Monday, September 18, 2017

500 Years Later Jesus Still Needs to Be the Center

Most theologies are linear.
They work on the philosophical premise that one thing leads to another.
Something like because of this, this other thing is true, and that leads one to conclude that this is the case.
Something like if A, then B, equals C.
This is not the case with Lutheran theology.
It is more random, because there is a center to it.
In the middle is Jesus.
Everything revolves around this one thing.
We forgive because Jesus forgave.
We love because Jesus loved.
We are kind because Jesus is kind.
At the center of everything is Jesus.
And at the center of Jesus is grace.
Grace is more important than anything.
And let us be honest grace is not always linear.
It doesn’t always make sense.

I once gave a sermon about grace in a congregation that I was not the pastor of.
After the sermon a well meaning person came up to me and said, “God has to punish sin, because God is righteous and hates sin.”
It is a good argument; there is solid reasoning behind it.
If only I believe in solid reasoning to talk about God.
What I believe in is a center.
We believe that when we talk about God Jesus is at the center of that discussion.

Because often times what happens is that if we don’t put Jesus at the center we put ourselves.
We trust our reasoning.
We trust our understanding.
We trust our goodness.
Without God at the center it becomes about what we can do.
This was the problem at the time of the Reformation.
People’s lives were not good.
And the only thing they had to hold onto was the promise that heaven would be better.
So the Church was really important to people.
Because of this the Church had become so powerful.
And the Church exploited people for money and power.
The Church became the center instead of Jesus.
And that is an important distinction.
It became about what the Church taught or said.
It became about buildings, land, and who was in charge.
And then it became about what you did to earn your way into heaven.
You get to heaven by serving the Church, by going to worship, by giving money, by following the rules.
You earned heaven.

Luther brought the Church back to the center.
It wasn’t about what you did.
It wasn’t about the Church.
It wasn’t about buildings and land.
It wasn’t about accumulating power and wealth.
It was about Jesus Christ.
What Jesus did for us.
It was about the grace that Jesus showed us through his death and resurrection.

Our Bible reading for this morning is a good example.
When God is the center of our lives what we see is grace and forgiveness.
When we are at the center what we do is demand from other’s more than what we have received.
We are always more willing to judge others based on our standards.
And that is why we need God at the center.
God teaches us that what grace can and does look like.
God’s grace flows through us.

I wish I could say that after the reformation the Church saw the error of its ways and fix its theology.
That is not what happens.
500 years later we still need a reformation that brings us back to the center of things.
It is no longer about the Church, but what we have put in the center is us.
Too much of the popular theology of our day is about what we do.
It is about us having more faith.

Joel Olsteen got a lot of negative press about not opening his church to victims of the hurricane in Houston.
I will give him a pass on that.
It is not for me to judge what he does with his congregation.
I will not give him a pass on the horrible theology he peddles.
It has very little to do with God.
It has to do with you fixing your life.
It is about you having more faith.
For example Joel Olsteeen once wrote, “When you focus on being a blessing, God makes sure that you are always blessed with abundance”
Seems harmless, maybe even some good advice.
But think about that sentence again.
Who comes first?
You do.
When you focus on being a blessing then God acts.
Instead of God as the center and beginning of our lives, we become the center and beginning.
God blesses us not because we are a blessing.
But because God is God, merciful, loving, and filled with grace.
Consider Olsteen’s quote against one of Martin Luther’s, “Moreover, we are also certain and sure that we please God, not by the merit of our own working, but by the favor of his mercy promised to us, and the if we do less than we should or do it badly, he does not hold this against us, but in a fatherly way pardons and corrects us. Hence the glorying of all the saints in their God.”

I think that putting ourselves in as the center causes us lots of problems.
We have become a people of know it alls.
We think we know everything there is to know.
We also think that we can’t do anything wrong.
This usually works for a while in our lives, until it doesn’t.
Until something happens in our life that doesn’t fit with how we think things should go.
Until we come across something that we can’t solve or do anything about.
Then what?

I have noticed that what I say a lot to people about their lives is this, “Put that in God’s hands.”
“We are going to lay that at God’s feet and let God take care of it.”
This is hard to do.
Because we have come to believe that we are the center.
Everything revolves around us.
This might be why we are all so exhausted and stressed out.
Because we have come to believe that everything is about what we do.
Everything is on our shoulders.

How much better is life when we lay our burdens down?
Our lives are better when we give them to God.
When we admit that we can’t do it all, we can’t have it all, that we don’t know it all.
That we are limited people, with limited capacity.
Our lives become so much better.
We can lift the worry and stress from our lives, by giving it to the Lord, by keeping in focus God’s love for us, God’s mercy for us, and God’s grace.

May you keep Jesus at the center of your lives.
May you place the burdens of the day upon the Lord.
500 years later much has changed but our need to keep God at the center of our lives has not.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Don't Turn Jesus Into a Moses!

Martin Luther once said, “Be sure that you do not make Christ into a Moses, as if Christ did nothing more than teach and provide examples as the other saints do.”
Today’s Gospel Jesus gives great advice.
In your personal life if you are having a problem with someone the best way to deal with it is to go and talk to that person.
The worse way of dealing with it is to not talk to that person but go and talk to someone else.
In the therapeutic world this is called triangulation.
It drags someone into a drama who really has nothing to do with it.
And worse it does not actually solve the problem.
Usually it makes things worse.
One of the things that will kill any Church community is the parking lot meetings.
You know these are the ones when people leave a meeting don’t say what they are really thinking.
Then they go to the parking lot and start telling everyone all the things that are wrong with the church, the pastor, and the decisions that were made in the meeting.
This is why I tell people on our congregational council at the start of every year that if you have a problem while we are in the meeting is the time to bring it up.

So that could be a sermon that I could give today.
I could tell us all about how important it is for us to talk to each other.
How important it is for our congregational life that we don’t talk behind each other’s backs.
That would be a good sermon I suppose.
Like I said, “Jesus gives some real good practical advice here.”
I do believe that if we could do this our lives would be better, and filled with less drama.
But that sermon would be making Christ into a Moses.

The problem is that sermon would not be “good news”.
It would not satisfy our deeper needs and desires.
It would not help us spiritually.
And it would have very little to actually do with Jesus.
It would be more about what we do, and why we do it.
I suspect that at the end of that sermon we would leave here less than fulfilled.

But what is the good news in this Bible lesson we have from today?
It appears to be that straight forward.
Jesus is giving us advice about how to live more holy as a community that meets and gathers in his name.
This is the great thing about the Bible is that underneath it all there is always something to dig up.

Today we hear it at the end of what Jesus says.
Jesus sneaks it in on us and we could easily pass it over.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
We have all heard that verse.
I usually hear it quoted (and I usually quote it) when we have some kind of Church event and not a lot of people show up.
“There are only two people at Bible Study, but Jesus said where two or three are gathered in my name I am there.”

But this week I heard it different.
Jesus is teaching about what to do in the midst of conflict.
Not just any conflict, but conflict among those who follow him.
Amazing that Jesus knows the human heart well enough to know that where two or three are gathered in his name their will be conflict.

We often think of the Church as a nice place to go and be with lovely people.
And that is hopefully part of it for us.
But no matter what Church I am in, no matter how awesome it is, there is always conflict.
Because the Church is filled with people like me.
By that I mean sinners.
People who think different and act different.
And when we are at our worse we can’t abide with people that think or act different than us.
We won’t have it.
And so we forget what grace looks like, we forget what it means to love each other.
And as long as humans are involved there will be sin, and because of that there will be conflict.
Jesus knows this.
Like I said last week, Jesus is not about utopia but about what is real in life.
Sin is real.

So there will be conflict, because we are part of the Church.
But what is even more amazing than Jesus knowledge of who we are is the answer.
“I am there among them.”
In the midst of that sin, of that conflict Jesus is still present!
Stop and think about that for a second.
We often think about Church being some idealist place that we retreat to.
But what Jesus tells us this morning is that it is a broken place, that has in it Jesus!
That is what makes us a community of faith, the presence of Jesus.
Not our ability to love each other, or care for one another.
Not our ability to keep out conflict.
That will be unavoidable.
But Jesus is here all the time.
Jesus is in the midst of the conflict!

What does it look like for us to see Jesus not just in the good things around us, but also the bad things?
It means that we live in this place of perpetual truth, that we understand who we are that we are not perfect.
We are not great or awesome.
We are flawed, but made whole.
We are sinful, but forgiven.
We are in conflict, but able to work through it.
Because in our midst is Jesus Christ.

I have said this many times that if you want proof that God exists all you have to do is see that there is a Church at all.
We try so hard to mess this thing up.
We try by insisting on our own way.
We try by talking about each other behind our backs.
We try by not really loving each other.
We try by being petty about things that don’t really matter.
By not extending the grace God gives us to each other.

And yet despite all that here we are.
Here we are together this morning, singing about God’s grace and love.
“Joyful, Joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love!”
 Here we are remembering Jesus in bread and wine, confessing our sins, and yes even caring for each other through sickness, divorces, addictions, and all sorts of other things.
Not because of us, but because in the midst of us is Jesus Christ.
At the center of everything is Jesus.

May we always remember that through the conflict, our sin, and imperfection Christ is here.
And may we always rely upon him to heal us, forgive us, and help us love others, and the world.
Because Jesus is more than a Moses, Jesus always sends love, forgiveness, and grace.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Don't Live Your Dreams, Live Your Life

This summer our family started watching the show “Americas Got Talent”.
The show is a talent show.
They have singers, acrobats, dancers, comedians, and magicians on it.
What the show is really about is dreams.
About six or seven times a show someone will talk about dreams.
About making their dreams come true, or following their dreams.
Or not giving up on their dreams.
It got me thinking about dreams.
Is it good to have dreams or not?
I have gone back and forth.
I am not sure where I have landed on this question.
As I read this Gospel for this week I thought it would be a good way to explore this question.

Jesus is going to be killed.
He will be killed by a conspiracy between religious leaders and the government.
They both have an interest in keeping the status qou.
They both want to keep trouble makers out.
This was not an uncommon thing in Jesus’ time.
Revolution was always in the air.
Religious reformers and zealots were everywhere.
People promising utopian visions of a more perfect world surrounded Jerusalem.
Jesus was not different in this way.
However, what made Jesus different is his solution.
The solution was not to take up arms, it was not to retreat into the country side and create a new community.
It was to confront the powers of the world head on.
Jesus answer was to go right into the middle of Jerusalem, and let those powers kill him.

Jesus had no dreams of a better world.
Jesus knew what the world was, and what it would do to him.
He had been offered the better world, the short cut to get there by Satan.
He could have ruled it, as others have.
He could have given it food and justice.
Jesus chose instead this way.
He chose the longer way, the harder way.
Get some disciples, who were unqualified, and teach them what it meant to live in the kingdom of God.
Show them what it looked like to love, have compassion, and be fully human.
Teach them to serve.
Not dreams but real life.

And this is the problem with dreams is that they distract us from real life.
They distract us from the life that we actually have in front of us.
The one we are confronted with.
The life that is hard and maybe a little uncomfortable.

I was thinking about the people of Houston.
How many dreams have been shattered?
How many people lost all the things that they worked so hard for all these years?
What will we say to them?
Don’t give up on the dream.
Or this is hard, sad, tragic, but let us rebuild.

I have a person I know that is having a hard time dealing with the reality of life.
They had dreams.
They had dreams of a different career, a different partner in life.
And it is distracting from what is actually taking place in this person’s life.
Dreams are things that are out there, and they stop of us seeing what is in front of us because we are always looking over life to what we want.

Consider Peter.
He just told Jesus that he was the Messiah.
He had dreams of what this meant.
And they are understandable.
He was there when Jesus calmed the storm, fed 5,000 people, cured the sick, cast out demons.
He saw the power that Jesus had.
He had dreams of Jesus’ being in power and Peter sitting at his right hand.
Peter rising high up in the company.
Peter would no longer be just a fisherman, but someone with status of importance.
What Jesus says to Peter this morning is that those dreams have distracted him from doing the hard work right in front of him.
“Pick up your cross, and follow me.”
Dreams are dangerous things.

I can tell you from personal experience that my life got better the day I stopped dreaming and lived the life that God was calling me to.
The day I started to pay attention to what was in front of me.
The day I started to do what needed to be done.
The day I started to give thanks to God for the life I had rather than the one I thought I wanted.
My witness to you is that life is much better this way.
Give your life to God, accept what it is, pay attention to the things in front of you, pick up your cross, lose your life and you will find it.

Maybe that is where all of us find ourselves on a daily basis.
We find ourselves at the cross roads of life.
Walking up we look in the mirror and wonder is this it?
What have I accomplished in my life?
What will I accomplish today?
Is it enough?

I read this week a story about Aaron Rodgers.
He is the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.
Back in 2011 he won the Super Bowl.
He sat on the bus thinking about all the plays he had made to be named the MVP.
All of his dreams had come true.
He was the starting quarterback on a Super Bowl winning team.
He thought, “Is this it?”
“There must be more to life than this?”

It made me wonder that even if our dreams come true then what?
Life still goes on.
We still have to wake up the next day and do something.
And this is what I have found that the work that Jesus calls us to is never done.
There is always some new way we can serve.
There is some new morsel of grace yet to be revealed to us.
Something surprising and unexpected that turns up when we are living a faithful life.
Peter and the others would experience this on Easter morning.
So maybe having dreams is not the answer.

But I can’t erase the people on “America’s Got Talent”.
Their stories are inspiring.
Their perseverance and work is commendable.
They make me cry and cheer for them.
So I get it.
I see why we say, “Dreams come true”, “Follow your dreams”, and what not.
I see why this is a popular notion in our culture.

I don’t know if I have some nice neat way to tie all this together this morning.
Except to say that what Jesus calls us to is actually bigger than our dreams.
It is the reality that comes from living a thankful life, a good life, a faithful life, a godly life, a life filled with the cross.
And that as nice as it is to be singing on America’s God Talent.
It is even better to love your family, your work, your friends, your community, the stranger, and the vulnerable.
That is a better life.
To be satisfied with the life that God gave you, the tasks you have been given this day are enough.

Because what we find is the unexpected.
The surprise of hard work that helps others, feeds our families, the surprise of death that gets turned into life.
Don’t live your dreams, live your life.
Not the life you wish you had, but the one God gave you right now.
That is a life worth finding.