Life Begins Where Fear Ends

Inspired by: Matthew 25:14-30,Psalm 90

With Thanksgiving around the corner, my mind has turned repeatedly to two things – my family who are far away and what I have done with the gifts bestowed upon my life in the past year. Both of which are triggered by the back-page stories in the newspaper – one of the few reasons I still subscribe to a local paper. I love to read obituaries, much more than write them mind you. I often find myself skimming past the headlines of the day but once I get to the obituary page, I read them word for word. It is the only time, that I know of at least, that the dash takes center stage – the life in between the numbers. I know what an impact the dash can make. Seeing the dash on my family’s headstone with both of my parent’s birth – dash – death years is one thing. Seeing my name with my birth date – dash – (blank) is a rather unsettling experience! But I digress…

Obituaries can move me, leave me awestruck, and inspire me. The really good ones cause me to reflect on what I have done with the dash in my life. They don’t dwell so much on one’s scholarly or professional achievements, though certainly worthy of mention, but where those achievements led the person and the impact that person had outside of themselves during their dash. We get to learn about what is really important in life and we get to laugh at the humorous side of our humanity.

I have noted two commonalities among most obituaries: they often recount a person’s relationship with God and they rarely list one’s fears. For good reason. With God, our lives are lived with anticipation, whereas fear negates the talents we are given – the opportunities and the possibilities God entrusts to us. Fear can have a very powerful role in the direction of our lives. We see that play out in Matthew’s Gospel in the parable of the talents.

Imagine if you will:

Jesus was going on a journey, one that he knew he would be on for quite some time.  He called a few of his followers to him and entrusted some very valuable treasures to them. To one, named Martin, he gave stories; to another named Paul he gave compassion; and to a third, Goodwin, he gave the bread of life and the cup of salvation. These treasures were of incredible value – he deemed each of them of equal importance even though the weight and substance of each differed.  Then Jesus went away.

Martin took those stories and studied them and wrote them out so the stories could easily be read and shared. While a little unsure of where Jesus was leading him, he knew his guide well. His Lord had been a dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting He was God. That He had entrusted Martin with stories filled Martin with joy as he set to work. Soon there were five more followers of Jesus reading and sharing those stories and those stories are still being read and shared today.

Reflecting often on his mangled past, Paul couldn’t believe Jesus had entrusted him with compassion – him of all people! And yet, Paul, acknowledging Jesus’ decisive impact on his life, changed his name from Steve to Paul and relinquished his life to Him. The freedom he found in trusting Jesus fueled him with a drive that couldn’t be stopped. He took that compassion and traveled all over the region offering compassion to all who would hear and open their hearts to him. The first two who opened their hearts shared the compassion with another 2 and so on and so forth. Soon all across the world many were receiving and giving compassion in the name of Jesus.

But Goodwin, who had been given the bread of life and the cup of salvation, dug a hole in the ground and buried them because he believed the Lord would plunder his wealth and lay his house to waste. He was afraid— afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what Jesus would do to him if he didn’t get it right, and finally, because he had no idea what might happen to him if he shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with anyone else. There were so many unknowns! People might expect him to do more than he thought he was capable of! Surely, all would be better if he just stored the bread and cup until Jesus got back. Besides, Goodwin thought, he was a much better farmer than an evangelist.

Finally, back from his journey – no worse for the wear – Jesus stopped by each of his follower’s homes and asked them what they had done with the treasures he had given to them.

The first two followers offered Jesus some coffee and cookies and told him about how the stories were now in book form and in their millionth copy! They told him how the compassion had grown and was now administered not only on the streets but in buildings called churches. They introduced Jesus to some of his new followers and the new followers in turn introduced Jesus to their friends and families.

Jesus was very pleased.  He thanked each of them for their wonderful hospitality and told them, “Well done, good and trustworthy followers! You have been trustworthy in a few things, now I will trust you with many things. Enter into my joy!”

Martin and Paul and all Jesus’ followers, now called brothers and sisters in Christ, went about their lives with the joy and freedom knowing Jesus brought them. For all those who have the Good News, even more will be given to them. Gone was their need to control and worry about everything, for Jesus showed them that He was their true Master, who, with grace and mercy, would lead them through life’s ups and downs and welcome them home at the end of their days.

Then it was Goodwin’s turn. After a long hot day working in the field harvesting his hay crop, he was slow to answer the door when Jesus knocked.  “Hello Goodwin,” Jesus greeted him, as he looked over his shoulder at an empty room except for a Lazy-boy recliner and a radio blaring some hotheaded advice guru. “I’ve come to review your work. May I come in?”

“Geez, Jesus, now? Can’t you see your interrupting…”

“Goodwin, please, it is time. Let’s talk.”

Goodwin stepped aside and let Jesus into his house. He felt a bit nervous – no make that terrified – worse than when he was first given the bread and the cup. But Jesus just stood there and waited patiently until Goodwin cracked.

“Jesus, I knew you were a harsh man. I knew you reaped where you didn’t sow and gathered where you didn’t scatter seed. I don’t much care for people who trespass on my property.”

Jesus raised an eyebrow.

Goodwin’s reddened face paled. He continued. “Alright Jesus, I was afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what you would do to me if I didn’t get it right. Besides, I had crops to tend to. With no idea of what might happen to me if I shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others, I just couldn’t bet the farm.”

Jesus stopped him mid breath. “Goodwin, I think you’ve misread me. Of course, I reap where I don’t sow! I give you free will to live your life as you will and sometimes, I get really lucky when someone gets a brilliant idea – like your friend Martin did with that printing press! Boy, I never saw that coming! But I entrusted you with a few tasks I thought you would be perfect for. I guess you didn’t see what I saw in you.”

Goodwin continued in his protest, “But there were so many unknowns! People might have expected me to give more of my time than I was able! So, I thought, surely all would be better if I just stored the bread and cup until you got back. Besides, I am no evangelist.”

And that could have been the opening line to Goodwin’s obituary and the engraving on his headstone. There would be no dates with a dash in between. What would anyone want to remember him for? After their conversation, Goodwin gave the bread and cup back to Jesus. Condemning himself to a place of darkness rather than risk the unknowns, he turned Jesus away. Feeling what was left of his poor sham of a life suck out of him, he wanted to stop living – after all what was the point? He did the same thing over and over again and look where it got him?  Nowhere.  Standing in the darkness of his empty living room he ground his teeth so badly he felt a filling fall out.

That is what happens when you let fear be your Master. Indeed, we all have times of anxiety — times filled with worries over the direction our culture is drifting or concerns for our children, our marriages, our businesses, our finances, our personal health and well-being. Whether it is fear of losing control  – so you live your life so tightly shut that no one can venture in and you cannot get out, fear of being alone or standing alone in your beliefs, fear of not measuring up, or fear of the unknown – staying well within your comfort zone, walled off from the risks of new opportunities and possibilities – nothing Godly or goodly can come from fear.

Fear limits us. But our fear cannot limit God, nor can it limit what God wants for us.

(The story continues)

Goodwin walked to the sink, spit the metal out of his mouth and went to bed. After a restless night with little sleep there was a knock at the door. “Now who could that be? Why won’t people leave me alone?” he muttered as he passed by the empty mail cache and phone that never rang.

He opened the door and a radiance shown into his dreary space and forlorn face.

“Jesus! You came back!”

“I just couldn’t let it go – you saying I was a harsh man.” Jesus looked at Goodwin. He looked pretty scruffy and what was going on in that mouth of his? Could it be he wasn’t frowning quite so much?  “You’ve had a long night. What do you say we go get some of this bread of life and a good swig from the cup of salvation? It really is far more appetizing than you think, and I know just the place.”

Jesus put his hand on Goodwin’s shoulder – he felt the tension release and the strength he once saw in him come back.  Goodwin closed the door to his emptiness and headed down the road to this place Jesus had heard about from Paul.

“You say they call this a church?”

“Yup,” said Jesus. “It’s full of people just like you – I was kind of surprised, but then not so much as it is kind of hard to surprise me. There are people in there just as fearful as you. Life isn’t easy, I know.  There are people inside who see me as harsh and full of judgment, easy to ire, impatient, and kind of surly and so they go to this place because they think they have to. And then – then there are those inside who have fully embraced the new me – loving and kind, patient and enduring – I like to think I’m their Great Protector – of course, I am, to all of them.”

On the way they pass by a few who see Jesus as someone who will not do good or do harm – Jesus shook his head, “They think I’m a willy nilly – to them I’m some old man from ages past who doesn’t much impact their day to day lives. Do you know how that makes me feel? After all I’ve given? But enough about me, we should welcome them.”

Goodwin and Jesus went inside the church and found themselves surrounded by children of the light – clothed in their Sunday best – faith, love and hope. And they heard the story of a God who loves us so much that He came in the person of Jesus to experience our lives first hand, to share our hopes and dreams, and our fears and failures. A God who does not want the time between our numbers to be spent in fear. A God who wanted working knowledge of our trials and tribulations and to see just how amazing His creation turned out to be. A God who entrusted us with stewarding his amazing creation for our joy and our fulfillment.  A God who fell so in love with us that He died for us on the cross, so that we could be freed of our sins, and live our lives abundantly – without fear.

Goodwin felt his fears melt away. He realized his life was not his alone to live – his life belonged to God – the One who gave his own, so that he, Goodwin, might live fully. And so, by golly, live it fully he would! Surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters – the very living body of Christ – who would continue to hold him and each other in love while encouraging and building one another up in their various pursuits, until the day of Our Lord comes again.

Wishing you a Thanksgiving that is abundant in life and absent of any fears – whether you are spending the holiday with family or staying apart out of love.

Peace and blessings to you.

When Your Lamp is Flickering

A Sermon on Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13

Grace and peace to you dear friends in Christ from God our Father!

Ah yes, just the words of inspiration and hope your COVID and election weary soul needed to hear this morning, am I right? As I spent days pouring over the texts preparing for this sermon I kept thinking, aw geez, are you serious, God? Do you have any idea what we are dealing with right now? Well of course He does, it’s an age-old condition of the human story. Why do you think Jesus tells so many parables that leave us rather stunned and wondering what Jesus is telling us no matter how many times we hear them. Stories that leave us with more questions about our questions than before. But maybe this is what we’re supposed to do with Jesus’s parables.  Maybe we’re supposed to let their meanings open out, wider and wider as we sit and wrestle with our questions, our discomfort, our wonder. You see the truths the parables reveal are various and infinite; their interpretation as ever-changing as our lives. I preached on these weary and wayward bridesmaids three very long years ago and while the words and the struggle to comprehend them are the same, they sound very different to me now in this time and place. 

Quite honestly, the passages of scripture chosen for today could have been pulled right out of one my pandemic nightmares of late. Alas, the call of this Lay Pastoral Associate is not to regal you with my dreams, it is to find the good news – to shed some light on the darkness. So where to begin…  

This is one of four parables Jesus uses toward the end of his ministry to prepare his disciples for His 2nd coming, all bearing upon the relationship between the return of Jesus and a final sorting – of yes, the good and the bad. Matthew is writing to a community who was dealing with an oppressive government, a rupture from the synagogue, and a delay in the much awaited return of the Messiah.The return of whom we are still waiting for today.  Matthew fills his Gospel with judgment scenes, especially those with elements of harshness and surprise. But it is in the harshness and the surprise that the hidden meaning is often found. The surprise this time for the disciples and for us is that  the wedding banquet – the return of Christ – is not going to go the way we think it is or WHEN we think it is.

These parables ARE challenging ciphers at times but I always find it helpful to try and identify with the characters whether it is the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the old woman who lost the coin, or the servant who buried his talents rather than risk investing them. 

I’ll be honest with you, for most of my life, I have identified with the five wise bridesmaids. The good girl. Always prepared. Always having a plan for every moment of my day and always  making sure I had more than  “enough of the good stuff in my lamp – you know good works and faith.”  Quite simply I have used perfectionism and control  to a fault to get me through life. Spontaneity is not my strong suit. 

And though I have been a lifelong Lutheran saved by grace and not by works, my parents did a good job of “raising me right” instilling in me the importance of perfect church attendance, giving regularly a portion of my allowance and later income, holding leadership positions within the church, including two stints as a council president, a call committee chair, and Vice Chair for a million dollar church building campaign, not to mention adding my voice to every church choir that I could come across. (Can you imagine my utter chagrin as I heard the words of Amos today? But I digress…) So yes,  I envisioned myself as one of the wise, firmly holding onto my lamp and my stores of the requisite oil in the dead of night.

And to be sure I was saying the right things to you today I immediately turned to my considerable collection of outside resources: Bible commentaries, different Bible translations, word studies, and on and on. I needed to consult all the outside experts and then share THEIR wisdom and insights of this challenging text  because I am not one to trust that I have it in me alone to correctly share the Good News of today’s Gospel with you. Because you see, I also have this terrible tendency to doubt, especially with regards to my inner qualities and abilities.  

Ah, but wait a minute! Isn’t that what the five foolish bridesmaids did in their midnight quest to go buy oil – you know the good stuff for their lamps? Doubt? Doubt that their presence alone was what the Bridegroom desired?

But hey, none of this would have happened had the Bridegroom been on time in the first place so I definitely identify with him as I am always running late!

In truth, what drew me into this parable this time is the startling idea that despite my best efforts in life, on that much awaited day when God’s kingdom comes in all of its fullness, and our broken earth is restored and made whole, just as Scripture promises – that God wouldn’t know me. 

I mean how could that be? He knows every hair on my head! I was made in His image? 

It reminded me of this dream I had recently about my father. It began as I was preparing to fly to Washington D.C. for a theology conference – yeah, I know – a nightmare inside a dream right there! I hate flying under normal circumstances  – road trips for the win any day!! –  and despite all the reports saying it is safe to be on an airplane there is no way I am flying anywhere right now.except of course in a nightmare. The plane landed at Dulles International Airport  – but when I got off the plane I was in Billings and was headed to my old house on Audubon Way. Of course the weather was terrible – dark, gloomy, rainy and the wind was howling as it always does in Billings even when the sun is shining.  When I pulled my Santa Fe – which came along on the plane with me – into the driveway, my brother Fred and his wife Kathie were there as were the neighbors from across the street. There was a lot of activity as there always is in dreams  and everything was so alive  – including both of my parents who have been with God now for over three years. I could see the glow from inside the  house as I ran from my car to the front porch in the pouring rain. I was all set for the much anticipated big hug from Dad that always awaited me when I came home –  but instead all Dad said to me was “I don’t know who you are.” A wave of sickness and grief washed over me and I woke up shaking. 

My Dad and I had an extremely close relationship – he inspired me in my walk in faith and guided me through the rough patches of life with an earnest faith. We golfed together, went to church together, discussed politics and relationships. We even served on church council together. I didn’t hide much from him – not that I could if I wanted to – nothing got past him – and I always tried to live up to his standards and expectations of me. But now that he s gone, I have come to realize that there is still so much I don’t know. There is still so much I need to know and tell my dad  and my mom but my questions can’t be answered now and I wonder how much closer and richer our relationship could have been had I only taken more time to ask the questions – if I had been more vulnerable at times and really opened up. I wanted to be perfect in their eyes – what child  – deep in their hearts doesn’t  – even as adults? 

I got to thinking about how that might be how it is with God. He longs to know you but will you let him and trust him? What does it take to be known by the Lord? Digging into one of my word studies, the word “know” in our passage today  is oida. This word can simply mean “to have information about,” but it also has the meaning, “to be intimately acquainted with or stand in a close relation to.”

We often say that we know the Lord but do we ask ourselves if we do? Do we live in close relationship to God? Do we let him in?  Examine your relationships in life – your friends and family and casual acquaintances. How well do you let yourself be known to them? We have  surface level relationships – we know each other’s names, birthday, favorite foods, occupation, likes, dislikes. And then we have those critical deeper trusting relationships  – ones in which you can share your deepest secrets, confess your darkest thoughts, and expose your greatest struggles. You can trust them with the real you. 

If you are like me – you probably think you have a good relationship with the Lord – you know with all your church doings  – but how much of you do you trust to God?  How much of God do you let into your life? Into your uncertainties, Into your waiting? Does your waiting reflect a confidence in God?  Do you still wait for God? We have been doing a lot of waiting lately and I wonder where you find yourself?

I am not good at waiting, are you? And I am definitely not good at letting go of control in my waiting.  

Waiting carries many emotions — anticipation, wonder, eagerness, dread, agitation, fear, longing, loss. Of course, our emotional response will be determined by that for which we wait and our time of waiting will be experienced differently depending on that which we expect. 

In truth, most of what we wait for is not  guaranteed.That prolonged uncertainty can bring out the worst in us. We act out in fear, anger, distrust, or simply fade away losing hope. What we wait for can leave such a void in our lives that we attempt to fill with busyness, excessive work or spending, substance abuse – anything to block the discomfort, anxiety, or emptiness that waiting can cause. And perhaps we have let our waiting for Christ’s return affect us in the same way – we turn to doubt or skepticism because we have grown tired of waiting. Maybe your heart for Jesus’ has grown cold with impatience. 

Speaking of which, I don’t much  like the fact that the story leaves five women out in the cold. Especially after they waited late into the night for the bridegroom to arrive. I don’t like how their fearful quest out into the dark of night for external sources of light led them to be excluded from the wedding feast and denied by the bridegroom. 

But it reveals to us a harsh truth.

And this is the nugget of light I found this time as I waited for divine sermon inspiration from on high. More often than I would like to admit I have been a foolish bridesmaid. I know how hard it is to stick around when my “light” is fading and my reserves are low.  To this day I scramble for perfection, insisting on having my ducks in a row before I show up in front of God, or the church, or the world.  How about you? Do you put God on hold so you can put your game face on? How is he ever going to know you? 

There will come a time when we face darkness, when we are not ready, when the unexpected takes our light away. Doors close. Chances fade.Time runs out. Words go unsaid. Friendships end. Debts are called. Addictions break us. Wounds grow deep.. Courage flees. Justice is too hard. Bitterness sets in. Faith ebbs. Life closes down.The opportunity ends.

It is in these moments of darkness  – often our darkest hour  – when our faith has all but expired and our attempts of perfection and doing for the Lord rather than getting to know the Lord have left us exhausted – that the bridegroom comes. Darkness is the greatest revealer of light.  God comes when we least expect it with a glimmer of light – signs of a better way to wait – a better way to live.

Allow me to share a little bit of my oil with you –  yes this uncertain Lay Pastor  has oil to share afterall – lingering in the dark when your woeful wick is flickering, your once-vigorous faith is vanishing, and  your  sodden soul is filled with nothing but doubt and pain and grief and weariness – that my friends is when God knows you best and when you come to know the fullness of God. 

Be willing to show up as you are — complicated, disheveled, half-lit and created in God’s perfect image. God delights in you — not what is in your lamp – not what you prove to the world.  

Have the will to wait, have the courage to question, have the faith to doubt.  The God whose deep and unconditional compassion,with light and oil to spare, who finds your messy and imperfect presence is of intrinsic value will meet you there. As baptized children of God, His presence was never in question – learning to live in His presence is our lifelong quest.

My favorite theologian, Henri Nouwen writes – “People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.”

In these anxious, uncertain, judgment-filled times of waiting we are experiencing take time to let God know you and strive to live into the joy of His presence. Remember, your light doesn’t have to dazzle. God created light. God is light.  And Jesus is the light of the world. That your lamp is flickering isn’t the point. You are.  So stay and wait in the good news of God knowing you and let that be the light that sustains and inspires you to love and serve the world.  

Thanks be to God.

Let your light so shine!!

Who Do You Say That I Am?

A Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20

Grace and peace to you friends in Christ near and far, from God our Father and friend. 

I come from a long line of pastors, deacons, and missionaries in the Lutheran church. My great, great, great, great, great grandfather Peder Pedersen Mørch, was a Deacon in Jegindø, Thyholm Danmark until his death in 1752. His son Christian Pedersen Mørch, of Jegindø, Thisted, Danmark was also a Deacon in the church until his death in 1777; with even more ancestors listed as deacons going back to 1670. That is just on my father’s side of the family. You all know Pastor Pete, well we share quite a bit of Norwegian pastoral blood from my mother’s side of my family. The pastoral and missionary trait obviously runs strong through our veins. 

I was a late in life surprise for my parents so I only knew my Grandma Dyrud, my mom’s Mom. I remember succinctly her devout faith. She made a strong impression on my own faith beginnings before she passed away when I was eight years old.  Her favorite hymn was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and whenever she came for a visit she always packed candied orange slices and her Bible in her suitcase. She always wore a large cross necklace – visible in virtually every picture I can recall. She is the one who first proclaimed that I was going to be a pastor someday as she watched me play church after church on Sundays. It was through her that I saw that Jesus could be my friend. She lived her life with Him by her side – a life that was far from easy or comfortable – but she was always comforted. 

It was through my parents that I came to know the working side of faith. They were church planters, served as confirmation teachers, my mom served as the church organist, and my Dad was the perennial council president in every church we belonged to even with our nomadic lifestyle. 

And now here I am, carrying on the tradition, albeit with a few bumps in the road along the way. So, of course, I know who Jesus is. Not only was I raised with Jesus pretty much everywhere, but I can recite by memory the very definition of the man.

More than likely, you can too. He’s one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. The one Lord, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. He’s God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. He’s begotten, not made. He is of one Being with the Father and through him, all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and he became truly human. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried – for our sake! And then, get this – on the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Any day now He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. 

He’s also a Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, the Word made flesh, the good shepherd, Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, The Way the Truth and the Life, Lord of Life, Healer of our every ill and Forgiver for all, and of course, the Messiah. 

You did get all that, didn’t you? It’s pretty lofty verbiage if you ask me – but it is easier to memorize those memorable words and phrases, don’t you think? So when we are put on the spot and asked like Jesus asks Peter in today’s gospel lesson – “But Who do YOU say that I am?” we are ready with a pithy response. I have to admit, I cheered for Peter when he got the answer “right.” exclaiming “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”   

But what does that mean? Again, lofty language describing the very reason we are here together today – Jesus. When we confess the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed together- what are we really saying? When I sit down and think about it, those beautiful liturgical words are safe – they keep me and my life at an arm’s distance from the wild and unpredictable nature of God and Jesus remains a rather tame and eminently safe figure in my life. And that seems just about right, right? We like to remain in control of our lives and keep things going just so.I may ask for Jesus to take my hand – but boy take my life? That seems like a lot when all I am asking of him is to get me through whatever it is I am facing. But Jesus doesn’t come in doses that I take as needed. His love and ways are all encompassing with no limits. 

When it comes to answering the question of who Jesus is aside from what we are told in Sunday school or what we continue to confess together in the relative comfort and safety of church, on the other 167 days of the year who do we say Jesus is? And how big of a role does Jesus play in our everyday life? I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you that this is one of the most important questions you will ever answer (aside from are you ok if you are choking or maybe, will you marry me) in terms of the direction of your life.  Who you say Jesus is has everything to do with who you are and how you go about the life you lead. In some ways, your answer says as much or more about you and us together as a community of faith, than Jesus. Because in Jesus’ eyes, you are His beloved, and the life he wants for you is provided to you freely with no strings attached or tests to pass.  

And while we share the same words for confessing our faith in Jesus, who you say Jesus is will be different from my response. Just as the disciples came to know Jesus as the Messiah through their walk with him –  observing his healings of mercy, hearing his sermons on justice, twice being awed by and tasting bread multiplied and shared with thousands, being saved by an ethereal Jesus on the water when stormy waters threatened to sink their boat, even extending mercy to those beyond the boundaries of prejudice and culture and showing unexpected more human side of himself – we too, come to our understanding of Jesus through our own walk with him. 

Who Jesus is matters every single day and in every single place of our lives and who Jesus is to us is influenced by our experience of him in every single circumstance of our lives. Peter’s confession didn’t occur just anywhere. Jesus could have asked the question while in a familiar, friendly place like Galilee where most of his ministry has taken place or even while walking to this destination (because aren’t difficult conversations always easier on a walk?) but no, Jesus chose a very specific location – Caesarea Philippi. 

Situated about 25 to 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi originally known as Panais, was near a trade route that connected Tyre in the West to Damascus in the Northeast. A nearby cave and spring served as a sanctuary dedicated to the part man, part goat Greek god, Pan. Greek inscriptions and niches carved into the rock suggest this area was dedicated to other pagan gods as well. It was also a place where the power and the authority of the Roman Empire were on full display.  Herod the Great had built a temple near the spring in honor of Caesar Augustus. By the time Jesus and his disciples visited the region, Caesarea Philippi was governed by Herod’s son, Philip the tetrarch, who established the city as the administrative center of his government. And at the time of Matthew’s Gospel, people were likely aware that the Roman commander who led the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had returned with his troops to Caesarea Philippi in celebration of their victory. So Jesus pops the question—“Who do you say that I am?” at the intersection of economic trade, religion, and the power of the Empire. The very things that ruled heavily over the people’s lives.  This was not a particularly safe place for the disciples to be spouting off about a Messiah – the Messiah they envisioned would release them from the bondage and oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. Aligning oneself with someone other than the emperor could get you thrown in prison if not to the pit.  

The disciples had witnessed Jesus’s works and ways and though not yet aware that this Messiah’s deliverance would be far different from their expectations, they chose to follow him. 

Who do you say Jesus is in your life, today?  Who is Jesus when alternate kingdoms of power and authority vie for your allegiance? Who is Jesus in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of this pandemic? Who is Jesus as you deliberate sending your children back to school or if it is safe to travel or too risky to visit with loved ones? Who is Jesus in the midst of a tenuous election year as you encounter those who may have a different view of things – mask-wearing, the state of our nation? Who is Jesus in the midst of racial unrest – in the aftermath of the Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland protests and riots, and the seemingly impenetrable wall of class and color? Who do you say Jesus is as your loved one dies or as you sit with the news of an unfavorable diagnosis? Who is Jesus when you consider the plight of refugees and immigrants seeking a new place to call home and that new home is your home? Who is Jesus when domestic violence invades your life or you can’t find a job to support your family? Who is Jesus when your family or a relationship falls apart?  

Who is Jesus to you when you face the difficult decisions of life, the ones with no easy answers or when you feel overwhelmed by isolation or depression? Who is Jesus when your latest screw up weighs heavily on your chest, when your sin has clouded out your hope? When judgment is the only response you perceive from others? Who do you say Jesus is then?

Who is Jesus when your life is going well? When you don’t think about needing Jesus or think about Jesus, period? 

How has your experience of Jesus shaped who you know Jesus to be? 

Those lofty words we sing, confess and praise God with in worship an a way feel a little too distant, a little too beautiful when what we need is the wild, unflinching love and grace from our friend, our Lord and Savior, our sweet Jesus to enter into the darkest, ugliest places in our soul. 

Who you say Jesus is will determine how you live into that truth for your life. Who Jesus is to you reveals what you stand for and guides your decisions, determines your actions, and forms the words you speak and how you will say them.  If you align yourself with and define your heart with Jesus – you can expect the words that come from your mouth as Jesus taught in last week’s gospel – to come from your heart not defiled but filled with grace. 

Today and every day, Jesus asks the evergreen question – Who do you say that I am?  The Jesus I confessed before the church when I was 13 was certainly not the same Jesus I found when I searched for him 13 years later when I had nothing left BUT Jesus or the Jesus who walked beside me to my parents burials, or who walks with me today as I try to navigate through this new way of living and being in a pandemic. Hopefully, who Jesus is for you and me next year will be different from who he is for us  today. It’s not that Jesus has changed. We have. As we go through life our experience and knowledge of Jesus grows. When we live this question we not only discover Jesus anew we discover ourselves anew. It’s not just about asking what would Jesus do – as those once trendy bracelets reminded us to ask when faced with a difficult decision. When you live every day with Jesus as a part of you and live your life with the heart and mind of Jesus those questions answer themselves. On our way, we have more and more experiences that show us something about the God whom we seek. For Jesus is always new, always different and our God is a deeply moved God with a heart and being far greater than our understanding. 

Don’t feel as though your answer to Jesus’ question is too simple – too incongruous to the realities, complexities, and pain of “real” life. Don’t feel ashamed that your life does not always align with the words you profess on Sunday. After all – Jesus is calling into question everything about our lives, our world, the status quo, and business as usual. Jesus has a question for you. How will you answer Him? Who do you say that I am? 

There is no correct answer – only your heart and your life can determine that. But the Good News is that God has done most of the work for you. We don’t have to take final responsibility for procuring the faith, hope, and courage that we may feel are in short supply in order to answer this question. Because the faith we seek, the confidence we long for, the courage we hope to find and to share – these are gifts from God. The kind of gifts God loves to bestow.

My favorite poet Ranier Maria Rilke provides insight on this life framing question: “(T)he point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” With that in mind, let your answer to Jesus guide your life. 

May our friend, our comforter, our shoulder to lean on, our sounding board and confidant, our just and loving Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God  – our way, our truth, and our life – guide you, free you,  and renew you today and every day.

Amen.

Let your light so shine!!!

Peace for the Way Things are Going to Be

A Sermon on John 14:1-14

Grace and peace to you, dear friends in Christ from God our Father!

“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.” from the Message

I sat at my Dad’s side – holding his hand, massaging his calf, willing him to open his eyes just one more time. After the longest, fastest drive I have ever made across the state of Montana, I’d made it home to Billings in time to hear him say my name one last time. His last conscious words were just a whisper over the annoying din of an old western movie playing on the TV. I will never forget the sound of his voice – it jarred me so. It was not the voice I wanted to remember my Dad by. I wanted to remember him waving goodbye to me from the assisted living center when I was home for Easter just two short weeks before. I would never have expected to be in this austere hospital room facing his ending so soon thereafter. But there I was looking at the shell of the man who with our wonderful mother had created for me and my brother, lives we wouldn’t trade for anything.

In the last hours of his life- as his body was shutting down, betraying him every step of the way – he seemed so meek and so willing to go on his way while I wanted him to fight, FIGHT with all his might to stay with me. There was so much I needed from my father. 

There was so much living left to do. So many things I had yet to know about him.  So many things left to say. I didn’t want to be alone. I was afraid of discovering what life still held for me without his wisdom and love to see me through it. 

Yes, in the hours before his death, my heart was troubled. Those last moments were the worst moments of my life. I wanted to die with him and at the same time I felt raw and alive with the wonder of the liminality of life. It was a blessing to share his last breath and lay my head on his chest for one last heartbeat.

I have thought about my last moments with Dad a lot lately – moments I didn’t have with Mom when she died. I still struggle with how his life came to a close. But Dad was ready. He knew where he was going, he had walked with Jesus his entire life and I could tell he was at peace – a peace that I longed for – to be at peace with the way things were going to be.

Today’s Gospel from John may have you scratching your head. Didn’t we just celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus? Didn’t we just sing Alleluia  – Jesus Is Risen? Why do we have to go back to the hard realities of that dark night before Jesus’s death? Dare I say that much of our lives are not lived as though we are Easter people? That we are more likely to search for God in the darkness of life rather than our celebrations? And for this very reason,  we need to be reminded of just who this Savior we celebrated 5 Sundays ago – really is. 

We find the disciples in the Upper Room with Jesus at their last supper together. Jesus has washed their feet and He has foretold his betrayal by Judas. He has told the disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come. And just before our reading begins today, He describes in detail Peter’s imminent denial of him. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “Believe in God and believe also in me.”“In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

You have heard these words before – even if you didn’t know they came from the Gospel of John or the setting they are said in. They are frequently read at funerals, including my mother’s just a year before my father passed away, and for good reason. Here are promises from Jesus that are profoundly comforting in the face of death. And yet, I’ll be honest with you,  just a year after hearing them there I was again with a troubled, scared, grief-stricken heart – knowing I should believe but like Phillip, so wanting tangible proof and like Thomas – in desperate need of a road map. Painfully frustrated, desperate even, with a deep longing for a tangible sense and experience of the presence of God. 

Oh yes,  I can easily identify with Philip and Thomas, and  I am sure you can too. 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled?” Are you kidding me?  The disciples have every reason to be troubled. Their beloved teacher is leaving them, one of their own has turned against them, and Peter, the stalwart leader among the disciples is on the cusp of his greatest failure yet. It is as though the ground is shifting beneath their feet.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “Believe in God and believe also in me.”

Do you think Jesus even knows what is happening in our lives and our world, right now? It’s easy to listen to these words on Sunday morning followed by a reassuring hymn and prayer of thanksgiving. But when we find ourselves at the side of a dying loved one, parting ways with a spouse, receiving a pink slip, or smack dab in the middle of a pandemic that we didn’t see coming with no end in sight – these words can ring rather hollow. When we find ourselves in the middle of yet another culture war over what is essential and what is not, blasted by counter-narratives from the left, right and everywhere, whether to mask up or not, and whether to open our churches or not. We long for the way things were, you know  – two months ago – but even when things do get back to normal, most of us have realized that the new normal won’t resemble the old normal for a long, long time. This is unsettling to our souls.  I don’t think we can look at the pain of the world today, the suffering of a loved one, or our own wounds and hurts and not have a troubled heart. I think it is safe to say that none of us will get through this life without a troubled heart. 

And Jesus knows that. Oh, how he knows. So he tells the disciples there is plenty of room for them in his Father’s house – a place for them in the storms of life. The word often translated as “mansions” or “dwelling places” is actually a form of the word “abide” and refers to “places of abiding.” In John’s gospel “abide” is another word for “faith.” It speaks of an “abiding” relationship with Jesus that begins in faith here and now in this life and continues in life after death.

Jesus’ words are part of the promise to a-soon-to-be Easter people then and continue to empower us to live in confidence in Jesus’ abiding presence today. Remember, these words come from someone well acquainted with isolation, sorrow, confusion, and disappointment.  Who took on our flesh and shared our lot and our life so that we might know that God not only cares but so we can see that he does. These promises came from the One who hung on the cross to fulfill the promises he made that night.  

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me. Trust me. I am the way and the truth and the Life.  Hearing these words on the other side of the cross in the clear dawn of Easter light  – as the words of the resurrected Jesus – do they ring truer to you? Amid your uncertainty, unsettledness, pain, grief, fear, confusion – frustration at how messed up things are – do these words sound different to you now?  Do you see Jesus in a different light?

The God Jesus shows us throughout his life is not unmoved by our troubles or dispassionate towards our doubts. The God Jesus brings to us is not a distant God, but rather one who is engaged in our lives and committed to bringing us through all things. This is a God who took on all our trouble in the most visceral way to remind us that this present darkness does not get the last word! That this way we are living is not the final way. This is a God who not only saves but abides with and in us so that we have not just life, but abundant life, in Jesus! 

Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the road alone. Having faith doesn’t necessarily make things easier. Sometimes we will find ourselves just getting by with our heads barely above water but at other times we will flourish in the most challenging of circumstances. And when we share our lives of faith with one another as we are doing today, it makes things richer, more meaningful, and maybe just a little easier to handle. Trusting – believing in God means that in all times and all places we have the presence of God revealed to us through Jesus. 

When your heart is troubled and the journey seems long, remember that Jesus has already traveled it and is with us on it now. Believe! He really is the way, the truth, and the life, the one who leads us to an abundant life in and through his Father and helps us find peace in the way things are going to be.

Lord Jesus, We have a long road ahead of us, help us to remember that You have already traveled it and accompany us upon it now. Help us to see you always as the way, the truth, and the life, the one who dwells with us and leads us to abundant life. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, Sunday – So Good To Be Free

A sermon on Luke 13:10-17

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ from God, our Father!

The world weighed heavy on her shoulders. For eighteen years her burdens had claimed her spirit and held her captive – bound by chains of judgment, guilt, shame, regret, and hopelessness. The harshness of the world had not been spared for her. The divisions among neighbors, the violence permeating the streets, the economic and political roller coaster – all seemed to mirror her own experience. At times she felt invisible to her community but to be honest – that felt better than judgment. Fearful at what she might see, she had gotten used to looking down, only glancing at people out of the corner of her eye. It was safer that way- feet don’t look back. Feet don’t judge or dismiss. Still, she made her way to worship every Sunday, in spite of her struggles. And here she was despite the troubles at home, despite the sleepless night before, despite the fact that she had so much to do and so little energy left to do it, despite the storms that defined her very being. She was at a breaking point. She was here simply to escape.

The council president was busy making sure everything was in place for worship and the guest preacher. Order was the priority of the day. The batteries for the microphone were fresh, the sound system was working, and the bread and wine finally made it to the altar. The ushers were busy handing out bulletins and fretting that there wouldn’t be enough large print versions while preschoolers scampered back and forth from their seats to the activity bags in search of any activity but. The sanctuary was abuzz with chatter  – members of every age and stage of life – were all in their assigned seats sharing their latest hiking adventures, golf scores, bodily ailments, grandchildren tales, and business deals. This is good – GOOD – she thought to herself. Our guest will be impressed with our summer attendance. Now, what were those special announcements I was supposed to make? Oh yes, the rummage sale needs more helpers, especially for clean up, and the community dinner is coming up – volunteers needed, and Sunday School – oh goodness – we still need Sunday School Teachers.  Her mind drifted back to that week’s council meeting. There were issues, big ones to be dealt with and right now no one seemed to agree on anything. She longed for a break. But oops, no more time – it’s showtime! The prelude was over. 

Also in attendance were thinkers thinking various thoughts. “Will I ever be able to say no to my boss? This church is so tired. We need more singers in the choir.  I wish my husband would listen to me. The same ten people do everything around here. I wish my wife would hear me. I am afraid of failing tomorrow. Why am I here? I am scared about starting school tomorrow. I can’t pay my bills. I love this place. Does anyone even see me here? People are drifting away.  We feel so welcome here. Visitors must feel so unwelcome. Finally, people who see things as I do. The gatekeepers here just sit in judgment. Why do they always ask me? Why am I never asked? I can’t feel God anymore.”

What brings you to church this morning? Some innate sense of obligation to God? Because the third commandment says you should be here? Is it just part of your weekend routine followed by a trip to Costco? Maybe you were assigned to read or serve communion or more importantly serve the coffee afterward? Did you come to see your friends? Did you come because someone needs you to be here this morning? Or did you come because, like me, you just don’t feel complete if you don’t? I for one would like to thank you for being here this morning – I feel a distinct sense of wholeness when I gather here with all of you – my church family, not to mention I worked long and hard on this sermon!! Obviously, in my role as an LPA – Sunday’s hold special significance for me.

But, do you ever wonder why? Why this weekly ritual of gathering, worshipping, singing, reading, preaching, mingling — why do we do it? What is THIS all about? Has it ever gotten to you – church that is? To the point where you needed to take a break? Has Sunday/Sabbath lost something in the modern-day translation? I’ve heard the church as a whole referred to as a bunch of hypocrites  – not just by outsiders, mind you, but by actively practicing Christians.

In our Gospel lesson, we get to see into a day in the life of a church and a couple of its members in biblical times.  Jesus is at worship on the Sabbath Day. In those days, not unlike today, synagogues would invite guest Teachers – especially those of community interest who might be passing through – to come and teach and that is what Jesus was doing as he continued on his journey to Jerusalem. A woman with a crippling spirit about her is also there to worship. Jesus calls her to him and heals her. She is able, for the first time in a very long time, to breathe free and stand tall and she praises God. At once, the leader of the synagogue objects. Though he is “indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath,” he doesn’t attack Jesus; he goes after the crowd for having the wrong “standard” of Sabbath behavior, for not following the exact letter of the law. He cajoles the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”  And Jesus responds calling those gathered – you got it – Hypocrites! But the synagogue leader is right, you know. In Jewish custom, you are not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. And here is this visitor – a fellow Jew – subverting God’s law in God’s house! The Jewish people took the Sabbath observation much more seriously than the rather happenstance way we sometimes view the various Sabbath “requirements” or restrictions today. There is not much that we do on the other six days of the week that we don’t also do on Sunday.  

I can empathize with the synagogue leader. Can’t you? Like him we like order.  Most of us have certain rules and standards that govern our lives that we think are particularly important. Think about your steadfast adherence to a morning ritual or more trivial laws such as eating only organic foods, your children’s bedtimes, refusing to schedule anything before noon on a Saturday, or refusing to buy anything not made in the USA. These legal tendencies are alive and well in our religious life too. We have firmly staked positions on who can and cannot receive communion, issues of marriage and divorce, human sexuality and gender; who can and cannot be called and ordained into ministry; and who we can and cannot minister to – as in the case of the recent Sanctuary Denomination declaration at the National Synod Assembly defining outreach to immigrants, refugees, and those seeking asylum. And then there is the almighty law of “because we have always done it that way.”  We can get so caught up in our positions on issues of and the “doing” of church that we lose sight of what Sunday and church is really all about. 

But we would be lost without them – our laws and traditions – wouldn’t we? The thing is – we need them. God would not have given the Israelites the law in the beginning if it wasn’t necessary for human flourishing. Throughout the Old Testament, we see how the law was used to provide guidance on how to live with one another so that all would get more out of this life and world. The law, in short, promotes civility, cooperation, and health and lends a sense of order to our chaotic world. But let’s be honest – we pick and choose the laws we follow. We follow the laws that keep us comfortable and safe. We like the laws that provide structure and familiarity to our daily lives. We defend the laws that support our ideologies and protect our beliefs and traditions. We get anxious if we see challenges to our way of doing things coming down the line. Our need for order and stability in this broken world makes it difficult for us to imagine “exceptions” to the law – even those that promote greater life and health. The good leader of the synagogue was charged with upholding a semblance of order and seeing to it that the Law was obeyed. The law is the law after all and if you start making exceptions goodness only knows what will happen next.

But as important as law is –  Jesus sees things differently and thank goodness he does! What better way of exemplifying the Sabbath’s origin as a covenant of deliverance than by freeing this woman from her crippling spirit while celebrating the Sabbath? Jesus draws directly from the law gifted in Deuteronomy 5, connecting the rest ordained in the Sabbath to Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you…” “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” 

In Jesus’ view, since the Sabbath law commemorates and celebrates Israel’s liberation, it ought to be a day for enacting – not inhibiting – liberation in the present-day. He’s been saying things like this since his synagogue debut in his hometown after his time of testing in the Wilderness.  When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” 

I like to think that Jesus was a rebel with a cause – not to break the law but restore to the law the love that inspired it. In freeing the woman from her crippled spirit and challenging the letter of the law, Jesus reclaimed the Sabbath as an opportunity to draw closer to God, to contemplate God’s goodness and love, recall God’s gift of freedom from bondage, and to be schooled in God’s will. 

As David Lose, the senior pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minn., former president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and one of my favorite modern-day theologians explains, while the law matters,  it must always bow to mercy, to life, to freedom. Law helps us live our lives better, but grace creates life itself. Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together. Law pushes us to care for each other, but grace restores us to each other when we’ve failed in the law.

We are captive to the law when it blinds us to God’s loving will. There are a myriad of reasons for us to be disconsolate and look to the security and comfort of law: oppression at the hands of corrupt power; guilt from the knowledge of participating in or benefiting from, systems of oppression; fatigue in faith; disintegration of community life; broken hearts and misunderstood identity; suffering caused by chronic physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional pain; and the list goes on. But with his outstretched arm, Jesus broke into the dogmatic world of first-century Judaism and our present-day with a new set of eyes and a fresh voice bearing witness that when it comes to upholding the law or nurturing life, God always comes down on the side of life. The entire law is summed up in a single command and is the one law by which to measure all others –  the absolute law of love. Love God and love your neighbor. And love God by loving your neighbor.

And so, while we gather today in this ritual of worship I want you to know that this is what it is all about: Sunday is about letting go of all those things you carried in with you this morning – the good and the bad – and laying them all before God to take rest in this,  HIS red-carpeted sanctuary – even if only for an hour. Sunday is about remembering how God has freed us so that we might be rebels with a cause to free others. Sunday is about calling to mind the mighty acts of God so that we too dare mighty acts ourselves. Sunday is a day to remember that God has freed us from the bondage of sin and death itself so that we might boldly bring order to this world with love rather than law. 

Finally, beloved children of God, God sees YOU and claims you this morning and all those with the weight of the world on their shoulders, those who lead, those who follow, those who are angry, those who despair, those who are weary, those who worry, those who are lost, those in the shadows, those who hurt, those who believe and those who have yet to believe;  and with an outstretched arm, God calls each and every one of us to receive His gift of Sabbath, to give us rest, free us from the burdens of this world, and to help us breathe again. He sees you and knows your deepest hurts. There is no sorrow or bondage on earth from which Jesus cannot set us free.

We will never be able to confine God’s grace and love with our laws, so why even try? Instead, let’s consider ways our insistence on law and order in our lives blocks us from showing genuine, heartfelt compassion to those in need and limits God from entering fully into our lives. 

When we let God break into our lives and break the laws of our lives with his grace and love – some amazing things can happen. So stand up straight and breathe – you are free – not just on Sunday, but every day. 

This is such Good News! Amen!

1. The Law of Love; David Lose

 

“A Real Prosperity Gospel”

A sermon based on Luke 12: 13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ, from God, Our Father.

Looking at my smile today, you would never guess that I was a thumb sucker until the third grade. Sucking my thumb soothed my childhood insecurities and just like Linus, I had a soft blue night-night that was far from hand. It wasn’t until sleepovers became a common occurrence that I began to feel insecure over my source of security – and I gradually found my comfort elsewhere.

Jump ahead to two summers ago. My parents had both recently passed away within a year of each other and their deaths were such that my brother and I were not prepared for their departure – as if you can ever be. Needless to say, there were a lot of end-of-life projects multiplied by two left for my brother and me to endure. One of those was getting the family home of 28 years in Billings ready to sell which meant sorting through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children)! There were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things our family had collected and held on to throughout the almost 60 years of my parent’s life together despite having moved 23 times! In retrospect – I now see how those things helped foster a sense of place and security given our nomadic lifestyle during my father’s career with the government.

It was an emotional, sentimental, and nostalgia-filled time of decluttering. Several times I nearly flooded the basement with tears. Seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain-priced by the estate sale experts sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories. How could they commoditize our belongings? That was our story for sale. So much value and emotion devoted to things and the life and memories surrounding them. The sense of security I felt each time I came home to visit was gone.  The emptied house was no longer home and forced me to contemplate what brings value and meaning to life. 

Perhaps many of you have experienced the same feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things have become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize that life is what made those things matter. I know I felt very alone and empty inside. 

Today Jesus tells us, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12:15)[3] 

Really? Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy in the New York Times, writes of how we give up over 40,000 hours of life over 20 years in order to acquire more stuff.

After my brother’s and my experience of clearing out our family home of stuff, I swear it felt like whole lifetimes were swapped for it! And yet, I identified with that “stuff” and found it difficult to part with. That stuff represented the security of our life as a family together – and those times had come to an end.

Despite my life-changing decluttering experience, I will be honest with you, Luke’s parable of the rich farmer served as a reckoning for me. I see a little too much of myself in the farmer’s pursuits. Maybe you too felt a little uncomfortable sitting with God’s final words to the seeming-to-have-it-all-figured-out farmer. “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

He’s not a cheat or a thief, nor does he seem particularly greedy. Not unlike what most of us strive to do, he worked hard and made some money, and saved for the future – stocking away goods and treasure in barns for safe-keeping.  His land produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space so he plans to build bigger barns to store all his grain and goods. He set aside ample savings for the future and is all set to enjoy his golden years. 

I spend 40 hours of every week working for a financial advisory firm – and this is the kind of personal success we aim to see replicated in our client’s lives. This is what all the experts encourage us to do. Isn’t it wise and responsible to work hard, become successful, and save for the future? In my mind, I wish I had it as put together as this farmer.  If I were him I would be giving my soul a pat on the back too! “And I would say to my soul, Soul, you have ample savings put away for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God calls him a Fool! In Greek, this conjures up a senseless, mindless, rash or egoistic person.

There is one very important thing the rich farmer has not planned for — his reckoning with God. He has become so engrossed in his own livelihood – in securing for himself a good life –  that he has shut out the world around him. Perhaps not so unlike how ordinary hard-working people – you and me today – end up existing in our own seemingly secure universes, constructing lives solely focused on our own personal well-being, but all the while losing sight of what really matters in life until it is too late. When God demands his life, the farmer is faced with the fact that he has spent his entire life toiling and acquiring but not growing rich toward God. Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth will get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;”

So what does Jesus mean by being rich toward God? To answer this it might be easier to look at what it is not.

We live lives in constant pursuit of more because we never have enough – not enough money, not enough status, not enough time, not enough stuff. We seek security in the tangible. Our culture regularly tells us that we are insufficient, incomplete as we are BUT we can have it all with whatever product or practice they are pushing. This constant pursuit of acquisition and egoistic perfection is in short, single-minded greed and this greed becomes our God. Like the farmer in today’s gospel, we have chosen to live in a world of one. This is not living richly toward God.

Money can do many things – it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare of our communities, and it makes possible a more comfortable life. 

But money also allures us with the illusion of security and independence. Money deludes us into thinking that if we just have more of it we can transcend our everyday insecurities and needs that remind us that we are mortal beings who are and always will be dependent on others, most especially, on God. Money, or anything else for that matter, that we become fixated on, may bring us momentary happiness and satisfy our desire for security but in the end, it impoverishes our soul and rewires our values. This is not living richly toward God.

The farmer’s mistake and regretfully, that of many today,  doesn’t have to do with his riches; rather, he goes astray by believing that he alone can secure his future. That his treasure, possessions, and money can make him independent – independent from others, independent from need, and independent from God. We sometimes forget that our lives and possessions are not our own, that they belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. Our need to be in charge and in control of our lives gets in the way of our relationship with God. Greed compels us to banish from our lives anyone and anything that might threaten “what’s ours.” This is not living richly toward God.

Yes, money can do many wonderful things – it just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money; his desire is meaningless vanity and futility, a striving after wind” (5:10). We will never find security and lasting happiness if we base them on our attachments to the world where virtue is constructed around our own self-interest.

The farmer’s legacy was a full barn but an empty life without purpose or relationship. This is not what God wants for us. But it is hard to live into that concept – to place your trust in something you cannot grasp, to find security in the sometimes temporal realm of relationships, to derive meaning and happiness from that which you cannot control. Money, acquisition, pursuits of perfection – have one distinct advantage over the abundant life Jesus promises us: they are immediately tangible. 

The rich life that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for – one secured in relationships, community, and purpose – is much harder to lay our hands-on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. We know how wonderful it feels to be accepted into a community, but you can’t run out to Walmart and buy it. And because we live in a culture that tells us this – whatever this may be – is the best there is, we repeatedly buy into the immediate gratification and security offered by money and material goods only to need more later because that kind of happiness and fulfillment will never be enough – nor does it last.

So, what, then, shall we do? How do we start living and being rich in the way of Jesus? First, by recognizing that all that we have and are is not truly ours, we can rejoice in the freedom this truth brings to our lives. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. You are free to be all that God created you to be and live into the pleasures and purpose that He has given for your life. 

We can change our culturally informed beliefs about what constitutes the good life. St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.  Let’s start having conversations about money and wealth and how we can live into and share the abundant life that money and material goods support but cannot produce with those who still search for and need the security that only God can provide. Let’s recognize that greed in all its forms can corrupt the poor as easily as the rich. 

While the entire media universe pushes us to tune into what is negative or missing rather than what is positive in our lives, lets name and celebrate our blessings. Rather than grasping for more stuff – cultivate an awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day.  We experience the wonders of abundant life every day. The joy of a good conversation, the sense of purpose that comes from helping another, the warmth of a loving relationship, the feeling of community found in friends or family – these are the very elements of the abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the gospels – relationship, community, love, purpose. 

While these abundant elements of life may be less tangible they are far more powerful than material goods and they are infinitely available to us if we seek them out. 

Living into the abundant life Jesus promises is incredibly hard and almost impossible to do alone. Find a community of support that seeks a higher purpose – those sitting around you today would be a great place to start. Make it a practice to see yourself as part of something bigger than you and your stored up treasures.  

Stop the habit of buying happiness – and look for ways to experience it without spending a dime. There’s something to be said for contentment and for perspective about how we view money and possessions. In His grace, we can find a healthy perspective on the things we possess – so they don’t become the things that possess us.

Practice an awareness of time.  We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I will never have enough. I still take my time for granted.  It is so easy to just exist from day to day. I look at how much time I spend on advancing my own interests along with my skewed attempts at the perfect life and confess that I do not always invest my time nor the time I have with my family and others wisely.

I’ll leave you with a little investment advice without any disclaimers. God wants so much more for us than what our worldly and yes, our own little world’s pursuits can provide. God wants for us life and love and mercy and community. Nurture your relationships, give your time away to others, share your talents, bear another’s burden and let them help you with yours. Faithfully take risks and open your life to possibility. Your life will be so much richer if you do. 

The Apostle Paul tells us to be serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ. Pursue the things over which Christ presides – foster goodness, grace, and gratitude. See things from His perspective. Remember, your old life is dead. Baptized in Christ, your new life, your real life is secured with Christ in God. 

May the freedom that we have in Christ, empower you to live boldly into a legacy rich with relationships, purpose, and peace.

 

Amen

Everybody’s Story

A sermon on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32; Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What a tale rich with the complexities of this world we have here! The Prodigal Son – or is it the Tale of the Lost Sons or the Tale of the Lamenting Older Brother – or is it a Tale of a Prodigal Love? Ralph Waldo Emerson called this the greatest story in the Bible. I call it Everybody’s Story. Part of the reason we are so drawn to this story is that we are never only one of the characters. We find ourselves with the younger son mired in the messes of our own making, with the elder son in our righteous bitterness and fear of being overlooked, and we long to be like the father who empties himself in his selfless devotion to bring in the lost and the forsaken.

Who among us has not squandered the love we have been given? Who among us has not chased after our own impulses, passions, and needs be they hunger, thirst, or wanton desires instead of choosing a higher path?  Who hasn’t felt the unrelenting pain of losing someone we deeply loved and the regrets that fill the void they leave behind? Who hasn’t felt the bitter sting of insecurity and fear of being left out or chased blindly after love, hoping it will be returned? Who hasn’t thought better of themselves only to be humbled by a harsh lesson in humility? Who hasn’t hoped, hungered and prayed that someone — anyone – God — will come searching for us when we are lost, broken, and alone? It is a story about joy, about love, and about grace – and about our misunderstanding of the nature of grace.

And so, without further ado – as the late, great comforter on the airwaves Paul Harvey would so famously begin every radio show – the rest of the story…

The tax collectors and sinners were very near to Jesus now. He had them on the edge of their seats. Never had someone so different from them taken the time to talk with them. He offered them something no one else could or would. And the Pharisees and the scribes continued in their grumbling, saying, “Not only does this fellow welcome sinners and eat with them – he’s offering them grace – a cheap grace at that. He’s breaking every law in the book! He’s crossing the line here. The government surely won’t stand for it. He’s saying God loves them too!”

Jesus could hear the Pharisees grumbling. He knew they were right –  He did, after all, hang with the wrong people, he was breaking the rules – but he had more important things to do than observe the laws of this world – especially laws that served only to divide and condemn – laws from a time before – laws that served more to separate people from God rather than bring them to Him. His father sent him to take on the cloak of sin and bridge the great chasm it created between Him and his children and by George, he was doing a good job of it! He found it ironic that the most religious and pious in his audience where his greatest critics. Jesus continued.

Now, the younger son, still basking in the glow of his new life, overheard his father’s pleas to his older brother. He excused himself from the party and went to see to his brother.

“Come on brother, don’t be like a stubborn old mule, without understanding. Get over yourself! Your bitterness and resentment towards my redemption is confining you to a fallen world. Come inside and celebrate – there is much to rejoice!”

The older brother glared at his precocious and suddenly highly prolific sibling. Who did he think he was? Telling him what to do?

Seeing his brother’s continued hardness of heart, the younger one continued.

“Look, I don’t fault you for feeling as you do. Everything you said to Dad is true. I get it. You have worked all these years – and worked hard! I mean look at this place – it’s amazing – so much better than when I left it all behind.  You didn’t run off and desert Dad – let alone practically wish him dead by asking for your inheritance early. You didn’t squander the family’s wealth. You, for the most part, I am sure, have been dutiful and responsible and trustworthy all this time, and so it must really burn for you to see Dad running down the road flailing his arms like an idiot in disbelief and joy – for me – I mean what an embarrassment!! And then he welcomes me home with an outpouring of love and no questions asked. Even I wasn’t expecting that! I know you don’t think it is fair and that’s because it’s not!”

“Not just unfair, it is a complete disgrace.” Said the older brother – finally finding something to agree with.

“Look, this hasn’t been easy for me, either. I was so certain there was something more in this world for me – that there was nothing for me here. I felt suffocated by rules and expectations that meant nothing to me. I wanted to live! And it was great for a while in that distant country – living with abandon – enjoying what I thought were the finer things – a far cry from what you’ve been toiling at all this time – but then things took a turn. The recession hit and my careless living was taking a toll on me. I had nothing to lean on – no savings and no foundation – no relationships of value – nothing to give me strength. I found myself at rock bottom – well actually slop bottom – I had to feed pigs to survive! Can you believe that? The only job I could find that I had any skill for was on a pig farm! Not only that – but my hunger was insatiable – nothing filled me – I even began to eat the pig’s pods. Pride kept me silent but soon I realized I was dying inside. And look at me – my body practically wasted away! The weight of all that I had done and all that I had lost was unbearable. When I realized I was worse off than – well those people – I came to my senses.”

“Yeah, you came to your senses when you wanted more from Dad. I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe you would come back – that you could come back after what you have done. The shame you have brought upon yourself and Dad.”

“Oh, believe me, I know what I have done – and now so does God – he knows everything, you know. We had a long talk on my way back home you see – I told him about everything – I confessed my rebellion – I accepted my failures – it was a pretty long walk. But as I walked, I felt the weight of my guilt and my failures wash away with a rush of mighty water.

“Look, the more I think about it, my return home actually seems much easier than bringing you out of that cold anger making itself at home in the deepest corners of your being. Brother, your resentment is killing you. But it’s not just about me, is it? It’s about your virtue!”

“Hey, don’t try to bring me down to your level!” The older brother spat out defensively.

“Down to my level? Look! We are all sinners here. You just happen to be sinning in a different way. I am trying to lift you up.”

“Oh, come on! Where is it written that it isn’t good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? Such attitudes are praiseworthy!”

“And indeed, they are! We should all strive to be that way – I know I should have. But don’t you see, you are so caught up in being right that you can’t see past yourself! I see your despair! It’s like you are battling against yourself. At the very moment you want to act out of your most generous self, you get caught in anger or resentment. And just when you want to be selfless, you find yourself obsessing about being loved. And just when you have done your utmost to accomplish a task well, you question why others do not give of themselves as you do. You think you are better than me for overcoming the same temptations that I had, but in truth, you envy me for giving in to them!  It seems that everything you are basing your virtuosity on is turning you into a resentful complainer. Where is there happiness in that way of living?”

“I am happy…”

“Oh please, you are deceiving yourself – and Dad. Continue on this path and you will be stuck here and tormented forever! True happiness belongs to those whose sin is forgiven, covered – forgotten. Look at me! I feel like my slate has been wiped clean! Like God is holding nothing from me – because I held nothing back from Him. That’s the kind of happiness I have now. I have found shelter from my troubled ways and joy in my freedom.”

Shaking his head, the older brother replied, “You may be happy – but you are not being realistic. The world doesn’t work that way kid. I am proof of that!  God may have removed the label of “sinner” from you when you sought restoration but there are plenty of people here at your party who will try to pin it back on you as soon as they have had their fill of wine and taken their leave. They’ll cast sideways glances at you in the store and I bet they won’t sit with you in church.”

Having stood by and watched his two sons stand their respective grounds, the father had finally had enough. Shaking his head but at the same time opening his arms he interrupted.

“Sons, both of you have wandered far from me. You,” he said to his younger son, “alienated yourself from me by trying to satisfy your passions with no regard for anything or anyone but yourself. And you,” he said to his older son, “distanced yourself from me and all those who care for you, by indulging in anger, and envy, and caring only about your place in life.”

Putting his arms around both his son’s shoulders for the first time in a long time he continued.

“I wouldn’t want to live in this world if rules and fairness and equity didn’t matter. It could get out of control pretty fast. But we can get lost in the means and forget what the end result of rules and fairness and equity is all about. Just look around. Take a good hard look at your own hearts and motives. We want to be judged only by our best moments – but condemn others who have fallen short of our ideals. We seek validation and vindication for our accomplishments, but when it comes to those we deem as unworthy of the same we’d rather have our own pity party than join in celebrating them. We keep scores for everything. We literally count everything – from calories to miles to money – even good deeds – all in an effort to tip the scales of fate in our favor. We see life as a game of winners and losers and that skews our relationships and diminishes the value of every one of us. Good scores, accomplishments, fairness, equity, – those are important goals, but they are not the only things that matter in this life – at least not to me. What matters is that we have joy – joy in our hearts, joy that fills our minds, joy that strengthens us for this world. A joy that reigns in this house.

“That joy comes from love. And my love is something that cannot be counted. I could never apportion my love. I don’t track it or measure it or parcel it out. I can give all of my love to one of you and – guess what? – I still have all of my love left to give to the other.

“You might fear that there is a limit – or secretly hope that there is – and only a certain amount of love is reserved for a select few – including you – but that is not how my love works. There is never a limit – never was and never will be. You see, love is one of those things that the more you give the more you seem to have – you may try, but you will never be able to control who I love, how I love, or quantify it.”

Having been silent for too long, the younger son looked at his father and said, “Thank you, Dad. Thank you for forgiving me before you even saw me and loving me. I want to love like you love.”

Not to be outdone the older son reached deep.

“We live amid war, fires, floods, poverty, greed, persecution, imprisonment, betrayal, hatred, and sins we have yet to imagine. Signs of the world’s darkness that will never be absent. But you are telling me I can still have joy in the midst of it all? The joy of belonging to a household whose love is stronger than my present darkness and even death; a love that empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to a home of joy.”

“Yes, my son. It is yours every day. You have always been loved and that joy is yours.  Every day you are made new and made whole in the waters that wash away your sin and make you shine.”

Upon hearing this, the Pharisees went away in silence as Jesus broke another loaf of bread to share and the tax collectors and sinners were filled with joy.

And there you have it. The rest of the story. We are restored every day in the waters of our baptism. God’s forgiveness is always there; we are the ones who cut ourselves off when we choose envy and bitterness or go our own way. But God never stops trying. His love and grace have no limit. God promises us a warm welcome and complete restoration to God’s household -if we simply approach and come home.

As Paul so eloquently shares with the Christians in Corinth and as written in The Message: “He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own. Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Amen.

The Jesus Tribe

A sermon based on Mark 9:38-50

The words were flying like bullets. I had shared what I thought was a well thought out, reasoned article on faith in today’s politically polarized environment on my Facebook page – then without a second thought headed out for a walk. When I returned I found a message waiting for me from one of my high school friends apologizing for the messy tirade she had made of my post. I had no idea what she was talking about but when I looked at my Facebook page – holy moly! While I was out enjoying God’s magnificent creation, a few words had turned into a violent verbal battle between two friends of mine who did not know each other but shared me as their common, well-meaning opiner. I had missed most of the volleys thrown my way – the writer had deleted her words before I could read the vitriol – but I was filled in on their content later.  Words that went along the lines of because of who I did or didn’t support as president (which I did not divulge, to begin with) I could not possibly be a true Christian. ME! Of all people!! My high school friend, someone who is also strong in her faith, had met with the fiery tongue of yet another strong believer who just happened to be of very different political stripes and unfortunately, the two did not see eye to eye. Needless to say, my high school friend felt bad about airing her views while the other posit-er blocked me and would not respond to my attempts to temper the discussion – deleting all of it instead. Not that I had anything to say that could change such polarized minds. In the end, all parties involved retreated to our safety zones – our respective tribes – the place where we belonged, where we found camaraderie, loyalty, and protection for our differing views on what it means to do life and what it means to be a Christian.

In ancient times, tribes provided the social, economic, and religious structure along with the necessary physical protection that we humans needed for survival. We humans were and still are ill-equipped to survive on our own. I like to think and am pretty sure that God had a hand in that piece of our evolution.

A recent Google search returned page after page of insight on modern-day tribalism. There are tribes designed for sports enthusiasts and business influencers. There are tribes for hobbyists and travelers, tribes for political junkies and naturalists. Musicians, parents, adventurists, holistics, yogis, the list goes on. There are “find your tribe” memes, inspirational tribal quotes, and tribal gurus ready to help you find your special tribe. Companies build advertising campaigns appealing to our tribes. Tribes are apparently good for business and obviously, finding yours has become an important quest in today’s world and for good reason. Tribes at their best nurture an environment for generating new ideas for work and life and create a sense of community which is vital for a healthy productive life. Our tribe provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to interact with others and, if developed to its highest purpose even provides health and wellbeing benefits.

According to management consultant and TED Talk presenter David Logan who has researched and written on tribal development in modern society, there are millions of different tribes in the world but they all fall into one of five categories determined by their stage of cultural development. Those consist of the undermining stage which is often seen in prisons and gangs who share the belief that life sucks and you are coming down with me,  next are those in the apathetic victim stage who share the view that “my life is hopeless, your life is better” which in turn breeds resentment among the tribe members with a kind of ‘lose/win’ mentality, next are those in the lone warrior stage who say  “I’m great and you’re not” which creates a ‘win/lose’ mentality within the tribe and sets members up for disappointment in their fellow tribe members. Those in the tribal pride stage belong to a group that is united around a set of values and form the view that “we are great, they are not” – it is still a ‘win/lose’ approach, but one where the ‘win’ is based around the group rather than an individual. The final stage is the innocent wonderment stage; the stage of highest purpose and not surprisingly – the least likely level in tribalism to achieve. It is also the most enlightened stage of tribalism, where life really is great and a healthy ‘win/win’ mentality forms. The group is in competition with what’s possible, not with each other or another tribe.

According to Logan, most of us find ourselves in tribes characterized by the middle three categories: apathetic victims, lone warriors, and tribal pride. All three of these tribal development categories share a win/lose or an us versus them worldview.

Worldviews set on human things like judgment and greatness. Views built around fear, anger, resentment, envy, and acquisition. Views set on perfectionism, our need for approval and to be liked, or in control. Views that harbor prejudice, indifference, or apathy. These tribes nurture and advance our stumbling blocks rather than help us overcome them, and in the eyes of God – do nothing to advance His kingdom on earth.

Not that this form of “belonging” or joining together is anything new. This sort of tribalism began in the Garden of Eden and follows through all human history. It confounded Moses, it inspired David’s Psalms, and it provided plenty of teaching material for Jesus. Today, this win/lose, us versus them, I am right and you are wrong vision permeates our politics, defines our dogma, and has crept into our churches. Even with our increasingly pluralistic society, perhaps because of it, we hold tightly to our doctrines and orthodoxy – certain that our tribe has all the answers, knows the ways and will of God. We take ownership of and want to control what God’s work in the world will look like, even to the point of deciding who can witness to it and experience it. We, of course, are foolhardy in doing so as God can never be owned, can never be controlled. But we sure try!

September 9th was Rally Sunday. It was a kind of unusual one for us this year with Pastor Pete on sabbatical. Rally Sunday is usually full of excitement – everyone is back from their summertime doings – Sunday school kicks off – new programs are introduced, new liturgies are sung, and the pews are filled with all ages again. This year we struggled to get Sunday school teachers – and we are still searching for a Sunday School Director by the way – we were singing the same tired liturgical verses we had sung all summer long – and our pews were certainly not full. As a member of the congregation’s leadership, I notice these things. I was also very aware of the big deal happening down the street and around the corner from us. The grand opening of a “mega-church’s” Columbia Falls satellite congregation with their praise band and worship team all set to put on weekly concerts for God lovers. Their parking lot was reportedly full – for all three services mind you – and I couldn’t help but wonder… We have competition! If all those people were so hungry for God – why not just join us??  We obviously had plenty of room – and maybe we could even find a few more Sunday School teachers! My tribal pride was aroused – feelings of envy, frustration, fear that we might lose members to the next big thing to hit Columbia Falls swirled inside me. What do they have that we don’t? God should be working through us!

Now I admit, I am not proud of my reaction. But I know I am not alone with thoughts like this. Heck, even Jesus’ earliest followers went wayward in their discipleship, quite often in fact, as we have seen lately throughout the gospel of Mark.

In today’s gospel reading, John zealously informs Jesus of someone performing acts in His name, but the disciples stopped the exorcist because he was not one of them – not a part of the “in” group. We don’t know much about this outsider – perhaps he didn’t speak, think, act, or look like them but we do know this – he was not part of their Jesus Tribe – and the disciples saw him as getting in the way of their faith and ministry. And when they could not stop him they told on him.

One can only imagine the thrill it gave John to tattle on the outsider given that the disciples themselves had just recently failed at what this outsider was succeeding at – driving out demons. They were also still puzzling over the comeuppance Jesus gave them when they were arguing over who among them was the best. This act of loyalty would surely please the teacher. Apparently, to the disciples it was not enough to be a follower of Jesus; you have to be a certain kind of follower – one of them (or one of us?)

But Jesus sees through John’s self-righteous glee. In Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation, The Message, Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. (Jesus says) No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why,  anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice. On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.”

Once again, the disciples find themselves on the receiving end of a whole new way of thinking. I imagine they were a little disappointed in Jesus’ response. Not only does Jesus not support the disciples in their action, but he also does not criticize or condemn the outsider.  As Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, says, “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”  Not only have the disciples drawn a line between who is in and who is out, it seems the disciples have crossed a line – the line between protecting the faith and claiming ownership of the faith.

It is a line each of us has to negotiate as we encounter the others in our lives, as we encounter differences of opinion, as we encounter different practices and understanding. Is our zeal for our particular view of the gospel – or maybe it has nothing to with the gospel but rather – our fear of those who are different from us – is that zeal or fear placing a stumbling block before others that makes it harder for them to see and feel the love of God in Christ?

Do we stay within our win/lose us versus them tribal safety zones or do we strive for an enlightened response – do we dare contemplate the possible (because with God anything is possible)? Can we step up to the next level of wonderment described by David Logan or the kind of discipleship we are freed in Christ to live?

Only if we surrender the tribal patterns of life we have created for ourselves or to which we allow others to perpetuate in us. Only if we surrender the ways of seeing, thinking, and acting that blind us to who we, our neighbors and God really are.

The choice is ours, but it is a heavy choice. As Fr. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest writes, “Every time we stumble or cause another to stumble we have denied life – our own or another’s. We have diminished the kingdom of God and ultimately destroyed love.”

The goal of faith is not winning, unlike that of our tribalistic culture. Those of us in the Jesus Tribe need to remember that the goal of believing is not who can be better – whatever “better” means. We need to remember that being a Christian is not about comparison but individual expression, as individual as the incarnation of Christ is in us. The new satellite church is not Our Saviors and we will never be like them. But together we will express the love of God in ways that reach people who may not be able to hear it as they or we might express it. Just think how boring it would be if we all believed and worshipped the same way. Not even our Scriptures propose that. If we truly believe what we confess, that the Holy Spirit lives in each of us – then we should rejoice in and encourage that expression of God through us in its beautiful particularity.

In this time of pluralism and polarization, we need the community and support of a tribe. A tribe that reframes how we think about our lives, our commitments, our identity, and our vision of what constitutes authentic Christian community. Let’s ensure the Jesus Tribe is one in which we do see Jesus – one that is open to all who seek to know his grace, his forgiveness, his amazing love. One in which life really is great – for everyone – because in it we see God. Our God is there.

Amen.

 

Leaving Jesus

A sermon based on John 6:56-71 

Well, here we are at the end of the loaf. Over the last four weeks we have had a crash course on the amazing goodness of a particular kind of bread –  one that works miracles as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand, bringing the true source of life to the hungry masses; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven to truly nourish us; and last week Jesus professed that He will give us his own self, his own flesh and blood, to be one with us in relationship to sustain us on our journey into eternity. Pretty heady stuff if you ask me.

In today’s Gospel reading, we come to the end of heady bread. Jesus is met with disenchantment. Even his closest followers are having a hard time comprehending what Jesus is telling them. “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Sensing that he was losing some if not many in his audience, rather than changing his message to an easier one to grasp, he asks them if they will understand when they see him, the Son of Man, ascend to the heavens. He further explains that it is the Spirit, His spirit, that gives abundant life; the flesh and will of man is useless in this regard.

Ironically, Jesus finds himself speaking to an emptying room, as He was preaching in the Synagogue, the place where his followers expected to at least draw near to the presence of God. And yet, when God offers them more than just nearness but oneness with him, it is more than his listeners can handle.

You would think that by their initial reaction that Jesus had just stated his position on the upcoming election rather than offering an invitation to an abundant life in relationship with him. Yet many leave him – many who had followed him steadfastly, who had witnessed and believed in the miracles he had performed. What he was proposing was just too much. No longer was he simply feeding and healing and meeting their needs for survival; Jesus was asking them to reject this life and come to Him, to think beyond the literal, to imagine life in abundance, life beyond measure. Life beyond their control. They don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted them the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in them, it is already theirs if they will only believe.

A life beyond our control. We don’t even have to choose. Jesus said, “For this reason, I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” God has already granted us the invitation to a relationship with Jesus and a life with Jesus in us – it is already ours if we will only believe.

From our enlightened perspective on this happening of some 2000 years ago, you would think we would “get it.” But, we live in a reality of belief and unbelief And, with our enlightened perspective comes lives that are complex, perhaps even intellectualized. We live in chaotic times governed by money, power, status, profession, principles, policy, and possessions; times focused on individualism, validation, and justification.  times demand logic and reason. We deal with this chaos and busyness and brokenness on a daily basis – living it, fleeing from it, sometimes thriving on it.

Deal with life long enough and sooner or later you realize that one aspect of life is complicated, even scary at times – that of relationship. It is at once something so inherent and vital to human life and yet something that can cause so much pain. Relationship opens us up to vulnerability, the unknown. Which is why it is so much easier to place our trust in that which we know, that which we can control – the self. Reason tells us so. But God is asking us to reject this kind of thinking and come to him. To cast the burdens of this world onto Him and live in abundance with him. And we so want to, don’t we? We try. But sometimes this world gets the better of us.

There are times when this relationship that God offers us may not seem so apparent – when God seems very far away – during the dark of the night, perhaps, when our failings and insecurities replay in our mind, or by the bedside of a loved one in the hospital, wondering why?  Or maybe in the early morning,  when you wake up alone and wonder why your spouse has left you or why no one wants to be with you? Or in the waning light of day as home beckons and you think about your family – the “family that won’t speak to one another” – or the friend who let you down again – and you wonder why things have not turned out the way you hoped. You wonder if they ever will.

Because sometimes our lives with God seem no different, no “better” than those who live theirs on their own accord – who have the freedom to just be and do, trusting only in what they know – themselves. Whether it is our family life, our jobs, our money, the things we do for fun, our sports, our health, our relationships, our time, our goals, our goals for our kids – we don’t just trust these things to anyone and when we don’t trust these things to anyone, someone, God – these things become our god.

I grew up in the church. My parents were church planters and builders. My earliest memories are often from times in church. I always knew that Jesus loved me and oh, how I loved Jesus. My Grandma used to delight in telling the story of seeing the 5-year-old me standing on my bed with that Sunday’s bulletin in hand preaching the Good News and singing Holy, Holy, Holy at the top of my lungs. I had a zest for life and a love for the Lord right up into high school. But then things began to change. In my senior year life started getting complicated. The friends I had run with had graduated, getting straight A’s didn’t seem to cut it anymore, there was disorder in my family and disorder in the church, we were moving once again, my life seemed to be out of control – and Jesus seemed very far away.

I loved to exercise though, and I was good at it – from lifting weights to running and everything in between. I found some solace from the chaos that I was fleeing in those activities. But it wasn’t enough. I still needed a sense of control. At that point of my life, food and exercise seemed to be the only things I could control, and I succeeded.  I was good at something again! I became so focused on that feeling of success and control that I didn’t need my family, my friends, or the church that was once my life, or God.

This is how betrayal works, at least according to John. As John scholar Karoline Lewis writes, “betrayal in John is not believing that the abundant life Jesus offers you is real. Betrayal is that which causes you to believe that this life is for everyone else but you. Betrayal is anything and everything that makes you think you aren’t someone Jesus could love.”[1]

Yeah, I knew God loved the world, but me? No not anymore, no, I was a special case, not worthy of the kind of indiscriminate love that came without demands or stipulations. I believed that rejection and marginalization was simply my lot in life; that real relationship lived only in my hopeful imagination. Real relationship? That meant belonging, intimacy, want, desire, mutuality, reciprocity, nurture, safety. That kind of relationship exists only in books and movies. The same books and movies that tells us that God manipulates instead of promises. That’s the kind of God the disciples were expecting and in which the world still wants us to believe.

When you are in the mucky thick of it, life, real life, life lived, abundant life is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could be yours. And so, like Judas did, I walked away. I went away to a place that only I could control. I couldn’t deal with the perfection I thought a relationship with God required nor could I handle the unknowns of life that requires us to trust in God!

We all have the proclivity in us to walk away from this relationship, to leave Jesus.  As Lewis writes, “Judas’s betrayal (in John) is fundamentally a rejection of relationship, but it is also an unwillingness to receive life beyond measure, an inability to accept that abundant life could be true, a reluctance to envision, to dream, to picture that when God said God loves the world that it actually meant him – and means you.”

By age 23, I had become the master of my sorry destiny. Until I died twice, once in my bedroom when my heart stopped beating and again in an ambulance. I found myself at rock bottom, in ICU with tubes sticking out of every cavity of my body and wires taped to my chest.  I remember hearing the doctor tell my parents that my 54-pound body was dying and if things didn’t turn around drastically I would be lucky to make it another 4 weeks. In that moment I realized that all the control I thought I had gained through mastering my body had, in reality, brought me to the gates of hell.

Sometimes we don’t know what we have lost until it is gone – and I had lost everything.

Oh Lord, to whom can I go??

But you know – the foundation of my life had never left me, God was always there – I just had to believe again – to let him in.

There was no altar call, no rapturous music, no radiant light – just the beeping of monitors and the hushed hospital hustle outside my curtained off room and the promise of a better life, a more abundant life – waiting for me. When I gave my life back to Jesus – including the food and the control – he fed me with the Bread of Life – and there was peace in my heart again and a renewed will to live. I entered a residential treatment program in the desert of Arizona that was grounded in Christ. Through equine therapy I learned how to trust again and grow in relationship with someone other than myself. Most importantly, l discovered what a relationship with God was all about. It wasn’t one of manipulation or control. It was a relationship of grace and love. To this day there isn’t a moment that I do not thank Him for the breaths I take and the abundant life I have in him.

This is what the closing of John 6 talks about. Peter knows the truth. When asked if he too will walk away he answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter has experienced Jesus, sat around the fire and eaten with Jesus, and he believes that Jesus is who He says He is. God in the flesh. God committed to relationship and wanting to be in relationship.

And yes, we do know that Peter experiences his own crisis of belief later in the story – just as I still do from time to time, but in John, Peter does not deny who Jesus is, Peter denies who Jesus wants him to be.

We forget just how vulnerable we are when in relationship. Relationships mean being known and knowing. Not wanting to be known for what we really are we acquiesce to fear and walk away especially from our relationship with God. We walk away before he gets too close. We trust only certain aspects of our lives to him, sometimes just our dying. We temper God’s desire for relationship with us in our living, never mind that He came to us in flesh and blood to be one with us, to know our joys and our pain, and to die for us so that we may have him in us for all time. We put the truth of His incarnation in a box as if it was only a temporary moment in God’s time and not meant for our time.

But now, knowing the truth – knowing what it is to be in relationship with God and to live with Him in me – it is with joy and humbleness that I am reminded every Sunday in The Bread and Wine of the Spirit that lives in me, leads me, and sustains me.  And it is an abundant life with Jesus, the intimacy of the relationship with God – that I want you to know. You too are fed with the Living Bread of Jesus – His choice has been made, all you need to do is say yes Lord, count me in, I believe.

 

Amen.

[1] Not Just Bread Anymore, Karoline Lewis. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3676

 

Hungry for Life

A sermon based on the Gospel of John  6:51-58

I love bread. I love Wonder bread slathered with Strawberry jam and peanut butter. I love wheat toast dusted with cinnamon sugar then cut into logs, so I can build cinnamon toast cabins like Mom always did for me when I was home sick.  I love artisan breads in all their handmade loveliness. Whole grain, nutty wheat, sourdough, Rye, Pumpernickel, and then there are those wonderful riffs on bread…  French toast, cinnamon rolls, bread pudding, bagels, popovers, and of course – lefse!  I could go on and on with my carb-fueled mesmerizing. Yes, bread makes life worth living and without its doughy goodness, my life would be devoid of joy.

I also love the Gospel of John and for three weeks now I have been sitting in rapt attention as visiting Pastors Mark Gravrock and David Rommereim expounded on the amazing goodness of a particular kind of bread –  one that works miracles as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand, bringing the source of life to the hungry masses – although the masses just came for the bread and fish; we learned the difference between a bread that perishes and a bread that endures for eternity; and though my fellow classmate Dick Sine didn’t preach on it last week,  in the Gospel reading we heard Jesus declare himself to be the Bread of Life, the living bread that came down from heaven – but those in the crowd could not accept that a mere man born of their friends Joseph and Mary, could be the divine.

So, imagine my anticipation and excitement as I looked forward to my turn to preach on not just bread, but the Bread of Life! And then I cracked open my Bible….

Jesus changed the menu on me!!! We went from this heavenly and earthy nutrition for life bread to flesh and blood! I just about spewed my coffee all over my wheat and quinoa toast!

I was really liking the “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” stuff.  But the bread that Jesus is serving up is his flesh, and folks, there is no coffee on this table today – nope, we are drinking his blood!! And this isn’t just your lyrical taste and see that the Lord is good luncheon affair. No, Jesus goes from telling us to merely eat or consume him to the slow but intensely urgent process of gnawing and chewing, crunching and munching.

The Greek language uses nine different words that are translated “to eat” in the New Testament. In John 6:49-58, two of these words have a very distinct difference in translation. And it is no wonder that the Jews upon hearing Jesus speak were repulsed by his choice of words – as I suspect you may have been too. The carnality of what Jesus was saying flew in the face of Jewish law and frankly, what we hold to as common civilized decency today.

According to Strong’s Bible concordance (which combines the King James Bible version with Greek and Hebrew lexicons to help us discern biblical meaning using the original words not the translation) and accompanying commentaries, one very common Greek word is phago, which is used in John 6:49-53, and 58 and means “to eat, devour, consume.” The word trogo means “to gnaw, to chew,” a much slower process. Trogo is used nowhere else in the New Testament, except in John 6:54 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” and John 56-58 – “Those who eat (trogo) my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats (trogo) me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate (phago) and they died. But the one who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever.”

When the Jews ate (phago) manna, it was to satisfy a carnal appetite, whereas the verb trogo means “to feed upon.” In these verses, phago indicates a one-time action, usually in the past. Trogo is always in the present tense, indicating a continual ongoing action. Therefore, when Jesus said, “he who eats (trogo) this bread will live forever,” he means a continual feeding, something that is to be done on a constant basis to satisfy one’s spiritual appetite.

Jesus uses this language in a spiritual manner as He reveals Himself as the True Bread. In the context of these verses, since the Lord’s Supper was not yet instituted, this “feeding upon” He is referring to a spiritual eating, not necessarily a sacramental one – though it is right that we hear it as such. (Catholics and Protestants have been at war over this understanding of the Bread and Wine for centuries). Jesus proclaims that he is the “food” that endures to eternal life. Food that is eaten and then digested so that it becomes a part of our body for our life in the present.

But rather than questioning whether Jesus is actually present in the Bread and Wine or wondering what kind of diet this is that encourages the eating of flesh and blood, perhaps the question we should be asking is what kind of life is this that he is promising compared to the life without this true bread?  I think this is the kind of deep questioning Jesus would want us to engage in.

What kind of life are you living?

When someone says, “Good Morning,” to you and asks, “How are you today?” Is your automatic reply, “Just fine thank you! Been really busy with you know, life, but all is good.” An earnest attempt to convince someone, anyone, yourself – that all is good.

And then you walk away as life enters your thoughts. You know – the fine and busy, getting our work done, meeting deadlines and commitments, fulfilling obligations, volunteering our time, and loving and caring for our families – life. Yes, we are doing just fine at doing that life.

But what kind of life are you living? After all that doing life, is there any life left in you? Or, are you left hungry. Hungry for something… something more?

Most of us have asked the question at some point, “What am I doing with my life?” I know I sure have!

We spend a fair amount of our time, energy, and money trying to create and possess the life we want. And yet, despite our best efforts nothing seems to satisfy. We want more, and we want to be more, but more doesn’t fill us.  And, when nothing seems to satisfy, when we despair at what is and what we think will be, when despite being surrounded by family and friends we find no place in which we really belong – we wonder if this is all there will ever be. We feels as if we are dying from the inside out. Is this as good as it gets?

Today, Jesus tells us no, it gets better.

The pastor of the church I went to in Billings when celebrating communion, would always call us forward with the words, “Come the table is ready.” And as Jesus fed us Pastor Steve would say “The Bread of Life, food for your Journey. “

I always liked those words – they had a nice flow – compared to the “body of Christ, broken for you.”  but it didn’t really hit home with me what he meant until I began working on this sermon. I always associated communion with the end of Jesus’ life. A remembrance of his death on the cross and the forgiveness of my sins.

But in John’s gospel, Jesus is giving himself to us- body and blood – in his active life. He urges us to eat of him in an urgent, almost desperate manner – as if our life depended on it. Because it does.

He is concerned with far more than just our physical or biological life. The life Jesus talks about is beyond words, indescribable, and yet we know it when we taste it. We taste it when we love so deeply and profoundly that everything we once clung to passes away from our lives yet somehow, we are more fully alive than ever before. We taste it when everything just seems to fit together perfectly, and all is right with the world; not because of something we have done but because we knew we were a part of something greater, more beautiful, and more holy than anything we could have imagined. We taste it when for just a moment time stands still and we wish it would never end. Like at the end of a piece by Norwegian composer Ola Gjielo where our body and breath seem suspended in an ethereal aura or when the sun sets over Flathead Lake and you are standing on its rocky eastern shore – caught in the warmth of fleeting golden light reflecting and sparkling on the water before the sky turns from fiery shades of orange and purple to a placid periwinkle as night takes over and your breath is deep and your body is calm but your heart beats strong and you just can’t put a word to the feeling inside.

In that moment we are in the flow, the wonder, and the unity of life, and it tastes good. We are tasting life – the satisfied, hungry no more, peaceful life in Jesus.

Today, Jesus says, “Eat me. Drink me. Come and have that life beyond words inside of you always.”  This is the only way we will ever have true life within us. Sure, there are lots of other plans we can try – from fancy diets to fancy cars to fancy houses with fancy décor. But, Jesus is very clear and blunt about where true life comes from. He comes to us in the most basic and universal source of life – bread and blood.  His flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. Any other diet will leave us empty and hollow, hungry and deprived of life.

Jesus not only wants us to abide in him – he wants to abide in us – to be with us and fill us with his spirit – his life.

Jesus is our life and the way to the life that we most deeply hunger for. As one Episcopal priest put it: “We don’t work for the life we want. We eat the life we want.”

The saying, “you are what you eat” has never been truer or more profound.

As we partake in the flesh and blood of Jesus, He lives in us and we live in him. We consume his life so that He might consume and change ours. Let it be so that his life, his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his way of being and seeing, his compassion, his presence, and his relationship with the Father become our way of life.

When you come to the table today, come hungry – hungry for forgiveness, hungry for relationship, hungry for life in and with Christ for now and forever.

Amen