A Lutheran Says What?

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

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.

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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!