Monday, January 25, 2010

With One Heart

When I read the reading appointed for this morning I instantly thought how appropriate it was that on the day when we are going to have our annual meeting we read from St. Paul’s letter to Corinthians about the importance of unity in the body of Christ.
In my mind nothing is more important to our life together then an understanding of our unity.
First of all we should say that our unity is not about all of us agreeing on everything.
There is no way two people let alone eighty people will ever think exactly alike on any subject.
If you want proof, simply talk to someone who is married and they will tell you how hard it is for two people to agree on issues.
Notice in Paul’s description of the body there are many parts of the body all doing different things.
The hand and eye are not the same, and do not have the same function.
But they work together for the same purpose.
In our life together we might not always agree on every little thing.
What we have to agree on is the big thing.
What we are here to do is serve the same God.
What we are here to do is show others Jesus Christ, and help them grow in their faith.

Second, all parts of the body are important.
Everyone has a job to do, and the body does not function without its parts.
Every person in this congregation is important to me.
I believe that God put you here for some reason.
To accomplish some task within the body of Christ.
I don’t believe that any of us are here merely by accident, but that God arranged the body of Christ for a reason.
Where would we be without one another?
Where would our congregation be with Joann Willmansen?
We would not be able to sing as wonderfully and beautifully as we do.
Our choir would not have its wonderful spirit and joyful noise that it makes to the Lord.
One the other hand where would Joann Willamsen be without the choir?
Where would she be with Jean, Phil, Betsy, Sally, Andi, or any of the other people who sing in the choir?
Each voice is important and adds to the wonderfully beautiful singing we get to hear.
Where would our congregation be without Alva Hauser?
The table of the Lord would not be set.
Worship would come to a complete hault.
Alva Makes sure that someone is ready to set up the altar each week.
To change the paraments according to the liturgical season, and to make sure the bread and wine are set out.
But where would she be without all the people who help her?
Where would she be without Phyllis, faith, Virginia, Judith, Kate or Joyce?
Indeed we all need one another.
We need each other because together our gifts taken as a whole add up to the body of Jesus Christ.

Where would be without our ushers, communion assistants, worship assistants?
There would be no worship on Sunday morning.
Where would be without our church council?
Where would be without Phil Joseph who puts his heart and soul into doing God’s work?
Where would be without Bill Hauser who keeps us on track?
Where would be without Edwina who takes minutes?
Or Jennifer Buck and Bob Hunton who count the money and pay the bills?
Now there might some of you out there who I haven’t mentioned yet.
And it would appear that perhaps those there are some who do less.
But just coming to worship every week is something that is important to the body of Christ.
Imagine if I had no one to preach to.
Imagine if no one heard the word of God?
We need people who hear, who take it to heart and who live it out in their everyday lives.
You are important to the body of Christ too.
Not everyone should serve on the Church council.
Not everyone should sing in the choir.
In fact, there might be some of you who come and then do something for the Lord that none of us sees.
Is not serving your community also the Lord’s work?
Some of you might be scout leaders, coaches, teachers, police officers, nurses, doctors…
All of those things are important part of what we do here at Concordia.
As long as you see those things as all being part of your calling to serve God by serving your neighbors they are important to our common ministry.

So we see that we all matter that everyone of us is called by God to play some part in this body of Christ.
It is important to keep in mind at a congregational meeting so that we do not get lost in the details of running the institution of the Church.
Because ultimately what our congregational is about, and what the church is about, is relationships.
The relationship each of us has with God.
And the relationship each of us has with other parts of the body of Christ.

Someone once suggested to me that I take this too personally.
I want you to know that I do take this calling of mine personally.
Because for me church is about our relationship to one another.
I care about each and every one of you.
Sometimes I wish that I didn’t.
I wish I could just let go of those people that disagree with me.
I can’t because I think you are important to this endeavor.
It matters that you are here even if we disagree.
We are the body of Christ and everyone here matters.

And if one of us suffers….we all suffer.
If you are suffering for whatever reason I suffer with you.
I want you all to know Christ personally and we do that through one another.
It is why your problems become my problems.
It is why what happens to you matters.
It is why it is so painful when we don’t talk out our issues.
On the flip side your joys are my joys.
When one rejoices….we all rejoice.
Your triumphs are mine and vise versa.
This is why we have to root for one another to be successful.

The success of a church is determined by how well the people involved work with one another.
If everyone is going in the same direction with the same mission in mind then things go well.
When there is division, rancor, and hostility with everyone doing their own thing then well things are not so good.

We are the body of Christ together.
We need one another.
We suffer together…we rejoice together.
And together we serve as Jesus presence to others here in Concordia.
As we gather for our annual meeting let us remember our unity in Christ.
Let us remember our gifts that we use to serve Jesus in this place and time.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What Will Be The Story That You Tell?

Recently religion has been in the news.
Brit Hume, the anchor from Fox news got in trouble recently when he suggested that Tiger Woods should convert to Christianity because there he would find forgiveness.
Brit took a beating from a lot of people about these remarks.
Some even suggesting that he was being narrow minded in his views.
This past week, Pat Robertson suggested that Haiti’s problems where due to a pack with the devil they made back during the slave revolt that lead to their independence from the French.
In my mind these two uses of religion and of our Christian faith are very different.
On the one hand Brit Hume was witnessing to his faith in Jesus Christ that it is about forgiveness and grace.
On the other hand Pat Robertson a pastor, who should know better, used his pulpit to spread what amounted to half-truths and misunderstanding when what was called for was God’s words of comfort, compassion, justice, healing, and hope.
Of course some folks used these two stories for political fodder in the public war over God, but this is not a political matter it is a religious and theological one about when and how we use God’s name.
It is about what stories we tell about how God relates to us in this world.

This morning’s Gospel reminds us that God always saves the best for last.
Just when we think everything is lost.
Just when we think all our lives are empty without hope, here comes Jesus Christ.
Into the middle of whatever situation we find ourselves Jesus comes.
This story of Jesus filling the water jugs with wine has always been a mystery to me.
Why is John telling us a story about a wedding that Jesus attends?
What is the point?
Then you read and reread it carefully.
What you see is Jesus acting with grace?
It might not be his time, but there is a need to fulfill.
His hour is our lost time.
The bride and groom need wine.
So he acts.
Jesus gives the good wine at a time not expected and a place not expected.
And what we discover is that God has saved the best for last.
Yes God rescued the people from slavery, led them to the Promised Land, yes God gave them the law and prophets.
But now God has done something even greater.
God has given his Son for us.
John’s entire Gospel is about what Jesus does for us on the cross.
The stories that he tells are not merely whimsical antidotes about things Jesus did.
They all point us to the grace of God given in his Son Jesus Christ.

Let me suggest that the stories we tell one another.
The way that we frame those stories are important.
Because, our stories of faith are a witness to the world about our faith in Jesus being the best for us, and for the world.
That is all Brit Hume was saying.
Was if you really want to be forgiven and know forgiveness I know know no better place then Jesus Christ.
He was asked what advice he would give Tiger to help him get over this difficult period.
Brit Hume told the story about God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ and offered it to Tiger Woods.
He was not putting down Buddhism by witnessing to his own faith.

On the other hand the story that Pat Robertson shared was one of half truth.
It was not about Jesus ability to save, comfort, or give grace.
It was about what he thought of the Haitian people and that is irrelevant to the conversation.
Whatever, sins they may have committed in the past has nothing to do with God’s love and care for them.
And to suggest otherwise is to totally miss read the Gospel.

Compare the words of Pat Robertson to that of the parents of Ben Larson.
Theirs is another story about God’s work in Haiti.
Ben Larson was a seminary student from Wartburg seminary in Iowa. It is an ELCA seminary in Iowa.
Ben went to Haiti to help set up a new Lutheran Church by teaching lay leaders and pastors how to effectively spread the Gospel.
Unfortunately Ben Larson died when the building they he, his wife, and his cousin were working out of collapsed.
This is what Ben’s parents wrote about their sons passing.
“As an infant Benjamin Judd Ulring Splichal Larson was wrapped in the arms of God in the waters of baptism, and from those waters, his life was an outpouring of love and joy, laughter and play, in response to God first loving Ben.
Ben’s love of God, walking in accompaniment, passionately loving others, listening and learning from those who are poor across the globe, drove his serving.
We give thanks to God for the incredible joy of knowing Ben. His laughter, playfulness, passionate heart for those who are hurting was manifest in his daily life.
He delighted in the privilege of serving and knowing God, laying out his life in joy.
Most of the people who died in this deadly earthquake in Haiti are the poorest of the poor in this hemisphere.
Ben went to Haiti to teach theology and scripture in the new Lutheran Church of Haiti; but more deeply to learn from these people loved by God.
In his young death his life joins the bodies of the poor.
In the Haitian rubble Ben’s life joins these dear beloved people of God: all those parents crying for their children; young widows calling out for their husbands; new orphans searching for their parents.”
That is the true story of God’s work in Haiti, not some half baked theory based on an urban legend.
It is about God’s care for them in a time of great tragedy.
What will be the story that we tell about God in difficult times.
What will others say about us and our lives?
Will we tell stories of death and resurrection?
Of love and laughter.
Or will we tell stories of prejudice and half truth.
It makes all the difference because it will be the faith you witness to in the world.
What will be our faith and our witness to God as the people of Concordia Lutheran Church?
I pray we will be the people that speak of God’s forgiveness, and of his love for the poor of the world.
And we will sing songs about how God’s grace is always poured out into our empty vessels.
How God saves the best for last.
How God sent his son to be our grace and life.
The stories we tell make all the difference because it will be what people will say about us.
Since tomorrow is Martin Luther King day I am reminded of what he wrote about churches from the Birmingham Jail in 1963.
Dr. King wrote:
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward.
I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification?
Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred?
Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary black men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?"
What Dr. King was asking, and what I am asking this morning is what will we say to the world in need of the Churches moral leadership?
What will be the story we tell about our God?
This morning in the afterglow of Martin Luther King, in the tragedy of the earthquake in Haiti, in the disappointment that our supposed heroes are also fallen men and women, in our own lives often feeling empty and burned out, I say that our God has saved the best for last.
That this hour is God’s hour and he has come to all of us in the person of Jesus Christ.
God has come and given us grace and love, given us hope and resurrection.
And given us the power to speak and act for and with the poor amongst us.
May God continue to call us to acts of love.
Let us continue to tell others the story of our God who saved the best for last by giving his only son to die for us.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Formed by the Spirit

Traditionally Lutherans don’t talk about the Holy Spirit that much.
We are much more comfortable talking about Jesus, about the forgiveness and grace given to us through his life, death, and resurrection.
The Holy Spirit therefore usually takes a back seat.
Mostly I think because Jesus is easier to talk about.
Jesus was a real person who said things to us, and taught us about a Godly life.
The Holy Spirit is a much more nebulous kind of thing.
I cannot show you the Holy Spirit.
I cannot tell you this is what the Holy Spirit once did or said.
I cannot tell you a story about how the Holy Spirit once walked on water, or broke bread.
But this morning I want us to talk about the Holy Spirit, because it is an integral component of our faith life.

What we are reminded of this morning in the Gospel and the reading from Acts is that no baptism is complete without the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ baptism is complete only when the Holy Spirit descends from heaven to claim him as God’s Son.
The apostles are sent to Samaria to lay hands on some Christian converts so that they will receive the Holy Spirit, because being baptized in the name of “the Lord Jesus was not enough.”
For us too it is not enough to only know Jesus we also have to pay attention to the Holy Spirit.

But what is it exactly that the Holy Spirit does?
What does the Holy Spirit do in our lives as God’s children?
I think it is helpful to start by looking at Jesus.
What is it that the Holy Spirit does for Jesus in his Baptism?
First, the Holy Spirit is what connects Jesus to the realm of heaven.
At least while he was a human it was the Holy Spirit that came and answered his prayers.
The Holy Spirit in our lives is what brings us to Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit is what gives us answers to our prayers, and our questions.
After we are baptized we grow in our faith.
What makes that growth possible is the Holy Spirit.
We do not come away from the font fully formed into the people God wants us to be, nor the people we want to be.
That takes years, decades.
And many, many prayers.
Only after we have gone through many things with God do we fully realize the power of faith and what it really means for our lives.

I have talked to a number of people who will say things like, “I can never go to church I am just not a good person.”
That is who church is for!!
That is what the Holy Spirit is for, to form us into God’s people.
The Church is for all of us who are not yet done having God work on us.
If you are a perfect person, or think you are, then Church is not for you.
Because here we experience the Holy Spirit as we are drawn to grow in faith, and know God better.
So the Holy Spirit is what connects our lives to heaven and to all the blessings of knowing God.

Second, the Holy Spirit prepares us for our mission in the world.
Jesus was Baptized because he was about to embark on a very important mission.
And Jesus needed the power of the Holy Spirit to be his guide.
It is the only explanation for Jesus’ Baptism.
Because Jesus is not baptized to have his sins forgiven, or to get salvation.
The same is true with our Baptism.
They prepare us for our work in the world.
Every single one of us is on a mission.
That mission is unique in some ways to all of us, but it is also the same in many ways.
Our mission is to show others God’s love by sharing our faith.
That happens in all sorts of ways.
God calls us all to do it in different ways, places, and times.
This might be the scariest thing about the Holy Spirit that once it get hold of your life you never know where it will lead.

Think about all the people that for whatever reason got the Holy Spirit into them that ended up traveling or doing something they never would have guessed because the Holy Spirit lead them there.
Think of St. Paul.
He would never thought that he would have traveled all over the world starting Churches in the name of Jesus Christ, except the Holy Spirit got a hold of his life and took him to unknowable places.
I once met a man who did the music for his congregation.
He told me how he was an addict, he never thought that this would be his life.
He never thought he would give up a Saturday to come to a Church conference on evangelism to play the piano.
But he said once he found God he can’t help himself.
Maybe that is part of the reason we don’t talk that much about the Holy Spirit because it is so unpredictable.
We never know what the Holy Spirit might call us to do next.
But whenever you get that sensation like something is taping you on the shoulder and calling you to do something that you never thought you would do it might be the Holy Spirit.
The next time you are thinking about doing something to help someone else or forgive someone you never thought you could that is the Holy Spirit.

For example, I once got a call from one of the shut-ins asking if I would go visit her.
I went and she told me about a dispute she was having with one of the other parishioners.
“What should I do?” She asked me.
“I think you should forgive her.”
We had a long talk about it.
We read scripture together, and then we prayed together.
At the end of our conversation she said, “I still don’t think I can forgive her pastor.”
But the next time I went and visited she told me that one night during her night time prayers she felt this need to forgive her.
That is the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.
The Holy Spirit calls us to the mission of love and forgiveness in the world.

Finally, the Holy Spirit is what claims us as God’s children.
In Jesus’ Baptism the voice from heaven gives Jesus his title and authority to live out his mission in the world.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The same happens in each of our Baptism.
The Holy Spirit tells us that we too are God’s sons and daughters, beloved.
That is an important title for us because it defines who we are.
We are not lonely wonderers.
We are claimed by God to be God’s children.
It was important for Jesus because there would always be this question about who Jesus was and where he came from.
It is only by being claimed by God that we know that Jesus was the messiah, the anointed one sent to show us God, and baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
Being God’s children matters a lot.
It makes everything we do important to God.
Just as everything your children do is important to you.
The Holy Spirit is that constant reminder that we are not our own, but through our baptism belong to God forever.

So, we might not talk about the Holy Spirit that much but without it.
We would not know Jesus.
We would not know our mission in the world.
We would not know that we belong to God.

But because of the Holy Spirit we are drawn and formed by Jesus Christ.
We know our mission to let others know about God’s love by sharing our faith.
We know that we belong to God now and always.
So let us go out into the world led by the Holy Spirit to grow in faith, serve in love, all in the name of God our heavenly father.

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010 the year of light!

MSNBC did a poll asking people if they thought 2010 would be better than 2009.
70% of the people who responded said, “yes”.
Mostly because this last year was so lousy.
Here is a sample of some of the people said about the coming of the New Year.
“Worst year EVER; lost a parent, dog, house and filed bankruptcy, now got notice of IRS audit. 2010 can only be improvement...right?”
“I'm not a negative person, but this year and decade stunk.”
“It can't possibly be any worse...”
Many people are happy to see 2009 go.
And many people are happy to see another year come because there is at least a chance that it will be better.
I was wondering about all of you.
What was your year like?
Are you looking forward to 2010?
Are you hopeful?
Are you Pessimistic?

Regardless of how you feel about 2009 what should we be looking forward to in the New Year?
What is there to be hopeful about?
I would agree that it does not look good.
In our church, Less people are going to church than ever before.
The ELCA this year was in upheaval.
The national staff had to be cut because people are not giving as much.
In our country, terror is still the rule of the day as we were reminded on Christmas as a man tried to blow up a commercial airplane.
The economy seems to be getting better but it is not getting better very fast.
Many people are still out of work as the national unemployment is still around 10%.
We are still fighting two wars with little to no end in sight.
We have political shouting matches instead of reasoned statesmanship.

Christmas is the reminder to us that into the middle of all this Jesus comes.
This morning’s Christmas Gospel we are treated with the wonderful cosmic scene from John’s Gospel.
We are reminded that through Jesus the “Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
This is what we have to look forward to in 2010.
Not that things will get superficially better, but that we will grow spiritually.
That all the suffering we have endured in the last year was a way for us to grow closer to our families, become better stewards, and reexamine our relationship to God and others.
In 2010 what I hope is that we will grow to be able to see the light.
We are told that John was sent to testify to the light.
John was not the light.
His job was not to point to himself, or his life, but to point people towards Jesus.
To tell everyone that Jesus was the light they were missing in their lives.
Perhaps for us in 2010 we need to take John’s advice and look towards the light.
We need to stop obsessing about the darkness, about what is wrong, what does not work.
Instead, turn our collective attention to Jesus and see what it is that God is up to in our lives.

Here is the real problem with sin.
It is deceptive because it turns us in to only look at ourselves.
It makes us believe that we are the most important people in the world.
That all of our problems are too much.
And worse it makes us think that we can simply think our way out of our problems.
We can somehow make it all better.
That out there we have all the answers and it is only a matter of time before we find them.

What John pointed people to was that the only answer is Jesus.
Because Jesus is the light.
I think of that James Taylor song, “Can't get no light from the dollar bill
Don't give me no light from a TV screen”
We might search for light in other places but only in Jesus do we find the light.

What that light does for us is amazing.
It shines itself on our lives, and opens up new and glorious possibilities.
I know that this sounds great, but it does not come easy.
One of the truths Jesus gave us is that glory comes only after suffering.
Through suffering we come to understand ourselves better, we come to understand God better, and we come to grow in our understanding of the world.
It is why young people might be energetic and optimistic but not very wise.
They have not gleamed the understanding of what really goes into life.
That only when we suffer do we grow into the people God wants us to be.

I want to preface what I am about to say, I do not wish anyone harm or ill will.
If it were up to me no one would ever have anything bad happen to them.
But that is not reality.

I think that this last year with all of the suffering we have endured as individuals and as a country has a lot to teach us about ourselves, our country, our church, and our God.
There are lessons about what we should reasonably expect from our elected officials and our government.
There are lessons about how we should be good stewards of the resources we have.
There are lessons about what is really possible.
There are lessons about the power of our God.
When we suffer, when we go through bad times God is always there helping us learn about ourselves, and our world.
I am not saying God causes the bad things to happen.
I am saying God uses them to teach us, and help us grow.

Think about the lessons of cross.
There we learn about our own ability for sin.
We learn that we reject too often humility, mercy, and love.
We think of strength as bending others to our will.
But Jesus never bent others cohesively to his will.
He loved them and taught them.
We also learn that God overcomes death and sin to rise again.
To create something new and even more glorious.
Jesus is not dead but alive.

And in this new year as we look to Jesus who is the light we can look for ways that we will rise to newness of life.
We can look for the light instead of the darkness.
The light that shine always and beckons us towards it.
The light that is more powerful then the darkness.

For example, one of my good friend’s mother has been in the hospital for months.
She was there originally for aggressive chemo therapy to fight cancer.
While she was there she had a stroke.
At one point we all thought that this was the end of her life on earth.
On New Year’s eve we found out she was going home.
The prayers, the tears, the love prevailed.
The light shines in the darkness.

Last week I went to the celebration of life for Pastor Robert Robb.
I heard stories of a man who loved people, loved his family, loved God, and who went home to be with his Lord.
Because his faith, the faith he preached and taught about told him that death has been destroyed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and so we were able to celebrate his life and not only mourn his passing.
The light shines in the darkness.

What is the story that you will tell.
What will be the ways in which Jesus Christ comes into your dark place and shines His light?
I am here to tell you to expect Jesus the light of the world to be in your life in 2010, and because of that it will only get better.
That even in the dark times God is there using it to form us and to help us grow in our faith and love for one another.

So happy New Year.
Happy 2010!
When the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overtake it.