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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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!