Sunday, July 26, 2015

God Lives In Us!

This week in the mail I received a questionnaire from the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church In America).
It wanted to know why we didn’t go to the ELCA youth gathering in Detroit that was last week.
It was an interesting questionnaire.
I have heard that less people attended this youth gathering because it was in Detroit instead of New Orleans.
It seemed to me that what the questionnaire was trying to ask was did you not attend this youth gathering because it was in Detroit a city with a bad reputation.
I say this because nowhere on the questionnaire did it ask, “Did you not attend this youth assembly because your pastor didn’t have his act together, and did not plan far enough in advance to make this possible?”
Because that is the reason I had to write in the questionnaire.
It should be said that I wanted to go to Detroit.
Our youth wanted to go to Detroit.
We should have been planning since we got back from New Orleans if we wanted to go to Detroit.
But I am told that some people didn’t want to send kids to Detroit because they feared it would be “unsafe”.
(I want to take a little side trip just to say that how can New Orleans be a better place for youth?
Why is Detroit worse than New Orleans with its reputation for drunkenness, nudity, and general bad behavior?)
This is what I wrote on the questionnaire.
If we are going to be the Church, if we are going to be Jesus people than we need to be in places that are unsafe.
We need to be in places that the world sees as awful, dirty, hopeless, lost, forsaken.
That is where we are sent.
But it is more than just a moral ideal.
It is more than this is what “good Christians” do.
This is about what is in our DNA.
It is about who God made us to be.
It is about who we are beneath our own fears and brokenness.

Consider our reading from Ephesians this morning.
We have heard for the last two weeks about the foundations of why we do things in the world.
Today’s reading is the culmination of the first part of the letter, the part that lays the ground work for all that is to follow.
I was struck this week by one part of our reading this morning.
“I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in the your inner being though God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”
This is not about us as individuals.
This is about us, here this morning, us the Church.
This is a prayer for us together.
It starts with our inner beings strengthened through God’s Spirit.
Deep inside us the Church, deep inside you and me, is an inner being.
It is below what we see on the surface.
It is below what we do, what we know of our Church.
God in the very DNA of the Church is there.
God doesn’t have to be summoned by our will, but is merely strengthened.
That Christ may dwell in our hearts.
That Christ may live in us, through us, around us.
That Christ may have a permanent home in the Church.
This is after all not us, it is Christ.
We are Christ body.
And in this Church Christ lives dwells in us so that are rooted and ground in love.
Love that transforms not only those we come in contact with but us.
This Love defines us.
Not hatred.
Not the things we are against.
But the things we are for, the things we believe to be true.
The things we want to transform.
In other words, deep inside us Christ lives and we are rooted in love.

If Christ dwells deep in our Church than it is always about love.
It is about the Good News we see in the world, in our neighbors.
It is about the way that God in us, through us.

If Christ dwells deep in us, and we are rooted in God’s love than we have to be in the world, but not of the world.
And what that means is that we are always deeply involved in the world’s problems.
We walk with those that are struggling with life, those that are downtrodden, and left out.
We walk with people that don’t know the good news, or have forgotten it.
What it means is that we are not afraid as the world wants us to be.
We are not afraid because we have love deep in our souls, and hearts.
And that love makes us stronger than our fears.
We are not afraid of any city or place, because there is Good news to deliver.
And I know that while the 30,000 youth were in Detroit they delivered it, and they were changed by it.

My nephew, Jack, went to Detroit.
He was transformed by the experience.
He loved it.
He saw things he never saw before, experienced the world from a different view.
The thing you should know about Jack is that he is a great kid.
He gets really good grades, he is a good friend, and I am always proud to call him my nephew.
I was at his baptism.
My sister in her wisdom selected all of us to be his God parents because she wanted Jack to know of all the people in his life who loved him.
And on that day, I know that God loved him and promised him love.
And what is so great is I get to see now as he grows up how that God has taken up residence in his life.
I get to see how much he gives back of that love to the world.
And that is what the Church does for all of us plants God’s love deep within us, makes it live in us.
And together as a Church we get to share it with the world.
We get to share it with places like Detroit.
But not just Detroit but also right here in Concord, NH.
We get to share it right here with people no one else wants around or wants anything to do with.
And here is what I have noticed and experience people do take notice of God’s dwelling in us.

A man who attended the gathering but was not a Lutheran wrote this about what he observed.
“As I witnessed this enthusiasm, I was overcome with a pride for the universal church that I, unfortunately, haven't recently felt.
 In fact, the last time my eyes welled up with this bliss was while working at a church camp.
 As I examined the differences between normal life and what I experienced at both the camp and this Gathering, I found one key difference:
Outside these exceptions, American Christianity seems to have been hijacked by negativity.
A quick search of recent news proves this, as a faith meant to be characterized by its "good news" has become known not by what it's for, but by what it's against. Christians in America are now best recognized by their feigned religious persecution, anti-Muslim sentiments, or their unwillingness to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding…
Let American Christianity stop being known as a religion that hurts, as a faith focused on what we're against, and instead let them know we are Christians by our love.
Let us be known by the same love that radiated from 30,000 youth in Detroit.”

I believe that God is turning the tide.
That this indwelling of the spirit, which is always there, but sometimes needs to stirred or strengthened is beginning to come out.
More and more what we as Christians are becoming known for is our love of our neighbors, of the things that we are for.
Of the good news we bring.

And that Good news is not that we are great people who went to Detroit to do great things.
But that God lives in us, God’s love is rooted in us.
We are for that God.
We are for that “God who is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine.”

We are for Good news to all people.

We are Church.
We are God’s people.
We come to proclaim that, and as we go back out into the world we go to live it.
So that they will know we are Christians by our love.

Broken Divisions

I wonder sometimes if we are at all interested in listening to one another.
Our human tendency is to divide ourselves up into camps, groups, and Ideologies.
Democrats, Republicans, liberal, conservative.
Black, white, Latino, Asian.
Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist.
Rich, middle class, poor.
Swedes, Norwegians, Iranians, French.
Red Sox fans, Yankee Fans…
We claim a group and hold onto to it.
We define ourselves not by what we believe but what makes us different from what others believe.
Consider that by some estimates there are over 30,000 different Christian denominations in the world.
What is sad is that this is not the intention of Jesus.
This morning in our reading from Ephesians we are told that the reason for Jesus coming is to bring together people who were previously divided.
It is to tear down walls that would divide us from each other.
In Jesus Christ it is supposed to be a new day of understanding.
People who were once enemies have been brought together in a new spiritual understanding of humanity.
Is it possible?
Is it even desirable?

It is important to know this because we are brought together here this morning in Christ.
And when we enter those doors we come here as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We come leaving behind whatever else is supposed to divide us.
I realize this is not easy, because we all have our own thoughts and feelings about the world.
We all believe what we believe politically, ethnically, and philosophically.
It is hard to leave that at the door.
Should we?

I know for a fact that we all have different ideas about the world.
I know that everyone in this room today has different political leanings.
I know because I have heard what people have to say about certain things and that gives it away.
But what I want us to think about is not how we are different, but the miracle that we are able to be together every Sunday and worship together.
We are able to put it aside and instead focus on what brought us here, what calls us here.
What really matters when we are together is that we have come to worship, and the center of that worship is Jesus.
This is not a political rally.
This is worship of Jesus Christ.
We worship the one who died so that all divisions between us might be gone.
“(Christ) has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
Jesus has made us one.

Jesus Christ who died so that we can have a new relationship with God.
A relationship that doesn’t demand of us going to temple to sacrifice, but one that all we need to do is call upon God’s name to be with us no matter where or what we are doing.
Jesus Christ who died so that you and I can see our common humanity.
We can see that we are all sinners, that no of us is better, smarter than anyone else here this morning.
That is what Jesus does for us.
That is what makes the church the Church is that it is about Jesus Christ the cornerstone of our faith.

I really do believe that we have too many Churches who have forgotten that fact.
And the Church becomes a place not of Jesus but of what the pastor thinks about the latest events of the day.
It is a place where people are concerned more about politics than about Jesus Christ.

I am so glad that we have a baptism today.
Because it should remind us all what we are about.
Elliot is being baptized this morning not so he can someday know the correct person to vote for in a political election.
Not so someday he can be for Keynesian economics.
It is so in his life he will know of God’s love given in Jesus Christ.
He will know that Jesus broke down walls that separate him from God.
Jesus showed us that if we wanted to access God anyone could have it.
All we needed to do was ask and it will be given, seek and we will find.
And we need that because in our lives we all go through difficult moments and I will say that it is helpful to have God to call on.
I hope that for Elliot that he will know how much God loves him and that God is always there for him.
That is why we come to worship.
We come to experience God together, to know God better.

I want to say that there is nothing wrong with politics.
There is nothing wrong with us engaging the world around us.
In fact, you all know that I believe in being engaged in the issues in our community and in the world.
I believe in speaking out when it is called for.
But I don’t confuse that with what it means to know Jesus Christ.
And that all the time I am asked by Jesus to love my enemies.
I am asked by Jesus to love those I disagree with.
I am asked by Jesus to be a person of peace who attempts to reach out and love all people regardless of their political ideas, their race, their ethnicity (Yes, even Norwegians!), their religion, the group they belong to (yes, even Yankee fans!).

I don’t know about you, but I like Church for this reason.
I like that we are different, and yet we are the same.
And that what brings us together is more important than things that might drive us apart.
I have noticed in the last decade or so how hard it is out in the world to be in relationships with people different than us.
I notice that people get very upset around others who express a different view of the world.
I notice that it often deteriorates into a very unpleasant moment.
We very quickly go into our corners.
I don’t know if this happens to you, but someone will put something on Facebook that makes my blood boil.
I find what they have posted to be offensive.
And my natural instinct is to shoot back and begin an argument.
To shoot down what that person said in a public way.
What I have learned is that this never amounts to anything good.
That it only divides us further and creates more animosity.
In one case I had to tell someone that I cared too much about our relationship to continue to have arguments through Facebook.
This is one of the ways that we are being tempted by the world to continue to build walls that separate us.
And I confess to you all this morning that I have at times not done enough to bridge gaps of understanding and peace.
But I think that here is the place that we confess Jesus as Lord and savior and for me it has always been a place that I could find peace.
As we read in Ephesians this morning, “Jesus Christ has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,  and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

This particular topic is helpful to us today because we are being asked by the world to divide ourselves, and build walls.
Jesus is asking for us to tear them down.
Today we see in the baptism of Elliot that God has torn down the walls that divide us from God and each other.
Today we confess that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.
Today we gather as one people to remember God’s love and grace that has broken down the walls of hostility between us.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Starting Place

Last week in my sermon I talked about how we get to where we end up in life.
This week I want to talk about the start of life, the beginning of things.
Sometimes we hear that it is the end result that really matters.
But today I want us to think about the importance of where we start.
The foundations of what makes us who and what we are.

For the next six weeks I am going to be preaching on the book of Ephesians.
It is a book of the Bible that talks about the importance of the relationship of Christ in the Church.
It should be no surprise that before Ephesians talks about the moral implications of being a disciple of Jesus.
Before the author (probably not St. Paul) talks about what the Church should be doing, or should be about.
The author tells us about God’s saving action through Jesus Christ.
The author sets the tone of the foundation of what comes after.
The starting point for everything is God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ for the Church is the foundation of all we do, and from the grace we experience and know in Jesus comes everything else.
It is the foundation of why we do what we do.
God before time and space made all things, redeemed all things in Jesus Christ, and brings us into relationship by the Holy Spirit.
The foundation, for people of faith, of everything flows from God.

It is important than whenever we talk about what the Church might be or do we start from this point.
We are children of God, heirs of the promise of salvation.
We are loved by God and given grace to live for others.
It is the starting point of everything that we do here as people of faith.

We don’t do the things we do because we are good people.
We don’t do them because we are morally superior to others.
We do them because we know God’s grace and want to share it with others.

I was thinking about this a lot this week because I had two experiences that reminded me of the importance of being grounded in the foundations of our faith.
This week my wife and I were invited to go see the Mormon Tabernacle choir in Boston by leaders of our local Mormon Church.
Before the concert we attend a reception, and we got to meet Clayton Christensen a renowned Harvard Business professor.
At the reception he gave a speech about why he thought faith was important.
He told a story about a Chinese economist who came here to study democracy and capitalism.
Professor Christensen and he became friends and before he was to leave he invited the Chinese economists over his house for dinner.
He asked him what surprised him about America.
The Chinese economists said he was surprised at the importance of religion in American life.
That in order for a democracy to work people have to be willing to do the right thing most of the time, and that wouldn’t be possible without religion.
I don’t know if I totally agree, but I found the idea very interesting.
And it speaks directly to the idea that we need to have a good foundation in our lives a grounding that helps us know what the right thing is and then the courage and conviction to do it.

The second thing that happened to me is that I have been invited to be in a group of community leaders.
The group is made up of business, political, religious, and non-profit leaders in NH.
We will be meeting with presidential candidates to talk about the widening gap in inequality in our country.
Some people also call this the opportunity gap.
In preparation we have read a book called, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” by Robert Putnam.
This week we met with Robert Putnam in his home town of Jaffery, NH.
He gave all sorts of statistics and stories that show this gap.
In that meeting he talked about the importance of religion in people’s lives.
He said that religious people are nicer than other people.
They give more money.
They contribute more of their time towards serving their communities.
And they do care more than other people about the people experiencing poverty.
And in the past they have provided a place for kids to have mentors and have helped them to improve their lives.
That kids who go to Church regularly are more successful in later in life.
They use less drugs, have less premarital sex, and are more stable.
It is true that church people are not perfect, but it also nice to know that indeed going to Church does produce something in our lives.
There is something to the foundation that is built early in our lives.

And both these stories are about foundations.
They are about what we use to build ourselves up as people.
And when we build our lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ, we see in our lives the fruits that flow from it.
We see the strong house that is built because at the base is something we can count on, something that is strong.

We are about to start Family Promise.
It is a program for Families experiencing homelessness.
It is a good program, and one I believe in strongly.
But make no mistake we do this not because we are trying to do something nice for someone else.
We do this because the foundation of our lives is God.
God who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.
God who has chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
God who sent Jesus Christ to died for our sins, the one who taught us what it means to live a godly life.
Jesus Christ who has made known to us the mystery of God’s will.
And to follow Jesus means to care for all of our humanity, to care for all of God’s children.
To care that they have a home, a place to rest, a place to thrive as we thrive.
We do it because at the foundation of our lives is God we know through Jesus Christ.
We do it because we want to show others the power that comes from knowing Jesus Christ.

I read a quote this week that said, “People don’t need a church, they need the people of the church to be the church.”
That is exactly what we are doing in Family Promise.
We are being the Church for others, and showing the grace we received through Jesus Christ.

Five years ago when we started to organize Family Promise the Concord monitor wrote a story about it.
They called me to ask some questions about the program.
One of the questions they asked was did I think it would be difficult to get churches to be part of Family Promise.
I said, “No I don’t, because I couldn’t imagine a Church that followed Jesus Christ that wouldn’t want to help homeless families.”
I still believe that if Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Church than the Church acts and does the things that Jesus Christ would do.

Where we start matters.
The foundation of what we build our life on matters.
The foundation of what we build our church on matters.
Today we celebrate with the author of Ephesians that our life, our church is built on Jesus Christ…. “To the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the beloved.”