A Lutheran Says What?

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

Saved For What? October 11, 2021

This sermon was proclaimed at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on October 10, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC. The texts were:
Amos 5: 6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90: 12-17
Mark 10: 17-31

Young Friends message: I love a good apple! This one is so pretty! I think I’ll save it forever. Is that a good idea? No? Why? Oh it will go bad! If I eat it now, it will be healthy for me won’t it? I can share it too and then we all get some of the nutrients from this apple. Yes, food in general doesn’t last forever and will go bad and then it’s no good to anyone. And when we share, it allows the food to nourish more people. Our bible story today is about saving. Now saving can sometimes be wise, but often we save more than we need and save what we don’t need. Jesus tells a person with a lot of things to get rid of all his stuff to follow Jesus, quite saving things you don’t need but other people do. And then Jesus talks about how with God all things are possible. In other words, we don’t have to worry about if God loves us and will keep us forever, because Jesus says that’s already done and everyone is loved and accepted no matter how much money they have, what kind of house they  have, what kind of job they have, none of that matters as God sees only that God loves us. We’re going to talk a little more about how God saves us and cares for us.

What does it mean to save something? Why do we save objects or money? Yes, we save items and money because we might need it later. We store them up like squirrels with nuts for winter. What happens when you don’t need it later, what do you with those saved items or money? Trickier isn’t it? When we save, we’re often afraid to use it aren’t we? A savings account for a “rainy day” or that precious, precious toilet paper we all have saved in our homes, you know you do! Saving seems prudent, rational, and even necessary. This week the media has highlighted how supply chains are fragile and many people can’t get some basic goods, such as canned goods, and even diapers. This is one reason why the diaper drive for CrossRoads Urban Center is so important right now. We ‘re being told to save harder to get items and be cautious about what we actually need as it’s uncertain what will be available in the future.
The concept of saving has a long emotional, psychological, and yes, religious history in the US. Saving is seen as virtuous, people who can take care of themselves are lifted up in our culture as noble, ethical, and righteous. We hold the “self-made person,” well let’s be honest the phrase is “self-made man” as the standard to which we all must adhere. If you don’t have enough saved to care for yourself, for whatever reason, even reasons beyond your control, then obviously, you’re not as smart, capable and or principled. This idea of “saving” is the basis of the Protestant work ethic that infests the white culture of the US. And this Protestant work ethic then wormed its way into the theology of many Protestant denominations and is at the root of the very problematic and misunderstood theology of salvation. Who is saved and who isn’t saved. It’s essentially trying to save up for an uncertain future, what happens when we die?

It’s at the heart of all our texts this morning. While the Protestant work ethic is distinctly American, the idea of people who are the “Haves” in society as inherently worth more than the “Have Nots,” is as ancient as the texts of Amos this morning. The idea of scarcity, that there is not enough to go around so I’d better save and keep things to myself for the future, was as rampant in ancient times as it is today. Humanity doesn’t change all that much I’m afraid. We want to have enough saved for the future so that we can take care of ourselves, and we want to take care of our own salvation too. The young man who ran up to Jesus, was obviously seeking something he didn’t have. He knew that he had saved enough material items and presumably money for the future and he didn’t need Jesus for that. Yet, he felt that his future was still uncertain. AND I bet that young man, like us, knew exactly what was missing but was hoping against hope that he wasn’t correct. You see, this young man knew that Torah, he knew the teachings, and he knew enough about Jesus to seek him out. Jesus only confirmed what he already knew, which I think is why he was shocked and grieved. He was right. The young man was right that he wasn’t contributing to justice and righteousness in his community by holding on to his possessions and money. He knew that living only for himself was not what God desired. He knew that he was no better than the people who worked for him, who had far less and lived day to day wondering where they would get food, shelter, or safety. He knew it. And we do too. We know that poverty or need isn’t a sign of character deficiency or lack of work ethic. Often the hardest jobs in our society pay the least. The world celebrates people who can manipulate and exploit other people for their own savings. If a person had 100 cats, or umbrellas or rolls of toilet paper, we shame them, say they have a mental illness and call them a hoarder, but a person who has a 100 billion dollars, we reward and put them on the cover of a magazine. When in reality the billionaire is also afflicted by the same disease.
We misunderstand the concepts of saving, to save and to be saved. An additional definition of “save” that we need to talk about is this: to keep safe or to rescue. The focus of this definition is about relationship. It’s about what it means to live in community, to shed the harmful notions of individualism and self-importance. This is the definition that Jesus gives the disciples when they ask “who then can be saved?” You see, we can’t save enough objects, money, or status to keep ourselves safe or to rescue ourselves. We can’t save ourselves from the randomness of the world. We can’t control if we’ll get sick, if our house will burn down, if we lose our jobs, our families, or are in a car accident. The big lie we tell ourselves if that if those things don’t happen it’s because we saved ourselves by our cleverness or aptitude. The young man with many possessions, was shocked and sad as he realized how little control he had. Jesus had shattered the illusion of his self-aggrandizement and told him that following him meant that he stopped worrying about saving and rescuing himself and focus on his community members who needed what he had been saving.
Salvation is about connectedness, wholeness and interdependency on God who does the rescuing, the saving. It’s not ourselves, not our works, not our cleverness. Entering God’s Kingdom means entering fully and wholly into community with our neighbors whom God also rescues. God sent Jesus to show us what salvation looks like. It’s looking on us all with deep love, and giving away everything, even his own life to connect us to God. Jesus saved nothing for himself to save us forever. And no one is beyond that loving gaze.
There is a theory that in chapter 15 of Mark, the young man who was traveling with Jesus and ended up running away naked when the authorities tried to arrest him, is this same young man from our story today. And he lost more than his shirt. He did give everything, down to his underwear, for Jesus. Because of Jesus’ loving gaze, he went from a saver of things to being saved for the work of the kingdom. God, through the love of Jesus, saves us so that we give this saving love to others. This saving love compels us to act to care for our neighbor. God’s beloved community is the saving force the world needs to bring wholeness, justice, and righteousness to creation. We are part of God’s saving movement. What do we have as a congregation, as an individual, that we are saving that maybe we should give away? We can save it and lose ourselves or give it away for God’s kingdom. We are saved, for God’s love saves us, bringing love, God’s saving force for us all, forever. For God all things are possible. Amen.

 

Peace Worth Fighting For Sermon on Acts 1 May 22, 2021

This sermon was proclaimed in the community of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on May 16, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC

The Texts were:
Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26
John 17: 6-19

Young Friends Message: Put the children into two groups. Give each group an idea to defend and give them one minute to come up with a reason why their idea is the best: Chocolate Cake or vanilla cake. Then give each team one minute to say why theirs is the best. What if someone doesn’t like chocolate/vanilla cake or doesn’t like cake at all? Should they just not say anything? Is that fair? What if when the say that they don’t like chocolate/vanilla cake they are told it doesn’t matter and they have to eat it anyway. Who won? Do you think that person who has to eat what they don’t like feels at peace? I mean the fighting has stopped so it’s all good right? Everyone has what they need? We’re talking about Peace today, which means we have to talk about not getting along. God understands that we will disagree and fight about things, but God really wants us to remember that we all have to work together, we have to remember, like Jesus says, that we are one-one people in God’s love. Jesus shows us how to not just end a disagreement, but to make sure that everyone is heard and has what they need for them. Jesus shows us that to truly live together, we have to listen to each other and understand that everyone is different. That is hard, but Jesus also prays for us and is with us, as we just read in the John story. Jesus promises to be with us, even in hard conversations.

I’ve been thinking about conflict a lot lately, namely what do we do when conflict arises. There’s been a preponderance of conflict it seems, or maybe we’re simply noticing it more, such as when you are thinking about new kind of car and you suddenly notice all the new cars around you. I’ve been blessed, yes blessed, to have engaged in several difficult conversations in the past week. Conversations where assumptions were made, feelings were hurt, avoidance of accountability and conflict were attempted, vulnerability had to occur, awareness blossomed, a resolution arose and yet frustrations remained. The conversations ran the gamut, and the common thread was uncomfortable and messy humanity. There were a times when we all tried to rush to the compromise, rush to the part where the tension ends, rush to go along to get along. But each time, there was a brave soul who refused to rush, who pulled us back into the mire and said, this won’t do. We can rush, we can end the tension but it doesn’t end the conflict and it doesn’t bring peace. We stayed in the messiness, we stayed in conversation, and we stayed in relationship. Why? Because we all realized that peace was worth it.

Peace is one of those concepts that I think we truly only understand in relationship to it’s antithesis: conflict. We use the term peace quite often day to day: All I want is peace and quiet. Keep the peace. Peace out. Give peace a chance. Love and peace. And in our worship: May the peace of the Lord be with you and Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Do we know what we are saying or asking for? Martin Luther King Jr, in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail offered that there is negative peace and positive peace. Essentially negative peace is rushing through the tension to maintain status quo, going along to get along, ignoring hard truths, shying away from hard conversations, peace that ultimately divides. Positive peace is awareness of the presence of something else, the messy and raw presence of truth, authenticity, vulnerability, humanity and wholeness. We have a lot of negative peace in our world I would assert to you this morning: negative peace that requires people to stay silent in the shadows of hatred, racism, homophobia, classism, sexism and the list goes on. Negative peace requires us to pick a side, are we for something or against it? Those are the choices for us. A kind of peace that buries truth, that allows power structures to stay in place and remain unchallenged. We all know this peace. The kind of peace that gives us that sinking feeling in our stomach discomfort when we are in the presence of people telling racist or sexist jokes, the innate fear of being ridiculed, or watching the news and seeing the destruction of towns and the death of innocents in the name of status quo and minding our own business. We fight to ignore it, we fight to feel comfortable. Or is that the presence of something else?

Peace isn’t inaction or nice words, I’m learning. Peace isn’t ignoring, sweeping conflict under the rug, giving up well-being or health of myself or other groups, swallowing my pride, keeping quiet for the comfort and stability of another group. Peace isn’t the path of least resistance. If it’s peace only for some, then it’s not peace for all. Peace is action, peace is recognizing and entering conflict, not for the sake of fighting but for the sake of bringing the presence of something else. The presence of wholeness. In the Hebrew Bible this presence is Shalom, which is mistakenly translated often as peace, but it really means wholeness, completeness. God’s will for creation and humanity from day one is this Shalom. God sends Jesus, sends Jesus into the world, where there are forces that oppose and are in conflict with God’s will. God sends Jesus to be the presence of wholeness, to be the presence that names truth, that names power, that names vulnerability. God gives this presence freely and abundantly.

How do you define (or give an example) of peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding? 

How does the concept of peace as Shalom (wholeness) move us to love our neighbor? 

Jesus shows us how to enter conflict for the sake of true peace. Jesus hangs out with the people whom society decided were the scapegoats to ensure peace for the powerful. Jesus upends tables of status quo and that excludes peace, wholeness for the poor, the vulnerable and the weak. Jesus walks through conflict with authorities, is tortured, executed on a cross, because he wouldn’t be quiet, he wouldn’t stop agitating. He wouldn’t stop being the presence of something else besides what the world wanted him to be. He wouldn’t stay in his place. He wouldn’t stop being in relationship with us, even when it got hard and dangerous, because the peace Jesus brought to the world for the world was worth it.  Jesus was the living peace who only sought wholeness for all. Jesus was the peace that does indeed pass all understanding, for Jesus reveals the truth of God’s embedding peace, wholeness in creation from the beginning. For God, bringing this wholeness  full circle is, dare I say, worth fighting for. Not fighting with weapons or malice, but fighting by dying, fighting with love, fighting with mercy and fighting with hope. God won’t give up on us.
For positive peace, true peace to abound, we too must not give up but enter the world, into the forces that oppose separation from God and creation. We trust that we too are the embodiment of this presence, that we don’t keep the peace, we make it, we build it, not alone, but with God, in the presence of Jesus, and sustained by the Holy Spirit, for we are one-wholeness. We engage conflict, we speak not of right or wrong but of wholeness, mercy and love. We don’t respond to violence with violence but with vulnerability. We lay down our weapons of words, actions, ego and yes, maybe real weapons, and stand bare before our neighbor seeking connection and peace. We stay in the mess, in the tension, because the world, the world where all people and creation thrive and flourish is worth fighting and dying for. Yes, that sounds naïve and dramatic, or perhaps plain foolish, but I think that is the point. Jesus was foolish in who he hung out with. Jesus was foolish in feeding 5000 people as if it made a difference. Jesus was foolish giving away his power to heal a worthless woman, or outcast lepers. Jesus was foolish to believe that turning over tables would permanently end economic theft and the grifting of the poor by the rich. Jesus was foolish to not defend himself before the Roman authorities to save his life. But Jesus foolishly trusted God’s wisdom, God’s wisdom that shows peace, wholeness, is forged through the hot coals of conflict. Peace that matters, peace that means anything, is a peace that isn’t soft, squishy or delicate. Peace that lasts is a peace where conflict is put to death once and for all. The peace that passes all understanding pulls us into the mystery of life together and life with God with humility, openness, mercy and grace. A peace that is for all, no one is harmed, no one is on the outside, no one is right, no one is wrong, but all are loved, fed, housed, sheltered, given abundant life now, and protected in Jesus name. This is a peace worth fighting for. Amen.

 

Rooted Sermon on Acts 8 and John 15 May 2, 2021

This sermon was proclaimed for the community of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on May 2, 2021. It can be viewed on our YouTube Channel: Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC.

The texts were:

Acts 8: 26-40
John 15: 1-8
ELCA Social Statements: Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust
Faith, Sexism and Justice

Young Friends message:

You might remember or know that I grew up in the military, in the Air Force to be exact. My family moved quite often, we would uproot and go to a new place. I went to five elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools. So I was the new girl all the time. And to be honest, I was a bit odd, maybe because of moving so often, but really, probably because I was me. I was a kid who loved to sing and did so everywhere I went. I loved playing my violin, was horrible at sports, loved reading books, and was the opposite of cool in so many ways. I was also a bit odd as I loved church, I mean, I LOVED Church! Everywhere we moved, it turned out that God was the same and there! I was that teenager that sang the liturgy, attended every church function even when my parents didn’t, and started teaching Sunday school at 15. I mean I loved Church. I felt rooted there, I felt like it was the only place where I was loved for being odd, and for being well, me. When I was in confirmation, we picked our own confirmation verses. I was in the youth choir, of course, and we had a piece we were singing called “Vine and Branches” based off of our Gospel story for today. I fell in love with those words, “I am the vine and you are the branches, you who abide in me and I in them.” I picked that verse because I am connected to that vine whether I live in CA, ND, Guam, NE or here in Utah. A few weeks after I was confirmed at First Lutheran in Minot, we uprooted again and moved to NE. But I knew that I stayed connected to Jesus no matter what. And so are you! I want you to know that no matter what, what you grow up to do, who you grow up and choose to live with and be a family with, how you dress, cut your hair, no matter what, you can’t be uprooted from Jesus. God says so. Here’s a piece of twine to remind you that you are connected and rooted in Jesus’ love.

I’ve spent a lot of my life uncomfortable, so you’d think I’d be good at it. Like I shared with our younger friends, it has been most of my living experience. I actually don’t like being uncomfortable, do you? When I’m in an uncomfortable place, or conversation, my instinct is to separate myself from that discomfort. Maybe it’s physically relocating, or not speak my truth, or assume my discomfort is not important, or blame the other person for my discomfort. The end result is the same, separation, disconnection feeling cut off. It’s harder when I’m uncomfortable with myself, maybe I’m ashamed of a feeling, how I look, my thoughts, my actions, my dreams. And I try to forget, push away, or ignore that discomfort-I separate or compartmentalize pieces of myself, I don’t want to get to the hard truth, the root of my discomfort, as then I would have to deal with it, and who wants to do that hard work? But as I’ve gotten older, and maybe wiser or at least gained some experience, I realize that separation within myself, denial of who I am at my root, at my core is a dangerous thing. When I’m not fully connected to myself, I can’t connect authentically or in a healthy way with others. Yet, this isn’t how we operate day to day is it? We deny and shy away from anything that makes us uncomfortable: people, conversations, situations, feelings, etc. What’s the old adage? Never discuss religion or politics? Well, we’re going to do a bit of both this morning, so hold on. If we can’t practice having hard conversations here among each other, as God’s people, then how are we going to do this in our day to day lives? And to make this even harder, you’re welcome, we’re going to add sexuality into this mix. Don’t leave! It’ll be ok, I promise.
The Bible is filled with these uncomfortable conversations and stories, but we ignore the parts that make us uncomfortable, until we can’t. I love this story in Acts 8 today for so many reasons. First, let’s just name that it’s kinda weird and uncomfortable. The Holy Spirit talks to Philip who actually listens and obeys, (What?) goes to the wilderness (this was a road through nowhere),and encounters a stranger, a person only named by their physical traits, an Ethiopian Eunuch. So much to unpack here and I’ll give you a sliver. Ethiopian doesn’t refer to the country of Ethiopia as we know it today, it only refers to the geography south of Egypt. It refers to his dark skin color and would be used to highlight that he is indeed “not from around these parts.” We’re told he’s a Eunuch, ok stay with me, that can mean one of a few things: he was born without male sexual organs, he is a slave who was castrated for the purpose of serving the King and his harem of women without fear of sexual promiscuity, or he was not castrated but had an effeminate manner that allowed him to move in more female dominated spaces. We don’t know which it is, but we know this: in ancient Roman times, he would have been mocked, bullied, considered nonmale, nonbinary, and not accepted. We read that he was returning from worship in Jerusalem: and we know from Levitical law, that being a eunuch, he would have been excluded from being in the inner courts of the Temple. It’s possible that he was a practicing Jew, and it’s also possible that he was what was referred to as a “God-fearer.” Someone who is not a full practicing Jew but liked the idea of God.
We also know that he had access to money as he had a chariot and a scroll of Isaiah. Philip encounters him reading the scroll aloud, a common ancient practice, and asks him if he knows what he’s reading about? The Ethiopian Eunuch responds with a question: How could I since no one will interpret for me? We don’t have the details of what Philip tells him, other than he tells him of the good news of Jesus. We do know the Ethiopian Eunuch’s next question: What prevents me from being baptized right now? He got right to the root of following Jesus.It can be heard as rhetorical, as the answer is, of course, nothing. But we need to uncomfortably admit that we also know that isn’t always true. The Church, yes, the supposed beloved people of God, has given a myriad of answers to that question throughout history, that is anything but a yes. You want to belong? First dress appropriately (according to whom?), pray correctly, know the same hymns that we do, stand up and sit down at the correct times, stay in your gender or age role, don’t be a different color, sexual orientation, or partisan persuasion, like all the same food we do, all the same books, all the same music. Fit in this box and cut yourself off from everything that doesn’t fit in the box. Then you’re welcomed, then you belong, then you are loved.
I’ve been told that. Disconnect from the part of me that isn’t feminine enough, acts too confident and bold. Don’t think that you have an equal say, don’t be bossy, but you should speak up more, don’t dress so girly, or masculine or dowdy. Why do you wear make up? Why don’t you wear some lipstick? My daughter who is queer and marrying a wonderful young woman has been told even uglier things. LBGTQIA+ people in our society and yes, in churches, have been told to cut off the part of themselves that might make others uncomfortable or we mistakenly think are in the bible. An aside: the word “homosexuality” didn’t appear in the English bible until 1946, it’s a bad translation from the Hebrew and the Greek. Jesus says nothing about same gender relationships, and to really make you uncomfortable, the gospel of John talks about the “beloved disciple of Jesus” who leaned on his bosom. Maybe that was Jesus’ partner? We don’t know. But Jesus does say love and care for your neighbor, over and over and over and over again. Yet, we focus on a handful of passages that are badly translated to ensure some sort of hierarchy in the church and world. Just sayin’.

In 2009, the ELCA, at Churchwide assembly, adopted the social statement: Human sexuality a gift and trust. It removed the barriers, the disconnection for our siblings who are LBGTQIA+ to serve in the Church as rostered leaders. I will personally add, that the part of “bound conscious” in this document I find problematic. It means that if a congregation doesn’t want a woman or an LBGTQIA person to serve as their pastor, they can reject such a candidate. I don’t think that is faithful or biblical. Jesus came to unbind us from such sin. I don’t think we should affirm people who are indeed bound and determined to exclude, judge and cut off anyone from the community of Jesus followers.
And in 2019, the ELCA adopted the social statement Faith, Sexism and Justice. These documents answered the question: what is to prevent me from following God’s call to serve in my life for women, femmes and LBGTQIA+ folks with the words, “nothing.” And what’s more, affirmed that all people are created in Imago Dei, in God’s very image. We gloss over in Genesis 1:26 where it states, “let US make humanity in OUR own image.” Plural. We have a God of diversity, pluralism and variety. We have a God who wants wholeness, unity and hope not only between all parts of creation but within ourselves. These documents got to the root of the issue, and challenge us to recover God’s mission of wholeness, that we can’t cut off or compartmentalize aspects of ourselves for comfort or convenience. That includes our sexuality. It’s part of who we are as much as our personality, hair color, height, likes, dislikes, gifts, and foibles. We are challenged to fully live into our baptismal promises to seek this wholeness, God’s justice for all people. We can’t change who God created us to be, God calls us to be the most authentic, loving, whole and holy version of who God created us to be.

We’re going to chat about this now for a few minutes in small groups. If you don’t get to all the questions, no problem!

  1. All humans are made in the image of God. How does the variety of people you know/interact with reflect who God is for you? Does your image of God change when you consider this?
  2. How does our language for God perpetuate our images of God?
  3. Talk about how our theological convictions (that is what we think about God and how God works in the world) shape how we might understand and live into justice for LBGTQIA+ people in our society.

The Ethiopian Eunuch more likely literally had parts of him cut off by a power structure to make him useful to the powers and yet outcast from the power structure. It had its desired effect, to dehumanize him and make him separate, to uproot him from society. What he heard from Philip, is that is not God’s will and Jesus came to connect, to not have anyone deny that the root of who they are is connected to the root of all creation, God. And that connection didn’t depend on him changing anything about himself first. He was connected to the root of life just as he was. Jesus is indeed the vine, that connects and nourishes us all. And not only to one another but to connect us to ourselves, the real us whom God created in God’ own image. The Ethiopian Eunuch heard this, he already knew that he belonged no ifs, ands, buts or rules. His sexuality, his body, was as important to God as his spirit and heart. They were one in the same and couldn’t be separated. And were fully loved. He should be called by his root identity, child of God. Philip needed to hear this as much as the child of God before him did, as much as we do. Philip went toward the discomfort of the wilderness, of the stranger, of the person considered less than, and was reminded of his own humanity, of God’s vast welcome and affirmation of all who and what God has created and of being connected to the true vine, that connects all the branches of every shape, kind, and purpose, to the root of all life, love and mercy for all people and all creation: God.

 

Off the Beaten Path, Mark 13: 1-8 Pentecost 25B, November 15th, 2015 November 17, 2015

*This sermon was preached on Nov. 15th at Bethany Lutheran Church, Cherry Hills Village, CO

Each summer since 2010, my husband, Mike, and our son, Andrew, take a father/son road trip. They have been to the Black Hills, Roswell, Moab, Yellowstone and everywhere in between. While they have specific destinations in mind, it’s really the journey itself that they focus on. Early on in their yearly trips, they discovered a website called Roadside America. This site offers a plethora of “off the beaten path” sites that you won’t find on AAA, or necessarily on a billboard alongside the highway. I’m talking about alligator farms where you can hold a real alligator. Or a man who has a 150 sculptures made of mufflers in his front yard. Or statues of headless chickens. Or alien watch towers.  Often, they have to travel many miles out of their way to encounter these wonders of the modern world and they are not always easy to find. These places would be easily missed by most people if you don’t know what to look for or aren’t willing to veer from your original path. Some of the sites are not as exciting as Mike and Andrew had hoped, but even when it’s a dud, they still have a great story of a quirky experience. If they had stuck to the obvious signs along the highway they wouldn’t have seen what many other people have missed. I’m always amazed that they have the openness to notice and experience these fun places that are not the usual tourist options.

It’s interesting what we notice and what we don’t notice in our lives isn’t it? What we chose to focus on in our lives often becomes our filter for everything we notice. Our media feeds us a constant stream of what they think is important or what we need to be content and happy: Lose weight, buy a car, get that new phone, get a security system, make more money, get a bigger house, and the list goes on and on. And I don’t know about you, but it’s so easy to get sucked into that focus-the focus that is all about us, how we can be better, smarter, thinner, younger, better looking, or richer. We sell ourselves the idea that if we only focus on ourselves, fix, right here right now, what we don’t like about our lives that we can control not only today but tomorrow. We get sold the falsehood that we are the ones in control of our wholeness and can fix ourselves.

The basis of all of this, if we’re honest is fear. We’re afraid of what we can’t control, namely the future. We want some sort of certainty about what tomorrow will bring and some sort of sign of what is to come so that we can prepare. So we focus on what is obvious or what the world puts in front of us: our institutions, economic systems, family systems, even our churches. So when we experience major shake ups in these supposedly unshakable monoliths, it can seem like the end of the world as we know it and then our fear and need for control takes over and can focus us on the wrong thing.

The disciples were no different than we are today. In our gospel story, Jesus and the disciples are leaving the temple, where they had just witnessed the widow putting in all that she had into the treasury and what did the disciples immediately notice? The great, glorious and permanent the stones of the temple! “Jesus, isn’t this temple amazing?? I’m sure it will be here forever!” I can almost see Jesus either rolling his eyes or shaking his head. After all of the revelations of God’s kingdom the disciples had seen and witnessed by being with Jesus, this temple was what they chose to notice and focus on.

When the author of Mark wrote this gospel, it’s likely that this very temple that the disciples were staring at in wonderment had been very recently destroyed. The temple was the center of all religious life for the Jewish people: it’s where they believed that the actual connection and intersection of God and God’s people through the priests in the Holy of Holies took place. It’s where sacrifices for the atonement of sins were offered. The temple had become the main focus of the religion in many ways. Jesus is reminding the disciples past, present and future that no matter what system breaks down, even the central religious system such as the temple, God is still present, God is the center of their lives and God is still at work in the world.

Jesus cautions us to stay focused on God as when we are focused on God, our worries, our concerns, our fears of the future will be kept in perspective. Jesus came to proclaim through flesh that God is with us always and to not look at what’s wrong or needs to be fixed but what new thing God is doing in our midst. Jesus’ presence invites us to get off the highway of fear and status quo. There are many events that can make us focus on our fear that the end of the world is indeed happening and we worry about what we should do. There are wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, terrorist attacks in Paris and on Kenyan universities, airplanes destroyed while in flight, bankruptcy, diseases, loss of jobs, and all of the other daily challenges that seem to demand our full attention. But Jesus tells us, “Do not be alarmed.” Don’t focus on these things. Don’t forget that God is with you. Don’t forget that it is God that is bringing salvation to you and to all of creation. No matter what the world wants you to believe, it is God who brings you into life with God and with one another for transformation and wholeness-which is true salvation.

God is doing a new thing, bringing in peace and love for all people in all times and in all places, even when all we can focus on is disaster, destruction and death. Jesus proclaims to the disciples and to us, the new life that God is birthing, right here, right now! Can we see it? Can we notice the selfless acts of generosity and love in our midst? Feeding the hungry through Metro CarRing, loving our neighbor in need through the Angel Tree, celebrating the miracle of the new life of a baby with the Rulla family, the promises of God poured out on Michael Donovan in the waters of baptism, the giving of God’s love story found in the Bible to our second graders this morning.  Jesus walks with us and dares us to boldly live differently than the world: “Look for newness, not destruction! Look for life, not death! Look for abundance, not scarcity!” Jesus reminds us of this so that not only can we see it but we can live our lives to witness to what God is doing so that God’s promise of life, hope, forgiveness and mercy is revealed to the whole world. Living this way is not the usual road traveled but each and every day God invites us and embraces us in the new life and transforming work God is already doing.

God promises to not leave us alone in our fear, in our worry and in our uncertainty and will always speak words life and hope where we only see death and despair. God’s presence with us in our daily lives is certain and unshakable. God’s love offers us a way to get off the road of fear, loneliness, scarcity and death. God’s road offers us hope, life and community through ordinary signs of water, bread, and wine, to refocus us time and time again on what is the true center of our lives, the forever and unconditional love of God that is bringing wholeness to all of creation. Thanks be to God.

 

It’s Not About Divorce, Genesis 2: 18-24, Mark 10: 2-16 Pentecost 19B, Oct. 4, 2015 October 5, 2015

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I am a Lutheran gal who loves the Hebrew Bible. I love it because of the richness of the literary genres, the messiness of the history, the complexities of the relationships with God and each other, and the grace that drips from each word from God who never leaves God’s people. Basically, if you want a good soap opera, read the OT. I also love it as it reminds me that there is nothing new under the sun. There is deceit, mistakes, vulnerability, violence, indiscretions, agendas, sorrow, joy, paradox and confusion. That sounds like a just another day in our humanity doesn’t it?! And of course, there are laws, we call them the 10 commandments and all of the “laws” that are in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

The commandments and all of the laws spelled out were intended to help us as humanity plagued by all of the drama I listed above, to remember what we read in Genesis 1 and 2: God created everything, including us, and we are created in God’s image, which is love. Everything in the Bible that happens after Genesis 2 is about humanity’s grappling with God declaring creation and us good, God desiring relationship with us, God desiring us to be in loving relationship with one another. In our Genesis 2 reading, it’s the story of how God created the female. In reality, it’s the second account of how woman, came to be. Genesis 1: 26-27 is the first account which explicitly states that humans were created in the image of God-male and female God created them. Genesis 2 is the second account of creation and God recognizes the loneliness of the earthling man, Adam. Adam was created from the humus, the dirt, and so is a human, literally an earth creature.  God wanted to create for him a “helper.” Now this word gets mistranslated. Any other time that this word for “helper” appears in the OT it refers to a divine helper or to God. So God is making Adam a “divine helper,” not a lesser being, not an afterthought, not someone to do what Adam does not want to, but a divine helper-so divine that this earth creature created in God’s image will continue with creation within her own being.

So bound together are the two earth creatures, that God declares no one will be able to tell them apart. They will appear to be the same and of the same mind, soul and spirit. They will be one. God’s intent for all of humanity-earth creatures-is to be one. Not just married people, but all people. But we know the next piece of the story and sin, brokenness, shame, separation and hurt enter into the relationship of the earth creatures. God created oneness, wholeness, equality, and love. We stumbled onto individualism, separation, hierarchy and hate. God was grieved when we stumbled, but didn’t leave us, didn’t give up but began right then and there redeeming and transforming the earth creatures to live into their true divine image.

But we love the law-we love the law so much that we took 10 commandments and turned them into 617 purity laws to follow. We loved the law so much that we would rather uphold the rules than love and forgive our neighbor. We get stuck in worrying about if we or other people are following the correct laws in the correct way. We worry more about who’s in and who’s out of God’s love and grace than stopping to take the time to see that’s not even the what God wants us to worry about. In Mark, the Pharisees are testing Jesus about the law. It didn’t really matter what law they picked, but they picked divorce. It could have been a law about unclean food, although they had already tried to trap Jesus on that one, so divorce it was. It’s unfortunate, as we now read this passage and assume that it has everything to do with the actual action of divorce, when in truth, it has nothing to do with divorce but has everything to do with refocusing to Genesis 2: we are all created in God’s image for one another but we fail to live into that promise.

It’s not an accident that the writer of Mark moves right into Jesus blessing children and highlighting the importance of everyone to God, even those who in our society and culture have no importance. Jesus is breaking the crowds open to their own love of the law, supposed order and rules instead of God’s order of inclusion, love and transformation.

We saw firsthand on Thursday our love of the law above everything and everyone else. The tragedy that unfolded in OR, had unfolded 274 previous times this year, some with media coverage but most without.  Mass shootings are so prevalent that media can’t even cover them all and only cover the events where the toll on humanity is so horrific that it can’t be swept under the rug. The conversation in the wake of the loss of life on Thursday immediately turned to law. We need more gun laws, fewer gun laws, more laws for helping those with mental illness, regulations on campaign funding by special interest groups like the NRA, more laws on how media covers such events. Now, I’m not here to shy away from taking a stand on these issues, and you may or may not agree with me and that’s ok too.  My father was in the military and I grew up around guns, I’m not a Polly Anna about this, but they were called what they really are in the military…weapons. Guns have one purpose, none other; they are to inflict harm on another of God’s creatures. The conversation is about more than guns, it’s about how we kill each other in so many ways. While I don’t own a gun and will never own a gun, I am just as entangled in the culture of violence, entitlement and hardness of heart as anyone. By living in the U.S. with all of my privileges, I participate in systems everyday that lead to the demise of someone else in the world.

But I will also say that laws will not completely stop this. Maybe it will help but laws don’t transform someone’s heart, mind and spirit. Laws have never been able to do that. Jesus points to the vulnerable children to remind the adults that they were once vulnerable and non-important to society too. Jesus is reminding the crowds gathered and us of our common humanity, our common earthiness, our common creation in God’s image. What transforms us is God’s work begun in Genesis 3 of reconciling all of creation that is now broken, divided, hurting and literally bleeding, back to God. What transforms us is God’s love for all of us. God desires transformation so deeply that God walked among us as Jesus, suffered violence, murder and death-shared in our common humanity-to be raised and to raise us to our common eternal life in God.  We each have God’s divinity in us as evidenced in the two creation stories-we have what we need in us to allow God’s transforming Spirit to fill us, to move us, and to gather us again as one people, divine and equal helpers for one another.

You see, we, like the Pharisees, think that we can regulate relationships, we can put laws on divorce, LBGT brothers and sister, gender rules, racism laws or all of the other ways to try and keep each other in what we consider a proper box. We are complicit in systems that leave some marginalized and forgotten. We forget Genesis 1 and 2 where we are made from dirt, all of us and God gathers us dirtiness and all, for deeper, mutual relationship. This means that we are bound to one another in messy, invasive and uncomfortable ways no matter what laws we enact. We are so bound together that we are one body, one flesh in Jesus Christ, that we partake in each time we gather through bread and wine that crumbles in messes to the floor and spills out all over us. We are so bound together that we do what is best for our neighbor and not only ourselves. We are so bound together that we are called to quit fighting about laws and we simply love and allow God’s transformation. We are so bound together that we must move beyond prayers to actions for true unity and oneness with each other and Christ. Our actions don’t save us but they do point to and reveal to the world that salvation and wholeness that God freely gives for all.

It’s messy, hard and God is present. We must go back to the beginning to see what God has planned for us for eternity. Let’s be as children and allow ourselves to be gathered in Jesus’ arms and not worry about what the law says. Let’s refocus to God’s plan from the beginning of creation: God’s plan that includes you, me, all of us together as one, filled with the transforming love of God, now and forever, amen.

 

Don’t Get Distracted (And Don’t Cut Off Any Body Parts Either!) Mark 9: 38-50 Pentecost 18B Sept. 27th, 2015 September 28, 2015

In seminary I took a class in Chicago for two weeks where we studied different urban ministry settings-mostly in impoverished and struggling communities. We went to St. Sabina where Fr. Pfleger had focused on the church building up the community to provide social services and combat racism. We went to Trinity UCC with Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III (formerly the congregation Jeremiah Wright served) where the focus was on building up people to be faithful followers of Jesus no matter what their struggles might be. We visited a small Lutheran congregation that ran an assisted living facility for elderly who were low income. We visited soup kitchens, programs to move people off the streets to self sufficiency and several other kinds of ministries. But the one that hit this (at the time) fledging soon to be pastor was a UCC congregation in the Latino part of Chicago.
This congregation ran a soup kitchen that fed lunch to 150 people from the streets every single day. They partnered with a nearby Catholic school for the youth to help serve; they coordinated massive food donations each week; they offered counseling for those in need, not to mention prayer and love. They were not a large congregation, maybe an average worship attendance of 100 or so and certainly not a wealthy congregation by any means. But they were focused on living out the gospel by whatever means necessary. What was more striking to all of us in the class was that this congregation had not had a pastor for two years. None, not even an interim. They had some supply pastors float in and out but no consistent pastoral presence. They deeply desired that presence, they wanted a pastor but it’s difficult to get one to come for what they were paying in that part of Chicago.
A parishioner named Rosaria had decided that the soup kitchen would be her ministry and while she had another full time job, she managed to put together a team of people both within and without of the congregation to work with her. She greeted us at the door and proudly told us all about that ministry and congregation. We sat and listened to how each member of this congregation played a role, how they had put aside the anxiety and fear of no pastor in place and just got on with the ministry that God had called them too, and they did it well. They were the busiest people I have ever seen and yet the calmest people I have ever seen. When something didn’t go exactly how they had planned, they readjusted and just kept moving around, over or through the obstacle not worrying about who is getting credit, or who is in charge. I marveled at the calm, as my personal M.O. is to worry about all of the things that could go wrong. I actually found myself concerned for them! But they ignored all of the possible distractions and were simply focused on God’s children who needed food for the day and a word of God’s love, mercy and grace.
“Be at peace with one another.” We tend to think that peace looks like serenity, rest, status quo, an easy life, or no hardships in our path to whatever we think we need to do to be at peace, happy or content. But peace is not any of these things. Peace in this text comes from the Hebrew word “Shalom” which means wholeness. Wholeness. Peace in God’s kingdom is about all people being whole: being wholly loved, wholly included, and wholly equal. I can almost see Jesus rolling his eyes when the disciples come to tattle tale that someone else is doing what they perceived to be solely their work. “Jesus this person is casting out demons! That’s what we do! We should stop him!” I mean heaven forbid that all of the demons get cast out and then everyone is healthy! Then we won’t be special! The disciples, and us, like to over think situations and make them more complex and more fearful than they really are.
Jesus then goes on to talk about whoever is not against us is for us, don’t put up obstacles, and then some gruesome words about cutting off body parts that keep you from fully participating in God’s work of peace in the world. Now we know that we can’t take such language literally, Jesus does not want us to cut off body parts or put a millstone around our necks but does want to get our attention and to think deeply about what distracts us from God’s peace, God’s wholeness and being part of God’ work that reveals God’s love in the world. What obstacles do we put up to keep out some of God’s children who make us uncomfortable? We love distractions from our real work at hand and we spend much more time creating them than actually just getting to the task of God’s work given to us. We worry about what other people are thinking or doing, we worry about what other people say about us, we worry that some people may not believe the same way, or will get mad, or not like us, or something may not work as well as we want. We worry, and in our anxiety and fear we create obstacles, we look for pitfalls and failings. What we don’t do is look to Christ who works in our midst, in our mess and promises to be forever present.
Hell is separation from God (it is not a place and no one is being sent there!) and we create our own hell. We create ways to exclude hope, joy and love so that we can say “I told you so” when things don’t quite work out how we envisioned. God desires for everyone to be close to God and wrapped in God’s love with no separation-hell is not God’s judgment or punishment; it’s how we punish ourselves. * But God never leaves us and never wants us separated from God or God’s loving community, yet we look for ways to resist God’s desire, thinking it’s safer to go it alone than to participate in the reckless abundance, generosity and love of Christ. Christ opened the way for all –removed every single obstacle that the world could provide-even death-in order for all creation to be in God’s peace, God’s Shalom and God’s love now and forever.
What distractions need to be navigated in your life, here at LOTH or in the community? How are we caught up in our own worry and anxiety and miss what God is doing right here, right now in our midst? We have the Prayer and Care ministry that offers mercy, hope and community right when people need it the most. We have all of our education opportunities that dive us all at any age deep into God’s word of love for us all. We have Habitat for Humanity and Prayer Shawl ministries. We have our buildings that offer safe places for our brothers and sisters in Christ to meet. God is at work here-no matter what obstacles we perceive!
Jesus removes all obstacles and simply calls us to do the same. The UCC Church in Chicago learned that Christian community isn’t about a pastor, a church building, a budget or anyone of the things with which they could have distracted themselves. Christian community is recognizing that Jesus has already removed all distractions, has already given us all that we need for the journey and has gathered us all into one body for the sake of loving God and our neighbor. “Be at peace with one another, for God is with you.”
*My own personal view point on Hell is that it is not a place where those who are “bad, evil or don’t make the cut get in.” God’s salvation is for all and all are in! All means all! That person right now you’re saying to yourself ‘not them’…yes them too! This is good news as nothing separates us from the love of Christ, not even our own attempts at self-sufficiency! If your head is hurting-good! God’s love and mercy are that mysterious and that overwhelming!

 

God’s Embraces Us For Wholeness, New Life and Liberation, Act 4: 5-12 April 26, 2015

Are you all familiar with Ted Talks? If not Google them! Mike forwarded me one that was going around his work this week and it really resonated with me. It was given by a fairly young man, well younger than me anyway, https://www.youtube.com/embed/YrZTho_o_is“>Phil Hansen, who talked about his journey as an artist. He was an artist in school and couldn’t wait to graduate, get some sort of a stable job and the THEN be able to afford many high quality art supplies to pursue his craft. He assumed that he needed just the right stuff to be a true artist. His main focus was the genre of pointillism, in which a series of tiny dots creates images. During art school, he developed a tremor in his hand. Being young, he ignored it until it was interfering and for all practicable purposes, stopping him from being an artist. He hoped it would go away and he could return to his art. After three years of not creating at all and being in deep depression, he finally went to a neuro-specialist who told him that the damage was permanent. Despondent, he asked the doctor what to do, he is an artist who does pointillism, after all. The doctor answered him: Embrace the Shake.

Now his income was greatly reduced so there was no money for art supplies. Plus he could not do anything that required fine motor skills. He recalls early in his entry back into art that he was at Starbucks and remembered that you can ask for an extra cup, so he wondered can you ask for 50? Turns out yes, he got 50 coffee cups and created an image using a pencil to draw on the stacked cups. He began to wonder what else could he do large scale and cheap or free? He embraced his shake. He created with his feet, karate chops with the side of his hands, painting images on his torso, even creating art out of partially chewed food. Instead of waiting for something that may or may not happen, waiting for enough money, or waiting for his shaking to stop, he discovered that his limitation was the ultimate liberation. He was no longer bound by his own focused perspective. By embracing his shake, he tapped into what made him whole, his creativity was not limited to pointillism, but could be unleashed in all sorts of ways even though his hand shook. He began his journey back into art, revealing that working through, with and in his “limitation,” his was liberated for so much more than he had ever imagined. He started living a new story of a new life while embracing his shake.

We all have limitations and often we let them define who we are and what we do. We think about all the things that we can’t do or won’t ever do again. We know some people such as Phil Hanson, who seem to live into the transformation, but that seems more rare than typical to us. But our passage from Acts 4 today is all about limitation being ultimate liberation and what this transformation proclaims about the promises of God. This text is towards the end of the story begun last week; Peter healing the man who couldn’t walk. The man who couldn’t walk was limited; he had few choices in his life. He was also cut off from community with his uncleanness of being disabled. So he went to Solomon’s Portico to beg for money and the kindness of others. He did what he could with his limitations. Peter and John walked by and heard his cry for help. Peter and John had their own limitations. They were wrestling with how to live in post-resurrection, how to not provoke the authorities anymore than they already had,  a complete lack of material and financial resources as well as their own doubts, faith, and wonderings.

So when Peter came upon this man, he had nothing to offer him but the name of the one who lives in the midst of our limitations and liberates us for something more-Jesus. To those looking on, this would have been incredulous. After all, what this man really needs is money, food and a place to live. But Peter embraced this man’s ailment and offered him a new way to live. Peter creatively offered him the wholeness of life in the life-giving name of Jesus. Both Peter and the man’s response was to immediately acknowledge that this event was all God; God’s word of liberation from limitation versus the world’s word of bondage to limitations. God’s word to the man was one of being made whole, wholly into the community and wholly who he was as a child of God. This got the attention of those that the disciples were trying to avoid. After speaking to the crowds, Peter and John were arrested and then brought up before the rulers, both the civil and religious authorities.

We catch up to this story today with Peter once again telling the story of how God’s creativity transformed what the world saw as a limitation, Jesus’ death on a cross, into ultimate liberation and wholeness of life. God embraced and still embraces all of the limitations of the world, humanity and all of creation. God embraced the shakes if you will to transform death into life, separation into radical wholeness of self and community and the messiness into beauty. And this embrace for transformation is for all people, all times and places. When Peter states in verse 12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved,” it’s not an exclusive statement but one of mind-blowing, radical inclusivity. Even those considered unclean and untouchable are made whole in God’s embrace!

In our culture, we tend to think of “being saved” as an act that requires us to also do something:  if we believe enough, if we are good enough and follow all of the rules, then Jesus will save us on some judgment day in the future. It’s the sense that being saved is not a here and now event in which we are unconditionally included, but more of a “someday, my prince will come if I follow the proper procedure” concept. And when we pray about being saved, we also tend to think of it in a being rescued sort of way. Fix this now, Jesus! We think, like the young man with the shake in his hand, when this is fixed, then I can go on. But that is not what salvation actually means. The word translated into salvation in English is not about rescue per se but being restored and made whole, not just someday, but also here and now, today and every day from the beginning of time to when Jesus returns. Each day is about God’s salvation being revealed every day in large and small ways as evidenced in the scripture text this morning and in our daily lives. God’s salvation for the man who was disabled was more than his physical healing (although we get fixated on that) but about being pulled into God’s wholeness of life and community, not necessarily being removed away from something but God pulling us towards new life with God. God proclaims that all people, no matter what, are now included fully into the resurrection life of Jesus.

We look at our everyday lives and see our shakes. We look at our ministry here at LCM and maybe only see our shaky limitations. We see not enough money, not enough people, not enough time, not enough whatever…But God sees our shakes and embraces us, shakes and all, for new life and a new story with God. God sees our limitations through God’s eyes of creativity and ultimate liberation. How does that reality change how we go about our decision making and ministry here at LCM? How does that change how we care and walk together as the people of God?

God is pulling us, and all of creation, into God’s salvation each and every day. God is pulling us into wholeness, restoration, new life and ultimate liberation-we are free! Free to be creative about proclaiming what God is up to in our lives and in the world. We are free to not let limitations make our decisions but free to follow God’s creative activity among us. We see signs of this liberation, wholeness and restoration all around us. Look at you neighbor-they are a sign of God’s creativity. We have ordinary things among us that remind us that we have a restoring and creative God-God creatively uses water to gather us in as one people, bread and wine that creatively proclaims Christ is among us and meets us here and now with promises of love, grace, mercy, new life and HOPE! God creatively raised Jesus from the tomb and liberated us from the limitation of death and separation. God embraces us for new life, wholeness and liberation-shakes and all.  Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!