Monday, April 29, 2013

The Spirit's Leading

One of the reasons why I was excited to preach about Acts is because the issues raised in Acts are so relevant for our time.
The Church in the time of Acts was in a constant state of change, and the church in our time is in a state of change.
The church in our time is in a state of crisis that is forcing us to question everything.
I noticed this even more this last week while I was on vacation in Sweden.
I attended two church services last week.
The church buildings where beautiful ornate buildings, lovely stain glass, huge organs.
One of the services was at the Church of Mary Magdalene a Lutheran Church in the old town part of Stockholm.
It was a beautiful service filled with some of the most wonderful singing I have ever heard.
Even though the entire worship service was in Swedish I still felt the spirit move me through those angelic voices.
The choir had paid singers in it.
The second was an English speaking worship service that was serviceable, but nothing spectacular.
What was obvious at both worship service was the lack of people.
I was told by a couple of different people that no one in Sweden goes to church.
The pastor at St. Jacob’s where I went to the English speaking service told me he came to Sweden because he wanted to be a missionary.
This is where the mission field is.

The book of Acts is about this mission field.
It is about spreading the good news, and following the Spirit down unknown paths.
Today’s Acts reading is no exception.
It is about the mission field of opening the Church to people previously not thought to be invited to the party.
It is also about the Church being open to the calling of the Holy Spirit.
It is about the church accepting people who had different cultural norms than they did.
Our Church today is faced with this same conundrum.
And the question that we are left with is are we open to the Spirits calling?

Now our task is not about race, ethnicity, or who eats what food.
I think that we have come along way in these matters.
But what we are faced with is a generation of people that sees the world different than we do.
It is a cultural thing.
Are we open to what the Spirit is saying to us about the next generation?
Millennials are people generally born between 1982 through 2004.
They are the people who are now ages 18-31.
They are also the people who are rejecting the institutionalized church that we all grew up in.
They are rejecting stained glass windows and pipe organs.
This generation is more technologically driven, has grown up in the era of the internet.
They tend to be more diverse, and have grown up in a more diverse America.
They tend to have more liberal views about social issues.
They tend to distrust all institutions from government to the church.
They grew up in a time of scandals and falling economic prosperity.

Now, we all could spend days and hours thinking about what is wrong with this generation.
We could wish that they were better, or they were more like us.
But the truth is that is not helping us or them.
It is not helping them to have a relationship with Jesus.
In fact, the more we fight them the more they reject us.
The more we insist on sticking to outdated doctrines and procedures the more we lose.
I am sure all of you know some of the people in this category.
They are your kids, your grand kids.
They are your neighbors, or your friends.
And there might even be a few of you in this congregation this morning.
But I bet if they are here they would tell you that the majority of their friends don’t go to Church that they are outside of norm.
What are we going to do?

One of the things I think we can all do is to do what the people in the early church did.
They followed the Spirit’s leading.
They were not afraid to change.
They were not afraid to be adaptable to new understandings of the way that God was working.
Some people have called this time in the history of the Church the time of the Holy Spirit.
This is the time to try new things, follow new paths, and be lead by the Holy Spirit.

Here is why I think this is so important.
Because how are the next generation going to navigate this world without some relationship with God?
We live in a complex and scary world.
And it isn’t getting any easier.
After what happened at the Boston Marathon we all were thrown off by those events.
We all tried to make sense out of it.
And here is the thing is that it doesn’t make any sense.
In some ways it doesn’t matter why those two young men tried to kill innocent people.
Their rational doesn’t matter, because there is no rational for that kind of senseless violence.
But all of us here have a deeper well to go to.
We can access our faith to help us get through terrible events.
We can access our faith to help us overcome fear and hatred.
We trust that God is the one saving the world.
We trust that it is through God that we have a repentance that leads to life.
And in that trust we can overcome even the most heinous acts of violence.
I don’t know what you did, but after I heard about the bombing I did the only thing I could think of.
I prayed.
I prayed for all the people who were killed, all those who were injured, all those who ran to help, all those who were traumatized by what they saw.
I even prayed for those who committed this horrible act and their families, because my faith is about following Jesus who taught us to pray for our enemies and those who persecute us.
After the bombing I had a deep well of resources to help me deal with all my feelings of anger and sadness.
This is what is at stake for us.
This is why our mission is so important because we desire others to have that same well of resources.
We want people to know that in the midst of the hurt there is a God who cares.

That is why Peter ultimately has to share this message with Cornelius’ house of Gentiles.
And it is what brings us out into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
Because we might be from different generations that make us hear the Gospel message in different ways, but the same God is served.

What struck me most from our reading this morning was Peter’s question to the believers in Jerusalem.
“Who was I that I could hinder God?”
It is a question I ask myself a lot.
I am running into people all the time who have different ideas about what it means to believe in God.
And some of those ideas are not what I was taught in seminary.
 I have had to give up some of those ideas because the Holy Spirit has given me visions of something else.
God has whispered in my ear on more than one occasion that serving people is more important than following the rules.
It is not good enough to know the doctrines we must also be willing to follow, and to be taught.
That is tough sometimes, but it is the story of Acts.
It is the story of the early church, and the church in our world today.
Are we ready to follow the Spirit’s leading?

Today I pray for all of us that we may be ready to see visions of the ways that God is leading us to follow the Holy Spirit into unknown places that open up new avenues for sharing the good news.  Amen

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Our Conversion!

Today our reading from Acts is about the most famous conversion in the history of the church.
I must admit that I am generally uncomfortable with conversion.
The reasons are threefold.
First, I have been friends with people of just about every type of religion.
I have been friends with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, and Hindus.
I have never seen a reason to try and convert them.
It seems that they have a faith that suits them well a faith that works for them.
Who am I to tamper with that faith, or to insist that my faith would be better for them?
Second, conversion seems too small for God.
If all it is about is a onetime event when you suddenly realize that you have been wrong about something.
God to me is always at work in us.
God is always up to something, and we need to constantly pay attention to what God is doing.
Third, conversion seems to say that we need to make some kind of decision for not just God but the right kind of god.
I don’t think that I ever made some kind of conscious decision to be a Christian.
So this morning I would like for us to talk about conversion through the experience of Saul who became Paul.

The first thing to notice is that Saul is not switching to a new religion.
At this point in Acts all the people who call Jesus Messiah are Jews.
They continue to maintain all the Jewish laws; they are still following the prescribed Leviticus laws of kosher food.
All of Jesus followers continue to insist on circumcision as necessary for inclusion in the community.
In fact, at this point in Acts the followers of Jesus are not even called Christians they are simply called people of “the way”.
Saul’s real conversion is his misunderstanding that his mission in life is to persecute Jesus’ followers.
He comes to see Jesus as a rightful heir of the messianic promise in the Old Testament.
Saul’s revelation is that Jesus and he are on the same side.
Even more than this is that this story is also the conversion story of Ananis.
It is Ananis who needs to be converted to see that God can use even a scoundrel like Saul for God’s purposes.

From this angle Acts suggests that all of us are in a constant state of conversion, that those of us who grew up Christian need to see that God works through the unlikely of characters.
From this view point everyone is in need of conversion not just the ungodly or those who happen to be a different religion than we are.

Second, God’s purpose here is not merely to get Saul to join some new religion.
Instead, God is calling Saul to higher purpose.
“He will see how much he needs to suffer for the sake of my name.”
Jesus is asking Saul to follow him, and in the following Jesus will use Saul for a greater purpose.
Part of Saul’s problem was that he was following God in the wrong way.
It wasn’t worth his skills to be going around trying to kill followers of the way.
What was better was that he too became a follower of the way.
That is what God desires for all people regardless of religious affiliation is that we all become followers of the way.
God desires that our righteousness comes to exceed that of the Pharisees.
God wants us to become zealots for God’s kingdom of mercy, love, peace, and justice.
So this is not so much a conversion story as a call story so that Saul can become who God made him to be St. Paul.

Thirdly, notice that Saul has no say in the matter.
It is not like Saul had some sudden notion that what he was doing was wrong; Jesus had to appear to him for him to realize it.
In fact, Saul is on his way to find and persecute people of the way before God intervenes.
The same is true for Ananis who has no idea that God is about to invite one of his enemies to join him.
The people in this story are complacent in what happens to them.
Instead Jesus and the Holy Spirit make everything happen.
They are the ones that convert Saul into Paul.
They are the ones that tell Ananis that he should great Saul as a brother.

What does all this mean for us?
It means that we are to be a people on the way.
We are to people of the way.
We are to be followers of Jesus Christ.
And we leave the converting up to God.
In fact, instead of spending our time worrying about converting others into Christians, we should be on the lookout for the ways that we, like Ananis, need converting.
We should be on the lookout for the ways in which Jesus and the Holy Spirit are calling us to a higher purpose.
What are the pre judgments we make about people that keeps them from being welcomed among us as our brother or sister.

In the book of Acts people are being converted all the time.
But those conversions are always a two way street.
Both the person coming to understand Jesus as messiah and the church are constantly being mutually converted.
The Church would never look like it does now if not for those conversions.
The earlier followers of Jesus did not want to let Gentiles into the community because they did not follow the right dietary laws and were not circumcised.
That means that none of us would be here this morning if the early church did not go through that conversion.
We also know from Acts that the conversion was painful.
It did not go easy.
People who had grown up believing their whole life that God’s chosen people acted a certain way had trouble letting go of that to live in the new way Jesus Christ had brought.

I was thinking about my own faith journey.
I grew up my whole life as a Christian.
I was born into a Christian household.
I was baptized, confirmed, married, and I will die a Christian.
Not only that by my whole life I have been a Christian Lutheran.
I have learned about other faiths, other theologies.
And the thing is that for me every time I hear what Christian Lutherans believe I just feel at home.
I couldn’t imagine being something else, because this makes the most sense.
But what comes first for any of us.
Do I believe this because that is what I was raised?
Or do I believe it because this is the truth?
Perhaps it is a little of both.
But what I know for sure this morning is that none of it was my decision.
It was God through Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit that brings me to this point in my faith life.
And I know that I need constant conversion so that I may be able to widen the net of those that I call brother and sister, and so I may be constantly renewed in my faith.

I know lots of people that grew up their whole lives Christian who walked away from the Church because it was too narrow for them.
They thought of Christian as too small minded.
They too need a conversion to see that the Church is always too small minded, but thanks be to God that we are still on our way to a higher calling.
The Church’s story is one of constant conversion.

I know people that walked away from the Church for a long time in their lives.
But something brought them back.
Some event that happened that made them see their need again.
I knew a man who hadn’t been in Church for twenty-five years.
But then his mom died and he saw again his need for a spiritual foundation.
His story is a story of conversion equal to Paul’s.

I know people that get upset with others at Church and leave.
But then learn to forgive and come back.
That too is a conversion.
You see conversions happen all the time.
In some ways we are all on the road to Damascus.
We are all persecuting each other, and we need the blinding light of Jesus Christ to stop us and call us to our higher calling.
We all leave the street called straight for the crooked and narrow, and need to be called back to welcome in the brother/sister that we can’t imagine God has called too.

I pray today for your conversion.
That you may be on your way to following Jesus and welcoming even your enemy.
So that we all may be converted and be on the way.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

It Is Perplexing!

I like to start preparing for my Easter Sermons earlier than my other sermons.
Today is like the Super Bowl for preachers.
But it was hard this year.
It is hard to think about new life, about spring, about rebirth, while 14 inches of snow is falling.
I am sure this spring you all had a similar experience.
It is hard to imagine resurrection when death still hangs in the air.
So it is for the people who first experienced the resurrection.
In all of the Gospels the reaction to people hearing the news that Jesus has risen was not immediate joy.
They didn’t yell out, “He is risen indeed, Alleluia!”
People’s immediate reaction is confusion.
The women who first come to the tomb are perplexed.
That big heavy stone they put in front of the tomb was gone and so was the body.
This is not supposed to happen.
Big stones don’t disappear and dead people don’t come back to life.
It is all perplexing.

There is no wonder we still struggle with the resurrection.
This is not supposed to happen.
We all know that the only things certain in life are death and taxes.
I mean if we know one thing for absolute certain it is that everyone dies.
Scientific studies have proven it.
Let me suggest that it is ok to be perplexed by the resurrection.
There will be days and times when we doubt it, just like the disciples did when they were told by the women.

This is the way the resurrection is supposed to be.
It is suppose to surprise us.
It is suppose to be perplexing.
It is really unbelievable.

But then I think about all the ways our lives are dead.
All the ways we are stuck in winter and can’t get to spring.
The ways we are stuck in our old life and can’t get to the new.
All the ways we are shut in tombs with the stone still in front.
I think about the stone that keeps us in those tombs, or perhaps keeps others out.

Today I have given everyone a stone.
It is a reminder of all the things in our life that keep us from new life.
All the things that block our path.
All the obstacles that seem really hard to get over.
All of the sin that blocks our way from a truly rich and meaningful life.
And then remember that God has the unbelievable, remarkable power to remove that stone from your life.
God has the power to let light shine in, and to usher in spring and new life.

I have good friend who has had her world shattered this last year.
Her husband cheated on her, he stole all her money, she lost her job, her son got married and her new daughter in law doesn’t get along with her.
So she feels alone, and lost.
It really has been a horrible year.
My heart breaks for her, because someone who was once vibrant full life is no just defeated.
She of course is not the only one there are lots of us who are living in this way.
Lots of us hoping for a turnaround
Lots of us living in that tomb hoping that the stone will be rolled away.

This is why we need the resurrection.
This is why we need to have faith in unbelievable things that don’t make sense.
This is why we need to believe that huge stones can be rolled away.
We need to believe that God has the power to roll our stones away.
Open up the dark and dingy tomb and let the sunshine in.
We need a new day with new vision.
We need miracles to happen this Easter day.

The resurrection assures us that those miracles are possible.
This morning Ryan is being baptized and that is a miracle.
A miracle that another child of God has bee drowned in the waters and brought to new life.
In our baptism we are killed and brought to new life.
That new life is a life with Christ.
Baptism is what reminds us constantly of the Easter faith we have.
That we proclaim that out of nothing, out of tomb God brings life.
And it is a promise that last us from the time we are a baby until the day when we leave this world to go to live with God.

Lots of times people ask me how people receive faith, and how they maintain it.
The answer is I don’t know.
It is always perplexing to me.
Having faith in God’s ability to bring life from death is really beyond belief.
But I know plenty of people who have it.
I have seen how it makes a huge difference in their lives.
I have seen how it helps them to roll away stones that would want to keep them locked in their tombs.
I have seen how faith can be a great force in our lives.

This week I was reading a website that had people write in grace stories about the ways that God’s grace had changed their lives.
For example there was a woman named Sara Haggerty who wrote about how grace totally changed her marriage.
She used to pray that God would change her husband and make him the man she wanted.
But one day God put a different prayer in her heart.
She prayed to be able to see her husband through God’s eyes.
Her perception of their marriage, herself, her husband, and God changed.
This is what Sara ends her story with.
“My early-marriage prayers for change in him were not entirely unfounded, just skewed.
Jesus’ grace washed over me and finally gave hunger to remove the log and to finally see clearly.
This man, as God has made him, but ultimately God, as He really is.
A promise-keeper. Not only washing over sin, but promising redemption of every fallen place.
And I live healing.
And breathe believing for every single one of my broken places.”
God through his grace had rolled away the stone that kept Sara in her tomb.
God let the light shine into her life.
The resurrection opens us up to new understanding about ourselves and others.

It makes us new and let’s in the light.
I loved Sara’s story because it was about her everyday life, and how her sin got in her way.

What will be the ways that God’s grace will help you to roll away your stones?
What will be the ways that God empty the tombs so we might live again?
We live in the tomb because we are in the way.
We won’t let God in, and so most of what we have to do is get out of the way and let God have control.
That is a resurrection faith that trusts in God’s amazing grace to bring life from death, and bring new life to us, to make a way out of no way.

This Easter faith is perplexing, but I hope that God rolls the stone away from your tombs so that you might experience new life.
I hope that your tomb is open to let the sunshine in.
I hope that we all get to experience a wonderful spring.
And that even through the confusion, doubt, and perplexing we can say Christ has risen indeed. Alleluia!