Wednesday, September 11, 2019

10 Years Later Still Rolling the Dice

Something of significance happened this summer for our congregation and me.
It has been 10 years since we have been together.
I will be honest I wasn't expecting it.
I told Phil Joseph early on in our ministry together that I thought I would be here either 3 years or 8 years.
It would be a short time, and I would realize that this was not the place for me.
Or it would be a good 8 year run.
I want to explain the eight years.
My grandfather was also a pastor, and according to him eight years is the perfect amount of time to be the pastor of a congregation.
It was long enough to build relationships and trust so that you could get things done, but not too long were you both wear each other out.
But here we are at ten years, and I have no plans on leaving as long as you will still have me.
I still feel called here, I still feel that we have work to do together.
God is still keeping things interesting for me, and I hope for you.

I mention because I have mixed feelings about our Gospel this morning.
Jesus tells us that to be his disciple we have to "count the costs".
That we have to figure out if once we start something do we have the resources to finish the job.
On the one hand Jesus is right.
It is important to take measure of things and figure out can we do this thing.
We bought a new couch this week, and before we did we looked at all the options, we figured out if we could do it financially, and then we bought the couch.
We counted the cost.
Many times in our ministry together we have done this.
Before the current Capital Campaign the council discussed if we thought it was possible to raise the money we needed, and to figure out what needed to get done and why.
And Jesus is telling us that when we follow him we should do the same.
That there will be a cost to it.
It will cost us our lives.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is not something we do on the weekend when we have no other plans.
It is something we are all the time.
No matter where we are, or what condition out life is in, we are called to give of ourselves for other people.
And maybe the Church in this time doesn't do a good enough job of helping people see that cost.
The Church is just happy when people show up, and we take Jesus message and make it easier for people to be here.
We don't teach enough what Jesus is actually calling us to.

On the other hand.
How can we really know what the cost is?
I am not sure either Concordia Lutheran Church, nor I really understood what we were getting into ten years ago.
I wonder sometimes if you had really counted the cost would you have called me as your pastor?
Did you realized that some people would leave because of the ELCA vote on gay marriage and clergy?
Did you realize that some people would leave because of our open communion table that invites all people regardless of age, sex, faith tradition, or anything else?
Did you realize that your pastor would be an advocate for repeal of the death penalty, the homeless, immigrants, or LGBTQ+ community?
Did you realize that our church building would get a makeover?
Did you realize that we would get new seating, new bathrooms, new doors, new carpet?
Did you realize that your pastor would be always looking to do and try new things?
Did you realize that we would be running an early learning center?
I want to tell you that I didn't expect or know any of that at the time.
I really didn't.
I had no ten year plan.
(I will say the one thing I knew when I started was we needed new flooring in the fellowship hall.)
I went back and re-read the sermon I gave on the Sunday that you  voted to have me as your pastor.
It was about rolling the dice.
Here is a portion of what I said,
"This morning you all have a decision to make.
This morning together we have to try and discern God’s will for the future of Concordia Lutheran Church.
You have to discern if you feel that God is calling us to do ministry with one another here in Concord NH?
Let me suggest that we both are rolling the dice in this instance.
We are deciding on a course of action that neither of us know the outcome of.
We don’t know if we will be successful together.
We don’t know for sure if we will be a good fit.
I myself have prayed and agonized trying to discern God’s will in this case.
What are we to do?
Well you could flip a coin I guess.
But what I have done in the process as I met with the call committee and then the council is to be open to God’s call.
I have prayed about it.
I have given this my reverent best guess that this is where God is leading and calling me."

In other words in what was probably one of the biggest decisions of my life I simply trusted in God.
I am assuming you did too.
And that is what is difficult about Jesus words this morning.
We don't know the full price always.
We don't know what it will cost.
We certainly don't know how it will turn out.

Jesus disciples were following him from the start of his public ministry, but they didn't even know how it would work out.
They followed in faith.
And maybe this is where our lives and this teaching are most important.
And that is all of our lives are lived in faith.
We have to at some point turn it over to God, because we simply cannot see all the things that will come at us.

I want to end this morning with something my wife always says.
She says that she had no idea what she was getting into when we got married.
She was young and in love and didn't realize all the things that go into a marriage.
She didn't realize she was going to have to put up with me for all these years.
She married me on faith.
I want to say for my part it was worked out wonderfully.
But her point is well taken.
We simply don't know everything.
But we go on faith.

So count the cost, crunch the numbers, take your best guess.
And in the end have faith that on the walk Jesus will be with you.
I believe he has been with us as a congregation for the last ten years.
I am grateful that you rolled the dice and called me as your pastor.
And I still don't know what the future holds, but I know that as we walk together I am ready for the wondrous, glorious things that God will do here at Concordia Lutheran Church through all of us working together to witness to the awesome God we worship.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Diet Coke!

I don't think we need a lesson on sitting in the lowly seats.
Because I notice in Church that everyone likes to sit in the back.
Perhaps that is a good indication that we have heard what Jesus teaches about not taking the seats of honor unless we are called forth.
But that is not really what Jesus parable is about.
It is not advice on where to sit at a dinner party, anymore than it is advice on where to sit at Church.
In fact, it is not advice at all.
It is a teaching about the reign of God.
About the way that God wants the world to be.
About the way that the world was when Jesus walked among us.
And the way the world will be some day.

Right now in our world we make all sorts of assumptions about positions of power and prestige.
People with titles get better treatment then people who don't have it.
People with money or fame get special treatment.
They might get the best table at a restaurant, a special hotel room, people who pay extra attention to them.
The comedian John Mulaney tells this story about Mick Jagger from the rock group the Rolling stones.
John Mulaney wrote for Saturday Night Live and Mick Jagger was the host.
As John Mulaney tells it Mick Jagger would walk around and say, "Diet Coke", and one would appear in his hand.
That is special treatment that we don't get.
I am sure that Mick Jagger makes a lot of assumptions about what he will get in life from other people.
And I am sure if tomorrow you got a call that said Mick Jagger was coming over for dinner at your house you would put on your best meal you could think of.
You would call up your friends and tell them that Mick Jagger was coming over for dinner.
(Just as a side note Mick Jagger is not coming to your house.)
You get my point, if you have money, if you have power, if you are famous, you get treated differently.
And to be fair to Mick Jagger we all have these assumptions about the way we should be treated to some degree.
This week I had to spend a good portion of my day on the phone with the phone company trying to switch over the phones to "With One Heart Early Learning Center".
And I want to tell you it was not the most pastoral moment of my life.
I get so annoyed trying to do things in the world where you can't seem to talk to a live human being, and if you want to talk to a live human being it takes a half hour to get one on the phone.
And then once you get a live human being it is not the right one and they have to transfer you to another department.
Anyway, It was not my finest moment.
But in that moment I made lots of assumptions about what was owed me.
That I was owed good service from the phone company.
But why?
Everyone else gets treated the same way.
In that moment I was like Mick Jagger wanting to snap my fingers and make a diet coke appear.

And then Jesus comes into the world.
If you are like me and you believe that Jesus is God then how Jesus was in this world tells us what God is like in this world.
And Jesus destroys our notions of what we are owed.
Jesus doesn't come with a degree.
He is not rich.
He is not famous, except that he is popular with outcasts.
He holds no title, he not a king, a senator, a CEO.
He eats with undesirable people.
He places himself with the lowly, and he is lowly.
No wonder no one thought he was the messiah.
If Jesus came to your house for dinner what would you do?
Who would you invite?
Perhaps the right answer to that question is nothing special.
Jesus would be happy eating at your table the way you do every night.
Jesus would be happy with meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Jesus would be happy just to sit with you and talk.
There would be no special thing needed.
When we pray before meals in our house one of meal time graces is "Come Lord Jesus be our guest".
We invite Jesus to come into our home and sit with us, among the everyday food we have.
We ask Jesus to sit as we share together our day, our triumphs and struggles, our gains and losses.
We ask Jesus to be with us this day as we struggle to be our best selves.
Isn't that the beauty of Jesus.
Jesus doesn't need a diet coke, just us in all of our human vulnerability.

The second verse to "Come Lord Jesus" is, "Blessed be God who is our bread; may all the world be clothed and fed."
We remember around that table that we are blessed, that we have something to offer the world.
Because there are places where there is no food, where families don't get to share their day with one another.
And we know that Jesus is in those places too.
That Jesus is where we can't see him, because we are blinded by our prejudices.
Jesus came to break down the lines that we put up to separate us from one another.

Then there is the day that Jesus tells us about.
It is different then what was or what is.
It is a day when God will reign.
When those divisions are no more.
When all will sit at the table together, and there will no greater or lesser.
There will be no more winners and losers.
There will only be us together enjoying a meal with our savior.
That is the day I long for.

Do you?
Do you wish it was different then it is?
Do you wish that the comfort you have others had too?
I believe that is what Jesus is asking of us this morning.
Maybe this side of heaven we have privileges based upon superficial human things.
Maybe this side of heaven Mick Jagger is treated differently than the rest of us.
Maybe this side of heaven I we get mad because the Comcast isn't being very helpful and feel that some great injustice has been done to us.
Maybe this side of heaven people starve to death.
Maybe this side of heaven kids are not safe enough to share their day with their parents.
Maybe this side of heaven we are not all treated the same.
But on the other side.
In the world that is to come none of those things are true.

On the other side of heaven Jesus is the main guest, the honored guest, but Jesus as we know doesn't want it.
Instead Jesus just wants to sit with us and enjoy our company.
Let us pray today that we are not so preoccupied with what we have, or what others have, that we miss out on that opportunity.
Let us hope we know that the only one we need or want at our table is Jesus.
"Come Lord Jesus be our guest."

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Fire That Brings Grace! Should I argue with my family about politics?

There is a problem that I know many of you have.
I have had conversations with you about this problem.
It is talking politics with your family when you disagree.
You know you go to your relatives house for a BBQ and all of sudden uncle Fred and Lucy are fighting over tax policy, or immigration, or guns.
Suddenly everyone is uncomfortable.
I have a friend who would fight with his family over politics at almost every family event.
Eventually his mother had to make a rule that there would be no more political talk at family functions.
I actually gave him the advice that whatever someone said he should say, "Pass the ketchup."
This would be a great way to avoid talking politics.
I have been thinking about this for  awhile.
And last Sunday I was thinking about it.
So on Monday I started to read articles about it so that I could give you some advice today about keeping the peace with your families.
The articles all offered some good advice.
Things like listen more than you talk.
Try to get to why people feel a certain way.
Try not to judge.
So that is what I wanted to talk about this morning.
It was my plan.

On Tuesday my plan went off the rails for two reasons.
The first was that I realized I have no good advice for you.
Just saying, "pass the ketchup" is really bad advice.
Because if we can't talk about hard issues in our families, with people who love us unconditionally, then how are we going to have those conversations in our country.
I want you to talk to your families about everything.
But even more I don't know how to have these conversations with people I love and care about.
I am bad at it.
I usually avoid it too, because I don't want to say something I will regret.
I don't want to spend my life mad at people who I count on to be my support in this life.
Life is hard enough.
There are lots of really hard things to deal with, I don't need that kind of strife.
I am assuming that is why we are all avoiding these conversations.
Even in our congregation.
I would love nothing more than to not talk about these things here.
I would love to avoid the unpleasantness that comes with learning that we don't all agree.
Church is the place that we come together.
It is the place where we love each other unconditionally, it is a place of peace.

But the second thing that stopped me from giving you advice from the articles I read was Jesus.
I couldn't avoid the text for today.
How can I get up here and say, avoid talking about politics, or controversial issues, and then have Jesus tells us that he comes to divide us.
Jesus comes not to bring peace, but fire to the earth!?
Jesus this week tore apart the sermon I wanted to give.
I couldn't tell you something that I read in a article online as good advice we should follow, and then have Jesus directly contradict it in the Gospel we read.

So, is Jesus telling us to go into our family BBQ and mix it up.
Start a fight with uncle Fred.
So what if your family meal time together devolves into a yelling match.
This is what Jesus would want.
I don't think this is the message either.

Let me ask a question.
Is it possible to say that you are Christian and have it not mean anything to your life?
This is often the misunderstanding of many Lutherans.
That being saved by grace doesn't really mean anything for our lives.
It only matters when we die so we can go to heaven.
I think the opposite is true.
It means more.
If I am going to believe that I am saved by grace, it means I have to believe that we all are.
It means that the way I see the world, the way I understand other people is through the lens of grace.
It means that there are no points for doing good, or being good.
It means that the person I hate is loved by God just as much as me.
It also means nothing I can do, or say, will ever be perfect.
Because we don't believe in perfect.
We believe in grace.

And this is controversial.
Jesus offers peace to people all the time.
It is the peace of knowing grace.
It is offered to marginalized people who have been told that they are not good enough, that they haven't worked hard enough, or done enough.
It is offered to the rich and powerful who think that it is their money and power that have saved them.
It is what the world cannot see and does not accept.
And yes it is political.
It is political to believe in a world of equality under God.
That is the view that Jesus gives us.
It is the view that we heard about last week from the prophet Micah.

Here is what I know.
Some people cannot, and will not accept it.
They don't want to believe that the world is not what they thought.
They don't want to believe that God's grace is free.
But Jesus knows the cost of his message.
He knows that as much as God wants it to be peace it will not bring peace, but rather division.

Think of all the historical figures who talked of peace, but who were killed.
Dreamers who told us to imagine a world without the divisions we humans make.
People who told us that race didn't matter, nations didn't matter, economics didn't matter, sexuality didn't matter.
That the only way to peace was through acceptance of our similarities, not through what makes us different.
And those people were killed for it.
This is what Jesus is trying to tell us this morning.
No message, however good or well crafted will be accepted by the status qou in our world.
The only way to get there is through fire.
Is through the hard conversations we have around the dinner table, by the coffee pot in church, at the water cooler at work.
We can't avoid conflict.
We can't avoid people misunderstanding our intentions.
We can't avoid being called names.
But what we know is that through these things God's grace is at work.

I want to end this morning with a personel story.
I was in City Year.
Doing my year of community service.
I was talking to one of my friends in the core.
And I said something that was racist.
I don't remember exactly what it was.
I didn't know what I said was racist.
It was something I had heard a million times by other white people.
My friend called me out on it.
At first I was defenses.
We had a heated conversation.
I left mad.
But I thought about it, and in the end I realized that she was right.
Only through the fire is grace understood.

I don't know if you should argue with Uncle Fred at your family BBQ.
I don't know if you should avoid all uncomfortable conversations just to keep the peace.
What I know is that real peace comes from the fire.
It comes from God's grace that is shown to us through our failures, our misunderstandings, through our asking for forgiveness.
Jesus this morning reminds us that we can't run from that, because there in the fire we really experience the grace of God that binds us all together.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Bible Is About Real People!

I picked the story of David and Bathsheba for today because when we read it in confirmation the kids couldn't believe that this was a story from the Bible.
We have done such a good job over the years of sanitizing the Bible that we took out all the parts that make us uncomfortable.
We have made the Bible into a book with clear lessons, that show us how the "good" people behave.
In the process we have lost the real wonder and beauty of the Bible.
It is filled with real people who are sometimes good and sometimes sin.
It is filled with real stories about the ways that human beings try to mess up our lives.
And it is about how God is faithful through all of it.
In so doing we have given our kids the wrong idea about the Bible, and about our lives.
We have given them the impression that what the Bible tries to tell them is how to be perfect.
How do we do everything right like David?
Instead of seeing that the Bible is only the story of imperfect people pursued and loved by God.

This is not only our problem.
I was reading this week how some Rabbis who were pro-David didn't like that we interpreted this story as David being the bad guy.
So instead they point out that Uriah is actually insubordinate by not going to be with Bathsheba.
And so David is right in having him killed.
I simply disagree.
And the power of the story is in David's sin, and God's forgiveness.
Actually the story leaves little doubt of David's sin.
It is complete.
Not only does he committed adultery with another man's wife, not only does he try to lie and cheat his way out of it.
Not only does he do this while the other men are off fighting his war.
Not only does he pull in other people into his plan.
But then he has the man killed so he won't be found out.
By my estimates he breaks at least 5 of the commandments.
There is no question of his sin.
I would assume that he author of the story wanted it that way.
Wanted us to not be able to let David off the hook.

And there is no doubt that God is not deceived either.
God knows what David did.
And it was God who gave David everything he has.
All his power, money, glory are God's.
God raised him up from a scrawny, harp playing, shepherd boy.
God saved him from Saul.
God anointed him king.
God gave him victories over his adversaries.
And it wasn't enough.

It makes me think of us.
How much is enough for us?
What more do we need from God?
Are we ever satisfied?
One of the great spiritual disciplines is to be content with what we have.
To love the life God has given us.
To wake up every day and thank God.
And yet, often it is not enough.
We want more, or we wish we had something that someone else has.

I point this out because it is important in the story to understand God's actions.
We often point out in the Old Testament stories that God is giving out punishments, but we forget that God has given so much.
And in David's case God is really disappointed.

In our house that is the worst thing you can be.
"I am not mad. I am disappointed"
Disappointed that you didn't act the way I taught you.
Disappointed that what you have is not good enough.
Disappointed that my love seems wasted.
You would rather have mad than disappointed.
But that is God in our story.
I gave you everything.
I would have given you more.
"Why did you do this thing?"

What we see is that God does forgive David, but what cannot be undone is consequence of that sin.
And here is where we get to the heart of the matter.
Sin sets certain things in motion.
And we can't undo it.
We can be forgiven.
We can live beyond that moment.
We can get through the consequence, but it is still felt.

I want to be clear I am not saying, "Forgive but never forget."
I am saying that when we sin and we hurt others, the consequence of that is felt far beyond the moment.
It lives on, in the lives of our children, and their children.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately.
About how we pass on to others both the good of us, and the bad.
We pass on to others what trauma's we have.
I read a couple of scientific articles about how trauma effects different generations.
For example, In 2016, Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai hospital and her colleagues found that Holocaust survivors and their children both had evidence of a gene associated with stress, suggesting that the survivors’ trauma was passed onto their offspring.
We don't mean to do it.
We don't want to do it.
It is something psychological that happens in our subconscious.

My great grandfather died by suicide.
My grandfather grew up without a father, and told my Dad, "I will do the best I can but I don't know how to be a father, because I have no role model."
He did the best he could, but didn't always tell my Dad how he felt.
My Dad told me all the time he loved me.
And he also would hit me, because that is what he learned from his father as the best way to discipline his kids.
I know my Dad felt bad about it, and I have forgiven him.
I won't hit my kids, but I am sure that I pass on the pain and trauma to them.
This is all to say that no person is perfect, and we pass that on in ways we might know about and ways we don't.
Through all of it we forgive each other, and we try to do better.
That is the story of David and Israel.
Over and over again, God forgives and they try to do better, but the scares from the trauma live with them.

This is what happens with David.
His children carry this burden and it almost destroys all that God had given.
All the work David did, all the sacrifice.
If for not one thing.
God's love and assurance of the promise.
That is what keeps David going.
That is what keeps us going too.
Yes, we too have family trauma.
We have felt the burden of the sins of our parents, and our own sin.
But we can't say that all is lost, because God is pursuing us.
We can turn and face it, admit what is wrong, be forgiven, know we are loved.

The Bible doesn't smooth over the truth about our lives.
It is right here in the story we hear this morning.
We sin, we pass that on to our kids.
And the only way out of the cycle is facing our past, leaning on God's love and forgiveness.

In our lives let us remember what God has given us.
Let us remember God's forgiveness.
Let us reside in it, so that we can move forward knowing God's love for us.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Law Is a Gift!

The Law is a gift!
We don't say this enough in our Lutheran tradition.
Since we don't we tend to look down on other faith traditions that do.
We tend to look down on Jews because they are law followers, and we are people of grace.
This is to misunderstand how Lutherans understand the law, and is frankly offences to our Jewish siblings.

I choose our reading for this morning because it is not a story in our lectionary cycle, and also for me it always showed the importance of the law.
Our story takes place seven weeks after the people had left Egypt.
They have made it to the foot of Mt. Sinai where Moses first encountered the God of the universe in a the burning bush.
What we see is that Israel is still figuring out what it means to be God's people.
So Moses spends all day from morning until night deciding disputes among the people.
The answer to this is partly what his father in law suggests which is to share leadership.
But this scene also shows us what life was like before the law was given.
It was chaos.
People didn't know what to do, or how to act.
God saw this and gave them the law.
He gave the law to Moses who would then teach the people the way that God's people should act.

God gave it as a gift to the people.
Here is what a good life looks like.
Here is what it means to live a good life.
I always tell the confirmation kids, "If you want to have a good life follow the Ten Commandments".
Right there in those ten simple rules you will find all you need to live a good and happy life.

I have seen the reverse.
I have seen what happens to people when they don't follow them.
I have seen the destruction it brings.
For example, "Do not commit Adultery".
I have seen in the lives of people what destruction it brings families when people break this commandment.
It is hurtful to the two people who were in a committed relationship.
But it is also hurtful to those around them.
To friends, family, to children.
If you want to have a good life live into this commandment.

I have seen the destruction caused by breaking the commandment, "Do Not Kill".
I have heard the stories of people coming back from war, the scares left for them and those around them.
To live a good life is to live a life in peace and harmony with others and the world.

You see the gift.
God has shown us what is good, what is right.
We tend to see the law only as punishment, but God gave them to us as a gift so we would know what a good life looked like.
All the commandments are about two simple things.
Love God and love your neighbor.
And yet we have such a hard time.
We struggle through so much that is not necessary.
Our lives could be so much better.

Here is the problem.
We all know that life is not perfect.
Wars have become part of our lives.
We all know people who have cheated on their spouse.
There is not a commandment that we have not broken in some way.
And that is why we need forgiveness.
It is why we need Moses to intervene on our behalf before God.
It is why we need judges.
Most important it is why we need God.

In the law is pure grace, because it gives us a way to live a good life.
But we are too stubborn to receive that gift.
We want to go our own way, and do what we think will feel good at the time.
We do what will give us some momentary relief from fear, or hardship.
And so God had to come up with another way.
God had to be able to forgive us over and over again.
That is what happens in the Old testament.
The people make a promise to God to follow God's ways.
Then very shortly they break that promise.
They break it out of fear, mistrust, boredom.
And then God has to repair the relationship.
Over and over again this plays out.

This is what Jesus came to remind us.
That what we have failed to do God has done.
We failed to live up to the law, and God has fixed the problem for us.
God has given us Jesus to remind us over and over that we are forgiven.

I have read a lot of articles in the past year about Churches that have very strict rules, and if you don't follow those rules you will be kicked out of that church.
A lot of the stories are about LGBTQ+ siblings who were ostracized by their church.
Some people got kicked out for questioning the pastor or the leadership of the church.
One person, I read about, got kicked out because he had a suicide attempt!?
These stories are heart breaking.
Many of the people that tell them expect that there community will act differently.
They expect them to act with love and mercy.
As one person said, " I don’t know why but I expected hugs, I expected compassion and maybe even apologies for my place in life, probably because that’s what I imagined Jesus doing – but the story didn’t really go that way. "

So here is the problem.
The law is a gift, until we use it without mercy, love, and compassion.
Once it becomes an instrument to beat people over the head, to make them feel less than others, it no longer is a gift.
If we don't use the law to humble ourselves, but rather to keep others in line, it has lost its intention.

The law was given to show us the best way to live.
It was not given as a punishment for us.
It was not given for us to judge our neighbors.
It was not given so that we could play God.
We always need to use both law and Gospel.
Instead of kicking people out of church because they broke a commandment it should always be our job to act with mercy and forgiveness.
I should be our job to offer hugs.
It is hard in a Church community to balance law and Gospel.
Because when one of us breaks the law we do hurt other people in the process.
Even if we don't mean to do it.
And that is why we need both.
We need to hold each other accountable, but never forget to offer forgiveness and love.
It is essential to any community that wants to co-exists.

The law is a gift.
It has shown us how to live our best lives.
Let us use it to humble ourselves before God, and rely on God's mercy.
Let us not use it to hurt other people.