Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Turning Points

Today’s Gospel is a turning point.
It is the point in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus literally turns his back on people’s expectations, and begins to tell them what it really means to be the Son of Man, the Messiah.
Jesus didn’t come to overthrow the Romans, didn’t come to walk on water, still storms, or even heal the sick.
He came to give his life.
To show us that it is only when we give our lives do we really find them.
Only when we deny ourselves do we follow Jesus.
It is in the cross that Jesus shows us what it really means to live a godly life, a good life.
It is here in this moment with Peter that the Gospel turns.
And the question for the disciples and for us is will we turn with it.
Will we follow Jesus?
Will we give up our ideas of what it means to be great?
Will we give up our world?

Maybe all of lent for us is a turning point.
It is a time to reflect on life, on where we are, where we are going.
It is a time to reflect on the priorities we have in our lives.
To think about what our relationship with Jesus really means to us.
What are the things that really matter?
What are we giving our time, our energy to?

In our lives we have turning points.
Times that make us reevaluate.
Times that make us change and redirect.
I was thinking a lot about those times this week.
Some of those things are part of life, they are part of how we think things will go in our lives.
Like our first day of school, or graduating high school, getting married, having kids, college, our first job, retiring.
Those are all turning points for some people.
Other people have other events like this in their lives.
But they are things that happen over a lifetime.

And of course there are things that we don’t expect.
Things that happen to us, or maybe even that we choose that are unexpected.
I know a big turning point in my life was when I didn’t make the freshman basketball team.
I thought I would.
I had been a starter the year before on our Jr. High team that was second in the state.
I loved basketball.
I played a lot.
It was in some ways the most important thing in my life.
But then it all changed, in that moment.
I can tell you for certain that if I would have made that team I wouldn’t be a pastor today.
I wouldn’t have gone to Calumet to be a CIT, because I would have been playing basketball all summer.
I wouldn’t have seen that I have a gift and passion for teaching about God’s love.
I wouldn’t have been as understanding about our need for God’s grace.
My life would have been different.

What about you?
What moments seem like turning points in your life?
What moments have happened to you that you didn’t expect?
How has that lead you to this point?

The thing about turning points is that they are also moments of God’s grace.
Because they shake us up.
They make us look at our life differently.
They make us understand ourselves differently.

I know that many of you are going through these kinds of moments.
Some of you are making major decisions about your life.
Some of you are trying to make decisions about where you will spend the last years of life.
Some of you are looking for jobs.
Some of you have lost major relationships in your life.
All of these things are turning points.
And the truth is that usually they are difficult.

I was talking with one of our older members about having to give up driving.
I know from past experience that this is one of the hardest things in life to do.
It represents so much.
It is a loss of freedom and mobility.
It is a turning point for people.
It forces people to rely on others.
And forces people to reevaluate what are the things that matter, and why we do the things we do.

I think that in our Gospel this morning we all feel a little like Peter.
Peter is the one of the most important disciples.
And Peter thinks he knows the answer.
And Jesus just blew it up.
Changes what Peter thought to be true.
It is really disorientating.
Jesus is going to die!
Peter just can’t accept that answer.

That is the same for all of us when we hit those turning points.
This is not the way we saw it playing out.
This is not the way we thought our lives would go.
Maybe we thought it might happen someday, but not now.
We like Peter don’t like the idea that things must die to be resurrected.
That life includes its fair share of suffering and rejection.

So what does Jesus say that will be helpful?
Jesus tells us this morning that it is in those turning points when we lose the lives we think we should have that we find a deeper spiritual truth.
It is in the giving up, that we profit.
When we lose things in our lives we learn to turn again to God.
When we can’t count on money, or youth, or our ability, we learn to turn again to Jesus.
It is in this turning that we realize what I assume Peter and the other disciples came to realize, Jesus is in the suffering, dying, and resurrecting.
That it is in the turning that we come to understand better the love and grace of God.

I know I did when I didn’t make the basketball team.
I know that others do when they lose a part of themselves they thought they couldn’t live without.
I am not suggesting that any of that is easy, I am simply saying that there is something deeper going on in those turning points than we are able to realize at the time.

It is in the losing, the letting go, the cost of living that we find something better.
We find Jesus.
We find our true selves.

This lent may it be a turning point for all of us.
Let us turn to see Jesus in the turning points of our lives.
To see in the dying...rising.
In the loss…profit.
In the letting go…gain.
To see in our lives the grace of God that runs through our lives and helps us to turn to Jesus again.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


It has been my experience that people don’t like confrontation.
We will avoid it as long as possible.
We don’t like to have to talk about issues that are difficult.
We don’t like the feeling of being uncomfortable.
Usually we wait until we absolutely have to before we confront someone about things.
And usually by that time we have built up lots of resentment and anger.
It is my contention that most of the time when people wrong us they don’t know they are doing it.
It is only when we confront them with our pain do they understand.
The interesting thing is that once we do confront people afterward we feel better.

There was this moment in seminary.
I was talking to a classmate.
She was an African American.
I said something that I thought was true.
I had said it before in other conversations and people seem to agree with me.
She confronted me.
She told me, in a wonderfully thoughtful way, that what I had just said was racists.
At first I was defensive, but the more I thought about it the more I realized she was right.
It was a best an insensitive thing to say, and at worse it was simply hurtful.
What if she had not confronted me?
What if she let it go?
I would still be saying that thing, and thinking that way.
Confrontation is essential in human relationships.

It is also a major part of Jesus’ ministry.
I mention it because Mark’s telling of Jesus’ temptation is stark.
It doesn’t have all the banter of Luke’s or Matthew’s Gospel.
It just tells us the bare bones.
Jesus is driven into the wilderness.
He is tempted by Satan, and the wild beasts are there.
He is served by angels.
It fits in well with the way that Mark tells the story of Jesus.
Things happen fast.
But reading it this time it struck me that essentially what Jesus is doing here is confronting evil.
And it will be what Jesus does throughout the Gospel confront evil.
And Jesus will confront that evil directly and straight on.
The mission of Jesus is to spread good news.
The good news is that the kingdom of God has come near, and to ask people to repent so that they can believe in that good news.

That what Jesus asks of us is to confront evil.
Jesus asks us to confront the evil in us, and around us.
To ask hard questions of ourselves, and about the world we live in.
And the truth of those confrontations is that it won’t be easy.
It will be uncomfortable.
We will at times feel afraid.
We will at times feel ashamed for what we think or do.
We will at times have to come to admit our deepest feelings or shortcomings.
And none of that sounds fun.
However, on the other side of that confrontation there is good news.
The process of repenting and being forgiven leads us to good news.

If you were to read Mark’s Gospel in one sitting you will see that all that confronting is no fun.
In a world filled with hatred, prejudice, corruption, and violence it is exhausting to always be confronting the world.
It is exhausting to have to always be feeling that things can be better and are not getting any better.

I know I feel exhausted about the world we live in.
This week we were yet again confronted with news that 17 people were shot at a school in Florida.
We had more killing with a gun, more violence.
I am exhausted trying to find a way to talk about this issue with people.
I am exhausted trying to find the strength to weep again for more kids being killed.
I am exhausted because I know yet again we won’t do anything about it.
We won’t pass any new laws, we will talk about mental illness, but we won’t do anything about that either.
We will blame the culture, blame the parents, blame the teachers, and blame each other.
But we won’t confront the real issue.
Why do we love violence?
Why do we love guns?
I am going to tell you this morning the truth, and it is not politically correct to say.
It might anger some of you.
But I don’t like guns.
I don’t like them.
I think they are a symptom of a deeper problem we face, that we as a society are addicted to violence.
We think it will solve the problems we have.
But as Jesus has told us, “live by the sword, you will die by the sword.”
We seem to be dying a lot lately.

But there is another problem we face and that is we can’t even talk about it.
I want to invite any one to talk to me about this at any time.
I know we have people in our congregation that have guns, or like guns.
I want to talk to you about it.
Let us try to understand each other.
Because that is how we solve problems.
We talk about it.
We don’t just go on Facebook and post a newspaper article we read, we don’t just Tweet out something.
We talk.
We confront each other, face to face, in person.

We have been told that you don’t discuss politics or religion.
I guess because those subjects are too heated.
The problem for me is that it is my job to talk about religion.
And most often that job comes into contact with politics.
I think that this has also been a disservice to us, because we have learned not to talk about those things.
And now we can’t.
We have forgotten how to talk to each other.
We have forgotten how to confront each other.
We have forgotten how to be humble enough to say we are wrong.
We have forgotten how to listen.

We can’t be afraid to talk to each other.
We can’t be afraid to be wrong.
We can’t be afraid to repent.
All those things are outcomes when we confront one another.
When we take on the evil that lives in us it will be hard, but on the other side is good news and the kingdom of God.

But it is not something we do alone.
Jesus is an essential part of this process for us.
It is the Holy Spirit that leads us into the dessert.
It is Jesus who confronts us with the good news of the kingdom of God.
Are we ready for that kingdom?
Are we ready to repent?
Lent is that time for us to let Jesus confront us with our sin.
Lent is the time for us in the wilderness, when we contemplate our love of violence, power, and money.
We will have to confront our prejudices, our corruption, and how lost we are.
But on the other side is good news!
We are loved, the world is loved, and the kingdom of God has come.

I hope for you this lent confrontation.
I hope for you confrontation of your own sin, and that of the world.
Don’t be afraid, or ashamed, because God is on the other side of that process waiting to serve you, like the angels served Jesus.
Don’t be afraid because confrontation is part of human relationships, and what is needed to bring the kingdom of God.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Ashes and Hearts

When my wife realized that Ash Wednesday was on the same day as Valentine’s Day she asked me, “Whose crazy idea was it to schedule those two things on the same day?”
I think she thought that maybe I had done that on purpose.
I can assure you that I did not.
But it does seem like an odd paring.
Ash Wednesday is a day of solemn remembrance of our sin, of our mortality.
Valentine’s Day is a frivolous, almost comical, over the top celebration of love.
Ash Wednesday is about ashes, dark and foreboding.
Valentine’s Day is about roses, red hearts, cards, candy grams, strawberries, and the celebration of love.
No one planned it this way, but it does seem silly to have these two things on the same day.
It does seem impossible to celebrate them together.
It would seem that we have to choose.
Be sad and depressed about our sin, and sit in our ashes.
Or be joyous and happy about love, eat strawberries and smell the roses.

I think that this view does a disservice to both Valentine’s Day, and to Ash Wednesday.
I would like us to consider tonight that they are not as far apart as we might think.
That it would do us good to have more Valentine’s Day in our Ash Wednesday, and more Ash Wednesday in our Valentine’s Day.
So let us look at both and see how they can help each other.

Let us start with Valentine’s Day.
The problem with Valentine’s Day is that it celebrates love on a very superficial scale.
If you have ever really loved somebody you will know that it has very little to do with how you feel about them.
It has very little to do with romantic notions of candlelight dinners, long walks by the moonlight.
Sure, it starts at that place, but it cannot live there.
Every couple I council before they get married I try to warn them about this.
Your love will not be about hearts and flowers.
It will be about the everyday struggles that you will face together.
It will be in death that you will find your strongest bonds of love.
When my Dad died it was my wife that I clung to for support.
It was through that tragedy and other along the way that we learned to really love and care for one another.
Even more it is through our sin that we have really learned to love, because if we couldn’t forgive each other our love would not last.
We need those moments of death and sin to really deepen our love for each other in human relationships.
I wish that Valentine’s Day was a celebration of this kind of love

The problem with Ash Wednesday is that it has always been interpreted to us in two ways.
One, it is about feeling guilty for all the bad things we do.
Two, it is about self improvement, correcting the bad things we do, or even the little things that are simply not good for us.
Both of these are not the full story.
Ash Wednesday is about God’s love given to us in Jesus Christ.
It is about God’s grace.
All of the things that we might do in lent are meant to draw us closer to this truth.
We don’t confess our sins so that we feel guilty, or we end up feeling bad about ourselves.
We confess our sins so that we can again remember the promise of God’s forgiveness.
So that we might remember that at the foundation of the world, of our lives, is a loving God, a God of grace.
We also don’t confess our sins because it will make us better people.
We don’t give up Chocolate so we can shed a few pounds left over from the holidays.
Whatever we do as our Lenten discipline the purpose has only one goal, to remind us that our lives are in the hands of a loving God.
If we give something up it is to remind us that we don’t need that thing to live, all we need is God’s grace.
If we confess our sins, it is only to remind us that we are dependent on God’s grace.
Our Ash Wednesday and our lent would serve us better if we had more of God’s love, and less of guilt and self improvement.

Our Gospel for today points us in this direction.
We are not fasting, praying, or giving alms for ourselves.
We don’t do it to make ourselves feel more holy, or look more holy.
If we do those things they are supposed to remind us that behind everything are a loving God.
A God who already sees and knows everything there is to know about us.
God already see what we do in secret, God knows what our intentions are.
God only desires is for us to have a close relationship that relies on God’s grace and love.

So we can see that our Valentine’s Day celebrations are really about celebrating that people in their brokenness, in their peculiar ways can love each other in spite of and because of their brokenness.
We can love each other through the ashes that make up our lives.
And our Ash Wednesday is not about coming to church and looking dire, but about seeing again the depth, width, and strength of God’s love given to us in Jesus Christ.
God’s love is so strong that he has loved us through the ashes, through the sin and death, and into eternal life.
That is the promise that we have received that no matter what God’s love is dependable.

Some of you may know that tomorrow night our Church is having a beer and hymns night at Tandy’s bar and grill.
When the outreach committee was planning this originally we wanted to have this event on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
In planning this event we couldn’t have it on Tuesday, because the room at the Tandy’s was only available on Thursday.
Someone on the committee asked the question, “Can we drink beer and sing hymns during lent?”
“Isn’t that disrespectful?”
It was a good question to ask.
But here is my response, “Yes!”
Actually I can’t think of a better thing to do.
What is better than us being together as a community sharing joy together, and signing our favorite hymns that remind us of God’s love and grace!
Why do we have to be sad while we do this?

Don’t misunderstand me there is times and places for us to be contemplative.
There is times and places for us to mourn, and be sad.
I hope this Lenten season you have those times too.
But we don’t have to do it all the time.
That is not the only way to remember the awesome grace and love of God.

So this lent I am hoping you have more Valentine’s days.
Days of deep love.
Days were you care for each other by offering forgiveness, and a caring shoulder to cry on.
I also hope for you to have more days of Ashes.
Days of remembering God’s deep love for you.
Days when you remember that God’s love is always there offering you forgiveness, freedom from sin, eternal life, and comfort for all of the ashes of your life.
Days when you will sing with the psalmist, “Restore unto me the joy of your salvation!”