Monday, January 30, 2012

Have You Ever Been Possessed?

I have to admit this morning that I have been possessed by unclean spirits.
Often beyond my control I have lashed out at people, used my position to advance my own agenda, spoke when I should have listened, acted with vengeance when mercy was needed.
I am wondering if you have ever felt this way.
Have you ever walked away from a conversation and thought to yourself, “Why did I say that?”

For example, it happened one time that I always carry with me.
I was in college.
I went to the gym with some friends to play some basketball.
While we were there we started to have a one on one tournament with some other people.
One thing about me is that I can be fiercely competitive while playing sports.
I was playing a game against a fellow student who happened to be Jewish.
The game was close and we were both going at it really hard.
I scored a point and instead of handing me the ball he rolled the ball away from me.
I yelled back, “Didn’t they teach you manners in Jewboy School!”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wondered where they came from.
It was like I was possessed.

We all get possessed by evil spirits sometimes.
We lash out at others, we find it hard to forgive, we say things that tear down people instead of build them up, and we lose our cool.
I believe that Jesus Christ came to help us take away evil spirits.
Jesus came to help us break free from the chains of those evil spirits that possess us.
After being Baptized, tempted in the desert, announcing his plans for the kingdom of God, calling disciples, Jesus now sets out to show us what the kingdom looks like.
This morning in the synagogue Jesus confronts the demons that stop people from living in the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is about forgiveness, love, self giving, sacrifice, hope, and joy.
When we are possessed by evil spirits we act contrary to these things.

We all possess things about us that we would rather do away with.
Some of those things are passed down to us from our parents.
Some of them we are simply born with.
Some we learn from the world around us.
Whatever the case, we are tied to them.

I want to tell you this morning that there is a way out.
That is to submit to the authority of Jesus.
I knew after I said what I said on the basketball court it I was wrong.
I asked for forgiveness.
It was granted and in the end we became pretty good friends.
But I had to submit myself to a greater authority.
I think that it takes great humility to be a Christian.
It takes humility because we have to admit that we are not always right.
That is hard.
We have to admit that we make mistakes.
We have to admit that there are forces at work in our lives greater and more powerful than us.

Jesus confronts those forces head on.
He does not back down.
Jesus authority gives him the ability to confront those things in the world that stop us from being all that we are suppose to be as God’s children.
This is what makes Jesus unique for us that he above anything else can make our lives right.
You cannot get what Jesus gives anywhere else.
You can’t get it in money, in possessing things, in stature, in fame, in winning.
The problem is that if all your life is about is winning then eventually you will lose, and then what will happen.
I know in that moment on the basketball court I was possessed by an evil spirit because I was possessed with winning instead of trying to live as God had intended for me.

This is why God’s grace given in Jesus Christ is so amazing.
The people in the synagogue that morning experienced it firsthand.
They went away that morning filled with amazement at what they had seen and heard.
They had heard preaching not like the scribes and Pharisees.
Not filled with quotes from scripture and precedent, but filled with God’s healing balm of grace.
Jesus is the center of his own teaching.
No need to quote lots of other sources only need to preach what he knows to be true.

I am hoping every week when you come here that you will be able to hear those same healing words.
That in this sacred space you will be able to experience the authority that comes from Jesus Christ.
When we do I believe that it alters our lives.
It casts out our evil spirits and allows us to go back into the world with renewed passion to love more and hate less, forgive more and judge less, let go of our past and live into the day that was given.

This week a friend posted this quote on Facebook by Anne Lamott, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us."
This is how I feel about Jesus.
That in times when I am most possessed by evil spirits Jesus is always there helping to chase them away, and helping me to end up in a different spot, because Jesus is bigger than evil spirits.

Recently I had a couple of different people in our congregation come and ask me about demon possession.
It seems that in one case another Christian neighbor was obsessed with trying to keep out evil spirits.
So anything that was conceived by this person as being evil he was keeping at arm’s length.
Did not listen to certain music because that is how evil spirits get into our lives, does not read certain books, go to certain movies, or hang out with certain people.
My response is always that evil has no permanent power over us, because God is bigger and more powerful than evil.
If we encounter evil spirits in our lives than the answer is to hand them over to God and watch them go away.
The story of Jesus is even more powerful, because it shows us that God’s power is already unleashed and working in the world around us.
God sent his son to free us from evil, to deal it a fatal blow.
When we do something evil we know it, because we know Jesus and what is expected of us.
I knew what I said to my friend playing basketball was wrong.
I would suggest to you that most of the time we know what is wrong, and do it anyway because we are possessed.
In Luther’s words we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
But thanks be to God that Jesus has come to cast out the evil spirits and save us from our sin.

My favorite mystic is Julian of Norwich.
She was a mystic in the 15th century right before Martin Luther.
She had revelations of what God was about.
She wrote them down for us to enjoy today.
In one revelation she saw how Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection had defeated the power of evil.
When Julian realized this she laughed at the power of evil.
“For I understood that we may laugh in comforting of ourselves and joying in God for that the devil is overcome.”
This is how Jesus freed us from evil spirits.
Is that not good news for us!
Does that not allow us to laugh while we comfort ourselves in knowing the evil can and will be overcome?

Those of us who have been studying the book of Revelation on Wednesday nights also get to see how the blood of Christ frees us from the powers of evil that tries to hold us back.
When we are free from this power we are able to live in the Baptismal covenant that God made with us.
We can be the people that God hopes we will be, and sends us Christ to become.

So let us leave worship this morning marveling in the grace of God that frees us from evil spirits, and gives us the power to be the people of God.
Loving our neighbors, speaking words of encouragement, walking in humility, forgiving others as we are forgiven, and doing justice for the poor and broken hearted.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Turn Around!

We have had a very successful year at Concordia Lutheran Church.
Today at our annual meeting you will hear all kinds of good news.
Good news about our worship attendance being up.
Good news about Sunday school growing.
Good news about our financial stewardship growing.
Good news about our membership growing.
All these things are good.
We should celebrate them and rejoice together in our mutual ministry.

This past month as I was preparing for our annual meeting I was thinking about all our success and what would be the message I would give to you this Sunday.
Once again the Spirit of God moved because the lessons for today say it better than I ever could.
God is always calling us away from our comfortable lives and into good news.
Maybe a better way to say it is that God is always interrupting our lives and calling us to turn to something new.

Think about Simon and Andrew this morning.
They are at work.
They have been doing this for a long time.
Their father before them fished these waters.
They probably thought that for the rest of their lives this is what they would be doing.
Waking up every morning, mending nets, pushing out the boat, sailing on the water, catching fish, hauling them in, selling them, going home, eating, going back to bed.
Some days were better than others, some days there were storms or trouble, but it was usually about the same.
Then Jesus arrives, calls them, and everything changes.
I am hoping that in the next year of our ministry together this will continue to happen, both for our congregation, but also for all of you individually.

We think of churches as static things.
In many ways it is comforting to think that something in our lives will always be the same.
We can count on the church to remain the same to always be there in the same way it was.
However, the truth is that the Church is not a static thing.
If it is to constantly hear the call of God it can never be static.
The church always is in motion.
I think it is merely a reflection of our own lives.
We are always in motion.
Things change.
People grow up, grow old, grow apart, and grow close.
This is the nature of the world.

I guess the question for all of us is how will we handle it?
What will be our reaction?
I suppose that one thing we could do is fight against it.
We could try with all of our might to keep things from never changing by creating traditions and set patterns of thought and behavior.
This is usually what I do.
I create in my life tons of traditions to keep up the appearance of things remaining the same.
If we do something once and it is good instantly for me it becomes a tradition that can never change.
I will tell you I am working on this because it is unhealthy, and a lot of work to try to keep everything exactly like it was.

We could also simply become upset and angry that things are not the way they once were.
I have spoken many times about this condition.
It is really not good for you, because you become mad about things that you have no control over.
You end up alienating other people who don’t share that same world view.

Today I am going to go against type and suggest to all of us that we learn to embrace it.
Jesus told people that the “Kingdom of God had come near. Repent”
We hear that word repent and we think about confessing all the sins that we have committed in our lives.
But hear it is about turning ourselves around changing the direction of our lives in order to be able to correctly see the Kingdom of God that is already here now.
Unless we allow God to turn us around we can never hear and see the good news.
We will not be able to follow Jesus down unwalked paths.

As we enter this new year of ministry together perhaps this is a helpful image in our church and in our lives.
We might find our lives on a certain path, going a certain way.
Today is a good day to hear Jesus tell us to turn around look at things in a new way.
I know that there are probably whole hosts of ways that I need to turn around.
There are things I need to look at from a fresh perspective.

There is immediacy to our life.
We don’t have all the time in the world.
Our lives are finite with a limited amount of time.
More than this Jesus tells us that God’s kingdom time is now.
Right in front of us, now, is the good news that we need to hear and believe.

We can’t look back because that is already done.
We can’t look ahead because we don’t know what that will be.
We can only have now!
We have the immediacy of this moment.

I know that some of you feel at times that we as a church are moving too quickly.
Things are happening at an accelerated rate.
Know that I am sensitive to that.
But also know that there is immediacy to our actions.
The Church as we know it is dead or dying.
If you don’t believe me all you have to do is look at the statistics and see that we are heading in a negative direction.
I believe that God is calling us to turn and see things from a different perspective.
I understand that it is not easy.
It probably was not that easy for the disciples either.
But we have to be open to the ways that we will be turned around.

I had this moment this year when I panicked.
Three leaders Alva Hauser (Who was head of our altar guild), Phil Joseph (Our council president), and Bob Hunton (Our treasurer) were all stepping away from the positions they currently held.
Three leaders of our congregation who I rely on were stepping away from their positions!
The reasons for their stepping away were varied and none of it was due to hurt feelings or bad blood.
It was just natural for these three leaders to step away.
In Phil’s case it was constitutionally mandated that he step down.
But when I heard it I freaked out.
I relied on those people.
I knew they would do the job.
It was comfortable for me.
For example, I never worried about the altar.
I knew that Alva would make sure everything was just right.
What was the church going to do without them?

But I was turned around.
God calmed me down.
The Holy Spirit reminded me.
This is the natural course of action for congregations.
This is the way things go.
New leaders will be called, new people will step up.
Those three leaders are being called in a new way.
At the end of it I could see it as a good thing.
I share this with you so that we can remember that God is always turning us around.

The question I want to leave you with is where do we need to be turned?
What are the things that we have become so comfortable with that they keep us from following Jesus?

As we individually and as a church face the challenges ahead let us remember to let God turn us around so we might here the call and believe in the Good News.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tough Mind and Tender Heart

It seems that we are living in a time like that of Samuel.
It seems that we are living in a time when the word of the Lord seems rare, when visions are not widespread.
I remember in seminary being at a discussion about social inequality.
A retired pastor got up and asked, “When are we going to see person like Martin Luther King again.”
He went on to talk about how young people didn’t care like they used to back in the day.
He believed that the church had become complacent with prestige and power.
I thought his assertions where not only not untrue, but extremely insulting.
First of all not all of us are called to be Martin Luther King Jr.
We are not all called to be a prophet of a movement for justice.
We are not all called to preach and call people to think about their actions in light of the Gospel.
Secondly, I thought it was offensive because there are plenty of people in our world fighting for justice; standing up for what is right and good.
There are plenty of people advocating for peace, working with people experiencing poverty, fighting the good fight.
I happen to know that in Concord there are many good people out there doing the Lord’s work with passion.

It is wrong to assume that Martin Luther King went into the ministry to become an international figure for justice and peace.
By all accounts he went into the ministry to preach the word of God.
It just so happened that just after arriving in Montgomery Alabama, to be the new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, King was called to be the leader of a movement.
That is the way calling works.
It is about our context and the circumstances around us.
One of the reasons there can never be another Martin Luther King Jr. is because there already was one.
Because Martin Luther King heard God’s call and saw the vision of a different world we no longer need to fight the battles that he fought.

We today have newer battles to fight.
This morning I want us to think about what it is that God is calling us to do?
Because when we hear God’s call, when we respond to it, two things happen.
One, we see and experience great things.
Jesus promised his disciples that they would, “You will see great things than these.”
Later in John’s Gospel Jesus will tell his disciples that they will also do greater things than these.
I believe responding to God’s call opens our lives to all sorts of wonderful blessings.
We get to see the heavens open up and angels ascending and descending.
The second thing is that our life will become harder.
Think about Samuel this morning.
After hearing God’s call the task that is given to him is to tell his boss, Eli, that God is firing him!
Not an easy task.
In fact, Samuel is reluctant to do it.

Hearing God’s call and responding usually means that we will have to take on something that is going to be controversial and difficult.
It means giving up some comfort on our part.
Again, it will bring great rewards, but always at a cost.

The people who have dared to follow God know this truth.
Because, ultimately following God’s call for justice and peace lead to Dr. King’s assignation.
Following God’s call lead Jesus to be crucified.
I am not suggesting that any of you go out looking to be crucified, but I will suggest that following God’ call cost us something.

This week I kept coming back to this question: Since we are not Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesus, What is it that God is calling us to?
It is a hard question because often times we have a hard time even hearing God.
I think one of the great tasks that we face in our day is trying to hear God through all of the clutter.
In our day when there are so many opinions about everything, and all those opinions are right at our finger tips, how do we hear what is authentically God?
There are people telling us that God is found only in traditional doctrines know by the church for centuries.
Others are telling us that God is found in new innovative programs, worship, and theology.
Still others tell us that we can only hear God’s voice through a literal interpretation of the Biblical witness.
Some will say that the Biblical witness must be heard through the cultural lens that we know today.
We hear opinions from politics from left and right wing preachers.
Each of whom is sure that God is heard and found where they are pointing.
In such a world with bloggers, pundits, and prognosticators with all their own slants, prejudices, and opinions how do we know what God is really saying?

This morning I would like to suggest some ways that we can hear God’s voice.
We can recognize God talking to us when we hear words that are tough minded and tendered hearted.
Dr. King in one of his sermons suggested that these are two characteristic Jesus’ demanded of his disciples.
On the one hand we must use our minds for “incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgment”.
Discerning God’s call always includes thoughtful examination of the facts before us.
We must in this time weed out those things that are not true.
Just because we hear something on Television, read it on the internet, or see it in print that does not make it true.
A tough minded person always asks the next question, and wonders at the possibilities.

But discernment can never forget to be tendered hearted.
When discerning God’s call we must remember that God always calls us to love.
God calls us to give of ourselves for others, and to love even those who are our enemies.
As Dr. King once said, “On the one hand, God is a God of justice who punished Israel for her wayward deeds; on the other hand he is a forgiving father whose heart was filled with unutterable joy when the prodigal returned home.”

For me it comes down to being able to stand up for the things I believe in, to fight for what I believe to be just and true, but it is also about never losing sight of the fact that God never calls us to hate our neighbor even if they disagree with us.

I think the implication of this is that when we set out on a course to be a disciple of Jesus Christ our lives are forever changed.
We see great things and do great things.
And our lives are never quite the same again.

When God calls you what will be your response?
When God calls you to see and do great things will you be able to hear and respond?

God will call you.
God will call you to have a tough mind and tender heart in all sorts of difficult situations.
Will you be able to hear that call?
Will you be tough minded and tendered hearted?
When your co-workers are gossiping about someone else will you be able to stand up for the person being picked on?
When your cousin asks for forgiveness for the remark they made about you at a party will you be able to forgive?
When your kids steal a candy bar from the store will you be able to discipline them?
When we hear on television that such and such candidate, said this or that, will we be able to discern what is true, honorable, kind and good?

We will be able to hear God’s call, if we talk about it with other people of God.
Just like Samuel needed Eli to help him hear God’s call, just like Nathanael needed Philip to help him hear Jesus call, we need each other to help us hear God through the clutter.
We will be able to hear God’s call if we are able to remain close to Jesus.
Just like the disciple’s needed to remain close to Jesus so he could show them the way, truth, and life we need Jesus in order to help us discern what God would call us to do.

In this time of what seems like God’s silence and visions that are not widespread let us remember to listen to God’s call and follow with a tough mind and a tender heart.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Happy New Year!

There is a moment that happens for me just after midnight on New Year’s Eve.
It happens just after the ball drops and I hug my wife and friends to wish them a “happy new year”.
It is a moment when I believe that this year will be better than the last.
It is a moment when I kick the old to the curb and anticipate the arrival of the new and possible.
I love that moment.
However, it is usually short lived.
I started my New Year off this year by attending a funeral of a dear soul who always brought joy to whatever room she was in.
On my way home from the funeral I thought, “This year will be no different than last year.”
This year will bring its shares of good times, celebrations, and joys.
But like last year there will also be disappointments, deaths, and difficult times.
I don’t want my sermon to be a downer to all of us this morning.
There is nothing wrong with that moment just after midnight when all things seem possible, when hope shines into our lives with the possibility of a new beginning.
It is just that our lives are not that simple.
Just because we turn the page on the calendar it does not mean that life will not go on as normal.
In this year life will go on.
There will be children born, celebrations, joys, and sorrows, and people will die.
I suppose that it is the uncertainty of life that makes us yearn for signs of something more stable.

As I was thinking about this year to come and its uncertainty about the things that we might face I was sure about something.
God will still be our companion in 2012.
We will still be called to live in the grace and mercy of God.
Perhaps that is why life is so uncertain to begin with.
It forces us to trust our lives to God’s care.
If we could know everything, if we could control life then there would be no need for God.
If we could stop our loved ones from becoming sick, if we could stop ourselves from practicing self destructive behaviors, if we could stop others from committing sins, than we could live life without ever having to rely on God.
Our own will is insufficient for these things.

When I was at the funeral this week I was sitting in my pew before the worship service began and I was looking around at the Church that was packed with people.
Every pew was filled, and people were standing along the walls and in the back.
I was thinking that this is why the Church will never go away completely.
We will always need a place to come and collectively grieve together.
We will always need a place to come and pray that God’s grace will be sufficient for today.
We will need a place to come to when everything else is falling apart around us.
When we have lost our money, our families, our friends, and all the things that keep up the illusion that all is well then we will see clearly our need for God.

That is what our Baptism is about helping us live our lives under a new understanding.
Baptism brings into our life a different reality.
In Mark’s Gospel Jesus Baptism is the beginning of his public ministry.
Thirty years into Jesus’ life he begins this important work.
And the world will never be the same again.
For the world it meant that God cannot be kept any longer in the heavens.
God is not the merely the work of theologians and church people.
But God becomes part of the human story.
God in Christ begins a new chapter.
At Jesus Baptism the heavens rip open and God comes out of the heavens and is set loose on the world.
We will see during the other Sundays in the season of Epiphany that from here on out Jesus begins to challenge the things in life that hold us back.
He cures the sick, cast out demons, challenges deeply held religious beliefs, and sends the powers of death and sin on the run.

Perhaps for us Epiphany is a good time to wonder what will be new and possible in our lives.
Our baptism is not merely about having an insurance policy that gives us something to lean on in the tough times.
Rather our baptism is the means by which God has communicated to us his grace.
Because of God’s grace every day we are able to rise and challenge death and sin.
Baptism allows us to deal with the uncertainty of life.
One of the things I am becoming more thankful for is the feeling of loss.
It reminds me that I am alive; it reminds me that I love and care.
My life with God allows me to live more deeply into the human reality.
It is not a way to avoid life but rather a way to live more deeply.

If we are always protecting ourselves against feeling bad than we will never truly live.
Baptism helps us live trusting that God is at work in all things.
When you were baptized when the pastor dunked or poured water on your head life changed.
In that moment and for the rest of our lives new possibilities were opened up to us and the world.

One thing is for sure about this New Year we can never go back to 2011.
Whatever mistakes we made, whatever triumphs we had they are in the past.
We are now on the move to our next destination.
We have new challenges to face, and new mountains to conquer.
I hope in this New Year you will be able to trust that in all things God is near.
God is with you and around you.
God is working through you.
God is speaking words from the heavens, “This is my beloved child and with him/ her I am well pleased.”

Those words that are spoken to Jesus God also speaks to you.
They are spoken especially in those moments when you feel like they can’t possibly be spoken about your life.

There are many people who get this whole religion thing way wrong.
Like I said earlier they see it as an insurance policy against anything bad ever happening to you.
If I have faith, if I do the right things, if I live the right way than everything will work out the way I think it should.
I consider myself a pretty religious person.
I go to worship every Sunday, I study the Bible daily, I pray every day.
On days when I am visiting shut-ins I will take communion three or four times.
Despite this since July of 2011 the following things have happened in my life.
My wife’s grandfather died, my grandmother fell and broke her hip and moved into a nursing home, our son’s godmother (who is only 34) and lifelong friend was diagnosed with an aggressive life threatening type of cancer, another one of my long time friend’s mother died, my mother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer.
I tell you this so that you see that having faith is not a guarantee against anything.
It is not insurance of a life free from pain or struggle.
Instead it is about a God who comes out of the heavens to tell us that we are beloved.
A God who offers us words of grace at every turn.
It is a God that encourages us to love in a world where things are uncertain.
None of the people we love will live forever.
That love that we share with others is proof that we are still alive, that we still care, that we are living out what God put us on this earth to do.
If you want a life that removes us from pain, and the hard parts of life than being baptized into the Christian faith is not for you.
Jesus baptism leads him to the cross.
It leads him to be tempted, reviled, deserted, betrayed, and ultimately killed.
Ours leads us into a life that is always uncertain, but always blessed by a God who has come out of the heavens to call us beloved.

In this season of Epiphany let us be able to see God at work in our lives.
Let us be able to trust God even in situations that are out of our control.
Most of all let us remember that God has called us beloved!