our grief and tears. I honestly don’t have any better explanation than this but it is one that I have personally experienced not just today but over and over in my life. God, the divine, the sacred, the holy that takes our breath away, promises to meet us in the profane and the sacred. We can’t intellectually comprehend this or even articulate it to someone else but often all we can do is live in it and offer it to someone else when they too are caught in this whiplash of life. This is what a Lutheran deeply rooted in the reality of the theology of the cross would say, or at least me.