Sermon for 10/28/18 John 8:31-36 Reformation

Last year, the Lutheran church celebrated the 500th anniversary of the reformation. 500 years since Martin Luther, after an intense study of scripture, was brave and bold enough to question and challenge the Roman Catholic Church. Since then, we’ve had many incarnations of the reformation but nothing, in my opinion, as brave and bold as Martin Luther’s original reformation. At the same time, we are a church of reformers. We are a church that claims reformation as part of our core. Despite that proclamation, we are also a church with punchlines that revolve around not liking change. So where does that leave us? Perhaps reformers who fight reform at every corner? I don’t know. But what I do know is that it is more important than ever that we are a reforming church and I really believe that society needs a reforming church right now.

Often when people speak of a reformation, they quickly slip into nostalgia. This can be a dangerous habit. Many think reformation is more people in the pews, full Sunday school rooms, a healthy bottom line, hundreds of students in seminary, lots of students at our church colleges and on and on. You know…like we used to have. But reformation and nostalgia are not the same thing. And it’s good to remember where we’ve been. That helps us to figure out where we’re going. But we cannot be a reforming church if we’re constantly looking backwards. A reforming church is bold, unapologetic, centered on Christ, and takes seriously the ministry of hospitality. These 4 reasons are why I think society is hungry for a reforming church.

The reforming church is bold. So, what do I mean by that? Well to be bold means proclaiming and believing that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. We confess this to be truth. But, did you hear the difficult part of being a reforming church that is bold? It’s one thing to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, but it’s another thing to believe it. To be a reforming church we must believe what we confess for ourselves. If not, no one is going to believe us or the confessions, evangelism, or gospel that comes out of our mouths. Scripture for today says “if you continue in my word…” Another way of translating that could be “if you abide in my word.” To abide means that we are in relationship with Christ. As a reforming church, and specifically as Lutherans, we believe that this relationship has nothing to do with us. We cannot earn God’s love. We do nothing to get closer to God. God draws near to us despite our sins and shortcomings. If you don’t think that this is a bold proclamation, then perhaps I need to say it more often. To many in this world believe that something, anything must be done in order for Christ to love us. After all, it can’t be as simple as Jesus loving us just because. But, it is that simple. And that, my beloved, is bold.

The reforming church is unapologetic. I think this needs to be discussed a little bit other than me just saying that and leaving it there. Please understand, I think it is important for the church to apologize in the ways and places it has fallen short, and there are many. I think it is even more crucial for the church to apologize to the people she has wronged, and there are many. When I propose that a reforming church is unapologetic, I mean that we do not make excuses or shy away from being who we are. I will never apologize for the rituals that center us in Christ: communion and baptism. So, no. I’m not sorry that we only have one baptism. It’s what we confess. And no. I’m not sorry that I will give communion to anyone who will hold out their hands. I believe these two sacraments are the most intimate ways we feel the love of Christ. Who am I to deny these to anyone? Here’s the other thing about a reforming church: we’re not going to be all things to all people. And, as the kids say these days, #sorrynotsorry. I’m sorry that not everyone will find a home in this particular reforming church. At the same time, we cannot change ourselves to accommodate everyone because we will end up being nothing. We are Lutheran. Our identities are shaped by that.

The reforming church is centered in and on Christ. I think this is kind of a given, but how quickly we forget that. There is too much temptation to make church be about anything but Christ that we can forget why we gather week after week anyway. How are the lights? Is the band playing up to date songs? Is the Pastor preaching practical sermons that make me feel good about myself (because that is his only job)? Do they have a hip coffee shop in the gathering area? What isn’t asked is where is Christ? I have been in too many churches where it isn’t obvious who or what they are worshiping. There is no cross, there’s no picture of Jesus, there’s no mention of Christ or God in the preaching. In a time where the church has turned into a consumer’s product, the reforming church remains centered on Christ and him crucified. When the reforming church stays centered in and on Christ the temptation to worship anyone or anything else disappears.

Lastly, the reforming church takes seriously the ministry of hospitality. Believe it or not, I actually think this is the most controversial and challenging thing we as a reforming church could do. Why? Because there are getting to be fewer and fewer places in society where all really are welcome. And if we’re going to continue to grow into a reforming church and be challenged by Christ’s message, the ministry of hospitality must be one of the cornerstone missions of the church. And I understand that for some, this ministry of hospitality may not be comfortable. It’s one thing to welcome those who look, act, and dress like us. But how far does our hospitality go when it’s one of our LGBTQ siblings? How far does our hospitality go when it’s a person of color whose primary language isn’t English? How far does our hospitality go when a new member joins and they like to speak in tongues? I think that’s also why it’s important to be reformers together in community. We become like this amazing, beautiful rock tumbler. We actually bump up against one another and polish one another’s edges.

So yes, I do think God is calling us into a new reformation, my beloved. Our voices are important and we have something life-saving to say. What doesn’t change in the reformation is that we continue to stay abiding in Christ’s love. Because when we are supported by Christ’s love we have the strength to boldly proclaim the message the world needs to hear. And that message is this: you are loved. You are forgiven. You are adored by a God who loves you so much that God went all the way to the cross for you. There is nothing you have to do to earn this love. You are forever freed from your sin. That, my beloved, is some bold announcements for a new reformation. The freedom given to us in Christ, the love given to us in and through Christ, and our abiding in Christ will always be stronger than our sin. In a world that is constantly tempting us with bigger, better, and stronger, how novel an idea to reform and proclaim that we believe in Christ alone, through Word alone, by faith alone.

 

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Sermon for 10/21/18 Mark 10:35-45

Sometimes I wonder if we fully grasp what it means to be a Christian in today’s society. Because, in all honesty, we’ve got it pretty easy. In this country, at least, we are not a minority. Our lives are not in danger because we’re Christian. We don’t have to gather in secret to worship. We do not run the risk of physical harm just because we’re Christian. Many of us wear symbols of our faith either through jewelry or tattoos and don’t think twice about it. But, I think that if we lived a life that Jesus lived and the life that he was asking the disciples to live, we wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. For so many of us, our faith is our lifestyle, but it is not our core identity. There’s not very many of us who have given up much, or anything, to follow Christ. But, that is exactly what Jesus is challenging the disciples and us to this week. A life of service and a life of humility.

This story is a complicated one. A part of the story that we don’t hear is that preceding this, Jesus tells about his death for the third time. Jesus doesn’t hold back. He tells them that he will be spat on, mocked, flogged, and killed. Immediately following that, James and John make their request to sit at his side, one on his right, one on his left. James and John are asking for seats of power. It’s as if (as one of my colleagues put it) they’re asking to be vice president and secretary of state. Soon, James and John will see one person on Jesus’ left, and one on his right, but they will be the criminals sentenced to hang with him. James and John showed unadulterated enthusiasm for following Jesus and being able to drink the cup and be baptized like Jesus. They don’t realize that they’re agreeing to being crucified. I have to admire their confidence.

We are probably just as confident. We enthusiastically claim the label of “Christian.” We quote Bible verses. We hang them in our homes. We teach the commandments to our children and grandchildren. We reach out into the world in the name of Christ. Absolutely none of this is a bad thing. We may not be as blunt as to outright ask Jesus for a position of power, like a seat on his left or right, but perhaps we think that doing all the right things will garner us favor with Christ. Maybe worse yet, perhaps we assume that our faithfulness to Christ will bring us riches. Not money necessarily, but health, friends, more members, and on and on.

I also wonder if James and John asked what they did because they were operating under an umbrella of fear. They asked Jesus for seats of power before any of the rest of the disciples could. What if there wasn’t enough to go around? How quickly they would forget their requests as soon as they saw what Jesus’ version of power looked like. We operate out of fear quite a bit as well. We hold on to so many things for a time period that has yet to come; it’s called “just in case.” What I find interesting about James and John’s request is that they asked on behalf of themselves. In that brief moment their fellow disciples moved from companions to competition. And despite pledging allegiance to Jesus, confessing our faith in him, and singing his praises, when push comes to shove, we choose fear over trust. We choose to put our confidence in our own abilities rather than in Christ. And we look out for ourselves rather than being concerned for our neighbors.

Jesus knows all of this. After all, Jesus knows the depths of our hearts; our deepest wishes and darkest fears. Knowing all this, he points the disciples and us to a life of service and to a life where we will be last on this earth, but first in God’s kingdom. And as a reminder and an example of how we are supposed to live this life, Jesus shows us how to live this life of service and humility. He shows us, James, John, and the rest of the disciples what this life will look like all the way to the cross. Do we want what Jesus has now? Do we want this power? Do we want to claim that we can handle it?

Here’s what’s frustrating for me in this reading. I know so many of you who have sacrificed a lot. I see it week after week. I see it as you rush in during the first hymn and sigh as you slump down into the pew frustrated that you didn’t make it on time after promising yourself you would…even with all the kids. I see the sacrifices made as I look in your eyes and listen to your voice. I ask how you are and you say “fine” but your eyes and voice tell me that you’re anything but. The worry of crop prices and a harvest challenged by mother nature is so very present. I see the sacrifices you make for yourselves, for your families, and for this church. And so when Jesus tells us once again to make more sacrifices, perhaps there is a small part of me that wants to yell at Jesus “how much more do you want?”

I mean, from the sounds of it, Jesus is asking (maybe challenging us) to follow him all the way to the cross. Jesus asks us through his actions and leadership if we’re willing to give up everything we know of comfort to follow him. Are we willing to lose our homes, jobs, friends, family, privilege, maybe even our good names, just to follow him? Again, Jesus! How much more do you want? Don’t you know what I’m going through already?

But Jesus was sent into this world to free us from our sin. Jesus came into this world to free us from ourselves. We may think we want power, prestige, and fame, but what will that cost? What will be the cost to our relationships? What will be the cost to our ethics and morals? Jesus came to challenge our ideas of what it looks like to have abundant life. Jesus came to challenge our ideas of what it looks like to have power. I think Jesus knows what we have sacrificed. All of us have had to sacrifice something in life. And maybe you feel like no one noticed. Like all of your hard work, your worries, your late hours, your pacing,  your whatever has gone unnoticed. But Jesus saw you.

The good news, my beloved, is that following Christ actually frees us from what we think we want and instead frees us to receive what we need. Let that sink in for just a moment. We ask Jesus for places of power. He asks if we’re willing to follow him all the way to a cross. The cross is where our best intentions go to die. The cross is where the feeling of not being enough goes to die. The cross is where all the sacrifices you have made are recognized and Jesus says “but wait! I have something better for you.” When we are a servant to all and last on the list, we have nothing but room to be filled up with Christ’s love. Christ frees us from the expectations of this world and prepares us for kingdom living. I don’t know about you, but that’s good news to me. God doesn’t expect me to be the world’s best Pastor, or the world’s best mom, wife, daughter, or friend or whatever. What God expects me to be is the best receptacle of love that I can be. All God desires for us is to open ourselves up to the love of God through Jesus. We don’t need seats of power, we don’t need to be rulers or titans for God to love us. Serve others. Serve God. God will love us. The sacrifices of this world are taken up in the cross. God will keep coming to us and for us in love. Even in the moments that we’d rather shoo him away; even in the moments we’d rather run from that love; even in the moments that we’d rather deny that love. God will come in love over and over again. Thanks be to God!

Sermon for 10/14/18 Mark 10:17-31

This reading tends to make people a little nervous. I have no idea why. I mean, it only talks about money a little bit. So, I’d like for you all to get out your wallets and checkbooks… nah I’m just kidding. It’s easy to take this reading and turn it into a stewardship lecture. We should give away more of our money. We can’t take it with us. You’ve never seen a Brinks truck following a hearse now have you? So, give it all away now. Rest assured, that is not what this sermon is going to be about. Now, don’t get me wrong. I hope you all are generous. I know you all are generous. I pray that you have made plans for yourself, your family, and your monetary goods upon your death. But, I’m not about to stand up here and lecture you on money today. At the same time, if you have an extra million or something burning a hole in your pocket, let’s talk.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s a question we all kind of want to ask but we’re afraid of the answer, aren’t we? I mean, I’ll admit, I’m a little curious. But I’m not going to ask. In my heart I know, as a Lutheran, we don’t believe in what is called “works righteousness.” Meaning, we don’t believe that we can do anything to earn our way to eternal life. Eternal life is a gift from God. However, that doesn’t make my heart want to know the answer to that question for myself. Life would be so much easier with some kind of checklist for salvation, wouldn’t it? We do x,y, and z and bam! Eternal life! But I think we all know that it’s not that easy. Life as a Christian isn’t a series of boxes or tasks we can check off and be done with it. It is a lifestyle; a way of being, and acting, and moving in the world.

Jesus tells the man he lacks one thing. Then proceeds to give him the task of selling everything he owns and giving the money to the poor. But, here’s the thing: Jesus tells him he lacks one thing. The man is rich beyond rich. He has everything he could possibly need when it comes to material goods. How in the world could he lack one thing? I think that what he lacks isn’t necessarily a thing, but a trait. As I started to think about this more and more I wondered what the man lacked. What cannot be purchased? What cannot be stockpiled like goods to pull off a shelf? And then it occured to me: the man lacks compassion.

Now, I don’t think that he was a heartless man. I don’t think that he set out purposefully to not have compassion. I wonder if his money turned him compassion blind. We know that he has a great deal of respect for Jesus. We know that he has tried his best to follow Jesus and the commandments. But, remember, sin is whatever keeps us from a full and right relationship with God. Sin takes many forms. And yes, sometimes it is money. But, it can be other things just as easily. Because the man had money, more than he probably knew what to do with, he wasn’t able to fully see the suffering in the world. He wasn’t able to fully relate to those whom Jesus would be ministering to. He wasn’t able to fully live into the idea of having to rely on God alone for all things.

Again, I think the man had a good heart. But having a good heart and being compassionate are not the same things. Jesus knew that the man would only be able to gain what he was lacking by giving up everything that caused him to be blind so to speak. His money served as blinders to the hurting world. I’m guessing it was easy for the man to see a problem in the world and throw money at that problem. However, the problem may not have needed money, but a compassionate, listening, loving, caring person. This revelation has personally made me uncomfortable. I think it makes me uncomfortable because I’ve realized that putting money into a problem is so much easier than being compassionate.

Is that a terrible thing to say? Does thinking that make me a terrible person? At least I am willing to confess that, I suppose. Here’s what I’ve come to realize: when I can throw money at a problem, it allows me to keep my distance. And the fact that we all live in the richest nation in the world allows the majority of us to throw money at problems. Even the poorest person you may know is still infinitely richer than most in the world. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t donate funds and money to whatever causes are close to our hearts. However, money affords us the luxury of not getting to close. We are able to keep those people and their problems at a distance as if whatever they’re going through is contagious. Additionally, we also don’t always have the ability to enter into problems with people and show them compassion. Sometimes money is the best resource.

For instance, Hurricane Michael just hit Florida coast. For us to physically travel down there to help and show our compassion in person may actually be more of a hinderance. Often after natural disasters, people with the heart to be compassionate are told to stay away. In times like this, our money actually does help more than our presence. But there are instances when problems and challenges do need compassion. Additionally, compassion usually goes hand in hand with humility. It can be very humbling to actually know you can’t fix a problem by throwing money at it. What in the world is left when we’re not trying to take care of a problem with money (because we’re trying to do what Jesus asks) and our compassion has us spiritually and emotionally tired. What in the world is left? Jesus. That’s what.

There’s an important detail of this gospel story today that should not be skipped over. When the man told Jesus that he had kept all of the commandments since birth, we are told that Jesus looked at him and loved him. And Jesus loved him before he told the man to sell all of his things. Jesus is modeling that compassion for us to us. What we need most, Jesus has already given to us and will continue to give to us: love and compassion. First and foremost, before anything else, Jesus loves us. Jesus doesn’t give us a handful of cash and expect us to feel better. (I mean, it wouldn’t hurt, but in the long run, that feeling wouldn’t last.) Jesus does exactly what he always does: models for us and showers us with compassion.

Compassion breaks down walls. Money allows us to keep issues, whatever they may be (including people) at an arm’s length. But in order to engage in compassion, we have to become intimate with someone. We have to be willing to look at one another in the eyes, listen to one another, maybe even hold hands in prayer. Compassion is what allows us to truthfully say “I don’t know the answers. I don’t have the answers. But, I love you and I’m here for you.” Even in those moments where we’d rather take the easy way out (that is, forgoing compassion) Jesus still looks at us and loves us. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Follow Jesus. Follow Jesus in every possible way. Walk with the forgotten. Feed the hungry. Work for justice. Basically, be compassionate. Jesus loves you. Love like Jesus.

Sermon for 10/7/18 Mark 10:2-16

I don’t do this very often, but I think I’d like to start this sermon out by inviting all of you to take a good, deep, cleansing breath. And as you breathe in and out, let me assure you that God loves all of you. And at the same time remind you that absolutely nothing comes between you and the love of God. So breathe deep and relax. This sermon is not going to be about marriage or divorce. I invited you to breathe because when the topic of divorce comes up at church, walls are almost immediately constructed. I am going to guess that all of us have been touched by divorce in one way or another. You have either been divorced, had a family member divorce, maybe your parents divorced, or you have a good friend that has gone through a divorce. For many of us, it’s several of those. My sister is divorced, my uncle is divorced, and a good friend of mine from seminary is in the middle of a divorce right now. And sadly, all too often, a place that should be a place of refuge: the church, often becomes a place of judgement. So hear this now, my beloved, if the church, any church, has made you feel unloved, unwelcome, or unworthy simply because your marital status changed, please accept my apologies. Life is hard enough. The church should be a place of love and welcome. And if that was not the case for you, I am so terribly sorry that you were hurt in that way.

No one ever gets married with the intentions of getting divorced. Sometimes it is for the best. And we have to remember that new life comes from death. But, with today’s reading it is especially important to remember that divorce as we know it was nothing like divorce during Jesus’ time. Marriage as we know it was nothing like marriage during Jesus’ time. It might be helpful for us to remember that marriage during Jesus’ time was usually an agreement between families (more than likely the patriarch of the family) with the woman having little to no say in whom she would be married to. It was often a decision of economics and not love. A woman could not divorce her husband. Even in the case of abuse or infidelity, a woman had no power (and most likely, no money) in order to divorce her husband. A man, however, could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever.

In Jesus’ time there was a hierarchy of people. Men, of course, were at the top. At the bottom of the pecking order were divorced women and children. Even widowed women were a bit higher up than divorced women. During Jesus’ time, divorced women were often divorced for one main reason: they were barren. If a woman could not conceive a child she was viewed as broken or damaged goods. Of course, as a woman who had a terrible time conceiving a child, I really hate this explanation and I know I am far from damaged goods. So a divorced woman along with children was the lowest thing you could be in society. Little did society know that Jesus preferred the lowly. Little did they know, Jesus preferred justice for those that are forgotten. Little did they know that Jesus had no use of power and prestige. Little did they know that the women and children were just the kind of people that Jesus preferred.

While the majority of this conversation in today’s reading takes place between a Pharisee and Jesus, the disciples must have been nearby, listening intently. As they and Jesus continue to make their way to Jerusalem, Jesus is always looking for ways and opportunities to teach and show the disciples what he expects of them as disciples. And he continues to encourage them to use their gifts for the benefit of those that society often forgets: the children, the poor, and those with no status. Basically, Jesus encourages them to remember the vulnerable.

But too often the Pharisees and the disciples were too concerned about what the law says. The law is important. It gives us order. I’m not saying that we should completely ignore the law. In fact, knowing and obeying (or at least attempting to obey) the law gives us a greater appreciation of grace. The law enforces our need for grace. The law has had and will always have a place in our society. However, when we live our lives only by the law, we miss out on that grace. When we live our lives only by the law, it is very black and white and we live in a gray world. Jesus knew the law. But his concern is and always was for the least of these in society.

The way that divorce worked in Jesus’ time (and often still does) there are people that are left unfairly treated and disproportionately forgotten and abandoned. That was Jesus’ concern. It is always his concern: those who society would rather cast out, forget about, and leave abandoned. And why? Because society doesn’t want to deal with those that we only view as broken and a problem. But see, that’s Jesus’ specialty. Jesus favors those that society views as broken and a problem. He sees them, really sees them, and desires to bless them. And when Jesus blesses them, he not only verbally gives them a blessing, but actually lays hands on them proving that no one is unreachable.

You don’t have to be divorced or be a child to understand this feeling. Society always has ways of telling us that we should be forgotten. Perhaps it is divorce. But there are other ways society gives the message of “you’re not important.” Sometimes it’s because of our job or income (or maybe lackthereof) and sometimes it’s because of our physical status, abilities, or even our visual beauty. Our modern day Pharisees always find a way of getting the message across that we are untouchable, unloveable, and should be cast out for not living perfect lives. And Jesus doesn’t have any of that. Not then, not now, not ever. God favors the forgotten. God favors those whose powers, abilities, and class have been stripped of them. God favors those that society throws away.

It is important for us to remember, my beloved, that it is exactly when you feel forgotten that Christ remembers and is with you the most. God sent Jesus into the world to upturn the world. Jesus came so that the powerful may be humbled, so that the weak may be made strong, so that the lowly would be lifted up. This has not changed. God’s favor for the weak may not always be evident in this world; it may only be evident in God’s kingdom that is to come. But, Gospel says it will come. And this should either make us very relieved or very worried. The good news today, my beloved, is that if you feel forgotten, abandoned, untouchable, or even like you are damaged goods, you are Christ’s people. You are the people that Christ preferred. God sees you as beautifully and wonderfully made. And all of us have a bit of brokenness in us. In God’s kingdom we will be made whole. In God’s kingdom we will receive the love we so deeply desire and so deeply deserve. Thanks be to God!