Sermon

Sermon on 1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13

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At the beginning of our marriage, Tyler and I moved a total of 4 times in less than 4 years.  We started out in a 1-bedroom apartment at the seminary.  When we found out we were going to be parents, we figured it would be good to have more than one room, so we moved to a bigger apartment on campus.  Then we moved to Sumner, IA for internship.  Then we moved back to Dubuque for my last year of seminary.  Then the seminary needed us to move out of our duplex to make space for new in-coming students before I found a call, so we moved to Madison where Tyler was already working.  Moving stinks.  We haven’t moved since.  There’s something about finding a home, a place to be, some stability. 

 

Israel did a lot of moving.  They moved to Egypt as refugees when there was a famine in their homeland.  They tried to make Egypt their home, but they ended up as slaves, and so God delivered them from that slavery and led them away from Egypt.  Then they endured 40 years of wandering in the desert.  I like camping, but that’s a long time to live out of a tent.  Then they kind of sort of settled into the Promised Land that happened to already be inhabited.  Even with judges and prophets and the first couple kings, things were less-than-stable for a few generations.  I can understand the desire for a stable home.  King David really wanted to build God a stable home, but God said David wasn’t the one to do it.  There was too much violence on David’s hands. 

 

So, David’s son Solomon inherited this task, and that’s where we are in today’s story.  David and Solomon wanted to do something good, they wanted to put God at the center.  They wanted a place to worship.  A place to practice their ritual sacrifices.  They wanted to build a permanent place where God would always be there to meet them.  After so many generations of instability, of wandering and then war, I get the desire for something permanent. 

 

Unfortunately, buildings cost more money than a tent.  How does one pay for a building?  Solomon paid for it with slave labor and demanding more, and more money from his subjects—even though he lived in a lavish palace.  The Temple was a beloved place.  It was a holy place.  Even in our reading for today, God entered the space in a profound way.  And yet, injustice was built into its walls.  In our desire to build things for God, we sometimes miss the mark, and need reform.  The voices of the prophets make up about a third of the Old Testament.  A prophet is a person who speaks for God, and most of the time, God had the prophets speak words of warning.  We humans like to pretend that everything is peachy, but God knows we need help.      

 

Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation.  A little over 500 years ago, the pope wanted to replace the deteriorating St. Peter’s Basilica with a new cathedral in Rome.  Something awe-inspiring.  A work of art.  The most beautiful thing that humans could create.  It would take over 100 years to build.  Again, the challenge with big, beautiful buildings is the cost.  How did the Roman Catholic Church choose to pay for it?  On the backs of poor peasants.  The over-simplified version of the story is that the church sent out people to prey upon peoples’ fear of Hell and Purgatory and convince them to buy indulgences (a sort of fire-insurance policy for the afterlife). 

 

A young, Augustinian monk named Martin Luther (yes, please remember that Martin Luther was Roman Catholic) questioned some of these practices.  He wanted to start a debate.  He wanted to see some things changed.  He posted 95 talking points, (a.k.a. the 95 Thesis), and with the help of the printing press, the conversation exploded.  We humans like to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re always doing everything right and for the right reasons, but God knows we don’t.  We’re more complicated than that. 

 

We are perfectly capable of doing things with good motives and at the same time be willfully ignorant of the negative consequences of our actions.  The Temple became so meaningful, and so important, that it was rebuilt 2 times.  To this day, the wailing wall (all that is left of the last Temple) stands as a powerful place to meet God.  Place is important to us.  And St. Peter’s Cathedral still captures countless people with its beauty.  It is still an awe-inspiring place that people are drawn to.  And yet, God is so much bigger than anything we can build.  God outlasts our buildings.  God outlasts our institutions.  God is more permanent than anything we can create. 

 

Lest we think all buildings are evil and our capital campaign is in vain, however, I want to posit a few “thesis” of my own.  Buildings can easily turn into an idol, but they don’t have to be.  Buildings can serve a greater purpose. 

 

So why do we still have buildings? 

 

First, for the reasons we don’t always think about, we have a beautiful space to offer to the greater community.  Every week, our building offers a safe space for an AA group.  Once a month our building welcomes people with dementia and their caregivers to come and find community and inspiration.  These groups may not be specifically religious, but they are still part of building up God’s vision of healing and peace in the world.  This building can serve as a refuge for people beyond just us. 

 

As for us, I like of our church building as a gym... it’s a place to work out our spiritual muscles and keep them in shape.  We need a place to come and build up our relationship with God.  We need a place to come and hold us accountable to the spiritual stuff we know is good for us, but we don’t always do on our own.  We need a place to gather as a community. 

 

We come here because we need help and practice seeing God.

 

We come because we need a place to learn the story of God and God’s people.

 

We come to learn about God’s mission to bless and heal the world. 

 

We come because we need a place and a prompt to say thank you

 

We come because we’re forgetful and we need reminders of God’s love and who we are as children of God

 

We come to train our eyes and ears to better hear and see where God is leading us out there.

 

Some weeks we come to lament. 

 

Some weeks we come to praise.

 

We come to help each other because this faith thing isn’t always easy, and we can’t always do it alone

 

We, all of us gathered here, are the church.  And we come together to praise God, and thank God, and to be called into God’s mission.  And at the end of our worship, we are sent out to be the church wherever we go when we leave this place.  

Sermon on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

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I’ve been enjoying my morning walks and runs in the arboretum this fall.  There’s so much beauty to take in.  The turkeys.  The way the trees reflect on Lake Wingra.  The changing leaves.  It’s fun to hear the crunchy leaves underneath my feet.  And I’m always amazed at how loud a little chipmunk can be in the fall.  I can be jogging along, and I swear there’s a dinosaur in the woods, when, in reality, it’s just a little creature no bigger than my hand scampering through the fallen leaves.  On the same morning, I almost missed seeing a couple of deer further back in the woods.  They were so remarkable quiet in that setting.  If it weren’t for the flash of their white tails, I would have missed them completely.  These animals completely defy my assumptions about them.  In my mind, it doesn’t make sense that small would equal loud, and big would equal quiet.  Things aren’t always as they appear.

Last week, we had the story of God calling young Samuel to confront his mentor—Eli the priest.  Samuel heard the voice of God loud and clear, but he needed Eli to help him identify it.  God chose Samuel to be the next prophet and leader of God’s people, instead of Eli’s corrupt sons. 

Today we’ve jumped ahead nearly a dozen chapters.  With such a promising start, we might have expected Samuel to have solved all of Israel’s problems.  Everyone living peacefully and following all of God’s teachings.  Everyone fulfilled and satisfied.  Everyone growing in faith. 

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.  Samuel’s sons turned out just as bad as Eli’s sons, and were too corrupt to take their father’s place.  The people weren’t satisfied with just a prophet and God’s teachings.  They wanted to be like all the other countries and have a king.  They begged and whined for a king so much that God relented. 

Samuel anointed the first king, Saul, and it turned out to be a disaster.  War, obsession with power, and paranoia all plagued this first king.  Samuel tried to warn them that kings weren’t all they’re cracked up to be, but they didn’t listen. 

So now, yet again, the Hebrews found themselves in need of change. 

The prophet Samuel got instructions from God to essentially pull off a coup.  It’s not exactly what I’d expect out of God, and I have some unanswerable questions, but it’s the story we’ve got, so I’m going with it for now. 

God sent Samuel to a little out of the way village called Bethlehem (maybe you’ve heard of it?)  It wasn’t exactly the place you’d expect to find a future king.  But Samuel listened to God, and found a father named Jesse.  God told Samuel to anoint one of Jesse’s sons. 

This is where I think things get interesting.  Last week we had young Samuel hearing the voice of God loud and clear.  This week, we have an old Samuel, who seems to have some trouble waiting for God’s voice.  As Jesse brings out his sons, Samuel assumes that the oldest and strongest would be the one God wanted.  But God had to firmly tell Samuel no, and God had to repeat God’s self six times. 

After all his years of being a prophet and speaking for God, Samuel still had to learn this basic lesson: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."  God chose the youngest and smallest to lead. 

Things aren’t always as they appear…

We might think we know what God is all about.  We like to think that we’re doing God’s will.  We have formulas and patterns that we like to fit life into.  We’re so good at rationalizing and fooling ourselves.  But God is so much bigger than our thoughts, and love rarely conforms to our set formulas.  God sees so much deeper than we see. 

God sees beyond all our junk.  God knows what lies beneath all the different masks we like to wear.  God knows what hides deep inside our hearts.  The judgement, the shame, the fear, the guilt, the joy, the hate, the love, the pain, …everything.  God sees things inside us that we can’t even see ourselves.  God has a way of choosing those least expected to be chosen.  God often has an alternative way forward that we struggle to see. 

God sees the world differently than we do.  We look for beauty, or power, or signs of wealth, and irrationally value people who possess these things.  We let beautiful, powerful, wealthy people get away with things we shouldn’t let them get away with.  We tend to elect leaders who are taller.  We hire people who look a certain way.  We discriminate against people who don’t look like us or fit into our norms.   We do not see the way God sees.  We look at the outward appearance.  God looks on the heart. 

This can be terrifying news.  And good news.  We all have parts of our story that we’d rather keep hidden.  Those things we’d rather not admit.  It’s kind of scary that God knows everything about us.  And yet, it can also be freeing.  God knows everything about you, and God still loves you.  And even more, God sees potential in you.  God sees that image of God inside you.  God sees that original goodness from Genesis 1.  God sees new ways forward that we can’t see yet. 

Things aren’t always as they appear.  Saul didn’t turn out to be the king everyone had hoped for.  Samuel had a hard time seeing what God was calling him to do.  Even David, for that matter, did some deplorable things.  The monarchy in general wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  Practically every story we read in the Bible brings with it a fair share of messes and mistakes. 

 

And yet, through each story, each generation, God continues to see through all that.  God keeps showing up.  God persists in pointing a new way forward.  God calls us to transformation, from the death of old ways to new life.  God sees that image of God within us.  God sees something worth dying for.  God sees us with a love that defies all our expectations and formulas.      (Read together Psalm 51) 

Sermon on 1 Samuel 3:1-21

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I’m going to be a bit bold this morning, and dare to say that one of the challenges facing Hope today is our generation gap.  I don’t think it’s a new challenge.  For example, I can just imagine the tensions between past generations when the question of switching from German to English arose.  Nor is this challenge unique to Hope.  I think just about every church in North America struggles with a disconnect between the generations.  Even as a society we struggle with this.  As someone on the edge of being a millennial, I’m aware of how everyone older generation thinks millennials are the cause of all the world’s problems.  Over the past few years there’s been countless articles about how millennials are responsible for ruining everything from church to chain restaurants.  In response, millennials are quick to point out that the boomers are the ones who have been in charge and gotten us into whatever mess we’re in.  It’s not exactly a constructive conversation…

So, Hope is in the same boat as the rest of our country.  Unlike the rest of society, however, Hope is in a unique position of having 4-5 generations gather in the same building every Sunday.  On any given Sunday, the ages present can span up to 9 decades!  The church has an opportunity the rest of our culture doesn’t have.  I’ll even say we have a calling to bridge the generation gap. 

Thankfully, this story of Eli and Samuel gives us a guide. 

A lot has happened in the bigger biblical story since we gathered last week.  We left Moses struggling to lead the Hebrews to the promised land.  God’s people had a lot of serious training to do—both unlearning all the teaching of slavery, and re-learning a whole new way of how to live together.  Fast-forward 40 years, and God’s people are in the promised land, (promised so long ago to Abraham and Sarah).  Once the Hebrews were settled, they still struggled to live out what God has taught them, and they kept sliding into doing things the way everyone else does them.  A series of judges rose up to help them from time to time, but the Hebrews struggled to live out this new way of life God called them to. 

Fast-forward again to a Hebrew woman named Hannah who longed to have a child.  She prayed hard and promised that she would give the child to God’s service.  God made good on God’s promise, and Hannah made good on hers.  Once her son Samuel was old enough, she took him to the priest Eli so he could grow up to serve God. 

Today we get the story of Eli and Samuel.  Eli is an aging priest.  He’s the one who consoled Hannah, and assured her that God heard her prayers.  He was in charge of the ark of God—basically a box of holy things like the stone commandment tablets and Aaron’s staff.  They were kept in the tabernacle, and they were powerful symbols of God’s presence.   Eli was supposed to be stewarding these things. 

But Eli grew old.  His eyesight was going.  Perhaps he was simply tired.  Perhaps he just thought he was done.  Perhaps he just started coasting.  Perhaps he had given up all together.  We don’t get to know exactly what happened or what Eli’s motives were. 

What we do know, is that “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  We do know that Eli’s sons were supposed to be priests like him, but they were abusing their power and steeling from the tabernacle coffers.  They were obscuring the people’s ability to hear the word of the Lord.  Things needed to change.  At times like these, God is in the business of doing something new and creating a way for a different kind of future. 

Meanwhile, Samuel was living and sleeping in the presence of these powerful symbols of God’s presence.  Samuel dedicated his life to God’s service, and Eli was his mentor.  Even though things seemed bleak, God had a way of working with the possibilities that were there.  “The lamp of God had not yet gone out.” 

In the middle of the night, God called to Samuel. 

This is where we get the awesome intergenerational work!  Samuel thought Eli called him, so he went to Eli.  Since his literal and spiritual vision had grown dim, it took Eli three times to realize that it was God who was speaking to Samuel.  But Eli did eventually remember how to recognize God’s presence, and he taught Samuel how to recognize that voice.  Eli taught Samuel how to respond to God’s call, and he encouraged Samuel to listen to whatever God had to say.  Without Eli, Samuel would have had no clue how to recognize God’s voice.  No matter how strained inter-generational relationships get, the younger generation will always need some help from the older generation. 

We need help recognizing God’s voice.  We need help learning how to answer God’s call.  We need encouragement.  We need patience, because understanding may not come the first time around.  It might take 3 or even more times for us to get it.  God needed Eli to mentor Samuel. 

Samuel on his part, did what Eli taught him to do.  He went back and listened to what God had to say.  Unfortunately, God said some pretty tough stuff.  God needed the young Samuel to be a truth-teller, a whistle-blower even.  God needed Samuel to confront Eli.  I can only imagine what it was like for Samuel to lay there the rest of the night.  I wonder how heavy that task weighed on him.  This was not good news for his teacher and mentor. 

I have to give Eli a lot of credit in this story.  Eli encouraged Samuel to speak and hold nothing back.  No sugar coating.  No gingerly skirting around the issues.  Just a straightforward message.  Eli had Samuel lay it all out there, and Eli listened.  And Eli accepted what Samuel had to say.  Eli didn’t protest or get defensive.  Eli trusted this message from God, and he wasn’t going to get in the way. 

God was doing something new.  God saw a need for change, and God needed both Eli and Samuel to make that change possible.    

So, what about us?  What about the Eli-s among us, who are closer to the end of our story than the beginning?  I have a message for you: 

You may think you are done, but God’s not done with you yet.  You are called to help the younger generations recognize God in the world.  You are called to help us see how faith takes shape over a life-time.  You are called to help us listen to God and to speak the truth. 

And what about the Samuel-s among us, who are closer to the beginning of our story?  I have a message for you:  You are not too young to have a voice in the church.  You are called to help us see the new things God is doing.  You are called to speak the truth in love and call us on our mistakes.  You are called to pick up this faith and make it your own.  And you are called to remember this stage of your faith, so that when you get to be Eli’s age you will be ready to listen to the generation that comes after you. 

 

Our calling, no matter what our age is, our calling as Christians can be found in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to God’s self through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”  Just as God built a bridge to us through Jesus to build a new pathway of healing and hope, we are called to take on this ministry too.  We are called to build bridges that create new pathways for healing and hope.  We are called to this ministry of reconciliation.  There are so many overwhelming and destructive divisions in our world.  I believe we are called to start by reconciling the divisions right here among us, and build bridges across our generations.  We need each other to hear what God is saying to us today, and God needs us.  We are called to work together for the sake of God’s mission in the world.  

Growing in Grace Part 4: Exodus 16:1-18

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There was a movie that came out when I was a kid, called Hook.  Maybe some of you remember it.  The movie takes place at a time when Peter Pan (played by Robin Williams) is all grown up with kids of his own, but then Captain Hook kidnaps them, and Peter has to go back to Neverland to rescue them.  The only problem is, Peter has grown into a grumpy workaholic who has completely forgotten about the magic of Neverland. 

There’s one scene I remember, where all the Lost Boys and Peter sit down to eat.  The table is set, but there’s no food.  The grown-up Peter Pan is confused and worried.  All he can see are empty bowls.  He wonders where the food is.  The boys are surprised.  “Don’t you remember?” they said.  “You have to imagine the food.”  This proves difficult for Peter, but eventually he gets into the spirit, and as they imagine a feast, food magically appears in the bowls.  There’s even enough food for a massive food fight.  It is Neverland after all. 

Today we have the story of God providing manna in the wilderness.  About a month into their freedom, the Israelites can hardly imagine surviving in the wilderness.  They really can’t see where any food will come from.  They don’t even recognize the manna at first.  “What is it?” they asked.  The lessons of manna are about transforming the way we see what’s at the table. 

 

God is about changing the world.  God sees the pain of the world, and God sets out to birth something new.  Now Pharaoh clung too tightly to the way things were.  He was too addicted to his power, too addicted to his privileged life.  He didn’t care that it meant oppressing people.  He couldn’t see how it was hurting God’s creation.  He couldn’t even see how it was ultimately harmful to him.  He would rather have those 10 destructive plagues than be forced to change anything.  That’s what God called a hardened heart.  Change is hard. 

Even though the Hebrews longed for this change, it was hard for them too.  They spent generations learning and living in the systems of slavery and oppression.  Their entire lives, they saw people get ahead by dehumanizing others.  They saw people gain the good life by practicing hoarding.  They saw a world where there had to be the haves and the have-nots.  In Egypt, only a few rich people got to sit at the table and hoard all the food.  Even if it wasn’t a good world for the Hebrews, it was the only world they knew.  It was familiar.  At least they knew what to expect. 

But, God was setting a whole new table for them, and it was going to take some holy imagination for them to see it.   They had a lot of unlearning to do.  God didn’t want them to go to the promised land and just re-create the world they knew.  It would have been much too easy for the Hebrews to want to have the same kind of world, only this time with them in charge and oppressing. God wanted something different. 

God wants a table where everyone has enough.  God wants a table where everyone has a place.  God wants a table that’s round, and big, and always has room for one more.  God wanted them to imagine a whole different kind of table.  God was birthing something new, and only this would take 40 years instead of 40 weeks. 

God had a lot of wilderness lessons to teach the Hebrews.  The first and most important were the lessons surrounding manna. 

The first lesson the Hebrews had to learn was that God provides.  We like to think that we have earned whatever we have—whether we earn it by being better, or smarter, or tougher, or more ruthless.  We like to judge people based on how much money they have.  We like to think that poor people are poor because they deserve it or did something wrong.  God’s new table messes with all that.  In the wilderness people are vulnerable enough to see that at our core, we are dependent on God.  The wilderness was about learning to trust that God would provide. 

The second lesson was the gift of enough.  God was creating a new and different table.  There would be no more hoarding.  There would be no more exclusions.  There would be no more reacting out of fear.  When that manna came down, there was just enough for everybody.  And they needed to learn that if they took any extra, it would rot.  I’m guessing most of us at some point have experienced this consequence of taking too much. 

Every so often on garbage day, when I do a quick sweep of the fridge, I have to admit I took too much and toss something moldy into the bag.  I try very hard not to waste anything, but enough is a tough lesson to learn.  And we do it with more than just food.  Full closets, garages so full there’s no room for a car, houses so full we need to rent storage sheds to hold all our stuff, full calendars, full of our own opinions.  It’s hard to get rid of the desire for more—more stuff, more money, more accomplishments, more influence.  The gift of enough frees us from the insatiable desire for more. 

When we start to learn the first two lessons, that God will provide and the gift of enough, we start to learn the third very, very important lesson:  to share.  Once we realize that we have enough, we see that God put enough on the table for everyone.  Everything we have is a gift from God.  When we talk about giving, we’re not actually giving anything.  We’re simply sharing whatever God has generously shared with us.

This lesson of enough makes perfect sense in my head.  I know it, I understand it, I intellectually believe it.  But I often struggle to live in the promise of enough. 

There are days when I look at the table of my life, or of the world, and everything looks empty to me.  The problems of the world loom so large, and I hardly feel like there’s enough of me to take care of my own responsibilities, much less make any sort of difference in the world.  There’s not enough time.  There’s not enough money.  There’s not enough will to change.  And then I make my table look even emptier by assuming that everyone else’s table surely is full and neatly set. 

And then last week Monday, on a day when many of us are apt to complain about not having enough weekend, or enough sleep, or just feeling the effects of not enough something, …last week Monday we woke up to news of the deadliest shooting to ever take place in our country.  And no amount of explanations, or debate, or news reports will ever be enough to satisfy those gnawing questions that keep us up at night.  No amount of thoughts or prayers will bring back those who were killed a week ago.  No amount of worry or accusations will be enough to lead us to the changes we long for.  How do we begin to trust God in the face of such evil? 

But then I remember the table God sets for us every week as we gather.  God comes down to meet us at this table.  God makes space for everyone here.  All are welcome.  It doesn’t matter if your confused or doubtful.  It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a saint, a sinner or most likely both at the same time.  It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. 

There’s plenty of bread and wine to go around.  No one need go away empty.  And God provides a different kind of nourishment. 

Jesus offers us a different kind of bread that nourishes the soul.  It’s the bread of forgiveness, the bread of new life, the bread that transforms us, and through us, transforms the world.  It’s bread that was brutally broken and intimately understands our pain.  It’s bread that helps us to trust that God will indeed give us each day our daily bread, enough for each day, enough to face the challenges of the present moment.  It’s a bread that helps us to see that the table was never empty.  It’s bread that helps us imagine a future feast where no one is hungry because we’ve all finally learned how to share.   

 

I remember this table.  I remember God’s gifts.  I remember that Christ’s love is bigger that all the hate in the world.  I remember that God is always birthing something new.  And I remember that I need to keep growing into God’s gift of enough.  

Growing in Grace Part 3: Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-17

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We’ve been journeying through Genesis for the past month.  A couple weeks ago, we entered into the story of Abraham’s (often dysfunctional) family.  God decided to partner with Abraham and Sarah, to call them to a different way of life, and to bless them so that the world would be blessed through them.  With each generation, God re-established this promise and calling.  Each generation, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, each of them strove to live out this calling.  And each of them made a mess of it at some point.  Yet God persisted and remained faithful year after year.  Each generation came to experience God’s grace.  Each generation experienced profound gratitude for all God had done.  Each generation learned how to live out that calling—in spite of all their messes. 

Through a series of messes and tragedies, God’s people ended up in Egypt at the end of the Genesis story.  I encourage you to read it later this afternoon—I assure you the story is just as captivating as anything you’ll find on TV. 

In any case, when the Israelites first came to Egypt, they had an in.  Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, was Pharaoh’s right-hand-man.  They were safe and protected in Egypt.  As more generations passed and that initial relationship faded, Egypt became suspicious and fearful of these foreign Israelites. There were so many of them, and a later Pharaoh felt threatened by them.  So that Pharaoh enslaved them.  

It was bad.  Slavery can’t ever be anything but bad.  Slavery denies the image of God in fellow human sisters and brothers.  No matter when or where, slavery is a powerful sin.  Slavery hardens the hearts of the oppressors and whispers convincing lies.  Slavery inflicts wounds that take so many generations to heal.  Once slavery has dug its claws into a society, this mammoth sin does not easily let go. 

Slavery breaks God’s heart.  Of course, God heard the cries of God’s people.  And for reasons I don’t always understand, God continued to partner with God’s people to face this evil.  God partnered with many people in the Exodus story, including 2 midwives, a mother, and a big sister.  Today, we get the story of God calling Moses. 

There came a time when Pharaoh declared that all male, Hebrew babies should be killed.  One mother decided to send her baby down the river, in hopes that someone else would adopt him.  That baby was Moses.  He grew up the son of an Egyptian princess.  He lived a privileged life, and had an identity crisis when he discovered his true heritage. 

Once he saw how the slaves were treated, he was outraged.  He got so angry he even killed a slave over-seer.  But instead of respect or gratitude, the Hebrew slaves were afraid of Moses and didn’t want him around because Moses just made the overseers treat the slaves even more harshly. 

Moses no longer belonged in the palace.  He didn’t quite belong with the Hebrews either.  He didn’t seem to belong anywhere, so he ran away from all his problems and took refuge in the wilderness. 

Lots of important God-stuff happens in the wilderness. 

While our story can seem so far removed from these ancient Bible stories, there are so many ways this story has spoken truth to countless generations, and can continue to speak to us today.  We still grapple with the sins of slavery today—both the aftermath of institutionalized slavery in our country’s history as well as the covert slavery that persists today.  God’s heart still breaks for oppressed people everywhere.  Slavery seems to surface somewhere every generation.  It’s a topic deserving of an entire sermons series in the future, and I welcome more conversation. 

For today, I want to focus on the general picture of this story.  No matter who we are, at some point, the problems of the world seem overwhelming.  All you have to do is look at the news.  In a similar way, the problem of Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Hebrews loomed so large.  There were a few brave souls who did what they could, but the problem was so much bigger.  No wonder Moses escaped to the wilderness. 

I think of the church today.  Society is going through some rapid changes, and the church is not immune from the consequences.  Plus, about every 500 years, the church seems to have gone through a dramatic transformation.  We’re on the cusp of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and let me tell you, that change was messy and overwhelming.  I whole-heartedly believe the church is on the cusp of something dramatically new today, but it’s in such a nebulous stage, we can’t see it yet.  All we can see is the messiness of transition. 

We see declining attendance-at least in the northern hemisphere.  We see half-full or even empty education wings.  We see churches struggling or unable to make budget—and I can tell you we are not alone on this.  We see nostalgia setting in and people grieving glory days that can’t be replicated.  We see fighting, and apathy, and increasing disengagement.  We see general decline.  It’s scary.  It’s overwhelming. 

More, and more people wonder where they belong.  More, and more people are crying out, and sitting, and waiting for someone else to do something.  More, and more people are giving up on church all together.  “Let somebody else take care of things.”  “I’ve already taken my turn doing that.”  “Somebody else needs to do this.”  And we wonder what God can do.  The problems loom so large.  Transitions are a kind of wilderness time.

Lots of God stuff happens in the wilderness. 

Moses had built up a relatively comfortable life in the wilderness.  He married a shepherd’s daughter, and helped care for the flocks.  He found a little place to belong, where he didn’t have to deal with the problems of Egypt and slavery.  He was in a good place. 

And then one day, he was minding his own business, when he just had to notice this bush.  It looked like it was on fire, and yet it wasn’t burning up.  It took a burning bush for God to get Moses’ attention.  Moses took off his sandals and entered that holy space.  And God started a conversation with him.  God brought up the slavery issue that Moses tried to avoid.  "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” 

The shocker comes in verse 10, when God said to Moses, “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."

The problem of slavery was huge.  And God expected Moses to do something about it. 

Naturally, Moses protested.  In just about every call story in the Bible (except for maybe Mary), everyone protests in some way.  God calls people to do outrageous things beyond what they think they can do.  Moses protested not one, but 5 times.  He’s just one person.  He’s not good enough.  He doesn’t know how to explain God to the Hebrews.  He doesn’t know what to say to the Hebrews.  He’s not eloquent enough.  Just please, send someone else God. 

Nonetheless, God persisted.  God uses our gifts to bless and transform people’s lives beyond anything we might have imagined…

There’s no doubt the church today faces lots of challenges, and Hope is no exception.  In church, it’s easy for us to see the problems, easy to try one thing that doesn’t work, and then throw up our hands.  It’s easy to expect someone else to take care of things.  As Lutherans, we can even be tempted to think that grace means we don’t have to do anything.  It’s easy to come up with excuses.   

But God works through our transformation.  God blesses us, transforms us, and calls us to do God’s transforming work in the world.  When it comes to these problems that seem so big, God calls each one of us to do things we never imagined we could do. 

The church is on the cusp of something new, and even though the vision is still foggy, God calls us to trust.  Moses had no clue how God was going to free all the slaves and get to that promised land, but he eventually learned to trust that God would get them there.  Transformation from death to new life is the central story of our faith.  God is birthing something new among us.  God is calling each of you to be part of this vision.  God is calling you to give of yourself to this vision, to give of your time, talent, and yes, treasure (a.k.a. money) to this vision.  God needs each of us to put forth our best selves to meet the challenges of the church in the 21st Century. 

 

Later this week you will receive a letter asking for your commitment for the coming year.  One of the ways we answer God’s call is through our financial commitment.  It’s our way of saying, yes, I see the ways God has blessed my life.  Yes, I believe God is at work in the world.  Yes, I trust that God’s vision is bigger than the problems of the world.  Yes, I want to be part of this mission.  Yes, I see that God calls us to do things we never imagined we could do.  

Growing in Grace Part 2: Gratitude and Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

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We’re in a 4-part series of what it means to be growing in God’s grace.  Last week we talked about how grace is God’s love for us and all creation—regardless of whether we deserve it or not.  There’s nothing we need to sacrifice or give to earn God’s favor.  God’s essence is love, and it’s God’s nature to love us.  It’s a whole different way to see the world. 

This week, we’re focusing on gratitude.  To live gratefully is to recognize that all comes from God and belongs to God. We cannot really own it or keep it. We are not possessors while we spend our years on earth.  Gratitude is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple, and it’s a radical way to see the world. 

We are invited to live fully as we live gratefully. To live as a possessor is to be captive to the things we own. If we measure our worth, our value, by the things we own, we are always living in fear that we will lose them. If we attempt to find security in what we own, we will never have enough. To really be at peace in life is to recognize that our real value comes as a gift from God. Our security rests in God’s promises and our future is a gift given by God in Jesus Christ.

As we keep journeying through this story of Genesis, we see how God chose to work through one family—Abraham’s family--and bless them to be a blessing.  We also see how dysfunctional this family was, and how hard it is to live gratefully. 

This week we have Abraham’s son Isaac and his two sons—Esau and Jacob. 

Isaac and his wife Rebekah ended up having twins, and these two started before they were even born.  They struggled as they came into the world.  Esau came out first with Jacob grabbing onto Esau’s heel, and Jacob just kept on grasping after his brother. 

Back in Bible days, the oldest got all the perks—the inheritance, the father’s blessing, all the wealth and advantages.  Now, I’m willing to say this system was unfair and left the younger siblings with little or nothing.  And this system probably set up younger siblings to be jealous and want to act out in some way.  But Jacob took things to the limits. 

Jacob preyed upon his brother’s and father’s weaknesses.  When Esau was starving after a long, hard day of work, Jacob offered him a bowl of stew in exchange for Esau’s birth right.  Esau was a good, hard worker but he lacked a little foresight.  He took Jacob up on that offer of the stew, and regretted it as soon as he was done eating. 

But all the inheritance wasn’t enough for Jacob.  He kept grabbing for more.  With his mom’s help, Jacob preyed upon his father’s aging eyes, and tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing too. 

Jacob had everything… and Esau. Was. furious. 

Furious enough to kill his conniving brother. 

 

So, Rebekah continued to protect her favorite son, and convinced Isaac to send Jacob away to Rebekah’s family to find a suitable wife.  So off Jacob went. 

Jacob had everything, and yet, it was as though he had nothing.  In his zeal to get everything he could, Jacob lost the things that are most important in life.  In our reading today, we find Jacob utterly alone.  No home.  No family.  No one to enjoy all his riches with.  In fact, he had to leave in such a hurry, he didn’t even seem to take any of his stuff with him.  All his striving after possessions cost him terribly.  And he had to live with a constant fear of his brother seeking revenge for most the rest of his life.  What kind of life is that?  And really, how is God supposed to bring about any good through this mess? 

At a time when the rest of us would have given up on this family, God continued to persist with God’s grace. 

God has a way of coming to us in our vulnerable times.  Or maybe, we have a way of seeing God more clearly in our vulnerable times.  In either case, God came to Jacob at this low point.  Exhausted and with nothing but a rock for a pillow, Jacob stops in the wilderness to rest for the night. 

Jacob had a dream about God that night.  Back in Jacob’s day, people would build tall temples to their gods, and priests would climb to the top of them in attempts to get as close to their gods as possible and intercede for people.  Jacob’s dream was a lot like that, with angels climbing up and down stairs to heaven. 

 

But, when Jacob woke up, God wasn’t at the top of the stairs of some temple.  God was right down there with Jacob. 

It turned out Jacob had it all wrong about God and about life.  God wasn’t some inaccessible being way off in the sky somewhere.  Jacob didn’t need angels or priests to be some sort of go between him and God.  God was right there with him—in spite of all he had messed up. 

And life wasn’t about grasping for more and more stuff, or titles, or money.  All that greed and deceit wasn’t life-giving.  It was life-draining. 

In that moment, in God’s grace-filled presence, Jacob was truly grateful for the first time.  And if we continue reading on in the chapter, Jacob’s grateful response was to worship God.  Jacob took that stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it, and he called that place Bethel—which means home of God.  And then he made a vow that if God would stay with him and provide for him and bring him back safely again to his father’s house, he would surely give 1/10 of all he had received back to God. 

Jacob recognized that God would provide for his life, that he didn’t need to try to take possession of everything he could see.  Life, and everything in it is a gift from God.  When we realize this, we praise God out of our gratitude and offer up what God has given to us. 

 

We are called to live a life radically different than what our culture tells us to.  Our worth doesn’t come from our bank accounts or how much we own or how important we are in any given room of people.  Our worth comes from God and God’s love for us. 

Commercials tell us that we need more stuff to be happy, but really all more stuff can do is make us want more stuff.  We feel most fulfilled when we realize the gift of having enough. 

The world tells us that we need to grab and hold onto everything we can, but living gratefully shows us that there is meaning and purpose in giving. 

God invites us to live more fully by living gratefully.  Gratitude is at the core of being a disciple. 

It sounds so simple, but simple doesn’t always mean easy.  Gratitude can take practice.  I want us to take a couple minutes right now to practice gratitude. 

 

I invite you pause, and reflect on your week.  What did you do?  What were some of your highs and lows?  And as you remember the past few days, I want you to think of one thing that stands out that you are grateful for.  Maybe it was a good conversation.  Maybe it was how you spent time with someone you care about.  Maybe it was simply someone being kind in traffic.  Think of one specific thing that you were grateful for.  And once you’ve thought of it, I want you to tell someone next to you about what you are grateful for.  ….

Growing in Grace part 1: Grace and Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14

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Last week was the start of the Narrative Lectionary year.  Anyone remember where we started last week?  ...

Yes, we started at the very beginning in Genesis 1.  God creating this good, very good, creation that we are a part of. 

Today we skipped ahead about 20 chapters to Abraham.  In between there’s some stories about human violence.  Stories of how humans deform the goodness God created, and God’s attempts to restore that original blessing and goodness. 

Today we jump to Abraham and Sarah and the end of their story.  At this point in the bigger Bible picture, God decided to start working through one family.  God called Abraham to go out into the wilderness and lead a different kind of life.  God promised that future generations will be blessed through Abraham.  God promised him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  God promised him a land for his family. 

For most of Abraham’s life with God, he struggled to trust these promises.  He lived the life of a nomad.  He waited so long for his wife Sarah to have a baby, that at multiple points he or Sarah endangered that promise.  But at long last, after some mistakes, messes, and tears, Sarah finally gave birth to a baby boy.  They were so delighted with this fulfilled promise that Sarah named the baby Isaac, which means “laughter” in Hebrew.  It would seem like this long and winding story would finally have a happy ending. 

But then we get this week’s story.  One of the most disturbing stories of the entire Bible. 

After all these years of waiting.  After Sarah in a jealous rage made Abraham send away his other son, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar.  After all this family has been through, Abraham heard God tell him to sacrifice his and Sarah’s only son. 

What kind of God would do such a thing?!?

We like to rationalize this story a bit by pointing out that it was only a test, that God was only testing Abraham to see how faithful he was.  As if blind faith without ever questioning anything is to be highly praised.  As if this test was totally okay because some angel came just in time.  As if Isaac had no clue what was going on, and experienced no trauma from this event. 

Or as Christians, we rationalize this story by making a connection between God providing the ram just in time for the sacrifice, just as God provided Jesus as a sacrifice.  But does God really demand human sacrifices?  Does one person’s death magically make God be nice to us?  Is that the kind of God we believe in? 

People of faith have struggled with this story for centuries.  Even though we as 21st Century mainline protestants tend to view these stories in Genesis as more symbolic and metaphorical rather than as some sort of infallible history book, we still view the Bible as the inspired Word of God.  We still believe we can learn some truth about God through these stories.  A story like this, forces us to wrestle with God. 

There’s one interpretation that I’m willing to walk with for now.  Ask me again when this story comes up four years, and I might have wrestled into a new place, but this is where I’m at today.  Some scholars propose that the first voice Abraham hears isn’t the voice of God.  In the ancient near east days of Abraham, child sacrifice was a norm.  Ancient religions had gods who demanded it.  Child sacrifice was surely something Abraham saw other people do.  Perhaps the first voice Abraham hears is the voice of his ancient world telling him he needed to engage in child sacrifice too.  So, he took some wood, his son, and a knife up to a hill that felt holy.  Maybe he thought this was the way to worship God. 

But then the real voice of God intervened.  Somehow that angel opened the window of Abraham’s soul just enough for him to see that this God he had been following was different than the other gods.  Maybe, just maybe, this story is about God getting through to one person, and helping that person see that God is not a God of violence.  That death and destruction don’t make the world better.  Maybe this story was a turning point where God’s people started to see a God of life rather than a God of sacrifice.  Maybe this story is about learning to trust that God “will provide” rather than worry about punishment. 

After worship this morning, you will have the opportunity to attend an organized conversation about grace. 

We might wonder what grace could possibly be present in this story of the binding of Isaac? 

Grace is love and favor given to another regardless of deserving.  Grace is a free and giving heart, just because.  Grace is a willingness to keep on giving, loving, reaching, and forgiving.  Grace is how God relates to us. 

We don’t need to do anything to earn God’s favor.  God doesn’t punish us or demand some kind of payment when we do bad things.  We don’t need to give any payment for God’s love.  We don’t need to sacrifice our children, or buy indulgences, or do anything else to earn God’s love.  God’s essence is love.  God can’t help but love God’s creation. 

While Abraham’s time was radically different than ours, I wonder if people then struggled with the voice of fear that whispers seeds of destruction in our ears today.  That voice that says we aren’t good enough.  That voice that says you need to prove yourself.  The voice that says the only way to get ahead is by putting others down.  The voice that makes us feel insecure and worry about our place in the world and worry about our worth.  The voice that tries to convince us that we need to sacrifice goodness to survive. 

I think that God has been trying to get us to hear the voice of grace from the time of Abraham on.  Grace calls out to us and tells us that we are enough.  Grace says that you are good, that you are loved, that you were created for something other than violence or revenge.  Grace says that life isn’t about getting what you deserve but about a love that is more powerful than all our fears.  Grace says that whatever we have is a gift from God and sufficient for our needs. 

Graceful living means living as people whose lives have been transformed by God’s grace.

Every so often, I think we get to experience a taste of God’s grace, like when that angel intervened with Abraham.  Times when our vision clears for just a moment and we see God and life more clearly. 

I remember a time when Alex was just 6 weeks old.  I was still in seminary juggling life with a toddler and a new born.  It was one of those rare afternoons when I had time to enjoy the company of another mom and her little ones.  I was telling her about how Alex had hardly nursed at all that day.  As the second child, I didn’t worry nearly as much about every little sniffle and sigh as I did with our first born.  But my mom friend suggested that I might want to get that checked out.  We took Alex’s temperature, and sure enough, he had a fever.  I made an appointment right away, and was in to see the doctor an hour later. 

I figured I would just be told to let him rest and the cold would work itself out.  Instead, the doctor was very concerned.  The presence of a fever without any other symptoms was alarming, especially since he was so young.  The doctor, who also had small children, was torn.  There was a chance it was nothing, but there was a real chance that Alex had something more serious that his little body might not be able to fight on its own. 

The doctor’s words made my head swim.  My son was mortal.  In that moment, sheer terror danced around the edges of my heart.  The realization hit hard, and suddenly all my assumptions about life turned fluid.   I felt so very alone. 

After a spinal tap came back negative, the doctor advised me to take Alex to the hospital so he could receive an IV and antibiotics.  Once we had a plan, my fear started to recede. 

The grace wasn’t so much that my son lived—though I’m forever grateful for that.  The grace was the moment of clarity, the realization of my limits and the humility of my place in the world.  To see that I don’t have nearly as much control as I’d like to think.  To realize that I don’t really possess anything, not even my precious child.  He may have ½ my DNA, but he’s not mine to own or have.  He is a gift, like everything else.  A precious part of God’s good creation that God entrusted me to care for as best I can.  The grace was in that realization that I couldn’t do this parent-calling alone, and the profound gratitude of the help and gifts of others.  The grace was in the moment of a kind of surrender, trusting in the God and the collective wisdom and compassion of others.  I found grace in the kinds of prayer that’s too deep for words.  The grace was in that moment I could no longer take my baby, or life itself, for granted. 

 

Our readings of old stories can be transformed… the way we see our own story can be transformed… our understanding of God can be transformed… the way we live can be transformed… by grace of God, let it be so.   

Summer Sermon Series: Acts 28:16-17, 23-31

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When I was in first grade, I remember one recess where one of my friends was convinced that we could fly.  We just had to try hard enough.  I’m not sure where her ardent belief came from.  Maybe she had a dream about flying.  Maybe she saw a tv show.  Whatever motivated her conviction, she had all kinds of elaborate plans for us.  I think one of them involved running as fast as we could while holding onto a jump rope.  She was so excited, and she really wanted me to join her grand adventure. 

I, on the other hand, was not convinced.  I knew people couldn’t fly on their own.  I disagreed with her conviction and didn’t buy into her plans.  She got angry and upset.  So, we disagreed with each other.  Until another kid came along and asked why we were fighting.  After this other classmate heard us out, she suggested we just try my friend’s ideas.  “Fine,” I thought.  “we can try, and she’ll see that I was right!” 

 

Paul tried to convince his Jewish brothers and sisters not about flying, but about Jesus.  Some were convinced by what he said, while others refused to believe.  So, they disagreed with each other…

Most of us were taught to simply avoid disagreement.  Never talk religion or politics.  If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.  Over time, we tend to find friends who think like we do.  Disagreement is hard.  We struggle with people who have different opinions…especially opinions that are important to us. 

But if this book of Acts teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are called to be witnesses.  It also teaches us that whenever we dare to witness, some people will agree with what we say, and other people will never be convinced. 

How do we handle ourselves when people aren’t convinced?  It’s one of the most important questions we need to ask ourselves as followers of Jesus.

Christians struggle with people who will never be convinced.  Throughout Christian history, our actions toward people who disagree with us have ranged from inhospitable at best to downright violent and hostile at worst.  Our record has been dismal.  The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust are all horrific events where Christians sinfully used violence against those who didn’t agree with them.  Even in our country today, Synagogues and Mosques and other religious organizations are threatened or attached much too often.  And even if we’re not violent, we still tend to demonize people with other beliefs and see them as an enemy.  Or we impose our beliefs on them with things like public prayers or displays of our faith in public places.  Or we heap all kinds of judgment on them.  How do we handle ourselves when people aren’t convinced by what we have to say about Jesus? 

This last passage in Acts takes up this crucial question.  As people disagreed with each other over Paul’s witness, Paul made a statement with this quote from Isaiah: 

26 ‘Go to this people and say,
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
27 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.’

28 Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”[a]

Now this quote can be read a few different ways….

It could be read with an angry and bitter tone of voice, condemning people for their lack of belief.  It could be read as God turning God’s back on the Jewish brothers and sisters who rejected Paul’s story.  It could be read as judgement.  It could be read as some sort of proof that Christians are superior. 

In all honesty, our Christian history and our current society are so saturated with this judgmental thinking that this is how I first heard this quote.  I didn’t even want to read it aloud this morning because it made my stomach churn. 

I didn’t want to add to the centuries of Christian arrogance and hatred towards others. 

But I’m a Lutheran, and Lutherans choose to look at things from the perspective of grace. 

The book of Isaiah (and all the prophets) are full of all kinds of judgment…mostly judgment toward all the ways people weren’t loving their neighbors.  God clearly cares how people treat one another.  But even more important than all the judgment are the words of mercy spoken by all the prophets.  The message that gets echoed throughout scripture that there are always second chances.  The promise of new beginnings.  The ever-widening circle of God’s love.  The salvation of God being sent to the Gentiles isn’t God giving up on Israel.  It is the story of God’s love pushing through barriers. 

This quote can also be read as a reminder that people see and hear things differently.  As much as we want to understand why, it remains a mystery.  We don’t always know why some people latch onto this Jesus story, and others don’t.  There are somethings we can understand, but the end result isn’t up to us.  People ultimately have a choice.  God’s not going to force anything.  We can never fully know what’s going on in people’s hearts, and it’s not our job to know or to judge. 

 

 

Our job is to be a witness.  To welcome everybody.  To proclaim the reign of God where compassion and mercy rule.  To tell the story of Jesus and his ways of healing, and radical inclusion, and resistance to evil, and forgiveness, and reconciliation.  To love our neighbor as our self with all boldness and without hindrance. 

Perhaps, during this time of deep division in our country, during this time when disagreements too often lead to hate, during this time when more and more people are understandably questioning the relevance of the church, perhaps the most powerful witness we can offer is to welcome and care for people—regardless of their beliefs.  From the time of Jesus, Christians have always been called to be witnesses to a different way of living.  Perhaps, today, we are called to lead by showing an alternative way to disagree.  A way that’s rooted in grace, and compassion.  Perhaps now more than ever before, God is calling us to boldly love our neighbor, to respectfully call out the hate and violence bubbling up all over, and to practice ways of getting along with people who believe differently than us. 

Of course, we all know that we’re right about everything (wink, wink).  Just like I was right about my friend not being able to fly.  But, for the remainder of that recess, we attempted to fly… and we had a grand time running all over the school playground.  Of course, I was right, but in this case, having fun playing together was more important than being right.  

 

Our most powerful witness just might be how we choose to interact with the other kids on the playground.  

Summer Sermon Series: Acts 26:24-32

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We’ve come a long way in the book of Acts.  One more week, and we’ll be at the end. 

At the very beginning of the book, before Jesus ascended into heaven, Jesus was sitting around with his disciples.  They still didn’t quite get it.  They were nervous and scared and confused—which is totally understandable considering all they went through.  How would you react if your leader was brutally murdered and then one day appeared alive again?  Anyway, the disciples were still looking toward grand visions of when Jesus would kick everyone’s butt and take over the world, and Jesus was like, “nope!  World domination is none of your concern.  Just stop it!” 

After Jesus burst their bubble, he reassured them that they would receive some awesome Holy Spirit power, but God wasn’t going to empower the disciples to take over the world or anything.  Holy Spirit power wasn’t about being powerful, or showing off, or gaining control.  Holy Spirit power was going to be a radically different kind of power.  The Holy Spirit was going to empower the disciples to be Jesus’ witnesses.  Everywhere.  Including in their home town, and their home country, and in enemy territory, and even to the ends of the earth.  This Holy Spirit power was just for being Jesus’ witnesses.  Not exactly the kind of super power movies are made of… And yet, this witnessing super-power makes for an interesting book as far as the Bible goes. 

The Holy Spirit power first showed up at Pentecost when the disciples were empowered to communicate their story about Jesus to people who spoke different languages.  It was awesome.  And yet, this witnessing power wasn’t powerful enough to impress everyone.  Some people just thought the disciples were drunk at 9:00 am.  Some people accepted their witness, some people rejected it, some were just mildly interested or amused.  And that’s pretty much what happens throughout the entire book.  Whenever the disciples witnessed with their words or their actions, some people were into it, and others were not. 

Being a witness to the ends of the earth means all kinds of things in the book of Acts.  Sometimes witnessing meant simply living out Jesus’ command to love one another.  The early churches actually shared, and cared, and dared to say that everyone has worth.  Sometimes witnessing meant traveling and talking to people out of their league.  Sometimes it meant speaking truth to power and getting in trouble for it.  Sometimes witnessing meant changing traditions in order to make space for new people.  And in the case of dear Paul, witnessing meant the disciples taking a risk and trusting that a former enemy could transform into one of Jesus’ biggest supporters. 

Generous sharing, talking to people outside one’s comfort zone, reconciliation with enemies, willingness to change for the sake of another, speaking truth to power…

That’s powerful stuff.  This is how the disciples were Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth.  This is the stuff the book of Acts is made of.  Being a witness is so much more than just proclaiming to be a Christian.  It’s a whole new way of life. 

In these final chapters of Acts, we get to see Paul witness again, and again.  Throughout acts, Paul continually challenged people to see how this way of Jesus should be open to everyone—and challenged people to see how certain traditions got in the way of this.  As a result, Paul made quite a few enemies.  When Paul entered Jerusalem one last time, this got him into trouble.  His very presence flared up an angry mob, which led to his arrest.  Paul got to testify before various Roman officials, and the Jewish high priests, and then some more Roman officials.  Paul’s willingness to go to Jerusalem even though he knew he faced danger is powerful testimony enough.  But in our reading today, as Paul speaks to yet more Roman government officials, he dares to tell him, “I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.”  Why does Paul want everyone who hears him to become a follower of Jesus like he did? 

I suppose we can never know for sure, but I suspect it had something to do with his experience of Jesus.  Paul constantly told people about his story of transformation and how Jesus changed him.  Paul’s experience of Jesus overwhelmed him with grace, wiped away all his fear, and set him on a radically different path in life.  Paul’s experience with Christ gave him the courage to face all kinds of challenges—even being beaten and imprisoned.  He had no fear or hostility toward those who harmed him.  He lived a compelling life full of purpose.  I think he genuinely wanted people to experience what he experienced.  The Holy Spirit definitely gave him some super-witnessing-powers. 

So, what about us?  We are modern-day disciples.  We still carry this call to be Jesus’ witnesses to the ends of the earth.  What does witnessing mean for us today? 

Witnessing is something the church needs to work on, because we haven’t been doing such a great job—at least in this country.  In the U. S., Christians are known for being narrow-minded and judgmental.  People think we are all homo-phobic and anti-science.  Too often we don’t practice the love and grace that we preach.  We come from a place of privilege and assume everyone should believe like us, and we tend to get angry and defensive with people who aren’t Christian and don’t appreciate our Christian traditions being forced on them.  Too often, Christians don’t take the time to learn about other religions, even though we expect people to know all about our religion.  We’ve turned witnessing into a demand for intellectual agreement rather than a compelling way of life. 

I also think we’ve forgotten how to witness.  For generations, we assumed that everyone was a Christian, so there was no need to explain, or teach, or answer questions.  We assumed our kids would always be a part of the church.  We assumed our neighbors were a part of a church.  We assumed a lot, and didn’t talk much about faith stuff.  And now, we don’t know the stories like we used to.  Telling our own faith story scares us.  We may not even be sure what a faith story is.  We aren’t sure how to answer the younger generation’s questions that we never thought to ask.  We’re not sure where to even begin. 

Even though the book of Acts was written a long time ago, I think it’s a good place to start.  Clearly the world of the disciples is different than the world we live in now.  Clearly, the disciples made some mistakes that we don’t care to repeat.  Clearly, the issues are different for us today.  But the book of Acts gives us a glimpse of what witnessing can look like.  And I think it starts with this desire that Paul states to King Agrippa, the desire that others could have a transformative experience of Jesus like he did.   

Being a witness is so much more than just proclaiming to be a Christian.  It’s more than being a member of a church.  It’s more than reciting the creed.  It’s more than liking a Facebook post.  Being a witness is a whole new way of life.  It’s a way of life that makes a difference in the world. 

 

Generous sharing, talking to people outside one’s comfort zone, reconciliation with enemies, willingness to change for the sake of another, speaking truth to power—these are the ways we are still called to be a witness.  

Summer Sermon Series: Acts 22:30-23:11

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Reading the last few chapters of Acts is like watching a movie where you can see that things are not going to end well, and you wish you could yell through the screen “don’t do it!” 

At this point in the story, Paul has gotten himself in to all kinds of trouble.  Of course, a person encounters trouble when if he or she steps into a leadership position.  At some point conflict will bubble up.  Inevitably someone will disagree and get angry with a leader’s decisions.  We read that in the earlier chapters in Acts, and can even see evidence of conflict and disagreement in Paul’s letters.  It’s part of life in community to work through those kinds of tensions.  But here towards the end of Acts, we reach a new level of trouble. 

Back in chapter 19, Paul “resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem” and then also to Rome.  In a similar way that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, so does Paul.  Jesus’ ministry was about more than just teaching and healing, and Paul’s ministry was about more than just setting up churches.  At some point, following the Way means following a path that leads to confronting fear.  At some point, following the Way means confronting the powers of oppression and destruction and evil in the world. And sometimes, following the Way of Jesus even leads to death. 

Back in chapter 21, Paul was warned that if he set foot in Jerusalem, he would be arrested and imprisoned and handed over to the Gentiles.  His friends and fellow Jesus followers urged him not to go.  Paul could have avoided causing all this trouble.  He didn’t have to stir the pot or make such giant waves.  He could have kept doing his ministry of visiting churches and setting up new ones.  He could have just stayed in the safety of friends’ houses.  Everyone who heard this warning urged him not to go. 

But Paul insisted.  He felt called to go.  Following the Way of Jesus sometimes leads to trouble. 

Paul definitely ran into trouble.  Or, maybe, trouble ran into him.  A few people with a chip on their shoulder riled up the crowds of people at the Temple when Paul arrived.  They said all kinds of outlandish things about him, and the crowds chose to believe them.  Their anger boiled down to Paul associating with Gentiles.  Paul dared to cross ethnic barriers.  He hung out with “those” people.  Different people.  The “wrong” people.  Their anger boiled down to fear.  Fear of losing identity.  Fear of losing people to this new Way of Jesus.  Fear of the other.  Fear of losing their way of life. 

Roman officials arrest Paul presumably to keep him from being devoured by the angry mob at the Temple.  They want to beat some answers out of him, but Paul pulls out his citizenship card, which makes the flogging illegal.  So, instead, the Roman officials bring Paul before the court of the High Priest. 

And that’s where today’s reading comes in.  We can hear echoes of Jesus’ trial before his crucifixion, except Paul can’t be crucified because of his citizenship.  But Paul still stands for this Way of Jesus that fights oppression, breaks down barriers, and opens the way for justice and love.  And Paul’s stand still gets him into trouble.  He managed to outsmart this council by finding common ground with his fellow Pharisees, but he will still face more trials. 

Now, I was brought up to be nice.  To not stir the pot.  To not ruffle feathers.  I was taught to keep my head down, mind my own business, and not say anything controversial.  My family may have had some different opinions than our neighbors or even relatives, but we didn’t dare bring them up. 

Friends, sometimes this is okay.  We’re not called to make waves for the sake of making waves.  But sometimes, this is not okay.  Sometimes, we’re called to make waves for the sake of someone else.  Sometimes, the way the world is, stands starkly against the way God created it to be.  Sometimes, injustice is too clear to remain silent.  Sometimes, the world needs to hear that God’s love is for everyone—period.  Sometimes, following the Way of Jesus means following a path that leads to confronting fear.  At some point, following the Way means confronting the powers of oppression and destruction and evil in the world.

While I read these last few chapters in Acts, I can’t help but think this could have all been avoided.  Paul could have kept quiet.  It’s like a movie where you want to call out to the character, “don’t do it!”  But then I realize that no, Paul had to do it.  He was compelled by the Spirit to speak, and go wherever the Spirit sent him.  My urge to protect Paul in this story probably exposes my urge to protect myself.  God didn’t create us to protect ourselves.  God created us to care for one another. 

The recent events in Charlottesville have left my head spinning and my heart breaking.  Sometimes I wonder if I would have marched if I was alive during the civil rights era, or if I would have been brave enough to shelter Jewish brothers and sisters in Europe during WW II.  But I realize that injustice and oppression rear their ugly heads during every generation, and I haven’t done much about it in my time. 

As part of my own processing of current events, I re-read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  I’d love to read the whole letter to you, but it is admittedly long, and there’s way too much to digest in one sermon.  He addressed criticisms white clergy had of him at the time, and in all honesty his points are still poignant today.

As I thought about my desire to protect Paul in this story, and keep him out of trouble, I was humbled by King’s observations of white churches.  He wrote: 

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, "Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with," and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But they went on with the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven" and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.

Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour.

Just like Jesus was about more than healing and teaching, just like Paul was about more than setting up churches, the church today needs to be about more than just sitting here on Sunday mornings.  At some point, following the Way of Jesus means following a path that leads to confronting fear.  At some point, following the Way means confronting the powers of oppression and destruction and evil in the world.  At some point, following the Way of Jesus means a sacrificial spirit that’s willing to get into trouble for the sake of the gospel. 

If we as a church can’t speak out against Nazis, the KKK and white supremacists, then I’m not sure we can call ourselves a church.  If we as a church think it’s too political to condemn violence and hate, then I’m not sure we are following the way of Jesus.  If we as a church are more concerned with preserving ourselves than daring to stand with others who are vulnerable, then we still have some more transformation to go through. 

But I think we can follow Jesus.  I think we can learn from Paul.  I believe the Holy Spirit is still working on us and sometimes even through us.  I thank God for continuing to send us prophets like Martin Luther King Jr., and I pray that we have ears to hear the prophets of our day.  I trust that each new day is an opportunity to learn and grow and be transformed.  I have hope that we will face our fears and dare to cause some trouble when we’re called to. 

 

As God said to Paul, “Keep up your courage!”  God calls us to testify and bear witness to God’s ever-expanding love.  

Summer Sermon Series: Acts 17:16-32

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What disgusts you? 

I remember when I was in 4th grade, some of the naughty boys hit a phase where they would spit all the time—sometimes even threaten to spit at innocent girl (though the threats were always empty).  I thought it was the most repulsive thing.  I don’t know why.  Even to this day, I’m still grossed out. 

We all have things that disgust us.  Whether it’s a food, or one of God’s less lovely creatures, or something else.  There are things that make us want to gag or tear our eyes out.  For the first humans, this enabled survival.  Disgust prevented them from eating or touching things that would harm them.  The down side to disgust, is sometimes we transfer it to people.  If we’re honest, there are people that trigger that disgust response in us.  The problems arise when we don’t use the rest of our brain to realize that disgust isn’t a loving response for a fellow human being. 

In our story today, Paul’s disgust response gets triggered to the max.  We find Paul in Athens this morning.  Athens proved a difficult place for this man who grew up as the most observant of Jews.  Back in Bible days, God’s people learned to be disgusted by idols.  Statues of other gods were abominations in Paul’s eyes. 

Just to clarify, most ancient people didn’t believe that the statues themselves were gods, but these statues represented other gods.  People often believed in each other’s gods.  They might have one god that they favored, but people generally believed that everyone else’s god existed.  As people came in contact with other cultures, they often tried on these other gods. If one god was good, more might be better.  Oftentimes if one group of people was conquered by another, it was believed that the conquers’ god defeated the god of the people who were conquered.  It was a whole different mindset that’s hard for us to imagine today. 

Throughout Israel’s history, they were tempted and often took on this ancient mindset and worshiped other gods along with YHWH.  So, Paul, having been the strictest of the strict Pharisees, learned to be repulsed by these statues of other gods.  Athens was full of them.  Athens was a great city of learning and deep thinkers.  At this point however, they were in decline.  They were kind of grasping at straws in the way they’d latch onto any new idea or theology.  Imagine all kinds of little pop-up alters to any and every god of the day.  I imagine they made Paul physically sick.  I wonder if preaching in Athens was even harder for Paul than all the times his teaching landed him in jail or beaten. 

And yet Paul somehow managed to curb his gag-reflex and use the rest of his brain to think through how to tell the story of Jesus in this land of idols. 

Even though Paul can’t help but be judgmental about these people, I give him credit for taking time to observe his surroundings.  Even though it pained him, he stopped to examine all those idols. 

Even though people seemed more interested in debating and arguing, he dared to enter conversations that may not lead anywhere.  Even though it would have been much easier to judge, Paul took the time to try to understand. 

Paul managed to find an alter to an “unknown god,” and he knew enough about Greek writings of the day so he could quote some well-fitting poetry to help tell this story of Jesus.  He met the Athenians where they were at, rather than demand that they smash all their idols and be like him.  Paul told the story of Jesus using their culture, and their images, and their language.  Sure, some of his judgement slipped in there, but he really worked to speak in a way that people could hear the message he had to share.  It didn’t work for everyone, but it worked for some. 

We might have different disgust triggers than Paul, but we still have them.  We have buttons that set us off, and people we wrinkle our noses at.  Too often we are quick to judge and slow to empathy, and we don’t always handle these situations as well as Paul did.  One of these situations haunts me to this day. 

When I was in college, I was part of a student-led Christian fellowship group.  We ran the full spectrum of denominations from mainline to evangelical, catholic to non-denominational, Baptist to Wisconsin synod.  My freshman year, it was pretty small.  My sophomore year, we grew.  We even started a praise band.  We started with a couple singers and guitars.  Then we added some drums.   We couldn’t ever manage to find a bass.  It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but it would have been nice. 

About half way through the year, one of my music major friends heard that we needed a bass player.  He happened to play bass and said he’d be willing to help us out.  The only problem was he wasn’t part of the group.  I saw it as an opportunity for outreach.  Music can be a great way to reach people.  Music touches our souls in ways words just can’t.  If my friend had a positive experience with the group, who knew what might happen?  

The leadership team I was part of was suspicious of him.  They didn’t know what he believed.  They weren't sure about his character.  They weren’t sure he was fit to lead the praise music.  Our different backgrounds and perspectives finally collided.  I and another leader reluctantly let the other leaders talk us into inviting him to have a conversation with us. 

The “conversation” quickly turned into debate and then into interrogation.  My fellow leaders were unwilling to meet my friend where he was at, and instead demanded he believe in exactly the way they did.  No doubts.  No questions.  Only unwavering faith would be accepted.  My friend walked out and slammed the door.  I left that meeting and wept.  Had I been a braver soul, I might have left that group out of protest, but I felt the need to persist with that group.  We did not meet my friend where he was at.  We did not take the time to understand his point of view.  Personal preferences got in the way of the gospel. 

 There are countless ways people discover that force beyond ourselves in whom “we live and move and have our being.”  We have no idea how the Holy Spirit is at work in others.  We can never fully know what another person has gone through, or where they are coming from. 

 

We do know that we have a God who meets us where we are at.  Literally, God came down in human form to meet us where we were at.  Jesus went to where people were, and he went to all the people—rich, poor, sick, well, men, women, young, old, foreigners, enemies… you name it.  And he simply did things like heal them, and eat with them, and love them.  He took time to see them, and know them, and care.  And this is what we are called to do with all people—even the people that we disagree with, even the people who might disgust us.  We are called to love others as Jesus loved us.  

Summer Sermon Series: Acts 16:7-15

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Many of you heard my story on Easter about how I struggled with my call at first because I didn’t know any female pastors.  I knew that in the ELCA, women could be pastors, but I had never seen one in action.  It felt like uncharted territory in some way. 

When I was on internship, struggled a bit with how to be myself in the role of pastor.  I had questions about how to balance the call to be a pastor with the call to also be a mom.  I wondered how to deal with people who didn’t take me as seriously (often in subconscious ways) because of my gender.  My internship supervisor in all his wisdom recognized his limits, and that for some of these questions, I would need a female colleague.  He set me up with his seminary classmate, M.  I’m so grateful he did. 

M. was part of that first generation of female clergy in our denomination.  As I got to know her and hear her story, I began to realize that just because a vote was passed, it didn’t mean it was immediately accepted.  I was often stunned.  Like how one professor didn’t like that there were women at the seminary, so he refused to give her an internship site without lots of protesting on her part.  I admired her courage and resilience.  I will always be grateful for these women who paved the way.  Traditions often keep us entrenched—even if the Spirit is pushing the church in another direction. 

What does it take for the church to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead? 

I love the story of Lydia.  Not only because it’s a story about a strong female who held a position of leadership, but also because we get to see how the Holy Spirit works with our misguided opinions.

A lot has happened since we left Paul in Lystra last week, in chapter 14.  The head church council in Jerusalem decided to listen to some disgruntled folks, and they revisited the whole circumcision issue.  Just because the church discussed the issue once didn’t mean the decision was immediately accepted.  Paul went back to be part of the meetings where they rehashed everything, and they came to the same conclusion that it would be cruel to make adult males undergo that painful ritual in order to follow Jesus.  Certain traditions were necessary for following the way of Jesus, and other traditions (like circumcision) were not as important or even harmful for the spread of the gospel. 

Then Paul and Barnabas had a big fight and went separate ways.  Jesus might have given us the ministry of reconciliation, but I guess even Paul couldn’t always live it out.  Even the greatest disciples aren’t immune to personality conflicts.  Paul took his friend Silas with him instead. 

As Paul went on to revisit and strengthen the congregations he started, he became a mentor to a young disciple named Timothy, and Timothy joined them on their journeys.  An important part of ministry is training new leaders. 

For the most part, Paul was one of those disciples who was pretty good at discernment.  He clearly had his less-than-stellar moments, but after God transformed Paul’s heart, Paul was pretty open to whatever God called him to do.  That call took Paul all over the Roman Empire.  In those places where people were receptive to his story, Paul did a good job starting up new churches. 

But the Roman Empire was big, so sometimes, the question was, where to go next? 

Even Paul got a few things wrong once in a while. 

Paul was all ready to hop a ship to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go.  I feel like there’s more of a story behind that sentence.  Why Bithynia?  What was there?  Did Paul have some subconscious desire to go East or relax on the coast of the Black Sea?  How prepared was he to go?  Did he have to cancel reservations or lose money on deposits?  How did he draw the conclusion to go to Bithynia? 

And I have just as many questions of how he was able to hear that Spirit of Jesus say a big, loud “No!” to his plans.  How did Paul know?  Was it a big loud voice in his head?  Or maybe an “aha” moment in the midst of quiet prayer time?  Was Paul disappointed?  Did Paul wrestle with this redirection?  These are all questions I wrestle with when I’m trying to discern something. 

 

Whatever prompted Paul to follow the Spirit’s redirection, I have even more questions about what happened next.  Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading with him for help.  This vision got the location right.  But the vision had the gender all wrong.  Was it because Paul could not in his wildest imagination picture a woman with enough authority to ask for his help?  Was it because talking to a woman without a man present would have been breaking the rules, and Paul wasn’t ready to break those rules?  Was it Paul’s vision that was limited?  Or was the Spirit simply working with Paul’s limited vision to get him to go to the right place? 

In any case, the Spirit was leading Paul to go in a new direction.  The Holy Spirit had been busy with a woman named Lydia.  She was a Gentile who worshiped God.  She also happened to be head of her household and ran her own business—a well-to-do business at that.  Purple cloth was expensive.  Lydia was ready to hear the message about Jesus.  All she needed was the messenger.  So, with some extra effort on the Spirit’s part, God sent Paul to be that messenger.  

So far, the Spirit was leading the church to cross all kinds of traditional barriers.  Language barriers, cultural barriers, religious barriers.  In this story, the Spirit was leading Paul to cross that male-female barrier.  Men and women weren’t supposed to talk to each other unless they were married or related.  And yet, there was Lydia, the “man” in Paul’s vision. 

She was there that Sabbath evening to worship God, and she was ready for Paul’s message.  Thankfully, Paul was willing to push aside that can’t-talk-to-women rule for the sake of the gospel.

 I still don’t have one definitive answer for what it takes for the church to follow the Spirit’s lead.  Discernment is more of a process rather than cut-and-dry set of rules.  It takes time and practice to be in tune with God. 

 

I will say, that the Spirit often leads the church to change directions, or break with certain traditions—just like with Paul and his journey to Lydia.  And those changes of direction and breaks with tradition can often be confusing and messy, like with women’s ordination.  And yet the Spirit presses on, breaking our barriers and opening up new paths for even more people to connect to God’s love for the world.  

Summer Sermon Series: Acts 14:8-20

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How many of you have ever read a news article or a blog on-line? 

How many of you have ever made the mistake of reading the comments?

For those of you who have never had the pleasure of reading comments on-line, suffice it to say, comments usually make me think the worst of humanity.  To be fair, some comments sincerely attempt dialog or simply affirm the article.  But most of the time, I wonder if people actually read the article they are commenting on.  People say mean and vicious things.  People bicker back and forth.  People clearly don’t take time to consider what other people have to say, and remain entrenched in their opinion.  And some comments are just plain off the wall. 

Writers pour their heart and soul into writing something, but once they post an article, it’s out of their hands.  They have little control over how people interpret what they say, or what people take out of context, or the internet trolls who just want to be contrary about everything. 

But this has been a problem long before blogs and the internet.  We can have control over what we say and do.  We don’t have control over how our words and actions will be received. 

Our story from Acts this morning is case in point…

 

At this point in the story, Paul and Barnabas have started to travel all over the Roman Empire to tell people the story of Jesus.  Most of the time, Paul and Barnabas found the local Synagogue, and started there.  People there already knew the stories about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who delivered the Hebrew people out of slavery.  They knew the writings of the prophets who exhorted people to turn back to God.  They knew about God’s justice and mercy and plans for Shalom.  They knew the teachings and traditions that Jesus came out of.  It was a good starting point to talk about Jesus.  Some people in the Synagogues embraced Jesus as Messiah, and others understandably found the idea too far-fetched.  Regardless of how people reacted to this story however, they usually understood what Paul and Barnabas said. 

When they arrived at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas needed to change their strategy.  There was no synagogue in Lystra, so they started teaching and preaching to the people who were there.  And, continuing with Jesus’ ministry of healing, Paul somehow channeled Jesus’ power to help a man walk for the first time.  (channeling that power is the topic for another sermon some day).  Paul and Barnabas were just doing what Jesus’ mission called them to do.  Compassion and healing are needed everywhere.  This healing quickly turned complicated when the crowds interpreted the act to mean that Paul and Barnabas were Greek Gods. 

 

Lystra was unfamiliar with the (Hebrew) God.  The people had no reference point to understand who Paul and Barnabas were.  They interpreted the healing in terms of what they knew, and I’m sure the language barrier didn’t help matters.  Paul and Barnabas were only trying to do gospel work, but chaos ensued.  They did the work of God, but they had no control over how it would be interpreted.  

The reaction quickly turned from high praise to an angry mob.  Gossip must have traveled just as quickly back then, because some Jews from a neighboring town came over to set the people straight.  Unfortunately, we often fight hardest with the people closest to us.  The days of the early church were also the beginnings of a painful and messy divorce between Jesus-followers and Judaism.  The book of Acts obviously favors the actions of Paul and points out all the bad things his enemies did.  Paul’s message angered some Jewish brothers and sisters so much that they tried to kill him.  But this messy divorce brought out some deplorable behavior from our Christian forefathers and foremothers throughout the generations too.  We have a calling to love our neighbors and tell the story of Jesus, but we never know how people will take it.  We only have control over how we respond to people’s reactions. 

Our current context is becoming more and more like the context of the early church.  Increasing numbers of people have little to no background knowledge of the story of the Bible.  The Pew research center has come out with lots of religious data in the last few years.  They have lots of interesting articles on-line (just don’t read the comments!)  The “nones” is the fastest growing religious category in our country, especially with younger generations.  While a majority of the people in the U. S. still identify as some category of Christian, nearly ¼ of adults are either “nothing in particular,” agnostic, or atheist, a.k.a. the “nones.”  Around 1/3 of millennials fall into this category.  This isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different.  It means that we will have a few more experiences like Paul and Barnabas in Lystra and might need to change how we tell the story to people who have little to no background knowledge.  It means that when we do the work of loving our neighbors, our actions might get interpreted in all kinds of ways.  It means conversations with questions we’ve never thought to ask, and our old answers that won’t work the same way anymore.  It means that evangelism can no longer rely on the old Lutheran methods of immigration and procreation.  It’s an opportunity and a challenge. 

I remember experiencing this once in college.  I took a class on World Religions, and I loved learning about some of the different religions.  I found it helpful to have a background in one religion so I could compare it to others.  I liked to look for common ground, and the differences fascinated me. 

 

 

I had a classmate who struggled in the class though.  While I had plenty of classmates who struggled with religion classes because their Christian background made them defensive against other religious ideas, this case was completely different.  I started to tutor this classmate a bit, and discovered that he needed help with more than just writing papers.  He struggled to understand the basic principles of the religions themselves.  As I tried to explain something once, I stated to compare it with something from Christianity.  He had no clue what I was talking about.  I learned that he had grown up without any religious tradition.  He didn’t have the same reference points as I did.  What worked for me to learn about other religions, wouldn’t work for him.  I had to explain things differently, and even then, I wasn’t always successful. 

And just like the early church, we have plenty of painful and messy conflicts that bring out the worst instead of the best of religions.  Like the joke someone told at a recent cottage meeting, there was a man who was rescued from a desert island.  When rescuers came, they discovered that the man built 3 huts during his time there.  When they asked him about them, he told them that one of the shelters he used for his house, and the other one was where he went to church.  When they asked him about the third one, he replied with disgust, “oh, that’s where I used to go to church.”  We’ll even fight with ourselves when it comes to faith. 

 

So what’s a disciple to do?  As we strive to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world and love our neighbors, chances are lots of people won’t understand what we’re doing, and other people will want to fight with us about it.  As we share the love of Jesus and the story about our faith, we have no control over how people will react.  And yet, God still calls us in our baptism.  God calls us to love God and love our neighbors.  God calls us to do God’s work share the gospel.  God calls us despite of the challenges.  So, let your light so shine before others, so that just maybe, they see your good works and give glory to God.  

Summer Sermon Series: Acts 11:1-18

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We’ve been reading through the story of Acts this summer.  We’ve heard how the church started out scared and unsure of what to do without Jesus, and then went onto being pushed by the Spirit to go out and grow.  In the beginning, everything was new and exciting and everyone got along.  As the church grew, new leaders arose to step up and do even more exciting things to start spreading the story about Jesus beyond Judea.  We’ve seen how the Holy Spirit keeps pushing boundaries to radically include more, and more people. 

As we’ve gone through these first chapters, some disagreements have started to crop up.  Mostly just little ones up until this point.  Like the whole dispute over which group of widows was getting more food at the church potlucks. 

Today, we get the big dispute—the point where the Spirit has pushed too far.  It took 11 chapters, but we’ve finally gotten to the point where even the head leader gets criticized.  In today’s reading, Peter himself is on the hot seat.  Only instead of enduring the scrutiny of the chief priests like in the early chapters, this time Peter suffers condemnation from his fellow Jesus-followers. 

What was his crime?  Let’s rewind a little and take a look. 

Back in chapter 9 verse 31, we read “Meanwhile, the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.  Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers….” 

So at this point, the church has been very successful.  It has grown and spread to all the territories that surround Jerusalem and Judea.  Peter had the job to go “here and there among all the believers.”  He traveled to the different cities encouraging and healing and visiting all the churches.  People respected and appreciated him. 

But then, one fateful day, Peter stopped to pray.  Let me tell you, prayer can be dangerous.  When we really open ourselves up to God, the Holy Spirit never seems to waste the opportunity to do something big.  Peter was just praying like a good disciple should, and all of a sudden, he fell into a sort of trance.  God forced him to see a vision that was very uncomfortable for him.  There was a big sheet lowered down with a huge picnic of all the foods forbidden to him.  All the things that he had been taught were unclean.  All the things that Jewish people never ate.  All the things that he had learned to mistrust and consider repulsive.  God sent all these things down in a vision and told Peter to eat them. 

It’s hard for us to imagine how shocking this would have been for Peter.  This goes even farther than eating foods we don’t like, or eating foods on the restricted list of whatever diet we might be on.  This was a matter of his very identity.  Eating these kinds of foods would be a betrayal to his people, and would feel like a betrayal to God. 

And yet, God persisted and sent down this vision not one, but 3 times.  Peter protested each time. 

He couldn’t go against these traditions.  He couldn’t go against everything he had been taught was right. 

The Holy Spirit worked extra hard in this story.  At the same time as she sent these visions to a very reluctant Peter, the Spirit also came to a Gentile man named Cornelius.  This man was a centurion, a person of power, a person who wasn’t Jewish.  And yet, the story says that Cornelius feared God, and prayed, and gave alms generously.  He seemed like the perfect candidate to hear the story about Jesus.  He was already living like a Jesus-follower, except he didn’t know about Jesus yet.  And, he wasn’t Jewish—which meant he didn’t follow all the Jewish traditions. 

God sent an angel to tell Cornelius to send for Peter, and where to find him.  Unlike Peter, Cornelius immediately responded.  He sent two of his servants and a trusted soldier to find Peter and bring Peter back to his house. 

Just as Peter woke from these disturbing visions, the Spirit told him that 3 men were searching for him.  She told Peter to go to them “without hesitation.”  God orchestrated this coming together of Peter, the leader of the Jesus-followers, and this Roman Centurion.  The Spirit worked hard to prepare Peter for this meeting. 

When Peter met Cornelius and heard his story, Peter responded by saying “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”  He then told everyone there his story about Jesus.  And then, the Holy Spirit showed up again and filled the room.  All these non-Jewish people received the Holy Spirit just as all the other Jewish followers of Jesus.  So, Peter baptized all of them and stayed with them for several days—which meant he ate with them.  He ate all those foods he was never supposed to eat. 

This story is almost more about the conversion of Peter than about the conversion of Cornelius.  The outsider already believed in God in the best way he knew how.  It was Peter than needed a change of heart.  He learned that sometimes and experience of God trumps tradition and religious teaching. 

Peter was put on trial for this conversion.  Being leader of the church didn’t give him immunity from criticism.  He had to tell his story about his experience of God.  In our reading this morning, the Jewish followers accepted Peter’s story and celebrated.  As we read further in Acts in the coming weeks, we’ll see that this is one of those meetings where the decision gets re-visited out in the parking lot and comes back into debate in future meetings.  We don’t always like to accept what God is doing.  We don’t always like to see what God is up to. 

How might the Spirit be calling us to convert?  In what ways could God be calling us to change our hearts?  Who do we fear?  Or who do we see as “unclean”?  Who do we keep out or avoid?  How is God at work extending a radical welcome to someone we prefer to shut out?  How do we dare to enter those choppy waters where our experience with God might be trumping a tradition or religious teaching? 

For us as Christians today, our issue isn’t so much food.  But we do struggle with people outside our religious tradition, just like those first followers of Jesus did.  I believe God is still at work, breaking down barriers.  The Spirit still strive to change the hearts of Jesus-followers. 

I want to share with you a story I came across in the Washington Post last week Saturday.  I saw God at work breaking barriers and changing hearts in this story.  The article was entitled “Love Thy Neighbor?” by Stephanie McCrummen.  The journalist told the story of how a Muslim doctor, Ayaz Virji, moved to a small farming town in western Minnesota three years ago.  He and his wife looked forward to all that small-town life had to offer.  The town welcomed this new doctor and his family.  They made friends and settled in. 

After this past presidential election, however, things changed.  This town was in a county that overwhelmingly voted for Trump, and even if people may have voted for him for other reasons, all the anti-Muslim talk about things like Muslim registries and shutting down Mosques made this family legitimately afraid.  They “noticed more silence from certain friends,” and wondered what people secretly thought of them.  They seriously considered moving, but decided to stay. 

At this point is where I see the Holy Spirit at work.  A Lutheran pastor in training approached this doctor and asked him to give a talk about Islam to the community.  She was horrified by some of the things she was hearing people say.  The doctor hesitated at first, but he accepted pastor Mandy’s request.  It went well enough, that he was willing to take another request for a community talk in a neighboring town.  This one didn’t go so well and ended with “several men calling him the antichrist.”  By the time a third request for a talk came in, friends were offering him things like a bullet proof vest, police security at the talk, and generally begging him not to do it.  Dr. Ayaz Virji did the talk anyway.  Pastor Mandy was there to introduce him, and Dr. Virji gave a very moving talk.  People responded positively, including one man who said, “I hear a lot of pain from you this evening…um, I’m sorry.”  People were respectful and truly heard what he had to say.  They applauded him at the end. 

 Jesus calls his followers to love their neighbors—even the neighbors who are different from us (like in the story of the Good Samaritan).  It sounds so simple, but sometimes it’s hard for us.  Throughout the centuries, Christians have struggled to show kindness toward people who were different.  And throughout the centuries, the Spirit has been at work changing hearts and converting us, just like with Peter back in the beginning days of the church. 

 

 

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/in-a-midwestern-town-that-went-for-trump-a-muslim-doctor-tries-to-understand-his-neighbors/2017/07/01/0ada50c4-5c48-11e7-9fc6-c7ef4bc58d13_story.html?utm_term=.278b312e0edf

Summer Sermon Series: Acts 9:1-10

Full Text: 

“Hate what is evil…”

As we’ve been reading Romans 12 at our cottage meetings, this phrase raises questions for at least one person at every meeting we’ve had so far.  It’s jarring to hear the word hate in the Bible.  It doesn’t mesh with our version of what we believe we’re supposed to do as Christians.  It raises questions of what is evil, and who gets to decide what is evil.  Is it really ever okay to hate?  What did Paul actually mean?  And what do we do with this questionable little phrase he wrote?  There have been so many good and thought-provoking questions coming out of these Bible studies! 

Today, we get the story of Paul (who’s Hebrew name was Saul), and while I don’t know if his story will give us all the answers, his story does help us wrestle a little more with these questions. 

So, some of you might remember when we read the story in the first chapter of Acts where Peter decided to call a special congregational meeting to fill Judas’ vacant council position.  They read some scripture and said a prayer and decided on Matthias. 

And then the Holy Spirit came through and the church started to do all kinds of crazy stuff, like speak in different languages, and share their story about Jesus, and share their wealth, and work together.  As the church grew, the Spirit raised up all kinds of new leaders besides Matthias and the original 12.  Last week we heard about Philip who became a super disciple who crossed all kinds of boundaries to share the story of Jesus and baptize people he never thought he would baptize.  There was Stephen who started out waiting on tables and making sure the widows each had their fair share of the potluck food, and ended up doing all kinds of great deeds and gave all kinds of sermons that eventually got him killed by the established religious leaders.  Today we get the most surprising and important leader of all—Paul. 

Paul was there and smiled when Stephen got stoned to death.  I get the impression he was top of his class in Pharisee school.  He followed all the rules.  He was smart.  He could out discuss anyone.  He was well-connected and respected as a religious teacher.  He was even a Roman citizen—a status few Hebrew people obtained.  And he was driven and passionate about what he did.  He believed that all the Jesus mumbo jumbo was a threat to his religion and his Country, and he was willing to go to great lengths to protect both.  It looked like he viewed this new way of Jesus as an evil to hate. 

Jesus was a criminal of the Roman state, and crucifixion was a death penalty reserved for the worst of the worst.  The claim that Jesus came back from the dead was not only outlandish, it defied the Roman Empire.  Not to mention all of Jesus’ wrong interpretations of Jewish teachings—like forgiving enemies instead of an eye for an eye.  Saul, the Hebrew Pharisee, had a long list of bones to pick with Jesus’ contrary teachings. 

So Paul breathed threats of murder against the disciples of Jesus and wanted to make sure that this movement didn’t spread outside of Jerusalem.  He got special permission from the High Priest (who was at this point in history more of an appointee of the Roman Empire than of God), to go to the synagogues in Damascus and throw any followers of Jesus into jail. 

I imagine Paul was so sure he was right.  I imagine he believed this was his duty to protect God and his country.  I imagine he had no doubt that this violence was totally justified.  I imagine Paul was acting out of a very passionate faith. 

“Hate what is evil…”

This can be a dangerous phrase. 

When we care so deeply about things like our faith, or our country, or traditions, or any of the big things that shape our lives, it’s easy to get defensive and want to protect these things.  It’s easy to rationalize our actions, and justify our hate.   

What evil are we called to hate?  How do we know? 

Well, the way Acts tells the story, Paul gets the advantage of a literally blinding light and big booming voice of Jesus from on high.  Jesus asks him a piercing question.  “why do you persecute me?” 

 

It turned out that hating what is evil isn’t supposed involve persecution.  Hating what is evil doesn’t justify violence.  Hating what is evil doesn’t mean hurting others.  Hating what is evil doesn’t involve fear, or defensiveness.  It turned out that Paul was wrong about what he thought was evil.  We dare not hate what is evil until we confront any evil lurking inside us first. 

Paul’s conversion isn’t so much about accepting Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.  It isn’t about reciting the creed or passing some test.  His conversion isn’t about accepting a correct doctrine. 

Paul’s conversion is more about a change of heart and a whole new way of looking at the world. 

Paul started following this Way of Jesus that meant things like humbling oneself and accepting grace, rather than trying to prove oneself or live in fear of not being enough. 

It was a Way of living out one’s faith by practicing compassion and forgiveness and generosity, rather than judgement and punishment. 

It was a Way of welcoming and embracing others, rather than defending God by excluding or keeping certain people out. 

Following Jesus was a whole new way of life, which is why the early church was known as “people who belonged to the Way.”  There really isn’t a whole lot of room for hate in this different way of life. 

 

We all too easily judge Saul, the strict Pharisee who persecuted Jesus’ followers.  And yet, we are not immune to being defensive of our faith, or our country, or our traditions.  Especially on these patriotic weekends where we get really excited about our country and traditions, and all too easily treat them with religious zeal.  There are lots of great things about our country, and I love the ideals of democracy like freedom and equality.  There are countless inspirational stories about our history.  And we’re just downright lucky to live in this country. 

And yet we haven’t been immune from persecuting others.  Our history with slavery and our treatment of Native Americans is atrocious.  We have often mislabeled people as evil.  We wrongfully imprisoned Japanese-Americans during World War II.  And this just scratches the surface.  There doesn’t seem to be any vaccine to prevent the diseases of hate and persecution—even here. 

When I look at our country today, I still see us acting in misguided ways like Paul did.  There is so much hate and division and fear.  Persecution persists.  We continue to exclude and judge.  People still prove themselves by putting others down.  I hate it.  I really want to blame a bunch of other people, and I hate when I’m forced to admit the ways I contribute to it. 

Hate what is evil…

 

The story in Genesis tells us that humanity’s downfall was eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  I think we know what is evil.  I think our downfall is our ability to rationalize what is evil.  Paul rationalized his persecution of Jesus followers, and we are just as capable of similar rationalizations. 

Perhaps there is evil for us to hate, but I don’t think we get to do any hating without first confronting the evil lurking in our own hearts.  I don’t think we get to hate anything without first practicing this Way of Jesus that leads us to acts of compassion, and forgiveness, and radical welcome, and grace.  I don’t think we get to hate anything until we see that practicing any kind of persecution or violence wounds God. 

I believe God hates what is evil.  I think God hates it when we hurt each other.  I think God hates things like oppression and persecution and terror and violence.  I think God hates to see people excluded or starving or homeless or hurting.  But rather than reacting with retaliation, I believe this hate breaks God’s heart. 

 

I see God’s broken heart most clearly on the cross, where Jesus chose to be broken rather than retaliate, where he fought evil with compassion, and he ultimately declared forgiveness rather than linger in judgement.  This is the Way of Jesus that Paul, and we, are called to follow.  

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