Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I Am a Mess

Recently I was talking to a colleague.
They asked me, “How are things at Concordia Lutheran Church”.
I told them the truth.
“They are really messed up.”
“I know that Concordia is a mess, because I am the pastor.”
That is the truth.
It is always a temptation of a successful congregation for the pastor to take credit.
And I am just like all people tempted to believe my own press.
I am tempted to receive the wonderful pats on the back that many of you give me on an almost daily basis.
Don’t get me wrong, I love it.
It often keeps me going.
But it really isn’t the truth.
I am a mess.
If you don’t believe me go look in my office.
That is not only how my office is, but it is also how my mind works.
All jumbled and often it leads to mistakes.
But on an even deeper level, I am a mess because I am a sinful person.
I want those pats on the backs, the words of adulation.
I want to be known as a great pastor.
I want our Church to be successful.

We often think of Jesus like this.
 A rock star before we knew what that term was.
We see Jesus as someone who came to earth to be adored by the masses because of his power, and authority.
I was reminded this week that is the temptation.
Tempted to be seen as the one who is gifted and says the right thing at the right time.
But what is so interesting about Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is that he rejects all of that.
Jesus doesn’t want it.
In fact, the more he is fawned over the less his ministry is successful.
In this morning’s Gospel all the people are amazed at the miracle of Jesus casting out demons, but they miss the bigger point.
They don’t see the good news.
They don’t see that Jesus was able to vanquish evil.
They don’t pay attention to what Jesus is telling them.
They are too busy being star struck.
“Wow, look at how great that was.”
Jesus doesn’t want it.
That is not what this is about.
There is something more powerful going on just beneath the surface.
That is that the true power that comes with love, humility, community, mercy.
The people all around Jesus all the time are caught up in the show, and then they miss the message.

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus ends up exhausted, defeated, and alone.
The crowds have totally missed the point.
They don’t want a savior, they want a miracle worker.
They want the power and prestige, and they don’t get the message at all.
They don’t understand what Jesus came to teach and preach.
The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good News.
They don’t understand that the kingdom is like a mustard seed, yeast, planting of seeds that we don’t grow.

This is a real problem that we as Christians have had to deal with for many years.
We follow the one who was crucified.
We follow the one who didn’t want to be a celebrity healer.
Who didn’t want to have crowds shouting and singing his name.
And yet, we have made Christianity into a contest about who has the most people.
Who has the most fans?
Who has the most people sitting in the pew?

This past week I had to do the thing I dislike most about being a pastor.
I had to fill out our congregational report for the ELCA.
Every year I despise having to do it.
I know why we do it.
I just think to myself, “Is this what Christianity has come to?”
How can you or I really count what happens here at Concordia Lutheran Church?
We can look at the numbers and be impressed with how many people come to worship, or how many new people sit in our pews.
Or how much money we raised this year.
But it doesn’t tell the story.
How many people came here looking for God and found God?
How many people just showed up one time and got what God wanted them to get?
How many lives did we touch with God’s love?
And how can we take credit for what God has done?

We can never know the answer to those questions.
They can’t be written down on a report.
If any of those things are true.
If we touched someone’s life with God’s love.
If someone heard the good news because of one of us here did or said something.
We can’t take credit for it.
Truth is that any success we may or may not have had is not ours.
Anything that we have been able to accomplish that is good, honest, just, or pure is only because of Jesus Christ.
It is because the Holy Spirit moved in us to help, and then the Holy Spirit moved in the person we helped to have some kind of epiphany of what God can do for them.

This is important for our Jesus’ community to know.
It is vital for us to understand.
That it is through Jesus Christ that true authority lies.
And Jesus authority doesn’t look like what we think it is.
It doesn’t come from any title we may or may not have.
I don’t have the authority of Jesus because I am a pastor, Jesus authority only belongs to Jesus.
Anything that I am able to say or speak that is in line with the truth of Jesus belongs to the Holy Spirit.
We don’t have authority because of any social standing.
We don’t have authority because we are good people.
Anything that is able to subvert evil.
Anything that is able to beat back the demons that lurk underneath the surface.
That is only because Jesus is able to remove it.

And this is where I want to end, because we are surrounded all the time by evil.
Surround by evil in the world and evil in ourselves.
And that seems like a hopeless thing.
It is important to say that Jesus changes everything.
What I can’t do Jesus can.
I can’t remove evil from the world.
I can’t remove evil from me.
I can’t change someone’s mind or heart.
I can’t even be a good pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church.
But somehow Jesus can.
And that is what we are about.

This morning I want you to remember that truth.
In your life when you feel that you are mess.
And I am convinced that deep down we all feel like we are mess, we sometimes can cover it up with polite conversation, or a nice wardrobe.
But underneath we all feel that way.
I feel that way all the time.
But I am not disheartened because I know that what I can’t do Jesus can.
If you don’t believe me, just think about how wonderful Concordia Lutheran Church is.
We have such a warm, caring, community.
That worships with spirit, serves with passion, learns with humility.
And all that happens despite the fact that I am your pastor.
That is all the proof you need that Psalmist’s words are true, “Great are the works of the Lord.”

Monday, January 15, 2018

Come and See

I can remember the first time I felt the desire to volunteer.
I was a sophomore in High school.
I found out that the Baptist church in the center of town had a meal for people that were experiencing homelessness.
For some reason I really wanted to go there and help.
I will tell you that I believe that the desire to help someone else came from God.
It was a calling, maybe as clear a calling as I have ever received.
I just knew somehow that what it meant to be a Jesus person was to help others.
Where did it come from if not God?

You might be thinking it came from my home church.
But the reality is that at that time my home church didn’t do much volunteering.
Church was a place of worship and learning about God.
At that time we simply didn’t have a lot of opportunity to serve.
And the one thing that I knew that our church did, serve a meal at the race track in Salem, they wouldn’t let the youth group do it.
 Church it seemed to me was concerned about the building, and budgets.
We had just built a really nice new church, and what I saw from the adults was a desire to keep the building nice and new.

You might be thinking that I got it from my parents.
My parents were faithful and generous people.
We always had people over our house.
They would help anyone in any way they could.
But we didn’t do a lot as a family volunteering outside of our church.
My parents were working hard, raising a family, and trying to pay bills.

This is in no way to disparage either my home church or my parents.
I learned about Jesus from those two places.
I learned about compassion for others.
It is only to say I can’t attribute that strong sense of wanting to do something to help others to either of them.
I can’t attribute that call of wanting to make the world a little better to either of them.
It must have been God’s call.
It must have been God whispering in my ear that part of a life of faith is giving what we have with others.

I love John’s account of the call of Nathanael, because he resists Jesus.
And I think we all do that to some extent.
We are skeptical of the call.
It seems to come from nowhere.
What does it really mean to follow this homeless Rabbi from Nazareth?
Does anything good come from it?

I also believe that this call doesn’t just come to me.
It has come to all of us.
In our human DNA there is something that makes us want to serve, to make a difference, to give of ourselves.
I have seen it over and over again.
I have friends who serve the world in such wonderful ways.
I have friends who have adopted children from Haiti, Africa, and South America.
Friends who live a life of service and care for people marginalized.
I know that even people who have nothing to speak of desire to make a contribution.
That call is alive and well in the world.
And even if people don’t know it I believe it comes from God.
What about you?
What has Jesus invited you to come and see?

“Come and see” is the words that Phillip uses to invite Nathanael to meet Jesus.
It is also the words that Jesus uses right before this to invite Phillip to come and see where he is staying.
I feel that my whole life is about this phrase.
Over and over again I have been called by God to come and see.
Come and see what it means to work a full time job and not have enough to eat.
Come and see what it means to have problems that prevent you from working.
Come and see what it means to sleep in a tent when it is below freezing.
Come and see what it means to live a country torn apart by war, exploitation, and hunger.
Come and see what it means to be a person of color in a country owned and run by white people.
Come and see what it means to live in the inner city.
Come and see what it means to not speak the language.
Come and see what it means to be forced from your homeland only to move to a place no one wants you.
Come and see.

I have been blessed in my life by this call.
I have been blessed to see God in the faces of people of every culture, class, race, sexual orientation.
That is the call of what Jesus invites us to see.
“God so loved the world”
God loves all of the world.
Not just the nice parts of it.
Not just the parts I grew up seeing.
But the parts that we don’t like to see.
I realize that I take for granted sometimes what I have been able to come and see.
I take for granted the idea that God cares about people experiencing poverty, or people of color, or people of different sexually orientation.
I realize that not everyone has had those same experiences.
Perhaps the best thing about serving others is that you learn.
I have learned so much about my privilege.
In fact, the idea that I have time, money, and energy to serve is a condition of my privilege.
There is an inherit injustice in me having so much that I can give someone something extra that I don’t need.
For example, I have like seven different coats.
I have a coat for every occasion.
I have a dressy winter coat, a skiing coat, a fall coat, a spring coat, a coat for when I sit at the fireside while camping.
And there are people who have no coat, or only the coat I choose to give them.
That is unfair, and unjust.
The great gift is that service has broken me open time and again and showed me my own sin.
Service shows me my complacency in face of injustice.
It has shown me my own racism or inherent prejudices.
It has shown me all the things I have done, and left undone.

I don’t know the mind of almighty God.
I don’t know why I was gifted with wonderful parents, a loving church community, or a sense of helping others.
But I do know that all of that means I have a great opportunity to do something for others.

I do know that my call is linked to that of Philip, to invite others also to also come and see.
Come and see what Jesus Christ offers you.
It is to tell people that indeed good does come out of “Nazareth”.
Good comes from everywhere.
Because God has made the world, and God loves the world.
It comes from Haiti, El Salvador, Nigeria, Iraq, and every place on this earth, if we only will come and see.
If we only serve with those that are left behind and belittled by others.

Since it is Dr. Martin Luther King weekend I want to end by saying that what Dr. King invited us to is this very truth.
Come and see that we are all equal in the sight of God.
And maybe, just maybe, our country and laws can reflect that holy truth.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, ever hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain, and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”
I have that dream too.
It goes back to that moment in high school when I felt that desire to serve a meal to people experiencing homelessness.
It is a dream rooted in the biblical promise that one day we shall all be one.
One day we shall all eat from the same banquet table of the lord.
One day we shall all be seen and know.
Until that day I invite you to come and see!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

New Year's Resolutions

New Year!
I always love the New Year.
It always feels like a time for new possibilities.
In the New Year we have the possibilities of new thinking, new ways, new days.
This is why we make resolutions, because we have been given a new year to try to do things differently.
Nothing wrong with trying to change things we don’t like about our lives.
Of course, the majority of our resolutions tend to be fairly shallow.
Lose weight is the biggest one.
It is also the one we fail at by February.
Most of the resolution we make we fail at.
I always liked the “One Word” resolution.
You adopt one word as your goal or mantra or motivation.
A word like ready, grit, fearless, or breathe.
Those are just some examples from friends who are doing the “One Word”.
I like it a lot better than a resolution.
It gets at the deeper issues we face in life.

My problem with all the resolution talk is that it is always about us.
What am I going to do to change my life?
The problem is that we don’t have control over everything in our lives.
I would argue the big things that really matter we actually don’t control.
We don’t control life and death.
We control the shallow things.
How much we weigh.
How healthy we are.
What job we have.
What clothes we wear.
The deeper issues are not in our control.
As people of faith we believe that they are in God’s control.
We believe that the bigger things of life are in the hands of forces bigger than us.
And so this New Year I want to suggest that instead of looking at our lives and thinking what needs to change in this New Year.
Ask a different question.
What will God do in my life this year?
Of course the problem with that question is that we don’t know the answer.
It is something we can’t predict, or make a resolution to make happen.
That is the point.
Faith is about trusting God with your life, all of it.
Faith is about not knowing the outcome, but trusting somehow that God is at the end of it all.

Our Gospel for this morning is about Jesus’ Baptism.
The meaning of Jesus baptism is not what does it mean for our baptisms?
It is that in this event God tore open the heavens and removed the barrier between us and heaven.
In Jesus Christ God bridged a gap between human and divine.
In Jesus Christ God invades our world.
And this year how is God going to invade your life?

The interesting thing about what happened in Jesus Christ is that most people missed it.
At his baptism we are told that the heavens, “torn apart”.
It is the same thing that will happen at his death, when Jesus dies the curtain in the temple “torn apart”.
God removes a barrier between God and us.
And we miss it because we are not looking for God.
Instead we are busy trying to improve our weight, make more money, stop smoking, or whatever else we have decided needs our attention.

Because of all this resolution talk, and because we fail at it so much, this time of year there are a lot “experts” on television telling us how to keep our New Year’s resolution.
I was reading one of those lists and I re wrote it for us to think about this morning.
So the experts say that we should do these things to keep our resolutions in the New Year.
I want to say do these other things because God is going to show up in your life this year and you don’t want to miss it.

1)    They say, “Choose a specific, realistic Goal”
a.     Instead, how about we look for God in your everyday normal life. God is going to show up. God will show up in the interactions you have with people, in your job, while you are shopping, while you are picking kids up, and doing all the things that life demands. Can we see God in the specific and realistic parts of our lives?
2)    They say, “Start with small steps”
a.     Instead, look for the small ways God is talking to you. God’s voice is often as soft as a whisper. Where is God leading you? What are the things that happen in your life that will show you a different way to be?
3)    They say, “Avoid repeating past failures”
a.     Instead, remember that God forgives all your sins, so that you can move on. We can’t undo what we have done. We can ask for forgiveness, and forgive others. In this process we learn to let go, to stop being ashamed.
4)    They say, “Remember that change is a process”
a.     Instead, change comes from death and resurrection. Let things die so new things can come into being. There are lots of things in our lives that we hold onto that don’t need to be anymore. What needs to die, so that new things can be born in us?
5)    They say, “Don’t let small stumbles let you down”
a.     Instead, you will fail this year, remember that God loves you. Remember that even in our failure God is at work. Through everything that we face we have a God that loves and cares for us.
6)    They say, “Get support from Friends and Family”
a.     Instead, God is found in the body of Christ. Go there to remember his love and care for you. God is everywhere and in everything. God is most visible here in this place amongst us. In the body and blood, in each other. I am always moved by the ways that people in this congregation care for each other by sharing their hurts with each other and helping each other through difficult times.
7)    They say, “Renew your motivation”
a.     Instead, Jesus brings the Holy Spirit – It will be your guide. God has provided us with all we need. Let God stir you to act out love, kindness, justice, mercy.
8)    They say, “Keep working on your goals”
a.     Instead, God is always working on you. God is the potter we are the clay. God is always working on us to help us learn the deep spiritual truths of our lives.

When looking out for God this year we will find that God is always with us.
Sometimes in surprising ways, in surprising places.
God shows up.
God in Jesus Christ has torn open the heavens and removed the barriers.
And in this New Year I am asking you to be ready, so that you will see the heavens torn open, and hear God’s voice say to you, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”