Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do You Hear What I Hear?


Every year on Christmas Eve my Grandfather would put us in his big Cadillac and on the way to church we would search the winter sky for Santa Claus.
What was amazing is that every year we would see Santa Claus led by Rudolph traversing the night sky on his way to deliver presents which would always be waiting for us when we got home from Church.
I am wondering if tonight when we search the winter sky what will see?
Or maybe even more what will we hear?
As we leave here tonight will the echoes of the Hallelujah chorus be in our ears, will we hear the angel song singing sweetly in the sky?
Will we hear the mountains echo the joyous strains?
Can we imagine just over the tress the sounds of angel’s sweetly singing songs of good news, joy, and peace to all people?
Can we hear the song of the angels on this Christmas?

There have been attempts to domesticate this wonderful Christmas story we hear from Luke.
Sometimes we want to make it more realistic and more acceptable to our modern ears.
But I believe that even we that live now in the 21st century need things in our lives that don’t make sense.
We need to believe in things just beyond the realistic expectations of human beings.
We need to recapture the mystery and wonder of this night.
Angels singing in the sky might sound improbable, but I would love to have some things that are improbable.

That song that we hear from the night sky, that song of good news, joy, and peace is exactly what we need.
That Hallelujah chorus that rings in our ears speaks to our deep need for God to be with us.
It speaks of our need to be transported away into the realms of glory that tell us of Good news, joy, and peace.
“For we are bringing you good news of great joy.”

It seems that our lives are filled with bad news, hard times, and violence.
It is nice to believe that just beyond our sight, only in the place of mystery and wonder there lays a new reality.
This is what Christmas is about mystery and wonder.
It brings me back to searching for Santa in the night sky, and to that feeling I had when we finally saw him.
It brings me back to that feeling of the joy and wonder of it all.
Perhaps the only word I can think of to describe that feeling is Hallelujah.
That is really the only appropriate word for the wonder and joy of Christmas.
“To you is born this day in the city of David a savior.”
We need a savior!
We need a savior who brings good news.
Most days when I come into the office I read the news.
I have to tell you and can be depressing.
We hear bad news of bad politics, bad economies, and bad people.
The other day on the homepage of MSNBC there was a story of a man in New York who got on an elevator, and set a woman on fire and then watched as she burned to death.
My immediate thought was what are we to do?
How can we hear the song of the Angel’s through such bad news?
In faith we turn to something greater, more mysterious, and wonderful than we can think is possible.
We need look towards the heavens to hear that song of sweet Good News.
We need to hear the angels sing to us that chorus that rings louder than all the bad news.
Louder than all the sensational headlines.

We need joy!
We get stuck in our lives sometimes.
We get stuck in the mundane getting up and going about our business.
A few weeks ago I got to spend a night out with some friends.
It was such great medicine.
I didn’t realize how much I needed to laugh and have good time.
Joy brings release.
We need the angel’s song that reminds us that all is not lost.
There is something greater in store for us.
The joy of knowing God helps us not merely tolerate life, but helps us to triumph in it.

We need peace!
We need to be able to rest and to calm our minds and bodies to feel secure and safe.
This is no small thing.
We are in so many conflicts with ourselves, our family, and our friends.
This is not even to mention our prejudices and our separation from that which is different from us.
Peace is more than merely an absence of conflict it is the restoration of balance that gives our lives wholeness.

Tonight God has come to earth.
Tonight earth has ascended to the heavens.
The song of the angels is filled with mystery and wonder because they sing it to our humanity.
Hallelujah is the reminder that God is going to dwell in a baby sleeping in a manger.
God is here in the flesh, and we have experienced on earth good news, joy, and peace.
Can you hear the song of the angels just over the trees?
Can you hear the song of the angels drown out the bad news, the sorrow, and the conflict?
Tonight I wish you all the wonder and mystery of the angel song that sings from the skies and comes down to us this nigh, so that we might know our savior and have good news, joy, and peace.
Amen

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Crazy Plan


It is a crazy plan.
God is going to use a fourteen year old girl to bear His Son who will save the world.
Salvation is going to come to the world through a poor girl of no consequence in a poor back water town in Nazareth.
It just doesn’t make sense.
So we can understand Mary’s confusion when the angel shows up and tells her that she is favored.
“She was perplexed by the angel’s words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”
Who is she that God would favor her?
Who is she that God has chosen her for this task?

We talk a lot about God’s plan, but what we forget is that often times God’s plans don’t make much sense to us.
This is one of those plans.
We get lost in this story on some of the more sensational points.
Was Mary a Virgin?
I had a friend in college who was estranged from the Church who insisted that the word virgin simply meant young woman.
I often thought she got lost in this point, but forgot to look at the more scandalous parts of the story.
Sure according to the story Mary is a virgin but that is not the most sensational part.
The fact that God would come to dwell among us, that God favors us, is really crazy.
Look at us human beings, there is not all that much to find favor with.
We hurt one another, we are greedy, and we are focused on the wrong things.
And yet, God sees it important to dwell with us.
In our lowliest of moments God is dwelling with us.
That is something extraordinary and mind blowing.

We think that an angel showing up to deliver this news is mind blowing.
But most people believe in angels to some degree.
Most people have a statue of an angel somewhere in there house.
We love angels so much that they are in movies all the time.
An angel is not the crazy part of the story.
God dwelling in the heart of human life is the craziest part of the story.

Virgin births, Angels delivering messages, these are not the real crazy parts of the story.
They are details added for effect or for theological reasons.
The real scandal here is that God, the Most High, the ruler and maker of all things, has favored this girl of no significance.
That God is going to dwell in the skin of human beings.

The Christmas story is about God showing up just outside our expectations.

God is always working in ways that we just don’t understand.
Consider King David from our first reading this morning.
By all accounts he is making a reasonable assumption.
He lives in style in his house of cedar.
The Ark, and in David’s mind this means God, is living in a tent.
Shouldn’t God live in something grander?
But God refuses to be domesticated.
God doesn’t need or want some fancy house.
God asks David, “did I ever ask for a house?”

It reminds me of all those Christmas gifts we get that we didn’t really ask for but get anyway.
The feety pajamas sent to us by some distant relatives, the sweeter given by a neighbor, a Chia pet, a personalized belt buckle that flashes your name in neon.
I once saw Bill Cosby in concert and he told this story about his birthday.
He had hoped that he would get a new car.
He spent months dropping hints that he wanted this new car.
On the day of his birthday his wife woke him up all excited.
She brought him down to the garage and sat him in a chair.
She told him to wait there.
He waited in anticipation of his new car.
A few minutes later his wife backed their old car into the garage and in the back of the car was a new cedar dresser.
Bill Cosby sat there thinking to himself, “Did I ever say I wanted a new dresser?”

This is God’s attitude toward David this morning, because God does not want to be boxed in.
God wants his home to be in every human heart.
What is it that we are going to give God this Christmas?
God does not want or need anything fancy.
God does not want a new home, or car, or dresser.
God wants you.
God wants all of you.
God wants to dwell in your heart, live among you where you are.
Our Gospel reading this morning reminds us that we are God’s favored ones.
God brings you this morning Good news.
God remembers today the promise of mercy made through the generations.

We can certainly see how God is working in our congregation to show blessings to others and us.
In this advent season we have heard lots about what our congregation is doing.
How we are spreading the good news through our worship and music.
How we are touching the lives of the youth.
How we are proclaiming the good news to the next generation through our Sunday school.
How we are reaching out to the hungry.
All those are great things, but they are not our work.
They flow through the Holy Spirit into us and out into the world.
The Holy Spirit has come upon us and that is why we do these things.
We don’t do them to curry favor with God.

This morning as you fill out your commitment cards, I want to warn you that giving your money to this Church gets you nothing.
It does not curry you favor with God.
Rather giving is an expression of the gifts that God has given.
God in his mercy has favored us.
And God has called us blessed.
Go has favored us not because we are special, not because we give money to the church, but because God wants to live in our hearts.
God has called us blessed.

This week the Patriots will play the Denver Broncos.
For those who don’t know Tim Tebow is the quarterback for the Denver Broncos he is a sincere young man who plays football really well and has a deep faith in Jesus Christ.
According to his pastor, Wayne Henson, "God favors Tim for all his hard work.”
But Tim Tebow is not favored by God anymore or any less than anyone else.
Our Gospel this morning and Mary’s magnificent remind us that God dwells and lives not in those who are rich and famous.
Not by those who are powerful.
God finds favor with those who are of little or no consequence to the world.
God finds favor with those who don’t work hard.
And winning football games, elections, or being a pastor is no sign of God’s favor.
God is always working outside the box, just beyond our expectations.

If you are feeling lowly, unimportant, and forgotten remember today that God is favoring you.
God is looking for you.
And when God shows up I am willing to bet that your reaction will be one of puzzlement.
What kind of greeting can this be?
What kind of plan is this?

Because when our lives are tied to God’s we find that our lives too are out of the box.
God is always interrupting our lives with surprises and new revelations.
How can this be?
Is often our response to what God is up to in our lives?

Advent is coming to a close.
I hope in this advent season you have been surprised by the ways that God has shown up in your life.
I hope that you are willing to give to God all of our life, your heart, your time, talent, and treasure.
Not because you are paying a bill but because God has granted you favor, and given you the greatest gift that of his Son Jesus Christ who brings Good News to all people.
Amen

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Not So Perfect Christmas.

What is our picture of Christmas?
For many of us it looks like this ?


Or this?



Or perhaps this?




For most of us Christmas look like family gathered around a perfectly decorated house, kids happily opening presents, and smiling families gathered around a big table filled with food.
In many ways this ideal of Christmas is what we all strive for.
It is why we work so hard in the days leading up to Christmas to make sure that we have bought the perfect gift, cooked the perfect meal, and decorated appropriately.
This often leads us to feel really stressed.
In fact we often don’t feel the wonder and beauty of Christmas because we are too busy making the perfect Christmas.
We are trying to live up to the ideal in our head.
But often times Christmas brings with it not so good times.
Sometimes we are so stressed about making everything perfect that we end up not simply enjoying being together, or sharing gifts.

I know that I have many great memories of Christmas.
However, I have some not good memories too.
This week we put up the tree in our house.
We had a wonderful time.
But Vicki and I were talking about how when we were kids we didn’t remember that time as being really great.
For example, my parents would fight as they put up the tree.
Because of this, we have a rule in our house that you are not allowed to fight as you put up the tree.
The cost of perfection is sometimes that it stresses us out to the point where we no longer enjoy the moment we are living in.

I know that other people are going to be struggling this year.
They might be in a nursing home for the first time and feel depressed that they can’t have the ideal Christmas.
Some families are experiencing great financial stress at this time of year and can’t provide the ideal Christmas we all have in our head.
I know that other people are mourning the death of a loved one and feeling not so merry, but sad that the person will not be here to fill out that ideal picture.
One of my friends wrote on her Facebook page, “Dear Santa, all I want for Christmas is to catch a break!!”
Sometimes life just feels that way, and it can feel even worse at Christmas because life is not measuring up to our perfect picture.
Because perfection is so hard we end up feeling likes failures when we don’t get there.

I say this because our witness to the world is not about the perfect Christmas.
Being a person of faith does not guarantee that your Christmas will be perfect like this picture.
As Christians we are not promising anyone the joys of spending holidays with friends and family, or the blessing of gathering around the table to eat at great feast.
Our witness is about the light.
It is the same witness that John the Baptist has for us in our Gospel lesson this morning.
The light comes into the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
We are not the light, our families are not the light, the perfect Christmas is not the light.
No we testify to the light that is more secure than all these things.
We testify to the true light that shines in our darkest days.

Our proclamation is about the one who comes to take away the sting of death, the one who comes to take away the sins of the world.
The John the Baptists from this morning’s Gospel is much different than the one we met last week.
In Mark’s Gospel John is a prophet in the tradition of Elijah, John comes to tell us to repent.
In John’s Gospel John is the one who testifies, who proclaims that Jesus is coming, that the light is shining.
John prepares the highway by proclaiming the thing that we all need.
And what we need is Jesus to come into our imperfect life.
We don’t need perfection, because it only brings stress.
Perfection is never a good thing.
Instead we should embrace our darkness; because it is there that Christ will shine the brightest.
Our proclamation to the world is this truth that into the darkness Christ comes to shine light.
And that we all have darkness.

Our proclamation is an important one.
Because it helps us overcome the picture of perfect.
It allows us to live in our imperfection.
This is why our Sunday school is such an important part of our ministry here at Concordia.
We get to proclaim to the next generation the truth of Christ coming.
I know that the teachers take this task very seriously.
They see it as part of our responsibility to keep the promises we made at the baptism of our children.
The Congregation promises to proclaim Christ as they grow in their faith.
As one person wrote on our giving tree, “(Teaching Sunday School) Gives me the opportunity to touch the lives of children and let them know that God loves them. And hopefully prepare them to lead others to Christ.”
Proclamation begins here among and with us.
We must proclaim to each other that Christ comes in our darkness.

John came proclaiming Christ not to strangers but his own people.
John came proclaiming the light in the darkest of hours for the people of Israel.
Just like Isaiah before him.
John was telling an expecting people that God had not forgotten the promises God made long ago.
It is important for us as a community to proclaim that same truth to one another.

Visiting people who are sick reminds them that you care and have not forgotten them.
Being with people when they have lost someone they love gives them human contact when they need it the most.
Walking with someone as they struggle to overcome problems they face gives hope.
We can be the light to others.
We can be the light that God sends to proclaim light in the dark times.
But just like just like John we also must proclaim that we are not the one who people are looking for.
We are not prophets.
We are not Elijah.
We are not the messiah.
We are imperfect people simply proclaiming that in Jesus others will find what they are searching for in their lives.

This message hit home with me this week.
I was in the middle of preparing my sermon this week.
In the middle of writing it I got a call from my sister that my mom had been diagnosed with cancer.
It was a wakeup call from God that I don’t only preach these things to you, but I live them with you too.
I need this advent season to be about more than the picture of perfection.
It is not perfect;
It is lousy in so many ways.
I need it to be about Jesus Christ and the light he spreads into my life.
I need it to be about how Jesus comes and heals an imperfect world, saves us from death and sickness, and sheds light even on the darkest of times.

I hope that this year your Christmas is not perfect, but rather it is filled with the light that only comes from Jesus Christ.
Amen

Monday, December 5, 2011

Spiritual But Not Religious


The fastest growing religion in the United States is unaffiliated.
People who are calling themselves “Spiritual but not religious” are leaving behind churches.
It got me thinking about how people are flocking away from Churches.
What is it that they are leaving and what is it that they are looking for?
Because today’s Gospel reading tells us that people were flocking into the wilderness to hear John.
I was thinking this week about those flocking to the wilderness.
I was thinking about those going out to hear John speak, and baptize.
They went to hear John because something they had a deep need to be saved.
They went because they were anticipating something great was going to happen.
John was preparing them for something even more.
I am wondering what is it that we are anticipating this advent season?
What do all the people out there need who say they are “spiritual but not religious”?
What are the people looking for who show up here at worship on Christmas eve but who don’t usually come?
What is it that they come to hear?

One thing they don’t want to hear is that they need forgiveness for their sins.
One of the criticism is about the Church is that people don’t want to come here to “feel bad about themselves”.
John’s message for our time is a radical one.
It is a message that demands of us serious preparation.
It demands preparation so that we are able to hear the good news.
Mark’s Gospel begins in this very simple way.
There are no birth stories, no genealogies, no angels, no wise men, or shepherds, just a message of preparation.
Repent!

Because John knows that the good news is hard to hear without repentance.
If you don’t think there is anything wrong with you, if you don’t think that you sin, then how can you hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
The coming of the messiah means nothing if you think all is well.

I remember meeting with a family before a funeral.
It was in their home.
The grand daughter was telling me that she did not really think that religion was that important.
She was saying that she was “spiritual but not religious”.
She then told me this, “I am a good person. I try to do the right thing.”
Sin is not about being a good person or a bad person.
It is about something deeper in us that make us always seek out our self interest over the interest of our neighbors.
It is what makes us believe that we don’t need God because we can all improve ourselves.
Repentance is not about saying “I can improve. I can get better.”
Repentance is admitting that we can’t improve and we can’t get better and we need God to save us.
Without repentance it will be hard to hear the good news.

I too will tell you that I am spiritual and not religious.
There are many things I really dislike about religion.
I dislike that we use at as a way to divide ourselves from one another.
I dislike that we use at as a way to deny progress and science.
I dislike that we use at as a way to make ourselves feel superior over other people.
“My people are going to heaven, and your people are going to burn in the fires of hell.”
I dislike that religion often is the defender of the status quo, instead of a defender of the left out and lost.
So there is a lot to dislike.
But there is also a lot to like.
What I believe is that I can’t be spiritual with being religious.
I need some way to express my spiritual nature.
I need some where to go and pray.
I need some where to go and read the Holy Scripture, and be challenged in my beliefs.
I need a place to sing the praises of my God.
Without religion how would I do that?
I want to know what people who say they are spiritual but not religious are doing to be spiritual.

That is why I love Sunday’s, because on Sundays I get to come here and be spiritual.
To me this space that we occupy every Sunday together is like a wilderness.
It is a place I flee to.
Like the people in our Gospel this morning I come here to have a place to repent.
I come here to prepare myself for life, and to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.
And it is the wilderness because when I come to worship I get to leave everything else behind.
I can leave my busy life behind, I can leave the problems of the world behind, I can leave all my sin behind.
In this space I can recharge myself as I hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
It is like every week is a new beginning for me.
I can understand why the crowds flock to the wilderness to hear John.
They want bad1ly to have a new beginning of their lives.
They want to know the God of good news.

I know that many of you feel the same way.
On our giving tree people wrote about how worshipping here brings them closer to God.
As one person wrote, “Choir and music in the church brings me closer to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. It is a reinforcing of the message of the Word through praise and song.”
In other words, it is here together in worship that we are met by the Holy Spirit.
It is here that we experience together spiritual worship.
Those who look at worship and see only boring hymns and outdated rituals don’t see it properly.
So much more is going on in our worship life together.
We are confessing our sins, emptying ourselves of pretention, seeking the mercy of God, deeply intersecting our stories with the story of God, and renewing ourselves to the mission of spreading the good news to others.
We are not just talking about being spiritual we are practicing our spirituality.

What John the Baptist calls the people of Jerusalem and Judea to this morning is something more than merely a ritualized bath, but he is calling them to spiritually prepare themselves for the good news.
And every Sunday we come together to prepare ourselves to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.

In this advent season preparing for us means that we confess our sins, sing praises to God, enrich our lives with the Word, and hear anew the promise of God’s good news coming to each of us.
We travel into the wilderness to do it.
We travel away from the hustle and bustle of buying presents, hanging decorations, and cooking food into the wilderness where God always meets God’s people.
We do it not because those other things are bad, but because we need it, we yearn for it.

For the people of Jesus’ day they were so eager to hear the good news that they came to the wilderness.
I think we too have that same hunger.
I believe that all those “spiritual but not religious” people in the world are deeply starved for the good news.
They too yearn to be loved.
They too yearn to hear God say words of comfort and joy.
Perhaps that is why in our culture Christmas is so wildly celebrated.
That even though people may or may not be prepared for Christ to come at Christmas they still yearn for it in their souls.
Buying presents is a great way to show your love for others, bringing light into our houses during the darkest time of the year is a great way to remember hope, hearing songs is great way to bring joy to others.
All these traditions of Christmas are not what Christmas is about, but perhaps they are signs of what we truly yearn for and really want in our lives love, peace, comfort, and joy.

Those of us who have come to worship this morning have traveled into the wilderness so that we are prepared for the good news.
We are preparing for the true spiritual beginning that comes to us from our God who comes to comfort us.
Let us leave knowing that we are prepared to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.
Amen

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I am supporting the occupy movement!


There has been lots said and written about the occupy movement. Lots of it negative. “Those people are bums!” “Why don’t they get a job?” One of the biggest criticisms I have heard from people, some of whom I would have thought would be supporting the movement, is that they don’t have a cohesive message. I don’t think that is true, but let us say that it is. Does that mean that I shouldn’t support them? If one cares at all about peace, the environment, the poor, the middle class, the working class, and vast majority of people in the United States, then you should be for the occupy movement.
From what I can tell after reading about it, and talking to people who are currently in involved, the movement is about how our system is failing so many. A system built for the domination of a few wealthy people over the rest of us. The occupy movement is about protesting a system that is destroying our planet, ruining our food, corrupting our youth, testing our children into inefficiency, starting wars in our name without our approval, and eroding the most basic code of humanity that we care about our fellow travelers in this world. This is the system that needs to go. It is about more than just electing a new person into a corrupt system but about challenging us to change the roots of the system that is failing.
As a person of faith I have to be on board with the occupy movement because at the heart of the Biblical witness is a God who challenges human systems all the time. Prophets often spoke out against systems that helped a few and failed the rest. Jesus challenged a system that made it impossible for ordinary people to worship God and live the abundant life intended by God. As people of faith any human system always has to be under suspicion. Whether it is a religious system or a political one, because all human systems end up failing when left unchecked and unquestioned. The best we can do is keep our elected leaders accountable to maintain peace and justice. Ultimately, all systems fail because it is only God who can bring about true peace and justice for all.
I am also supporting this movement because the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) has produced a teaching document that supports the “Sustainable, Livelihood, for All”. As all good Lutheran teaching documents do it does not give specific answers, but lays out ground work for the kinds of questions and answers we should be seeking from a system that fails so many. To quote just one part of the teaching document: “We call for efforts to increase the participation of low-income people in political and civic life, and citizen vigilance and action that challenges governments and other sectors when they become captive to narrow economic interest that do not represent the good of all.” This is exactly what the occupy movement has done. I have sent several emails to our presiding Bishop asking why he does not publicly support the occupy movement. I hope soon he will support it. Because if the Church cannot stand for peace, for justice, against war, against the wasting of our planet, and for the vast majority of poor and disenfranchised then we cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ.


Here are a few links to read more about the occupy movement http://www.nycga.net/resources/declaration/, http://www.occupytogether.org/

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Sky Is Falling!


So this week I experienced one of the signs of the end of the world.
It was at a Target in Portland Maine at 12:00 am for what is commonly called black Friday.
It was the first (and hopefully the last) time I will be out shopping on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving.
I am glad I went.
I got to experience for myself this rite of passage for many holiday shoppers.
What was astonishing to me was that the line to get into Target went totally around the store.
And everyone who came to get in line had the same reaction, “This is crazy!”
And yet they all got in line and waited.
All the people in line with me on black Friday were there in order to be ready for the big day.
They all had to wait.
Some came hours early to be the first in line.
Others like me came right when the doors opened and had to wait to be let into the store.
As I stood in line waiting to get in I thought about how it is like advent.
In advent we are getting ready, we are waiting, and it is all a little crazy.

Jesus this morning gives us a vision of what the last days will be.
Jesus lays out what will be when God comes again.
The vision can sometimes seem scary; Stars falling, the moon turning black, the sun not shining.
Jesus is expressing what it will feel like to be in that end time when the world will change from what it is now to what it will be.
Heaven itself collapses down on us.
But I bet that if we think about it our lives often feel this way.
We often feel that the world is crumbling around us.
So what changes is that when we are ready we know that in the midst of our lives falling apart God is present.
It is not just that the world is coming to an end, but that God is intervening in the midst of our lives.

To be ready is not a moral imperative, but an imperative of faith.
Are we ready to experience God?
Are we ready for God to rip open our lives and enter in?
The thing about God is that he does not always show up when everything is well and good, but shows up in the middle our struggles.

Last week at our adult Forum we were discussing atheisms.
One of our youth was attending this discussion and shared with us his struggles with faith.
He shared with us that at time when his father was dying he questioned God’s existence.
He questioned if God really cared about him.
And he flirted with the thought of becoming an atheist.
He told us that being involved in the youth group here at Concordia pulled him back into faith.
And that looking back now he could see that it was God who got him through.
Our Youth group is inspiring our young people to have faith, and to remember that even when the heavens are falling God is at work.
As one person wrote on their leaf, “Our teenagers have an anything is possible attitude that reminds me daily that with Christ anything is possible.”

It is true for us too.
That amidst the hard things of life and the struggles God is bringing new things to life for us.
The problem is that bringing new things to life often hurts.
It is painful to bring in the kingdom of God because we so naturally resist it.
Maybe this is the best news of all that despite our failings.
Despite our sin and our natural aversion to what is best for us God is determined to enter into our lives anyway.

As Dietrich Bonnhofer once preached, “God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be - in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us.”
Advent is the time of getting ready.
Not for Christmas per se.
Not a time for us to get nervous that we didn’t buy presents.
Not a time for us to be overwhelmed at all the things that have to get done.
But advent is a time of hope.
Advent is a time for us to be ready for God to enter into our lives that feels like the heavens are falling.

It is a time to see God working in our lives through all of the loss and pain.
You know the bad thing about holidays is that not everyone experiences them as a joyful time.

I was in line getting coffee the day after Thanksgiving.
This woman behind me was telling her friend how awful Thanksgiving was with her family.
How her parents thought of her as a disappointment.
How her siblings did not like to be around her.
Not everyone is in a jolly mood at this time of year.
Consider that in Arizona, Los Angeles, and North Carolina there were acts of violence as people trampled, sprayed maze, and shot one another trying to get to the perfect gift.
When I heard that I thought the sky was falling and it was a certain sign that things have gotten out of hand.
How can God want to be part of this very human life with all of our foibles?
Somehow Jesus birthday is about us hurting each other as we try to get the “best” gift.
In such a world it is going to be painful to let God enter into our lives.
It is going to be painful to see that we don’t have the power but that God does.

Mark’s Gospel is all about God ripping open the heavens and entering in.
At Jesus’ Baptism the heaven’s rip open as Jesus enters the world, at Jesus’ death the curtain rips in two as God ends the separation between the heavens and earth.
Mark’s Gospel is about how Jesus comes into our lives.
Are we ready?

You have to be a little crazy because you have to hope against all the evidence before you.
To be ready means to have faith that even in all of life’s troubles God is somehow at work bringing life from death, righteousness from sin.
To be ready means believing that God is faithful even in the times when we are tested.
It is not easy to be ready because so many things pull at us and distract us.
But if we can be ready for black Friday then we can be ready for Christ coming.
If we put in as much time working on our relationship with God as we did plotting how to get the perfect present then I know we will be ready.

Jesus is coming into your life today.
Advent is about the past, present, and future.
It is about how Jesus came into the world to be our savior so many years ago.
It is also about our lives today and being ready for God to come into them in love.
It is about our ability to see God working in our lives right now.
Lately it seems that more and more people I love have been struggling.
We had a very good friend of ours diagnosed with a rare form of Breast cancer, another friend lost her mother to cancer last week, Vicki’s grandmother is in the hospital, my aunt is recovering from a crippling illness, not to mention the four or five other things that are happening to those we love.
I was not ready for those things to happen.
I am thankful for this time of advent so I can be ready for God to come into my life with all of its craziness.

And it is about the future the time not yet come when God will put all things right.
It is about the day when there will be no more dying, or tears, no more killing, or fighting, no more pain and suffering.
In all these things we need our faith.
It is about the hope realized in Jesus Christ, which carries us through today, and makes us look with joy towards tomorrow.
So be ready when the sky is falling we know that Jesus Christ is here.
Amen

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Sheep and Goat Test


For a while now I have been skeptical of the self help craze so I have decided to give up on all self betterment programs.
I guess I am sick of thinking that the better me is right around the corner.
That if I read some new book, or go to some seminar I will discover some secret to finding life’s happiness.
The fact is that this is it.
We are who we are.
We can’t make ourselves better.
Now you might think that this is some flag of surrender on my part.
That I have given up on life.
To the contrary I have decided not to dictate the terms of my life.
Instead, I have decided that we live each day in the grace of God.
As Americans we spend about 8 billion dollars a year on self help material from books, to seminars, to programs, to DVDs.
And despite all this we don’t feel any better about ourselves.
So today I am giving everyone here permission to stop trying to improve yourselves.

Today’s Gospel is often preached and heard as “We all need to work harder at being better Christians.”
So go out there and feed the poor, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and those imprisoned.
And then just like reading a self help book we leave worship and not much changes in our lives.
I think it is a miss use of the Bible to see it as a Christian self help guide.
The Bible is about the essential question of life.
Who are we?
Who is God?

What is worse is that people who get the most media attention are really people disguising Christianity as self help.
Rick Warren became a millionaire by selling a book called “The Purpose Driven Life.”
Which is really just a book about how finding our purpose in life we can find the better us.
Rick Warren has admitted that he made the mistake of overlooking 250,000 other verses in the Bible that deal with how our lives should be about serving others, and not just naval gazing.
Joel Olsteen who preaches weekly in a football stadium and has a television show had a New York Times Best seller with the book, “You Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living to Your Full Potential.”
The book says nothing about helping the stranger, the poor, the sick, or imprisoned.
I don’t remember Jesus giving us 7 steps to living our full potential.
It simply does not pass the sheep and goat test.

Of course it is not just pastors; Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann who are running for the Republican nomination to be President of the United States belong to an organization called New Apostolic Reformation.
The basic idea of the New Apostolic Reformation is that Christian leaders (Apostles) need to take over the world in preparation for the end times.
Now I have said many times I have no interest in being a politician, but if politicians insist on being theologians than I have to speak up.
It is not a Christian’s job to take over the world.
The Bible is very clear that God is in charge of the world, and gives it to us to be good stewards.
That is what Jesus is upholding in today’s Gospel.
What Jesus tells us is this morning is that if he is Lord of our life than we as good stewards will care for the poor, imprisoned, naked, stranger, and sick.
I don’t know if we can claim to follow Jesus if we can clap when someone is electrocuted, or deported, or kept out of the health care system.
I don’t care what political party Michelle Bachmann or Rick Perry belong to the simple fact is that they do not pass the sheep and goat test Jesus gives this morning.
My guess is that they are molding a theology to justify their politics.
I don’t have a problem with someone who says they believe in the death penalty, or the idea that we live in a world where every person is for themselves, or the idea that in a capitalist system some people are left behind, just don’t call it Christianity.
But what I won’t say is the Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann need to work harder, or be better.
The problem is that they just don’t know Jesus that well.

In our text today neither the goats nor the sheep know who they are.
“When Lord? When did we see you hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, or imprisoned?”
Being a sheep and a goat is something that we don’t do because we have thought about all the options and decided to do this thing over that thing.
It is something that comes naturally from who we are, and what we are about.
Those who know Jesus well will know that he does not care about conquering the world, or self help programs.
Jesus cares about the lost, the broken-hearted, the poor, the sinner, and sick.
People who know Jesus well know that he had no use for taking over the world, or making sure that you had your best life now.
Jesus died because he knew that we did not have it all together.
Instead he died so that we might be saved from ourselves.
Jesus gave his life even though he could have taken over the world.
So if you are really a Christian and really know Jesus well then you cannot believe that executing people is a good thing (even if as a government official you might have to do it).
You cannot possibly believe that some people will fall behind and that is OK.
You cannot possibly believe that a health care system that allows about 50 million people to be without health care is a good one.
You cannot possibly clap when you hear that people have died, been left out, or been deported.

For me it brings up two very difficult things.
On the one hand it brings up the question of what it means that I am Christian.
And what does it mean that Rick Warren, Joel Olsteen, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann claim to be a Christian too.

I guess the only difference is that we can claim not to be perfect.
I don’t know what my best life is, and I don’t want 7 steps to get there, I don’t care what my purpose is, I don’t want to take over the world for Jesus.
I simply want to know Christ and him crucified.
I want to know that his grace is sufficient for this day.

I believe that being part of this Christian community helps me to do things that I maybe could not do on my own.
You may not have the ability and time to do all the things that Jesus names this morning.
But here you belong to this community that does.
And the things that you cannot do someone in this community are doing on your behalf.
Consider that about 6 people for the last year have been working with a refugee family here in Concord.
They have been doing this not because they thought it would get them in good with Jesus on the last day.
In the words of the one of the participants of that group, “I want to show them love. So they will know God’s love.”
That is why they do it.
Because they feel it is where Jesus would be.
Recently our congregation helped to give a baby shower for this family as the welcomed there newest member.
At the shower I felt that they appreciated those gifts.
In fact, they invited us on the following Monday to their family celebration.
I went and I have never felt more welcomed in a place.
In that time I felt Jesus among us and with us.
This is who we are.
We are welcoming to the stranger among us in them we see Christ.

When I was at my endorsement interview, which is the final step in our churches discernment process before ordination.
I was asked what I liked about doing ministry with the poor.
All I could say was, “I don’t know. I have always just felt that is where God called me.”
It was not that I set out in my life to try and be more Christ like.
It is that through getting to know Jesus I naturally did the things that are Jesus like.
We are all really flawed human beings.
The best thing we got going for us is that we know Jesus Christ.

Having Jesus as our Lord and savior is the best self help we can have.
It does not tell us to change or be different then we are it just asks us to acknowledge who we are.
This is not about making a choice or trying harder it is about living in the grace and mercy of God, and seeing everyone else living in that same space.
We don’t know if we will pass the sheep and goat test either, we can only get to know Jesus better and believe that through him we too will be saved.
Amen

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What We Have Been Given!


Every year when it is time to talk about stewardship people begin to worry.
I believe it is because most of us are not giving what we wish we did.
And so when we talk about giving we feel guilty.
We know that we have done enough.
Then we hear a text like our story from Matthew’s Gospel and it confirms for us that we are slated for the place of outer darkness.
Because we just feel that we can’t give anymore.
How can we give more money in a time of economic peril?
How can we give more time when so many things pull at us?
There are teenagers to monitor, proposals for work to be completed, leaves to rake, parties to plan, kids to drive, homework to be done, life is busy.
We simply cannot do it all.
Let us start by saying that you are right you can’t.
Let me shatter any allusions any of you have this morning about having it all together.
You on your own do not possess enough money, time, or talent to save the world.
Today’s parable is misread if the message we take away is that we should do more to make our lives better.

So this morning I am not going to preach about how much more you should all be doing.
Instead let me tell you about all the things that we are doing, and let me assure you that they are never enough.
I know this because I see the people who come to our church looking for help.
I know that our resources are too small to truly make the type of impact that is needed.
I see the people living under the 393 bridge, the woman who comes to the Friendly Kitchen with her Wal-Mart uniform on, the single mother who husband is in jail struggling to keep the roof over her head, the addict struggling to stay sober.
These problems are bigger then what we do here, they are problems that need more than the band aid we are to provide.
But I want you to know that I am not in any deterred.
I am not pessimistic or jaded about the world.
Because I know that God can do what I cannot.

The Parable for this morning is not about what we don’t have.
It is not about what we lack.
And thank God for that because we lack so much.
Instead it is about what we have been given.
We each have been given according to our ability gifts from God.
We all have been given money to use for the better good.
We all have been given talents to use for the building up of our neighbor.
We all have been given time to use in the spreading of the kingdom of God.
The parable never says that we will solve all the problems.

But that we should use the gifts of God now.
I hope you hear that as good news.
It is not meant to be a burden, but a gift.
God has given us more money then we need!
That is a gift!
God has given us a talent that can be used for the greater good.
That is a gift!
We have been given a new day to labor in the vineyard for God.
That is a gift!

The problem in the parable is that the person who buries their gift in the ground does it out of fear.
Fear of the master.
Our freedom as a Christian allows us to act without fear.
I wonder if how the story changes if the person who was given the one talent tries to do something with it but loses it.
Will the master still be upset?
My guess is probably not.
The problem is that he does nothing with it at all.

I feel this way about the Church.
God has given us this great gift.
We have this wonderful treasure.
It is the Gospel.
It is the wonderful amazing grace of God.
It is not flashy or fancy.
And it actually has no real value in the world.
You can’t buy a new car with the Gospel.
You can’t pay your mortgage with the Gospel.
You can’t win a presidential campaign with the Gospel.
You can’t attack another country with the Gospel.
You can’t cure cancer with the Gospel.

It would appear that it has very little use.
Until you talk to people who have encountered it.
Until you see how it really does help us live in a complex world.

The Gospel tells us that true joy is found in giving away our lives.
That happiness is about making others happy.
The Gospel is found in the poor, the sick, and imprisoned.
It is found in the smallest of seeds.
It is found hidden among us today.
And the parable is asking what will we do with that treasure?
What will we risk for it?
What will we give for it?

To me it is the most precious thing I have.
And I did not work for it, toil for it, it was simply given.

On our tree one person wrote about how they were working at Rise Again.
They met a woman who had been given a bike by our congregation.
That bike made all the difference in this woman’s life.
It was a ride to work and a way to get around.
It represented freedom.
A used bike seems like a simple thing, and yet it meant so much.
When we were going to collect the bikes there were a whole lot of questions that I did not know the answer to.
How would we get them?
Where would we keep them?
Who would take them?
We only knew that there were people in our community who could use them.
We took a chance.
We tried something.
We risked failure, and uncertainty.
That is what the Gospel is about this morning.
Taking a risk and investing in the business of the Kingdom.
As the great hockey player Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”

There is one more thing we have to talk about.
It is the outer darkness and the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It appears that the master is very harsh on the servant who buries his one talent.
In Matthew’s entire Gospel when we encounter the outer darkness we see that it is because people have misunderstood the nature of the kingdom.
In this case the servant with the one talent thinks the master is “a harsh man”.
That is what he gets.
If our image of God is one of task master, of harsh words and actions, of anger then we do not see God properly.
We will not be able to accept the true nature of the kingdom.
We will not be able to see God in the things foolish and useless to the world.
We will not be able to see God in the poor, the humble, the lost, the mourners.
We will not be able to accept that the kingdom is not about what we get, but how we use the gifts God has given.
And if we can’t see God and we can’t accept the Kingdom then we will be in the outer darkness and there will be weeping and gnashing of the teeth.
If talking about using our money, time, and talent for God makes you want to weep and gnash your teeth then perhaps you have misread what God is really offering.
God is offering you the Gospel.
A life lived in freedom for others.
A life lived in the mystery, wonder, and faith.

So let us go from here to live without fear, and use our gifts for the building of the kingdom not because we feel guilty but because we feel blessed.
Amen

Monday, November 7, 2011

When The Saints Come Marching In!


What will heaven look like?
Who will be there?
What will happen there?
These are questions that have touched the imagination of people since the beginning of time.
Since it is All Saints Sunday it seems appropriate this morning for us to ponder these questions together.
I don’t know exactly what heavens is like but I believe two things strongly about heaven.
One, lots of people will be there.
Two, God will be at the center.

These two things for me are at the heart of the Biblical witness.
Consider our reading from Revelation this morning.
(By the way, if you are attending our Wednesday night Bible study on Revelation I am about to give away what I think the whole book of Revelation is about.)
We are told that “there was a great multitude that no one could count.”
Heaven is full of people.
In fact, it is so full of people we should start getting used to the idea that there are going to be a whole bunch of people in heaven that we don’t expect to be there.
For those who say that getting into heaven is the prerogative of only a few “special” people they have not read all of Revelation, or they have not read it carefully enough.
In fact, we are told that there are people from every tribe, nation, and languages.
That no one is excluded from this celebration.

Look around the room today at the names written on the wall.
In just our small congregation look at all the people that we remember.
We have filled it with a multitude of people in our lives that have touched us, loved us, and given us a foretaste of God’s ultimate love.
The Saints surround us today.
They are with us are bowing at the throne worshiping God.
This is the vision of Revelation.

Revelation has a vision of what is behind the curtain, and that is what our reading is this morning.
It is a glimpse of what is going on in what we call heaven.
Revelation shows us that behind all the madness of the world is a God of great grace.
That even though we live through many trials and tribulations now there is something more glorious and wonderful in store for us.
Every one of the names on these walls has a story.
Every one of them lived through some kind of ordeal, overcame obstacles, and still managed to make a difference in our lives.
Every one of them did bad things in their lives they regret.
Every one of them did great things that we remember and celebrate.

That is why it is so important to remember those that go before us.
Because it grounds us in whom we are today.
It is a reminder that we don’t truly die that our story lives on.
Instead, we live forever in the things we build up and tear down.
We live forever bowing at the throne of God.

This week it was my sons 5th birthday.
We were out having pizza on his birthday and his mother and I were telling him the story of his birth.
Part of that story is that his name was going to be “Micah”.
It was a done deal.
Then in August before he was born my dad died.
It seemed perfect that his name would be Charlie after my dad.
So instead of having a son named Micah I have a son named Charlie.
We were telling him this story and he said, “So I am Charlie so you can remember your dad.”
Yes, that is exactly right.
And when I see my son do certain things or act in certain ways it reminds me of things my Dad might have done.
It is a reminder that we don’t die.
This life is not the end, but only part of the story.
My dad’s story lives on in me and my children.
Just as the people on these walls lives on in each and every one of you.

Perhaps that is why we have saints so we have a way of keeping alive those people in our lives who have loved us.
I don’t know what exactly heaven is like, but I believe that all those people will be there surrounding us when we get there.

That is why we have written the names on the cards that surround our sanctuary today because it is good to think of the saints that surround us all the time.
It is good to remember them and keep them alive.
It is good to remember that when we worship God we don’t do it alone but with all the saints that have gone before us throughout time and space.
That in our worship in this time and place, we worship with the great multitude of every time and place.

And what we worship is our God who sits on the throne.
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the lamb!”
Again I don’t know what heaven looks like but I am sure that God is at the center.
I am certain that in the midst of our lives God is at the center of everything.
All Saints day was initially a celebration of people who were martyred because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
It helped people remember that they did not die in vain, but they died because they believed in something greater than this life.
We are lucky that we don’t live in a time when we are killed for our faith.
But we still live in a time when times are challenging.
It still takes lots of faith to make it in our world today.
The names that surround us today remind us that at the center of everything in heaven and earth God is sitting on the throne.
God does not abandon us to a life of desperation.
God gives us hope when things are hopeless, life in the midst of death, strength when we are week.
Today with all the saints that have gone before us we worship God who is at the center of all things.

That is what salvation is about.
It is not about whisking us off to some place with harps and clouds.
It is about helping us to keep in perspective our lives.
Salvation is the reminder that this life is not the end.
There is more and it is glorious.
Salvation belongs to God!
Whatever is happening in heaven it is not dependent on what we do.
I am so glad that salvation belongs to God.
It does not belong to us.
It is not ours to earn, to work for, to pray for, to hope for.
It is God’s to give to us.

And today we can be assured that all the people that surround us one these walls are with God bowing at the throne.
Not because they were good people, but because they were beloved children of God.
The Bible is the promise that salvation belongs to us through God who loves us.
It is one of the great gifts that God gives.

Any guessing on our part about who might or might not be part of the saints is just that it is guessing.
What we are promised in the Biblical witness is that it is a great multitude, that it is not based on our ability to be good or do good, that it is not based on our tribe, nation, or language.
What I think is that instead of trying to guess who is in and who is out, we should be celebrating that God is welcoming all in!
That today you are welcomed into God’s salvation.
Today you hear the promise that there will be a day when the tribulation will end, when there will be no more tears, hunger, and our shepherd will lead us to springs of the water of life.
What a promise!

That promise is remembered every time we think of those saints that have gone before us.
Every time we think of them we think of how they were beloved children of God and how they showed us a glimpse of that love in this life.
The best of them is now with God and still with us.
Even though we are not sure of what heaven is like.
We are sure that God is at the center because salvation belongs to God, and that we are in that number when the saints come marching in!
Amen

Thursday, November 3, 2011

An Idea That Changed The World


It is amazing how an idea can change the world.
Two men decide that humans can fly; a man decides that we can harness electricity to light our houses; people imagine that images and sound can travel to a screen in everyone’s living room; someone imagines there is life in outer space.
All of life’s great inventions started from an idea.
The Reformation is about an idea.
Or more specific it is about Truth.
The idea (or the Truth) is that God forgives our sins in the person of Jesus Christ.
This idea changed the world.
It was not a new idea per se.
It was one that had been lost because the Church was too busy trying to keep power, hold unto its influence over others.

I would suggest that in every generation, and in every Christian denomination, we need to unearth, and rediscover this idea.
We often lose our way as we make up new ways to keep the institutional Church alive instead of worrying about the central idea that is always at the heart of what the Church is about.

This past week I was at the Bishop’s convocation and the keynote speaker was a pastor from Denver Colorado.
She reminded me that what is at the core of what we are as Lutherans is this idea, this truth.
That God is always coming to us we are never moving towards God.
That our sinful nature always keeps us away from being the people God wants us to be.
When we talk about our sinful nature we are not talking here about feeling guilty about all the things we mess up on.
We are talking about recognizing a fundamental truth about who we are.

One of the biggest problems we have is that we are lying to ourselves about who we are.
Think of all the ways we try to cover up our sin.
All the ways we present ourselves to each other as OK.
We look good, dress good, and underneath all of that we are falling apart.
In fact, lots of people think that in order to walk through the Church door and be part of a believing community you need to have your act together.
Nothing can be further from the truth.

This morning in our Gospel reading Jesus is pointing out to the “Jews who believed in him,” that they are slaves to sin, and they have the nerve, the collective bad memory to say.
“We have never been slaves to anyone.”
Hello!
You don’t remember that whole Egypt thing that happened not too long ago.
You don’t remember how God heard your cries of hopeless and came and saved you from Pharaoh and his army.
Don’t you remember that whole slave thing that is essential to your identity?!?!?!?!?!!??!?!?
Do we remember that our identity is caught up in remembering that we are slaves to sin?

Sometimes when I hear people talk I feel like I am hearing this same scene played out over and over again.
I have a friend who likes to talk about himself a lot.
Every time I am near him I know I am not getting a word in edge wise.
It is fine because I love him anyway and I have come to expect it.
Well we were at a party together and someone else was talking about themselves a lot.
We leave the party and my friend starts to complain about this other person.
“Can you believe how egotistical that person is they talked about themselves the whole time and never let anyone else talk? Who does such a thing?”
I had to say to my friend, “You do such a thing!”

All of us have fallen short of the glory of God!
And therefore all of us are slaves to sin.
If we forget that then we forget one of the essential ideas, one of the essential truths, of who we are as people of God.
We become blinded to the Truth about ourselves.
All have fallen short of the glory of God.

Now if that was it.
If that was the only part of the reformation there was it would be a pretty depressing history.
And this would be a pretty depressing day to celebrate or remember.
But the second part is just as important.
All “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
That God remembers our sin no more.
God’s love given in Jesus Christ has set us free.
Free to love, to be loved, to forgive and be forgiven.

Jesus says that if we live in his word then we will be set free, because Jesus word is a two edged sword.
Jesus word tells us that we are sinner on one side and beloved child of God on the other.
Jesus is writing for us a new story, bringing salvation to us as a free gift.

Now we are free to admit this simple truth.
We don’t have it all together.
We don’t know all the answers.
We are a mess.

We are free as parent to say that we worried that they will mess up their children?
We are free as teenager to say that we are worried that they were not good enough?
We are free to say when we are senior citizen that we are worried that we are no longer worth anything?
We are free as middle-aged person that we are worried that we didn’t live the life they really wanted to?
We are free to stop trying to cover it all up.
We try and say that everything is fine and I have everything under control.
But deep down we know that we don’t.

I will confess to all of you this morning a simple truth about myself.
I don’t have enough skill, knowledge, and wisdom to be a good pastor.
There are millions of things I do every day that I second and third guess.
I confess to you that I am a mess.
I have fallen short of the glory of God.
What about you?
Are you clear about your story and your history?
Have you forgotten your slavery?

It can be a pretty hard thing to admit.
It is hard to admit our slavery, our sin.
But my God is bigger and greater than my slavery.
My God is better than me!
Thanks be to God for that!
My God doesn’t care about my short comings, but on a cross God takes it all and makes it something else.

The Bible is really a retelling of our story.
It is renaming us that are sinners as children of God.
That is what the reformation was about.
It was not about tearing down the Roman Catholic Church.
It was not about forming a new church.
It was not about singing, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”, or wearing red.
It was not about Lutherans being better than other Christians.
It was about the idea that in Christ Jesus we are freed from our slavery to sin.

We are slaves to so many things.
And Jesus today wants to set you free from those things.
When we abide in Jesus word I believe that we are set free.
That allows us to make mistakes, not have it all together, and to be a mess.
Most important it allows us to retell our story as God’s story.
To say that God’s grace is sufficient for today.

So today as we remember the reformation.
We celebrate this great idea that we have to constantly unearth.
The idea that we are sinners and God is bigger than our sin.
God does not see our sin, but in love sends Jesus to remind us of our slavery and freedom from it.
Amen

Monday, October 24, 2011

You've Lost That Loving Feelin'


In my time as a pastor I have heard it many times, “I just don’t feel God in my life.”
This morning I am sure that someone here is struggling with this issue.
That even though they come to Church and participate in the life of the congregation they just don’t feel God’s love.
Or they question their own faith, because they haven’t been, “Feeling it.”
There are times like that for all of us when we come to church expecting that our palms will get sweaty, our heart rate will increase, and we will get goose bumps.
We will expect that God will show up for us and make us feel something.
That while worshiping we will feel love all around us.
But in the words of the Righteous Brothers, “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.”.
This morning I want to propose something radical to you.
Our relationship with God has nothing to do with our feelings.

This morning Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment.
He responds by quoting two Old Testament verses one from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the other from Leviticus 19:18.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
Now when we hear this verse we think of love as a feeling.
That is how love is presented to us in our culture.
Love is a Righteous Brothers song.
It is a mushy feeling we get about someone or something.
But in Greek the Word is Agape.
Unlike Eros or Phila, Agape love has nothing to do with how we feel about something or someone.
It has to do with how we act towards others.
And that is the kind of love Jesus is talking about here.
Our love for God does not come from a feeling we get because we heard a hymn that gives us goose bumps, or we heard a sermon that really knocked our socks off.
Our love for God is about action, it is about doing.
To love God in this case is about how we act towards God.

If you want to get back that loving feeling then act like you love God.
Do something that shows your love.
Even if you don’t feel like it do it.
I had a parishner once who told me this story about his giving.
He said that he didn’t tithe because he never felt good about the Church.
There were all these things that the Church did that he disagreed with.
So he was waiting to give until he felt better about the Church.
One Sunday he had an epiphany.
That perhaps if he tithed he would feel better about the Church.
So he tried it.
And wouldn’t you know he started to care more about Church.
He became more passionate about what happened because that is where his money went.
His relationship with God grew.
In his own words it changed his life.

This is not a sermon about giving money to the Church.
It is a sermon about the way we love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul.
And sometimes we get discouraged in our faith life because we just don’t feel it.
We don’t feel the love.
We don’t get the same feelings that we once had about God.
And how can we?
It would be impossible for us always to feel the same about God.
Some days are better than others.
Some moments are better than others.
Some worship services are better than others.

The same is true in our relationships with one another.
In our marriages for example, we don’t always feel the love.
I would suggest that in our marriages that instead of waiting for that to come back do something for your spouse that in no way helps you but shows them that you love them.
My wife will do this for me when she buys me olives.
She does not like olives, but she buys them for me because she knows I do.

So what we are confronted with is how do we keep this relationship with God going when we are not feeling the love.

One suggestion I have is to do something for someone else.
Jesus tells us that loving our neighbor is the same as loving God.
And if we want to feel close to God we can do something good for someone else.
It is in many ways counterintuitive to what we think we should be doing.
We think that in order to get closer to God we should go off somewhere and pray, or be alone to connect better with God.
What Jesus says is that doing good for others draws us closer to God.
If you want to become closer to God.
Go serve at the Friendly kitchen in the people you serve you will see God.
If you want to be closer to God go play bingo at a nursing home with some of the residence, in their faces you will see God.
If you want to be closer to God forgive someone who you have held a grudge against.
If you want to be closer to God sit with refugees as they welcome their new baby into the world.
If you want to be closer to God give some of your money away.
It won’t make you feel any better, but it will make you more loving.

Loving God, growing in faith, is about action.
It is about caring for the world and the people that God has made and put in your path.
I would suggest that worship is not about what we get out of it, but what we put into it.
When you come to worship do you come with your whole heart, mind, and soul?
Do you bring all of yourself and give it to God.
If worship is about feeling something good than we will not always succeed.
I know that there are weeks that I feel something deeply about God.
I will get goosebumps as we sing a “Might fortress is our God” on Reformation Sunday, or “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, or “Beautiful Savior” at a funeral.
But there are other weeks when all the hymns sound alike or I don’t know them and the sermon is just not that great.
Or there are times when I am distracted.
I am thinking about a fight I had with my wife, or the way my kids misbehaved, or all the things I gotta get done following worship.
So worship can’t always be about the way we feel.
Instead it has to be about the way we love God.
The way we give ourselves over to God for this one hour of time.

How would thinking about worship in this way change the way we experience it?
For example, I know one person whose favorite part of the whole worship experience is the offering.
It is there that they get to do something for God.
It is there they get to give and show their love.

How about the peace?
The reason we share the peace with one another is so that before we have communion we make peace with our neighbors.
Jesus tells us earlier in Matthew’s Gospel that before we come to the table we should make sure we are all set with our neighbors.
One of the reasons I make sure that I share the peace with everyone in the congregation is because I just got done preaching and I am sure I made someone mad along the way, and want there to be peace between us before we share communion.
Perhaps sharing the peace is the best part of worship because it is there we get to show our love for one another.
It is there that we get to forgive one another.

The hymns are not about if I like them or not, it is about singing praise and thanksgiving to God.
The sermon is not about how good the preacher is, but about my ability to use it to grow in faith towards God.

You might like worship or not like, it is your right to have an opinion, but worship and our life as people of faith is not about our opinion.
Our life of faith is about how well I am able to give my whole life over to God.
It is about acting for God and neighbor.


So if you have lost that loving feelin’.
If you are struggling in your relationship with God you can get it back by serving others, and giving all you have to God.
Amen

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Third and Fourth Possibility!


“They were amazed.”
Why were the religious leaders that come to entrap Jesus so amazed at his answer?
Because they never for one minute considered that there was any other possible answer to their question.
They thought that they had thought of the perfect question to entrap Jesus.
Either he says, “Yes”, or “no”.
If he says that it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Empire then he would turn the crowd against him.
Jews in Jesus day hated paying taxes. (I guess not much has changed)
They hated it because it was giving money to Caesar who claimed equality with God.
If Jesus answers yes, then he is going against the teaching in the Torah that the land belongs to God and therefore Israel, and they should not pay taxes to a graven image.
More so they hated it because the system was rigged against them.
They paid so that corrupt politicians could become richer and more powerful.
They paid so the empire that oppressed them could continue to do so.
If Jesus says that it is not ok to pay taxes then he is going against the empire.
Jesus is creating an act of treason.
It would be easy for the religious leaders to get rid of him and charge him with being a zealot out to rise up an army and retake the land.
Either answer Jesus gives in this situation it appears that the religious leaders have painted him into a corner.

But Jesus does not fall for the trap.
He does not fall for the idea that there are only two possible answers to a question, and he comes up with an answer that is both and neither.
He comes up with a third option that upholds both our living in this world and our call to a new reality under God.
“Give to the things that are Caesars and toGod the things that are God’s”
Jesus gives a third option that drives us away from the position that it can only be one or the other.
It can only be God or politics; it has to be about us and them.

This is a big problem in our world still today.
We are often left thinking that the solutions to the problems we face, the choices we have, are only two.
It is either this or that, yes or no.
Being a Christian I think takes us away from such a harsh dichotomy of thinking.
It is not that we are against the idea of right and wrong.
It is that as Christians we use our imaginations to think of better alternatives then the world gives.
We consider ways to build bridges to understanding.
In our political discourse it seems at times that all we have are two options.
Often we don’t think outside the box.
We don’t consider that beyond the political rhetoric there are better ways.

One thing that disturbs me about our current religious and political climate is that people too often use God to back up their political ideology.
Sometimes it seems that people are using their political ideology to dictate their theology, rather than using God’s ways in dictating their lives.
For example, I have heard people from the tea part movement argue that God is for fewer taxes on the rich, because to tax rich people and use it for helping the poor breaks the 6th commandment. (Though shall not steal)
It seems to me this is really stretching the meaning of that commandment.
It appears that in their political ideology they have tried to squeeze out a meaning of the Bible that is not intended.
I have heard Michelle Bachman talk about God’s desire for a government that is smaller.
In an infamous incident she claimed that recent natural disasters were God’s wake up call for Washington.
“I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.
We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane.
He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now.
They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending."

On the left we have an equally egregious ideology.
People on the left believe that social security, Medicare, and Medicaid are somehow ordained by God.
They hold that Government’s job is to follow the Biblical mandate to help the poor by having a certain tax code.
Al Sharpton has implied on many occasions that God would be displeased with the way our tax policy is geared towards the rich.
There is no doubt a Biblical mandate to help the poor.
I am not sure that Jesus had a particular legislative agenda in mind.

So maybe the best thing would be for religion to stay out of politics all together.
There is after all a separation of Church and State.
I would argue that this is impossible.
That whatever we are doing as Christians God is always on our mind.
That even in the voting booth God is there with us.
To suggest that somehow we can divorce ourselves from our faith simply because we enter the public square would be ridiculous.
And it would mean that we were making some kind of arbitrary rule about how to compartmentalize our lives.

Instead I would suggest this morning that we always begin our lives by searching for the third way.
By searching not for our ambition but striving for the kingdom of heaven.
And the first step towards that is moving away from the dichotomy of us versus them.
And towards a worldview that we are all one.
We are all on this ride together.
As one of my college professors would say to us, “We are all bozos on this bus.”

An Episcopal priest whose congregation is on Wall Street wrote this about the protest happening in Manhattan,
“I write and preach regularly that in God's economy there is only an "us," and whenever we fall back to us-and-them thinking, we are contributing to a powerful but failed system that Jesus came to tip into collapse.
Jesus in his Resurrection, steps beyond death and creates a new dimension.
There is no retribution for his killers, how could there be? – he has just stepped into larger life where the only message can be: "Come on, join in the party."
Any act of scapegoating - it's their fault; this one is to blame - feeds the old death-bound beast.
Making something new is making something together - receiving something together from a God who gives all.”

In our public lives we can be amazed to know that there is a third way, maybe even a fourth way.
A way that points us forward not to a political triumph, but to a life lived under the reign of God.
My friend and I were talking this week about how bad our politics have become.
It seems that the only thing that politicians care about is winning.
It is creating a system of us versus them.
A system with winners and losers.
Jesus teaches us a new way.
A way were the last are first, were the mourners rejoice, were the old and young come together, were the rich are overly generous, and were we are all one under God.
It is a way of no losers only us working together for a better tomorrow.

When rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s we can never forget that we are bound to something so much more.
We are bound to a God who sees no limits and has no bounds.
We are bound to a God who is not bound to our two dimensional thinking.
A God who is not trapped into an either/or mentality.
We are bound to a God who is always outside the box.
A God who talks of a King who invites good and bad people to the wedding feast, a God who opens up a better tomorrow, a God who is generous beyond our comprehension, a God who loves more deeply than our prejudices and dislikes, a God who does not give us what we deserve but gives us what we need.
This is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
This is what amazes us is God’s constant grace for us.
It is a God who loves enough to give up everything for us.
For you this morning God has given up everything and asks nothing in return except for your love, trust, and devotion.
There are no taxes to pay for God’s love.
In short, God asks you for everything, but in return you get more then you can possibly imagine.

God is not boxed in by our thinking.
God does not have to give only one of two possible answers.
God can give a third answer, even a fourth.
May we have the creativity and grace to always look for that third and fourth possibility.
Amen

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Prepare for the wedding feast!


I wonder how many of you would have turned down an invitation to go to the Royal wedding of William and Kate’s.
If you would have been invited what would you have worn?
I bet that many of you would have bought a new outfit for the occasion.
I know in my house when we go to a wedding I have to spend some time going through the different options of what my wife might wear.
Usually it takes at least two days of thinking about what to wear before she settles on a dress.
This is all to say that when we go to weddings even the most mundane of weddings we take time to think about what we are going to wear.
And if we ever went to a royal wedding we would think about even more.
How much more should we think about showing up at banquet prepared by God?
That is the question that is posed to us this morning in our Gospel.

When we first read the Gospel parable this morning we might be perplexed at how the guest who shows up without the correct attire is treated by the king.
It seems a bit harsh.
No one else wanted to go this wedding so he should get some points for showing up right?
Why does the king treat him so badly?
Well, because showing up is only the start.
When we have faith in God we grow in a relationship with God.
We begin, sometimes unconsciously, to bend our lives towards God’s will.
We begin to think more seriously about who we are and what we are doing in relation to God.
Just like if we went to the royal wedding we would give lots of thought to our dress and manner.

This parable is not about good people versus bad people.
Notice that both good and bad people are invited to the wedding feast.
It is about being prepared to live a life of faith.

Today we get to be witnesses to the Baptism of Allison Mamos.
And today is the start of her relationship with God.
For it is in the waters of our Baptism that God claims us as his beloved children.
It is in these waters that we are freed from death and sin.
It is here this morning that Allison will receive the greatest spiritual gifts her parents could give her.
Baptism is not about who is good or bad.
In fact, it assumes that we are all a complicated mix of good and bad.
That we are born in the image of God, and with a rebellious spirit of sin.
Baptism also does not remove these things from us.
The question becomes what are we going to do with this gift?

What are we going to do with the invitation that God has given us to the banquet table?
This morning I want all of you to think about what are you going to do with that gift?
What will Allison do with the gift?

I remember as a kid receiving a new stereo as a present from my parents.
It was a great gift.
It had these really big speakers, a turn table, tape deck, and even a place to plug in one of those new CD players that had just come out.
The gift was free.
I didn’t really deserve the gift.
As a son as was at best mediocre.
I didn’t always get good grades, I didn’t always come in on time for curfew, I didn’t always do what was expected of me, or even what I was taught was right.
However, my parents gave me this stereo anyway.
The only question was how I would treat it, and what I would do with it.
I treated it with great care.
I honored it and treasured it.
I really liked that stereo.
I used it all the time.
The same is true of our faith in God.
It is a gift.
We have done nothing to earn it.
In fact, at times we really try to mess it up.
Yet, God invites us anyway.
What will we do with it?
How will we dress for the banquet feast?

Today Paul gives us some ideas.
“Rejoice in the Lord always!”
I hope that all of you take time in your day, in your life to rejoice in what God has done for you.
Sometimes we can get caught up in all the things we don’t have, instead of looking at all the ways God has blessed our lives.
Even in the worse of circumstances I bet there are ways that God is blessing your life.
Paul even though he was in prison rejoiced in what the Lord had done for him.
I hope today for Allison that she knows how much God loves her, and how much God has done for her so that in all the times of her life both good and bad she can learn to rejoice in the Lord.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”
Living a life in Christ means learning everyday how to love and forgive more.
It means learning to be less judgmental of others, and showing mercy and grace to all those we encounter.
In Baptism we take on the righteousness of Christ and learn how to live more fully into it.
I hope for Allison she learns to be gentle to herself and others.
Always willing to forgive others as she knows that she is forgiven.

“Do not worry about anything”
What a blessing to not have to worry.
We are told in Psalm 23 of God’s care and concern for us.
We are reminded of this again and again.
And yet so much of our time is spent worrying about things that will never happen or things that we can’t control.
To live a life of faith is to put all of our life into God’s hands.
I hope today for Allison that she learns to put her life into God’s hands so that she will not worry about anything.

“But in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests be known to God.”
Prayer is our constant communication with God.
It allows us to complain, to unload our burdens, to ask for our needs and the needs of our loved ones.
Prayer is what helps to settle our often disjointed soul.
Prayer is what helps us stay connected to God and his love for us.
In prayers we hand over the burdens of our lives to God and in doing that find a peace.
I hope today that Allison finds the peace that is beyond understanding.

These things are not meant to be rules.
They are meant to be a blessing.
In this life that is so complicated and often out of our control it feels good to be able to rely on God.
The Gospel from this morning can be seen as a harsh judgment.
Surely no one wants to be cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But let me suggest that when we fail to hear the gracious invitation to the wedding banquet, when we fail to keep our relationship with God going, then we are already in the outer darkness.
Our lives are not as rich, are not as peaceful, and are not as whole as they can be with God at the wedding banquet.
Jesus sometimes uses harsh language to describe what it means to be away from God not because he wants us to be in the outer darkness, but because that is the truth.

I hope for all of you today that you count your blessings.
That you give thanks to God that God invited you to be part of the wedding feast.
I pray that we may spend no time in the outer darkness.
Because we have taken time to prepare ourselves for the joy of the wedding banquet.
Amen

Monday, October 3, 2011

There Is a Big Bright Beautiful Tomorrw


This last week I was on vacation with my family in Disney World.
My favorite ride in all of Disney World is a ride called, “The Carousel of Progress”.
For those who have never had the extreme pleasure of going on the Carousel of Progress let me explain a little about the ride.
It was originally designed by Walt Disney as an attraction at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.
You sit in a theater and watch a number of scenes as an American family move from the turn of the 20th century until the present day.
The theater moves in a circle as the father of the family explains all the technical advances of the 20th century.
For example, in the opening sequence the father of the American family explains that they can get from California to New York in Seven days by train.
He goes on to explain that two brothers are working on a flying contraption that “will never work”.
I love this ride because it reminds us of where we have been, of all of the progress that we have made in a short time of human history.
But I love it most because it reminds us that the future is wide open.
That all things are possible, and that we as human beings have a great capacity to think, invent, and create.
The chorus to the song on the ride goes, “There is a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.”

When I read the Gospel for this morning I instantly thought of this ride.
Because one of the questions we always have to wrestle with is why didn’t the religious leaders of Jesus day recognize who he was?
Why didn’t they know he was the Messiah?
Why did they conspire with political authorities to have him killed?

Last week we heard them question Jesus authority, and Jesus told them a parable.
They didn’t understand that parable so Jesus tries again with the parable of the vineyard.
In this parable the stewards of the vineyard come to believe that the landowner is done with the vineyard, and that now they own it.
So when servants show up to ask for the fruits of the vineyard the steward left in charge doesn’t want to hear it.
Here is part of the problem of the religious authorities.
They stopped believing that God was talking to them.
They believed that God had chosen them, and have made certain promises to them.
That God would deliver the kingdom to them.
They came to believe that the vineyard was theirs instead of God’s.
They got stuck in what had always been and forgot that God is always working on the future.
Because of this they did not believe that God was still at work in Jesus.

I believe this sometimes our problem too.
We have become complacent with the idea that Jesus Christ is our savior.
We have become complacent with the idea that the Church is the gathering of God’s people.
Because of this we forget that God is always speaking to us.
God is always demanding that we are producing fruit.
To be the people of God, to be the Church, it is not enough to merely believe that God is with us.
We have to act like we believe it.

If we live in the grace in mercy of God then we will act like it by extending that grace to others.
Do we believe in the big bright beautiful tomorrow of God?
If we did we would not believe that everything is done or that are best days are behind us.

One of the great things about the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that it points us not to what happened, but what will happen.
It shows us that God is never done, but always working.
We should always be in on the lookout for what God is up to next.
I once heard a comedian talking about people’s obsession with television.
He said, “You gotta understand my generation saw Lee Harvey Oswald get shot on national television. We were glued to the screen for the next forty years wondering what would happen next.”
The same is true for our lives in Christ we should be clued to the screen wondering what will God do next?
What ways will God call me, our congregation, and the Church to bear good fruit?
What needs to be gathered and harvested for the good of others?
What is it this day that God is calling me to give so others may flourish?

I really believe that we are living in an extraordinary time in Christian history.
It is time when anything and everything is possible.
All of the old doctrines are being questioned.
Lines of denomination and even religions are being crossed.
Barriers to people often left out are being crumpled to the ground.
Consider that in our day the supposed third world has the largest growing population of Christians in the world, while Christianity in America and Europe are fading away.
I could for see the day when Africa sends missionaries to the United States to try and convert us heathens.
Consider that in our day young people are saying no to discrimination, hatred, and prejudice based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or anything else.
Consider that more and more people are pushing the boundaries of the Church beyond four stained glass walls and into bars, coffee shops, homes, and wherever people are meeting.
Consider that information and ideas flow between people at a pace that is sometimes dizzying but always interesting.
All of these things are making for some pretty exciting times in Christianity.
They are making for opportunities to reach out and be a blessing to the world.
Are we ready to follow God into his bright big beautiful tomorrow?

It is also scary times for some people.
Ways of thinking that have sustained people in difficult times in the past are being questioned.
Ways of making ourselves feel safe are being torn away.
But I believe it is simply God speaking to us in new ways.
God helping us see the progress that tomorrow brings.
God helping us see what happens when we labor in the vineyard, not because we own it and expect to get paid, but because we know it belongs to God and expects everyone to share in the bounty.

I suppose some of you could take my sermon this morning and just think that I have gone drunk with the magic of Disney.
But my sermon comes from my faith in God who does not leave us alone.
It comes from a Biblical faith that God has promised us a bright big beautiful tomorrow and given us the gift of being stewards in the vineyard.
What a gift to have this wonderful vineyard that God planted, put a fence around, dug a wine press in, and built a watchtower.
What a privilege to serve God in God’s vineyard.
And God knows that we need reminding from time to time that it is not our vineyard, but God’s.
We need reminding that we don’t tend this vineyard for our own purposes, but for the world to see.

In our Isaiah reading this morning the prophet reminds the Israel that God made them a people not for their own good but so they might be a blessing to other nations.
That is why we have a church.
Not to hold the relics of the past, but to remake a big, bright, beautiful tomorrow in the image of God.
That is why God sent Jesus to us.
Not so we could brag that we are favored by God, but so that we might spread God’s love, joy, and peace to the world.

The religious leaders of Jesus day might have known the past.
They might have known tradition, but they forgot God’s future.
They forgot that the vineyard was planted not for them to horde, but for them to give away to the world.
Because of that they shut their hearts to hearing the message Jesus brought.

May we always have our hearts open to Jesus message as we see God’s great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of everyday!
Amen