Book Review: Everything is Spiritual by Rob Bell

“My Grandma kept cash in her bra.” What a way to start out a book on spirituality!

Rob Bell is at it again with another soul searching book that encourages the reader to look inside themselves and see the spirit within them. He writes of quarks and molecules and all things that make up our very beings. His work reads like the reader is listening to him think aloud for all to hear. Yet, there is something intriguing about this that encourages one to continue reading. At times you wonder where he is going and then you all of a sudden end up at a point you would have never expected.

Bell makes many leaders in the church uncomfortable as he addresses many of the topics that we as pastors are afraid to discuss in our own congregations. The interconnectedness that he writes about in all of creation is the very essence of spirituality.

He shares the journey from his time growing up to starting his own mega church, which he despises that term, to his current life in Los Angeles. The journey that God has led him on has shaped who he is and the Rob Bell that interacts with the reader in Everything is Spiritual.

Stop and think about the title for a moment. Everything is Spiritual. That is an incredible thought that plays out in a quick reading book of 300 pages. If you know Rob Bell books, it is not like your 300 page novel or typical memoir. It is written in though strands with no chapters. I leave you with this observation by Bell to contemplate:

We’re made of thingness,

we have life,

we have minds,

and also we have

souls.

As soul is real,

just as real as your skin and bones.

The mind thinks,

the soul knows.

Going Upriver

November 22, 2020

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

There is a story of a town named Downriver. Some of you may have heard of this town. It was quaint and the people living there were very pleasant. They knew the happenings of their town and they enjoyed working together. There was no time more important where they needed to work together then when they discovered a body in the river struggling against the current to keep their head above water. Working together, they found a way to help the individual out of the raging waters.

       The next day, they discovered another body struggling in the water and since they devised a plan the day prior, it didn’t take them nearly as long to get the individual out of the water. This became a constant for the town of Downriver as they continued to rescue people from the river. We are now talking about several people a day that were in need of being rescued. This went on for years and it became such a common occurrence they were no longer surprised by those that were struggling against the raging water.

       The question was asked on occasion as to what was happening in the town of Upriver where the town of Downriver was having to rescue people from the raging waters. While the question was asked, there was so much to do that no one ever fully investigated. They accepted that there were people in the raging waters needing to be rescued.

       Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “There comes a point when we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

       This morning I would like to turn our attention to the Hebrew scriptures and the lesson from Ezekiel. For hundreds of years, the people of Israel had been struggling with their kings. No one could match the prowess and leadership of King David. He was a great warrior and grew the empire of Israel. It would be continued by his son Solomon, but eventually Israel would struggle and lose their importance; being conquered by Babylon and sent into exile. Israel would experience kings that cared little for the people and were more enticed by the power and riches that came with being king.

If we read chapter 34 of Ezekiel in its entirety, we receive the background of our lectionary lesson, as well as the promise God makes to the people of Israel.

       Ezekiel uses the familiar image of the shepherd. It was common for the king at the time to be referred to as a shepherd because of his responsibility to oversee the kingdom. The image of the shepherd was political. No wonder the authorities in Jesus’ time knew they had to deal with him swiftly so that he would not upend their political system. Ezekiel is called to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, because they have been feeding themselves and not caring for the sheep. They would be the goats which Jesus refers to in the gospel lesson this morning.

       The shepherds of Israel have left the people in despair as they find themselves in exile, separated from a land that they have called home for centuries. The shepherds have fed themselves and have become fat and strong while the people of Israel have been weakened. They have counted the riches of the flock, such as the mutton and the wool, while giving no heed to the needs of the flock. The shepherds have not cared for the people of Israel as they should. As this has happened, the people have failed to look to the cause of their desperation, the immoral and unethical conduct of the shepherds. They have failed to look upriver to see what is causing their demise.

       The same can happen to humanity in any time and place. Whenever one’s personal needs are above the needs of the community an imbalance results where care and justice are not given equal measure. The Reign of God calls us to a place where we serve those in need and our needs are cared for as well. It is this Reign of God that Ezekiel reveals to us in his prophesy. It is the same Reign of God that Jesus promises to us in our gospel lesson.

       Ezekiel comes bearing a promise in the oracle he shares. Ezekiel reminds the people of Israel who God is. A God that will seek the lost sheep and return them to the flock. A God who will bring them back into a community from far scattered places.

A God who will feed them with good pasture and they will be comforted in being able to lie down in that pasture and take rest.

       God reveals a love of God’s very creation in the relationship with the people of Israel. It is also a relationship that embodies justice. It is the same justice and care kept in balance which we see reflected in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

       This Sunday we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday to recognize Jesus as the ruler over all creation. This is our bridge from one church year to the next as we prepare for the coming of Advent and wait to celebrate the birth of the newborn Christ. It is today that we honor Jesus Christ as Lord, or shepherd, over all creation. As we rejoice in Christ’s Reign, we are invited to partake in the Reign of Christ here and now.

       Jesus invites us to go upriver to care for and seek justice for those that are struggling and in need. Those that are fragmented and broken need to know that they are loved and cared for by a loving God. We go upriver to find out why people hunger and thirst. We go upriver to sit with those hurting and in emotional distress. We go upriver to ensure that no one else falls in and struggles against the raging waters of an unforgiving river. We go upriver because Jesus has come to us to let us know that we too are loved and what God reveals to Ezekiel also rings true for us,  “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God.”  

Being Entrusted

November 15, 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

           Who among you remember having class pets when you were in school? Perhaps your class had fish, a rodent of some type, or maybe a reptile. What happened to those pets over breaks? Quite often it was an honor to be able to bring the class pet home and care for it during this time. My older brother earned such an honor when he was in middle school. He was in the sixth of seventh grade I believe, and his class pets consisted of a pair of hamsters. How awesome it was going to be to add these pets to our home for a couple of weeks. They would be an addition to our home that already consisted of a couple of dogs and cats. One lesson we learned out of this experience was that cats and hamsters do not get along that well! While attempting to put one of the hamsters in its ball to run around, it managed to squirm out of my brother’s hands and one of the cats decided to reenact a Tom & Jerry cartoon. However, we’ll just say that the hamster was not as lucky as Jerry!

           Being entrusted with something valuable to someone else is an honor. It means they have placed faith in you to care for something that is close to them or the community. Such as a class pet. The parable that Jesus shares this morning, known as the Parable of the Talents, is part of a collection of parables he shares in this chapter which leave us scratching our head as we try to decipher Jesus’ words. If you recall the parable from last week, The Ten Bridesmaids, it was about being prepared and waiting, yet it ends in darkness as does this week’s parable. These parables are at times tough to listen to because the resolution does not fit into our concept of who God is. A God full of grace and mercy and not one that sends us into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

           Who do we find ourselves relating to in the Parable of the Talents? Are we like the first two servants that have been entrusted with a lot and have managed to double their investment to please the master? Are we like the third servant that buries the talent received to ensure that none of it was squandered? It was the third servant that was living out the rabbinic maxim of the day, which was to bury your money as a way of protecting it. Honestly, I would like to know a little more. When the master hands over the talents, we hear of no instruction to invest it. Were the servants given more instructions than we heard? Were the servants just expected to safeguard the money, or was it a gift from the master?

           If it was a gift, we are talking about a lot of money. One talent is roughly equal to 6000 denarius which equates to 15 years’ worth of income! This was a lot of money that the master was entrusting to his servants. Remember, Jesus likes to make his parables outrageous enough to ensure that his listeners are truly listening to his teaching; getting them to think. It is also pointing to the abundance of grace and mercy God has for humanity.    

           What if we were to look at the talents as one’s ability. Jesus says that the master gave to each according to their ability. The master knew what all three of the servants were capable of doing.  In his trust, he expected the servants to care for the riches he had charged them. However, it is the third servant who questions his motive. According to the rabbinic maxim, he was being faithful. However, if we look at one’s ability, we could ask whether he was living up to his full calling.

           We have all been gifted with various abilities and skills and have also learned some along the way through education and experience. I do not know about you, but I am glad that most professionals are required to participate in continuing education. They are not allowed to just sit on the knowledge and skills that they have. They are required to further their knowledge and keep up to date on new skills. I am glad that health professionals are always in the process of learning and growing. I am glad teachers are always learning new and exciting ways to interact and teach our children. I am glad my pilot on my last flight was required to participate in continuing education to ensure their skills and knowledge were up to date. A musician, while not usually required to do continuing education, must practice and continue to take lessons if they want to get better.

           As a pastor I am required to complete 50 hours of continuing education every year. While the stories in the bible do not change, there are always new interpretations. More significantly it is important that I learn more about relationships and other areas that affect my ministry. Currently, I am participating in a sermon mentorship program because I want to improve my preaching.

           It is easy to just sit back and do nothing at times. Especially when we are asked to limit our movements and quarantine. It is easy to flip on the television or scroll through your social media, and by the time you know it, several hours have cruised by. Not that I speak by experience! In a way, this is what the third servant accomplished! He buried his abilities and just sat!

I believe one thing Jesus is teaching us in this parable is to not bury those abilities we have been gifted, but to reveal them to help others. It is in our continual growth that we come to know ourselves and who we are as children of God. Each person has a different set of abilities and God has entrusted us to use them to care for one another and share love in ways that create strong communities in Christ. Communities that reflect the love of God. We are called to grow in our faith and knowledge of God through the abilities we have received.

           While the first two servants managed to double what their master had given them, the third turned away from the risk. Sometimes we need to “Sin Boldly” as Martin Luther said, so that we can grow and accomplish what at times seems impossible. We do this by stepping into the uncomfortable. We do this by reading and seeking to grow ourselves. We do this by praying for strength and perseverance. God entrusts us to grow, and as we do, we come to know ourselves better and open our beings to experience God in our lives. While our teachers may have entrusted us with the class pet, God entrusts us with creation and the ability to care for and love our neighbors. What good news it is!

To fulfill your curiosity about the hamster situation, it was deemed a good idea to replace the hamster with one that looked remarkably similar. However, there was just one little anatomical difference. Needless to say, my brother was like one of the first two servants that had doubled the amount he was entrusted.

Waiting & Preparing

November 8, 2020

Matthew 25:1-13

Now, I don’t know about you and your family, but we learned fairly quickly when our children were young, to not tell them of any upcoming plans because the waiting was excruciating for them and we would get tired of the same questions, “is it time now?” or “how much longer?” We can always point to something that we are waiting for in life. We wait in line at the store. We wait to have our car repaired. We await being accepted into a college we want to attend. We wait and wonder when this pandemic is going to be over. We awaited the outcome of a presidential election that has magnified the divisiveness of our nation. We wait for our dreams to come true. I am sure you can imagine at least a dozen other things you are currently or have recently waited for.

            In Matthew’s gospel, we hear the familiar parable of the ten bridesmaids that are awaiting the bridegroom. They were not told when the bridegroom would appear and thus half of them prepared for an extended wait and the other half were left in the dark! Now, we could argue that the first half were not very Christ like in sharing their oil. We could also say that the unprepared half should have known better. When we start arguing about the specifics, about who is good or bad, smart or foolish, we do not find ourselves far from the arguments we see today in our politics. Regardless of for whom we voted, it is important to realize that we are not in this alone and the presence of God is with us in our waiting and in preparing for whatever may come. However, we are often unprepared for what may come next in life. Who, other than some of the scientists, would have predicted that our world would be upended by a pandemic this year?

            One reason for Jesus sharing this parable is the issue of preparedness. Yes, one group of the bridesmaids were thinking ahead and had brought an extra flask of oil. The other group had just enough in their lamps, and it sounds like they probably went out shortly before the bridegroom arrived. Being caught short is not a great feeling and they have to run off to see if there is a merchant open at such a late hour. I am sure there was a 24/7 oil dealer then! Most likely, probably not. They thought of this at the last minute, when they could have checked in when they all arrived to ensure that everyone was prepared.

We can look at the oil as a metaphor. What is it that we need when we expect Jesus to come anytime? A lamp with oil? I do not believe that is a necessity. The oil that keeps our light going is our faith! Our faith helps shine a light to guide us and even for others to see as we wait for the time to come. The five bridesmaids that ran out of oil could have had a lack of faith that the bridegroom was ever going to show. In their waiting they all became drowsy and fell asleep. We can recall this happening in the garden when Jesus was praying shortly before his arrest. The three disciples that were with him got tired and fell asleep. They were not prepared for what was going to happen next.

            When we find ourselves waiting, we get frustrated and bored. No wonder they fell asleep, right? It is not easy to wait because we want to be able to have answers right away. It is easy to get antsy in the waiting and try to force things to happen when we would have been better off if we were to wait and let the circumstance play itself out. We have become accustom to immediate gratification and waiting seems like cruel and unusual punishment! In the wise words of Tom Petty, in response to wondering when and if his dreams would come true, he sung:

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

            Jesus is calling his disciples to be alert and awake in this parable. He wants us present to experience what is happening in our family and community. He wants us present, because he is present to guide our path and help shine a light for us to see where his Word may be guiding us next. The one thing of note in our parable is that the bridesmaids were not alone. Yes, some of them may have been stingy and others unprepared, but they were not alone. They were gathered together in a small community awaiting the coming of the bridegroom. Whatever it is that we are awaiting, we do not have to do it alone. Whether, awaiting the news of a scholarship, the outcome of the latest CT scan, or waiting and wondering when struggles or suffering are going to be over, we can surround ourselves with friends, family, and community.

            The same goes for awaiting the official outcome of a national election. I can guarantee you that there are members of this congregation that are happy with the projected outcome and there are members that are upset. It would be the same if the projected outcome were reversed. Yet, the important thing to remember is that we are a community. We are a family that supports one another through times of struggles and times of joy. In our waiting, we are encouraged to prepare.

What does this look like for the church? First, it is important to remember that regardless of who serves as president the next four years, we turn to Christ as our Lord and Savior, and Christ alone. Second, let us be reminded that we are all gathered as community through the waters of baptism where we were marked with the cross of Christ. In those waters, we are united, and nothing can separate us from the truth that we are siblings regardless if we agree on every issue or not. Third, in the waiting, some of the most important work is done. It gives us the opportunity to look inside ourselves and grow our relationship with God. We can only imagine what the disciples were doing in that upper room following Jesus’ death on the cross. I am sure there was a lot of prayer and self-examination taking place. Finally, we are called to live out the Word of God, especially from Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

Wherever you find yourselves in this time of waiting, remember that you are not waiting alone. You are surrounded and loved by a community in Christ. You are surrounded by the cloud of witnesses that have died and gone on to eternal life. And no matter what comes of our waiting, we are still united in a community that is called to share the Good News of our Lord, Jesus Christ, through caring for one another with respect and love.

The Saint’s Good Trouble

November 1, 2020 All Saints Sunday

Matthew 5:1-12

This morning we remember not only the saints that have gone before us, we also remember the saints among us. Saints that have caused Good Trouble and saints that have left many questions. As baptized believers in Jesus Christ, we are all saints following the Way, called to serve and live out the Good News. When we hear the opening words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes as they are known, it is easy to become weary. We become weary because we have a long way to go to receive those blessings. We become weary because our circumstances do not fall in line with the blessings Jesus promises. We become weary because we do not know where to turn next. Amid our current uncertainty with the pandemic, racial tension in the country, and a national election, it is easy to become weary. It is easy to fall into self-isolation amid all of the unsettling news and therefore the weariness feels multiplied.  We are not the first to encounter this weariness in life. All Saints Day is a reminder amid the weariness of watching the news and a weariness we heap upon ourselves, our ancestors have trod this road before and with all the saints gathered, we are not alone.

Now, one of my projects this summer became exploring my family tree. I began to dig deeper specifically into the history of the saints who had gone before me. I was shocked when part of my findings took me to cemeteries in Allenton and Romeo. Finding the headstones of your family can be an exhilarating experience. It is like solving a puzzle. The stories behind those names on the headstones are just as meaningful. As I traced one branch of the tree back to fifteenth century Bavaria Germany (which I did not realize I had that much German in me), I discovered my 14th Great-Grandfather was Jacob Luther. The same Jacob Luther whose father was Hans and whose brother was Martin. Yes, that Martin! This incredible discovery left me in awe.

It can be powerful knowing your ancestors and the saints that have gone before. Some of you may have similar stories of finding ancestors. There are things our ancestors have done which we do not like to bring to light. I will admit that having that link to Martin Luther is pretty amazing and empowering at the same time. For not growing up in the church and now being a Lutheran pastor, you have to think the Spirit was at work. In my own weariness and not knowing where to turn next, I can think of my ancestor Martin Luther and his steadfast faith and willingness to say, “Here I Stand.” In those words, Martin Luther stood firm in his faith and spoke boldly the Word of Christ. Like Jesus, he was far from favored by the leaders of the church. Martin Luther liked to, in the words of the late Senator John Lewis, cause Good Trouble.

As Revelation reminds us this morning, we will gather as a multitude of nations encompassing all people when we fully experience the kindom of God. We are shaped by our history, and while you may or may not have notable people in your ancestry, you still have a story to share. Honestly, I don’t believe it matters who your 14th Great-Grandfather is, because we are all children of God. Yes, it is cool to stake the claim of certain people in your family tree. There is someone that has a larger claim on us. God has staked a claim on us in our baptisms and it is in the waters we are marked. We are all siblings in the kindom, and it is there where our brokenness is made whole.

In the saints, we get glimpses of the blessing Jesus speaks of in the Beatitudes. We can name various leaders throughout the centuries, from Martin Luther to John Lewis, who spoke and stood up for their believes, empowered by their faith. We need these leaders who caused “Good Trouble.” It is a Good Trouble that is upside down from the practices of a society so devoted to itself. Martin Luther raised Good Trouble when he addressed the corruption in the church and raised concerns over the dissemination of the Word of God. Thus, translating the Bible into German so the everyday person had the opportunity to read it and live God’s Word.

John Lewis, one of the many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, coined the term Good Trouble. It is Good Trouble that we find ourselves in when we begin following and believing in the Beatitudes of Jesus. It is Good Trouble that speaks up for those that are oppressed and are not being heard themselves. It is Good Trouble that pulls us up and out of our own brokenness to be made whole in the love found in Jesus Christ.  

So, what would it mean if we started to bless people as Jesus blesses us this morning as we hear his word? These blessings are not conditions Jesus is setting up for the future. They are blessings in the very moment. The very moment the words roll off Jesus’ tongue for the disciples circled around him and the crowd gathered on the hillside to hear his words of hope in midst of the desperation of an empire that has held them in check for too long. They are blessings for us today. Causing Good Trouble means walking with our neighbors in the midst of their hunger and thirst. Causing Good Trouble means speaking up for those that are oppressed. Causing Good Trouble means attempting to make the broken whole.

Who likes to admit that they are broken and in need of help? Perhaps it is even the system that is broken and needs to be repaired or even replaced. Martin Luther sought to repair what he witnessed as broken and here we are today worshiping in the Lutheran Church. John Lewis with the other Civil Rights Leaders knew that the system needed to be fixed if they expected the voices of Black Americans to be heard.

And both, Martin Luther and John Lewis, were surrounded with the Saints to ensure them that they were not in their struggles alone. With the help of the Saints, they would cause Good Trouble.  A Good Trouble that allowed them to stand firm in their faith for what they believed in. Jesus for sure caused a lot of Good Trouble walking through the Israeli countryside. We are called to follow Jesus in the way of the cross, going as far as enduing our own suffering. We do so as we are gathered with all the saints. As we do so, where are we willing to cause Good Trouble?

What is Holding You in Slavery?

October 25, 2020

John 8:31-36

As Lutherans, one of the staples of our liturgy is the Confession and Forgiveness. While we practice individual confession and forgiveness, it is much more common to partake in the corporate confession and forgiveness when we gather as an assembly, either in-person or virtually as we have learned to do over the past several months.

As Lutherans, one of the staples of our liturgy is the Confession and Forgiveness. While we practice individual confession and forgiveness, it is much more common to partake in the corporate confession and forgiveness when we gather as an assembly, either in-person or virtually as we have learned to do over the past several months.

While the words of the confession and forgiveness may change over time, they point to the redeeming grace found in God; It evokes not only our sin, but the sin of the world and how we are, as humanity, not complete until we are redeemed in that grace and mercy. There is a comfort in reciting these words as they are combined with the forgiveness. A forgiveness we need to hear every week.

In the beginning of the confession we recited this morning, we acknowledged we “cannot free ourselves.” Reformation Sunday is a day for us to reflect on such things as we contemplate scripture and the writing of Martin Luther. The freedom found in Jesus Christ was a revelation for Luther and it became the foundation of his arguments against what he thought was wrong teaching by others in the church in the sixteenth century. Jesus Christ bears our burdens and, in this action, we are given the freedom of grace.

Yet, as Jesus speaks to those gathered in our gospel, there is still the notion of slavery. As Americans, the mention of slavery can bring up many thoughts and emotions as we contemplate its definition given our context and personal experiences. As a mostly homogenous group of white Americans, slavery is not going to bring about the same feelings as it does for our siblings of color. Slavery is still very much with us today and we are all held in it is some form or another.

It is easy to forget one’s past when it is not convenient to remember. This can be witnessed in the words of the Jews that are listening to Jesus when they say, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.” If I am recalling correctly, wasn’t there that time our Jewish ancestors were enslaved in Egypt? How about the time the Babylonians conquered Israel? It sounds like there may be some selective amnesia taking place here.

We are prone to the same. Given the scope of time, it was not that long ago that the Americas were under British rule. And while proudly stating that “We live in the land of the free,” that has not always been the case and one could argue there is still work to do. Our early ancestors on this continent took land from the Native Americans and enslaved and killed them; they enslaved African-Americans; and even our ancestors of different nationalities and faith traditions were looked down upon, such as Irish siblings and Roman Catholics. Today slavery occurs in the form of racism and many others ‘isms, and even more physically in human trafficking. These are just some of the sins that Jesus refers to and the ones we confess.

We also sin in our own thoughts on a daily basis, thus the need to continually return to confession and forgiveness. We can be slaves to our own thoughts. We can become fearful of making mistakes or even sinning (trying to focus on perfection). In these instances, we are held in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. In a familiar quote, Martin Luther writes

“If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says [2 Peter 3:13], we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells …. Pray boldly – you too are a mighty sinner.” (Luther’s Works, Vol 48, p. 281-282, boldface added)

We will be slaves to sin. Jesus reminds us that his presence frees us from forces around us that are vying for our attention and focus. Quite often, Jesus steers us in a different direction than society. Martin Luther was trying to re-steer the church back to the Word of Christ. The powers of both the 1st and 16th Century were focused on empire and control.  We live in a society in which power is what makes society move and it is the political capital of choice. In Jesus, we are freed from that. We are freed from the power grabbing and scheming. The only claim on us that we need to be concerned with is that we are children of God. A God who is gracious and merciful.

One commentator sums up Luther’s quote on sinning boldly in this manner, “Get off your butt and do something — even if it’s wrong. God can forgive it.” We cannot worry about perfection. For there was only one person that can claim that designation. Jesus knows that we are going to sin and fall short of the glory of God. Each of us are held captive by sin, and we are redeemed by the grace and mercy of God through Jesus’ love poured out for us on the cross.

Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints by Daneen Akers

Are you looking for a resource to introduce your children to some wonderful people that have made a difference in humanity? Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints is an incredible collection of saints that are familiar and not so familiar.

I was astounded by the vast array of Saints that Akers has included in this edition, and rumor has it that she is already working on volume 2. The book is quite inclusive and lifts up those that have fought for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community. You have your classics, such as Saint Francis included, and people from the past centuries including Fred Rogers and Rachel Held Evans.

This collection reveals that to have closer relationship with God and to carry out your calling in the world does not mean you have to fit a mold. I would recommend this to anyone that has struggled with the conservative views of the church. This book projects love!

Thanks to Speakeasy for the review copy.

Into the World

October 18, 2020

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

Twelve to Thirteen years ago each of our confirmands were baptized in the church and it was then their parents and sponsors accepted the baptismal promises. As parents, you promised

To live with them among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, and care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. (Service of Baptism, ELW)

It is in our baptisms that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. While I am sure that none of you remember your baptism, I pray that you remember God’s promise made to you that day. In your confirmation, you will affirm your faith and be welcomed as full members of this congregation.

Reading your faith statements, I know your faith has been challenged at times already. As you get older and have more life experiences, you will most likely encounter many more struggles with your faith. May we hear the words of Jesus and the Apostle Paul this morning as reassurance in our faith, we walk with the living God.

Jesus had his fair share of struggles and he held firm, even when trying to be trapped as he was in our gospel lesson. The Pharisees and Herodians wanted to get Jesus to implicate himself and make his followers question his motives. In his response, his answer takes the high ground and tells them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. The Pharisees and Herodians were amazed at this response and left without having justification to seize Jesus at that moment.

Our faith leads us to the belief that everything we have is a gift from God, therefore, what is not God’s? The Apostle Paul lives out this faith in his actions and it is his hope to imitate Christ so that the communities he teaches follow his example and ultimately Christ.

Thessalonica appears to be the model community to be following in Paul’s example and the words of Jesus. Now, Thessalonica was along the highway across Macedonia, linking Rome with the Eastern provinces. Therefore, Thessalonica would receive a variety of visitors with many different faith practices. The church that Paul writes to use to worship idols, most likely connect to the Roman Empire. There was a tension between the way of Jesus, lifting him up as the savior and providing the way of peace, versus the Pax Romana and the Emperors which were the supreme benefactors. It was a question of where you find your peace, in the Roman Empire or in God. That same question is still relevant today as we ask ourselves, where do we find our peace, in the promises of God, or in the promises of an empire.

The church of Thessalonica has chosen God. They have experienced the living God in Paul and it is in their imitation that they continue to grow and share in the gospel. His letter to them starts out like many of his other letters, by giving thanks to them. Their faith, love, and hope has been fostered by their work, labor, and steadfastness. They have turned from the idols that once garnered their attention to Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is today in your Confirmation that you affirm your faith and can be an imitation of Christ for others to follow. Is it always going to be easy? NO

Jesus knows this and I think Paul knows this as well and thus one of his reasons to writing to the church in Thessalonica. He wants to affirm their faith and give them confidence to continue moving forward in the word of God powered by the Holy Spirit.

There are many roads that are competing for our attention. You will see this soon enough when you start receiving information from colleges that want you to attend. The claims on our faith can work in very much the same manner. You will have events in your life that challenge you. Each of you in your faith statement mentioned death as being the one thing that has challenged your faith thus far. You can succumb to peer pressure that will guide you down the wrong path. And it is easy at any time to slip into a sense of complacency. This pandemic has been a great example of it as we have had six months of worshipping differently and interacting differently with one another. We have to be intentional to stay in the Word of God. While you may have felt isolated, remember the living God is present among us and in us as we live out our faith.

You are now going to go out into the world as full members of this congregation, affirming your faith in the Triune God. You have been empowered through the Holy Spirit to share the good news. With that power, we are invited to imitate Christ by bringing love and beauty through the promise of healing and salvation. A healing and salvation that comes through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Who Are You Inviting?

October 11, 2020

Matthew 22:1-14

It was the summer of 2008 and my family and I had just moved to Columbus, Ohio so that I could start seminary. My first foray into the seminary world was going to be taking a seven-week intensive Biblical Greek course. Before that began, we wanted to get acquainted with our new community we were living and started to explore the area. We noticed that the Lutheran Church down the street from the seminary had a Vacation Bible School that was being held the following week. My son was excited about this and wanted to attend.

Therefore, the week I started my summer Greek class, I walked him down to the church in the morning to get him registered for VBS and my plan was to pick him up after my class was done for the day. When we arrived, there were a lot of people, and as he was a kindergartner, we were instructed to go to a designated area of the church. Once we arrived there and they found out that we had not pre-registered, we were turned away because they were full.

WHAT A WELCOME!

This was not the reception I was expecting. I was left feeling frustrated. He was upset that they would not let him attend. How could a church be so unwelcome? On top of that, a church in the denomination I had been hoping to be ordained as a pastor.  I vowed from that point that I would never let something like that happen in a church that I pastored.

This morning we heard the third parable in Jesus’ response to the chief priests and elders as to whose authority he is performing the miracles they have heard about and even witnessed themselves. This parable of the wedding feast seems just as absurd as last week’s as the tenants kept killing the landowner’s servants. In the parable of the wedding feast, people are killed or kicked out when they do not meet the expectations of the king. Where is God’s grace in this?

We have all been in a place where we have not felt welcomed or it has been clearly pointed out to us that we are in the wrong place. Maybe, we never received the invitation, or it got lost in the mail. Perhaps you can even think of times when you have done this to other people. Usually not some of our prouder moments. We find that we are more comfortable when we stay in our cliques where we know what to expect. When people do not look like us, we fail to invite them. This reflects our human brokenness and tendency to be afraid of those things that we do not understand.

I was proud of my last congregation as they made difficult decisions to become an ally of the LGBTQ community. It required transformation and a change of heart for some. I thought we were all good and put “All Are Welcome” on our church sign. It was not until we had a gentleman from India show up for worship that I realized the congregation still had some transformation to partake. His skin was brown, and his English was difficult to understand at times. Therefore, people found comfort in having coffee at their tables and not inviting him to join. It took a couple stepping out of their comfort zone to ask him to sit down and even invite him to our weekly bible study.

When we say, “All Are Welcome,” do we truly mean it? Do we withhold our judgements of others? Do we keep an open mind?

When I read the parable of the wedding feast, I hear an open invitation for all. Yes, those that think they are too busy or would rather do this or that, refuse the invitation. One man that does say yes to the invitation is found not wearing the proper wedding attire and is thrown out into the darkness.

A lot of times, we read these parables as allegory where God usually takes place as the king. If that is the case, it is hard to justify following this God. The king does not seem to have little grace and love in him. Jesus wants us to wrestle with his parables so that we can begin to understand our own thoughts and actions. Remember, these parables are not true stories, they are used to make a point. It is in the conclusion that Jesus states “many are called, but few are chosen.”

I believe that we are all called to join Jesus at the feast, and we are given the opportunity to receive the invitation with an open heart and mind. Not only that, God invites us to put on the wedding garment which can represent the righteousness of a life lived in Christ.

I am not sure if we were judged when we tried to go to the VBS because they didn’t know us, but I know that it did not feel welcoming. The truth is that judgement happens every day. More often than not, it is us doing the judging. I believe that what God judges us on is the love and kindness we share with humanity. I am fine by being judged by the gospel of love which invites all to the wedding feast. I desire to sit at the table with the good and the bad, the old and the young, people of every color and people of every language. For I believe that those are the best dinner parties. Who are you inviting?

What is Your Cornerstone?

October 4, 2020

Matthew 21:33-46

What texts to be given as we return to worship in the sanctuary for the first time since March. The last time that we were gathered in this Sanctuary, we were in the middle of Lent and since then we have said goodbye to winter, spring, and now summer. For me, these seasons have blended together as it has been a very odd time, with the end still not in sight.

The one thing that I could count on with the changing of the seasons, was the return of the yardwork that needed to be accomplished around the parsonage. I would love to say that I am one with the earth when it comes to enjoying this type of work, however, I would have to repent of my lie. My in-laws live in a condo association and all their yardwork is completed by a hired company. Now, this is my type of yardwork. Simply put, I do not have the patience and would rather be working on other tasks. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll do the work, because it needs to be done, but it is not something I roll out of bed thinking about in the morning with joy. Gardening is a similar story. Give me a tomato plant in a pot, and that is more my speed.

We have two lessons today that speak of vineyards that require attention. First, in the text from Isaiah, we hear of a farmer that plants a field hoping to produce a bounty of grapes. Yet, his efforts have little to show for when the grapes turn out to be wild. This is a metaphor for the people of Israel as God had already sent several people to set them straight and they still yielded wild grapes. God continued to stand by the people, loving them and speaking through many prophets so that God’s Word would be heard.

Again, in our gospel lesson, Jesus shares another parable, also having to do with a vineyard. This is the second of three parables that Jesus uses to address the question of, “Whose authority is he doing these things?” The Chief Priests and elders are threatened by Jesus healing those that are sick and preaching a gospel of love and inclusion. This is an upsetting parable, resulting in the Son being killed.

This is a story of selfishness and greed. When the tenants think that they can do better on their own they block the landowner out and either kickout or kill anyone that is associated with the landowner.

Does the story of the son sound familiar to you? Jesus is making his way to the cross and knows that he too will suffer and die a death in the most unimaginable way. Yet, it is in his death and ultimately in his resurrection that we begin our own story. They think that they know better and that all the fruit they are producing is theirs to keep.

Ultimately, what both stories are attempting to address is a refusal to embrace accountability and an arrogant disregard for divine authority. The Israelites and the temple authorities have each turned away from God and placed something else as their cornerstone. They regard their own selfish ambitions as more important. This is sin. Sin is not simply an action, but also an attitude of selfishness that rises above everything else. We fail to learn from these stories of our ancestors and have fallen to the same sins ourselves. At times, the fruit that we produce can be wild grapes and at other times an abundant harvest. Fortunately, for us, the grace of God is also abundant with patience.

Thus, Jesus is the starting point. Jesus is the starting point where we tend the vineyard and learn how to produce good fruit. We are each gifted with our own unique talents and gifts to produce those fruits. They are not our fruits. They are God’s fruits to be given back and shared. It is when we begin to allow the selfishness to overtake us that bad fruits start creeping in.

While I do not look forward to the yardwork that must be done, I have learned to appreciate the patience that is required to maintain it. The patience that is shown by the grace of God as God keeps sending prophets and ultimately the Son to reveal to us what the Reign of God will look like. It is a promise revealed to us in the love poured out on a cross.

It is in God’s promise that the story continues. God builds up what is torn down. In doing so, Jesus becomes the cornerstone of our foundation. As Christians, it is in Jesus we begin, and what all creation is built upon. Fortunately, God has much more patience than I do when it comes to tending the vineyard.

As we examine our own lives and the life of our community, what have we placed as the cornerstone? Have we let our personal motives interject in the way of Christ, or have we started with Jesus and let his good news be our cornerstone? A good news that we are called to share to produce the fruits of the kingdom.