It’s Not All About You

September 14, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-02/Pentecost 14
Text: Gen 12.1-9; Mt 28.19-20

What is a blessing? Usually when we talk about being blessed, we are talking about good things that have happened to us. When we feel blessed, it is because something has gone our way or somebody has done something for us. Blessings are good things, things that make our lives better, and which we are glad to have happen to us.

When the Bible talks about being blessed by God, it is always a good thing. However, we have this tendency to think that God’s blessings are about us. We are blessed because God wants us to be happy or because we have done something to earn God’s favor. This is what what Joel Osteen’s wife, Victoria, has to say about being blessed:

 

 

I don’t know about you, but that is the biggest load of bunk I have ever heard. This is not what a blessing is. The purpose of God’s existence is not to make us happy. There is real danger with believing that blessings are divine rewards or that God’s deepest joy is making us happy. Everything is fine when life is good and things are going your way, but what happens when the chips are down, when life hands you lemons? If you believe that God’s blessings are only evident in your happiness and prosperity, then you must necessarily believe the corollary: that when you are suffering, when you are lonely, when you are struggling with great need, that God is either punishing you or does not care about you.

 

Is this what blessing looks like to you?

Is this what blessing looks like to you?

 

The fact is that sometimes God’s blessings don’t even look like blessings. That’s because God’s blessings are not just about making us happy. Take Abram and Sarai for example. God promised them a land and a nation that would be peopled with their descendants. At the time God made this promise, they were elderly and had no children. When they left everything they had to come to the land God had promised them, the land was so starved by famine that they couldn’t even live there, and had to live as foreigners in Egypt.

God didn’t bless Abram and Sarai to make them happy or wealthy or to earn their love. God blessed Abram and Sarai in order to bless the world. Remember that last week, we read about the Flood, about how God was so disgusted and heartbroken about the problem of evil and violence in the world that God decided to wipe everything out and start over. When the waters had receded—and sin remained—God made a promise with Noah to never again destroy the world and all the life it supports. God made a decision not to fight violence with violence, but with promise.

So, God makes a promise to Abram and Sarai with the same intent as when God opened the floodgates of creation to drown the world and start over: God’s purpose here is to overcome death with life. God blessed Abram and Sarai so that through them, God’s promise would be spread to all people of all nations: “I will bless you… to be a blessing… in you all families of the earth shall be blessed.”

If we believe, like Victoria Osteen, that God’s blessings are about our happiness and our well-being, then we start thinking that we have been blessed because we are special, that God must love us more than everyone else: we must be better than all those dirty Gentiles, loved more than all those filthy sinners. We start to look down our noses at the world around us and shake our head at how everything seems to be going to hell in a hand basket around us, and we do nothing about it except to condemn the lax morals of all those “heathens.”

The fact is that God blesses us not for us, but for the whole world. God’s goal is nothing short of the salvation of the universe. When God flooded the world, God’s intent was to save the world from the festering sin that had corrupted God’s good creation. God’s promise to Abram has the same purpose; but now instead of attempting to destroy sin, now God is working to counteract it. Paul writes in Romans that, through Christ, we have been “grafted on” to the promise which God made to Abram. The Church is the embodiment of God’s promise through Abram to overcome sin, violence and chaos with love, faithfulness and order. Jesus is the next Flood; not a flood of water to destroy life, but a flood of grace to give life and give it abundantly.

This is God’s purpose—God’s mission—in the world: we are blessed to be a blessing. The Church of Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s mission. Sadly, to often we forget this. We have lost our sense of mission; and a church without a mission is like fire without a flame—it doesn’t make any sense! If a church is not living out God’s mission in the world, then it isn’t a church, it’s a social club. A church takes the gospel of Jesus Christ and puts it into action outside its walls; a social club does nothing more than serve ethnic food and wear traditional clothing and celebrate common heritage and traditions, maybe with a little community service on the side.

Now, here is the other danger of believing that God’s blessings are about our happiness: it’s too easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that God only blesses those of us who believe the right things, or are good enough, or attend worship enough, or who try hard enough. We attribute our good fortune to how much we must be pleasing God, and that means that everybody who is suffering is obviously not doing enough to earn God’s favor. Ultimately, we must face the hard truth that we are no better. We do not deserve God’s blessing any more than the crackheads or murderers or crooked bankers that we hear about on the news. Then we start to despair: When we have failed God so completely, when we have betrayed our very reason for existing, how could God ever bless us?

If you continue reading the story of Abram and Sarai, you know that they weren’t shining examples of humanity either. Yes, when God said “get up and go,” they got up and went, and that showed great faith. However, along the way, they both showed a striking lack of faith. Abram offers his wife Sarai in marriage to other men in order to protect himself not once, but twice. Sarai mistrusts God’s promise so much that she told Abram to get an heir from her servant Hagar, and later when she was consumed with jealousy, Sarai ordered Abram to cast both Hagar and her son out into the wilderness, leaving them to die. They surely didn’t deserve God’s blessing, but they got it.

In the end, we must always remember that God’s blessing is not given as a reward or as a bribe to do good things. God’s blessing is given out of love—love not only for us, but for the world. The reason God gives the blessing is so that we will do God’s mission in the world, but the blessing is not contingent upon how well we do the work God has given us. We see this in Jesus Christ, the man who suffered and died to be a blessing for us. His death is proof that God doesn’t bless us for our own well-being, otherwise the perfectly-obedient Jesus would have lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully in bed. Instead, God’s blessings are about overcoming the power of sin in the whole world, about making God’s creation a place of abundant life and peace which passes all understanding.

We are always thinking that we have to “do” something: that we have to earn God’s love, or be worthy of it, or believe something specific. In truth, God’s blessing is beyond us: it will accomplish God’s mission through us, or in spite of us. Abram and Sarai never saw the fruition of God’s promise, save through the birth of their son, Isaac; and yet, through Abram and Sarai, the whole world has been blessed with the laws of Moses, with the leadership of David, with the words of the prophets, and with the life of Jesus Christ. Along the way, God’s chosen people at times helped God’s mission, and at times they hindered it, but God’s blessing has endured all the same.

Victoria Osteen has one thing right: doing good is its own reward, but not because God’s greatest joy is our happiness. We love and serve God because we trust that, as the creator of the universe, God’s greatest joy comes in saving all life and all creation from sin and death, and we believe that God has offered us the opportunity to be a part of that work. We are people born of the world; we are killed—drowned—in the waters of baptism; and we are raised to new life in Christ Jesus, the firstborn of the dead. We have been blessed with God’s love and grace so that we might be a blessing to the world.

 

Why Doesn’t God Do Something?

September 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Proper NL 1-01/Pentecost 13
Text: Gen 6.11-22, 9.8-17; Mt 8.24-27

As I read this story for today, I remember a conversation I had with a woman about her grandson. The woman was a member of the congregation I served in Wisconsin, and she was distraught that her grandson had lost his faith in God. His own father had died suddenly, and the young man reasoned that a loving, all-powerful God would never let that happen. So, God must not exist; or if God did exist, then any God who would not or could not save his father’s life was not a God who deserved his worship.

Why does God allow evil in the world? We read in the Genesis that the world God created, God called “good;” but this world is so often not good. It is filled with violence, with pain, and with suffering. The bible tells us that God is loving, that the evil that persists in the world grieves God’s heart, so God must not have the power to stop evil. However, the bible also tells us that God reigns over all creation, that every power in heaven and earth is subject to God’s rule, so God must not care about the problems we face. So which is it? Is God unwilling or unable to deal with the problem of evil in the world?

The story of Noah is the bible’s way of asking the same question. Knowing that God created the world good, but that so much evil persists, where is God’s place in all this? The story really begins back in the garden of Eden. After God created the man and the woman, God gave them explicit instructions. One instruction, actually: don’t eat from this one tree. As we know, that is exactly what they did. So, in the garden, God tried to keep evil in check by giving people laws, but this was not enough.

Now, 10 generations after Adam and Eve, the world is filled with wicked people. God’s good creation is corrupt, festering with the evil and violence with which humankind has filled it. God’s heart is grieved at this corruption, and God regrets ever making the world to begin with; so, God decides to unmake it. The waters from which God called forth the dry land at the beginning God now sends to cover everything again.

However, God is not willing to condemn all life on earth for the sins of humanity. God finds the one righteous person left and tasks him with protecting the animals of the land and the birds of the air that God has created. For this, God promises, Noah and his family will be spared.

Sadly even this re-creation of the world is not enough to rid it of evil and violence. Nevertheless, after the flood, God expands the covenant God has made with Noah. “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.” (Gen 8.21)

In spite of the fact that God knows that the human heart is corrupt, even in the most righteous of humanity, God promises to never again destroy the world, because God loves what God has created. Even when that creation distresses God and destroys the harmony and order which God designed, God wishes for the earth and the life which it supports to flourish. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God tells Noah and his family, just as God first said to Adam and Eve in the garden.

The story of Noah and the Flood teaches us that evil is too persistent to simply be “blotted out.” This is not a story of “good guys” and “bad guys,” of who has a ticket on the ark and who does not. Even though all the “wicked” people were destroyed in the flood, evil lived on through Noah, the one man who was “blameless in God’s sight.” If we read this story and say, “I would have been on the ark because I’m a good person,” we miss the point; we let ourselves off the hook. This is a story meant to remind us that all of us carry within us the same evil that exiled Adam and Eve from the garden, the same violence that caused God to send the flood. Evil, pain and suffering persist in this world because we carry them within us, not because God is powerless or apathetic to our condition. If God so chose, God could wipe all evil from the earth; but this is precisely what God has promised us never to do again, and the rainbow is a sign of that promise.

In spite of such hopelessness, this story is one of hope. It marks a turning point in our understanding of God. The story of the flood teaches us that our God is not a God who overcomes evil with force or authority. Our God overcomes evil with promise. We see this theme throughout the book of Genesis. In spite of God’s warning that they would die if they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, God spared Adam and Eve from death in the garden. Through the flood, God saved Noah and his family and promised them never again to destroy all life.

In the coming weeks, we will read the story of God’s promise to Abram and Sarai to give them numberless descendants and a land of their own. We will read that when God’s people suffered under slavery in Egypt, God promised to deliver them. We will read of the promise God makes with Israel and with David to establish a king over God’s people. And at the hill of Calvary, when humanity once again rises up in rebellion against God, we will see the promise of God’s love conquering human sin once and for all.

Our God is a God of promise, of covenant. It is through God’s many covenants with us that we are saved, because God’s covenants can never be broken. One such covenant upon which we rely is the covenant God establishes with us in baptism; to purify us as God purified the world through the flood, and to save us from our sin, just as Noah and his wife and children were saved.

Covenant is also how God is at work in a world wracked by violence and festering with injustice. In order to ensure the safety and continued survival of all God’s creatures, in the garden, God gave dominion over all the animals of the land, the air and the sea to humanity. At the flood, it was humans charged with gathering and protecting God’s creatures. Just as in Eden and on the ark, God has given us the task of protecting God’s planet, along with the life on it. God has promised to bless and protect the life which God has created, and we are agents of that promise.

It is our God-given responsibility to stand against violence, to defend against injustice, to help God’s creation be fruitful and multiply; it is part of God’s covenant with us, laid on us at our baptism—a promise which we affirm at our confirmation—is to “strive for peace and justice in all the earth,” peace and justice not just for the people of God’s world, but for “all flesh.”

When we look around and see the sad state of the world and wonder what God is doing about it, you need look no further than the mirror. For the work of saving creation from the forces of death and sin, God has claimed us through baptism and called us through the Church. We have been freed from sin and death, freed for service to our neighbor, for stewardship of God’s creation.

You see what a fine job we’re doing of it now, but that is precisely why we have gathered here this morning. That is precisely why we have organized this congregation and why we educate our children at Sunday School and why we gather regularly to eat the Lord’s supper; because we are corrupt and carry within us the sin which pollute the earth; without God’s help, we will fail. It is through the waters of the baptismal flood that God daily washes away that corruption and saves us from death to follow God’s son in the work of renewing creation and announcing God’s love.

Why does God allow evil and suffering to exist? Because if God were to end it, we wouldn’t be here. God’s answer to evil and death is abundant life, life which we are given in baptism. Through our baptism, we are called to be instrumental in the the saving work of God in the world. We are living proof that God is not idle.

Creation, Disruption, Reconciliation

August 31, 2014 1 comment

Delivered at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Pentecost 12, NL Year 1.
Text: Gen 3.1-13, 21-24; Mt 1.19-21

When I was a kid visiting my grandma, one of the things I always really enjoyed was going down into her basement and finding the tin full of dominoes. I’d spend hours setting them up in intricate patterns on the concrete floor and then watching them fall in beautiful sequence. Occasionally, I’d bump one or set one on a piece of grit and it would fall, sometimes destroying 10 or 15 minutes of labor. Sometimes, I would think all my work ruined, but the chain reaction would stop at some unseen break in the line, and I had the chance to fix my mistake before completing my design. I faced these setbacks with stoicism, and kept working on completing my pattern.

What I could not, abide, however, was when my little sister or my younger cousins, who had no appreciation whatsoever for the time and precision it took to set up hundreds of dominos in these delicate arrangements would come downstairs and want to “help.” They’d start messing with my lines or playing with the dominoes in the middle, and when they got tired of me yelling at them to stop, they’d use up my domino stock by making their own designs or using them to actually play dominoes, and I would have to condense my grand layout.

As we read this story of Adam and Eve in the garden, I imagine how deeply disappointed God must have been when all of God’s plans for creation were suddenly disrupted. We read in the opening chapters of Genesis how beautifully and intricately God designs and constructs the wonders of creation. After all creation is complete, God creates humankind to oversee everything that God has done, to be God’s representatives or lieutenants, having responsibility for everything that belongs to God. Then, almost as soon as God turns God’s back, they muck up the beautiful order which God has brought forth from chaos. Like a busy little cousin, Adam and Eve are not content to admire and observe God’s creation, they must try to “help;” and in so doing, God’s beautiful work is deformed by sin.

Typically, we read this story with the understanding that the sin committed here by the garden-dwellers is the sin of disobedience, and that they are tempted to do it by Satan, disguised as a serpent. Hence, sin is really the result of Satan’s interfering with God’s plan, and we humans are simply pawns in a cosmic game of chess. However, the bible never says this. All we really know is that the serpent, like the man and the woman, was created by God and called “good,” and it, too,  dwelt in the garden. There’s actually a pun that doesn’t come across in English. Genesis describes the serpent as “crafty;” in Hebrew, “crafty” is spelled exactly the same as “naked,” the word used to describe Adam and Eve. To be “crafty” is neither good nor bad, just like to be naked is neither good nor bad; it just is.

This is not a story of Satan’s destruction of God’s plan; it is a story of the temptation humans face every day and how it is we who warp and twist God’s designs. God had given Adam and Eve responsibility for the garden and all that was in it, including the serpent. Perhaps they felt that they could better serve God’s design by eating from the tree, so that they, too, could be like God, knowing good from evil and they could better take care of God’s creation.

Whether it is my little sister trying to help me with the dominoes, or Adam and Eve trying to help in the garden, or any one of us trying to find our own way through the complexities of life, we want to choose for ourselves between what is helpful and harmful, what is right and wrong, what is good and what is evil. Unfortunately, knowing the difference between good and evil is not the same as being able to choose wisely between them. Our trouble is that since we are not like God and this is not our world, we will inevitably choose evil at least some of the time. Without knowing what my plan was, my sister could not set up the dominoes in a way that would fit into the final design.

So, whether for their own benefit or for God’s, the humans took the fruit and ate. Though Eve was the first to take and eat, we are told that her husband Adam was with her the whole time and said nothing. He is as much at fault as she. This story does not explain the “origin” of sin, but rather the mystery of it. The seeds of doubt and disobedience were already in the hearts of the serpent, the man and the woman, even in the midst of God’s good creation at the beginning. All three were created good, and with doubt, but it was the conscious choice to act contrary to God’s command that caused evil to enter the world.

After they had eaten, they made primitive clothes for themselves and hid. Now we see how deep was the damage done to God’s design. If the man and the woman hid out of fear, it was because in realizing what they had done, they suddenly felt unworthy of being in God’s presence. Instead of knowing God’s love, they feared God’s judgement. It was not so much the nakedness of their bodies they wished to hide, but the nakedness of their selves, the fact that they had no merit or obedience with which to clothe themselves before God; and yet, God seeks them out.

When God learns what they have done, God does not punish them. God does pronounce a curse on them, which we omitted in our reading today, telling how childbirth would be painful and the land would need to be tilled in order to grow food; but this curse is not God’s judgement on them, it is God’s description of what their disobedience has cost them. The curse describes what they have done to themselves by rejecting God’s established order. They have tipped the first domino, and now God is describing to them how the rest of line has begun to fall.

Even in the midst of this curse there is still hope. God had previously told them that the day they ate of the tree, they would die, and yet they do not. Perhaps, even in their disobedience, God intervenes in order to protect them from the full weight of the consequences of their actions. God must cast them out of the garden, but before God does, God gives them better clothes. Even here, we see the consequences of Adam and Eve’s disobedience: their clothes are made of animal skins. Adam and Eve did not die, but some other animals did because they ate from the tree. The humans themselves, though, have been saved, spared by God.

The story of scripture which we will share together in the coming year is the story of God’s salvation, promised to us through people like Noah and Abraham, Moses and Joshua, Elisha and Micah and Isaiah, and finally in the embodiment of God’s salvation. In God’s mercy, in God’s eternal work to save us from our sins and to reconcile us with our creator, a child has been born: a human child whose very name in Hebrew means “salvation”; the Son of God, sent to live among the disobedient children of Adam and Eve.

This child has come not only to bring us forgiveness, but to help us learn and live the will of God. It is through him, through our baptism into his death and through the meal in which he strengthens us with his own flesh and blood that we are transformed. The old Adam or the old Eve within each of us is daily put to death, and daily we rise to new life with Christ.

This is God’s way not only of saving our lives, but of restoring creation, of teaching us the pattern which God is devising, and inviting us to add our own dominoes to the line in a way that will benefit all creation. Unlike Adam and Eve, who used their God-given gift of free will to undermine God’s authority, through Jesus, God empowers us to use our God-given gifts to reinforce God’s will, to bring about the kingdom of Heaven on earth.

When Adam and Eve left the garden, God went with them. God is still with us, even today, through Jesus. His body and blood feed us, his resurrection sustains us. He really is God-with-us; and in him, God is transforming the Church, and through the Church, God is transforming the world.

For the last several weeks, we have talked about the sacraments. I found this poem today about baptism, written by Brian McLaren, a Christian pastor and author, that I would like to share with you. The question asked in this poem is a question to all Christians everywhere. What does your baptism mean to you?

“Please de-baptize me,” she said.
The priest’s face crumpled.
“My parents tell me you did it,” she said.
“But I was not consulted. So
Now, undo it.”
The priest’s eyes asked why.
“If it were just about belonging to
This religion and being forgiven,
Then I would stay. If it were just
About believing
This list of doctrines and upholding
This list of rituals,
I’d be OK. But
Your sermon Sunday made
It clear it’s
About more. More
Than I bargained for. So, please,
De-baptize me.”
The priest looked down, said
Nothing. She continued:
“You said baptism sends
Me into the
World to
Love enemies. I don’t. Nor
Do I plan to. You said it means
Being willing to stand
Against the flow. I like the flow.
You described it like rethinking
Everything, like joining a
Movement. But
I’m not rethinking or moving anywhere.
So un-baptize me. Please.”
The priest began to weep. Soon
Great sobs rose from his deepest heart.
He took off his glasses, blew his nose, took
Three tissues to dry his eyes.
“These are tears of joy,” he said.
“I think you
Are the first person who ever
Truly listened or understood.”
“So,” she said,
“Will you? Please?”

- Brian McLaren

In baptism, we are joined to Christ. We die with him, and we are raised to new life with him. Through baptism, we are given the work of adding our own dominos to the pattern, of bringing salvation to God’s people and mending the hurts of creation. Are you ready for that? Are you content to sit back and accept God’s forgiveness and perform the rituals, or will you join Christ in the work of completing creation? Are you prepared to help save God’s people from their sins?

Where Do We Go From Here?

August 24, 2014 2 comments

Sermon Series on the Sacraments #6
Texts: Acts 11.1-17; Mt 28.16-20

 

For the past several weeks, we’ve been discussing the role of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion as sacraments in the Church. We’ve talked about how God gives us the sacraments to make us holy—to set us apart for God’s work—and how God uses the sacraments to prepare and nourish us for this work. We are still left with one question: who should receive these sacraments, and when?

For example, in some Christian traditions, people are not baptized until they are old enough to decide for themselves to be baptized, while in other traditions, like ours, people are baptized as infants. Many Lutherans require children to wait to receive communion until they have first reached a certain age and had some instruction, while the Orthodox commune people as soon as they are baptized, even as infants. These are issues for which there is no clear guidance in scripture. We are left to figure out together how best to administer these sacraments in God’s name.

In order to be good stewards of God’s sacraments, we need to first figure out where the limits are. For example, baptism is done by washing a person with water. If you replace the water with maple syrup and the person with a pancake, you’ve got breakfast, not baptism. Communion is bread and wine combined with the Word of God; communion with Doritos and Mountain Dew combined with a football game is not communion, it’s a tailgate party. We need to have some sort of limits to help define the sacraments; the hard part is figuring out where those limits are.

Our story from Acts is a good example of the Church trying to figure out where the limits are on God’s sacraments. When the Church first began, baptism was only for Jews. As we read last week, Jesus commanded his disciples to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matt 10.6-7) Jesus was the Jewish messiah, sent from the Jewish God to save Jews; baptism, therefore, was only for Jewish people.

Then something happened. Simon Peter, as he was praying, saw a vision from God telling him “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Now, this was a big deal. God spends a lot of time giving the Jewish people laws about what was clean, and what was profane, or dirty. Now, all of a sudden, God seems to be making a U-turn regarding this very specific and important set of laws. It’s no wonder Peter is confused! At the moment the vision is gone, men from a Gentile named Cornelius come and invite Peter to come back with them. Peter went, and upon meeting Cornelius and his family, he shared the gospel with them and they received the Holy Spirit, so Peter baptized them.

It’s important to remember here that not only was baptism not meant for Gentiles, but Gentiles were considered profane—dirty. By baptizing them, Peter may very well have made baptism itself a profane thing, unfit for God’s people. If even Gentiles are being baptized, then what self-respecting Jew would want to be baptized like a dirty Gentile?

What Peter understood from his vision and from the voice of the Holy Spirit is that God was challenging him to open his mind to the greater work God was doing. God’s work is bigger than the line between Jews and Gentiles, and Peter eventually saw that. When he was criticized by his fellow believers for doing what he did, he shared with them what God had told him. Instead of being scandalized and appalled that God would ask them to include Gentiles in their community, Jesus’ followers realized that God grace was so great that it extended even to those who didn’t follow God’s laws.

While it is true that Jesus first his disciples only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” it is also true that after his resurrection, Jesus commanded his followers to “go make disciples of all nations.” That meant the Gentiles. One of the most wonderful things about the book of Acts is that we get to watch the early Church wrestle with giant, paradigm-altering decisions like whether to baptize Gentiles and whether Gentiles must first convert to Judaism and be circumcised before they can become part of the Church. Again and again, we see the first Christians coming up against the limits of their understanding of God’s grace, and when they do, they often see Jesus standing across the boundary from them. It is Jesus who challenges them to open their minds to the great things God is doing.

Always, the deciding factor in these decisions is what God wants the people to do; what will glorify God and make God’s love available to the people who need it. These decisions are made not by a few mavericks, but always by the whole Church through prayer and conversation. Even when Peter baptizes Cornelius and his household without permission, he comes back to the Church, and together the Church discerns God’s will as they decide together where to go from there.

These sorts of questions have continued through the ages. In Luther’s time, questions arose like whether priests could be married, and if the congregation should be allowed to receive the wine along with the bread at communion. More recently, God’s Church as wrestled with the questions of whether to ordain women as pastors and whether ordained homosexual clergy should remain celibate. There have always been faithful, well-intentioned people on both sides of these debates, and like Peter, they have shared with their fellow believers what they have heard God saying to them. Unfortunately, coming to a conclusion is seldom as quick and unanimous as this story in Acts, but over time, we trust God to guide the Church in the right direction.

Even now, the Lutheran Church in the midst of a new question. It is a question that we have been asking ourselves here at Shepherd of the Hills just recently: who is welcome and invited to receive Holy Communion in ELCA congregations? Traditionally, Holy Communion in the ELCA has been reserved only for those who have been baptized. However, the Church is now considering whether Holy Communion should be open to all, even those who have not yet been baptized. Our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, is inviting all of us to think about this question together as God’s Church and to add our voices to the conversation. To that end, the ELCA has published a study guide and other resources, available on their website, to help us as we think about this question.

Along with this question, I invite you to think about some of the other questions regarding our practice of the sacraments. How often we receive communion? At what age children should be allowed to take communion? What  is our goal in inviting people to affirm their baptism through confirmation? We have long-held traditions in each of these areas, but just as with Peter in today’s story, sometimes it is good to think about where God is calling us and to consider whether changing our practices will be better for God’s mission in the world.

As we enter into a new school year and our children return to their vocation of learning, this might be an opportunity for all of us to take some time to learn and ask questions together about where God is calling us as a congregation within God’s Church. We have been baptized in Christ’s name and called into God’s service, and together we are being fed by Christ’s body and blood for this reason.

As we come together as Church to examine ourselves, we follow the our ancestors in the faith and work together with prayer and conversation, always listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We may decide to stick with practices that are tried and true, or we might decide to take a risk by doing something new. Regardless of the outcome, we are assured that God’s love and God’s grace for us are unwavering. Through out baptism, we share in Christ’s death and resurrection; through the Eucharist, we share in his new life. No matter where we may end up, nothing can take those things away. We have confidence in Jesus’ promise, given after his resurrection from the dead: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Fed and Ready to Go

August 17, 2014 1 comment

Sermon Series on the Sacraments #5
Texts: 2 Cor 5.16-6:1; Mt 9.35-10:16

Around here, we know the importance of a good meal. For a farmer, it’s important to eat well. How else can somebody get up before dawn to milk cows and then spend the whole day in the field before going to bed well after sundown? In order to have energy for that kind of work, you need a full breakfast and a big dinner. Without the food to fuel them through the day, a farmer simply won’t last. Since everybody depends on the work being done in the fields or in the barns, providing that food for the workers in the field is as critical as the field work itself.

It makes sense, then, that food is also key to hospitality. It’s a tradition left over from the days when everybody had to work to survive. When we have guests, we want to send them on their way, strengthened to do whatever work lies ahead of them. It’s how we show that we care.

Hardly anybody would invite someone over and then send them on their way at dinner time without trying to feed them. And if they stay for a meal, what kind of host would skimp on the food and let them go away hungry? It’s in our bones to want to feed people, to offer our best and make sure they eat their fill. Across the globe, in every culture, hospitality always, always comes with food included. Feeding people is our way of preparing them for their work, of being out there with them as they put those calories to use. I think that is why one of the ways that God has chosen to be present with us is in a meal.

Holy Communion is as important to our work as the Church as breakfast or dinner is to work on a farm. In the Lord’s Supper, God not only shows us how much we are loved by feeding us, but reminds us always of the ultimate act of love shown to us in Christ. This is no simple meal; at the table, we eat and drink the body and blood that Christ gave up for us on the cross. And, just like a hearty breakfast of eggs, hash browns and sausage before going out to work, the meal that God offers us is for a purpose.

That purpose is the one we are given at baptism. In baptism, we are assured of God’s salvation, but more than that, we are commissioned with a task. That task which we’ve been given is what Paul calls the “ministry of reconciliation.” In Jesus—his birth, life, death and resurrection—God was reconciling the world to Godself.

God sent the Son to teach us about the kingdom of Heaven and to set an example of love and service to follow. St. John writes in the gospel, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Jesus came to make God known to us. One of the clearest ways that Jesus did this was on the cross, by giving his life for the very people who cried out for his death. His resurrection opened the way for all to new life, free from the fear of death or hell, punishment or failure. One had died for all, therefore all have died. Because he lives, and because we share in his life through our baptism, we know that there is nothing that can stand between us and God.

Through Jesus, we have been reconciled to God, and we have come to see and to know firsthand the love that God has for us. We have been charged at out baptism with sharing that love with the world, both by loving one another as God has loved us, and by teaching others of God’s love for them. This is the ministry of reconciliation: to cease seeing one another as competitors or judges, outsiders or locals, as foreigners or enemies, as idols to emulate or consumers to persuade, but to start recognizing one another as God’s children and as sisters and brothers in Christ.

The work of reconciliation that we have been given, like the work Jesus gave his disciples to go out curing the sick and raising the dead, is not just hard work; it is impossible work. Paul urges the Corinthians and us to “no longer regard one another from a human point of view,” but as humans: that is the only point of view we have! What Paul actually says is that we should no longer regard one another “according to the flesh.” The alternative to this would be to regard people “according to the spirit,” in the same way that we now regard Jesus.

I can’t say I know exactly what it means to regard someone “according to the spirit,” but I can guess. Think about the relationships you have with your closest family or friends as compared to strangers or rivals. There is a different quality to that intimate relationship, because it is built on trust, honesty, and love. We can be more open, even more vulnerable with the people to whom we are closest. This sort of familiarity and trust is what we as the Church are called to nurture. That is what it means to reconcile: to heal broken relationships and foster love and trust.

This sort of work completely against our nature. We naturally judge one another, compete with each other, mistrust and suspect one another, because that is how we protect ourselves from being hurt or cheated. In order to be able to accomplish any sort of reconciliation in this world, we need something beyond us that will work through us to do what we cannot. That something is the Holy Spirit, which fills us at baptism; it is Jesus himself, who feeds us with his own flesh and blood in the Eucharist.

Just like a farmer putting in long hours in the field, with such a monumental task before us, we require nourishment to get the job done. That is why we come together around the meal of Holy Communion to worship. We gather here to hear from scripture what God is doing in the world, and then to receive the strength through Christ’s supper to participate in it. We share the Eucharist together not because it’s something we have been commanded to do or because it’s a longstanding tradition; we take Holy Communion together for the same reason we fill ourselves with carbohydrates and protein at breakfast: so that we will have the ability to do the work set before us. Jesus’ Body becomes our body, and his work becomes our work.

Without breakfast, how can the farmer hope to accomplish his work? Without the nourishment of Holy Communion, how can we hope to accomplish God’s work? It is my opinion that worship without Holy Communion is like breakfast without food. We come to the table and go away hungry. I know that some of you will disagree with me, and I think that’s good. I think that we should all think about why we celebrate the Eucharist the way we do, and question whether our current practice best suits the needs of this congregation and this community.

Should we refrain from taking communion every week because of the time it takes to distribute or the work it takes to prepare? We may as well ask if we only feed our children when it is convenient for us. Do we refrain because having it less often makes it more special? Do we only express our love for friends and family occasionally so it will be more “special,” or frequently so that they will be assured of our love?  Do we refuse to feed small children because they “aren’t ready?” Or do we feed them because they need God’s nourishment and grace as badly as any of us? Without food, our bodies wither and fade. The same is true of our faith; except that our faith is not fed with meat and potatoes, but with the body and blood of the one who died for all.

Before Jesus sent his disciples out to do ministry, he prepared them by giving them instruction and advice. He continues to do this today. We gather as Jesus’ disciples to be sent out to do his work, and before we go, he feeds us, and the food he gives us is himself. In this meal, we carry Jesus with us to the world, just as a farmer carries the love of his family with him in his belly as he goes out to work the field. How can we have the strength to work if we have not been fed?

Who is Worthy to Receive the Sacraments?

August 10, 2014 1 comment

Sermon Series on the Sacraments #4
Texts: 1 Cor 11.17-34; Rom 5.7-11; Mk 9.33-37

 

Bill Schuettler was a member of my internship congregation. He was in his 80s when I knew him, a short, stocky man with two hearing aids, he wore thick glasses and could fill just about any room with his voice and his presence. Bill and his wife Grace were two of the people I knew the best in Pottsville, often taking me out to lunch or inviting me to play parcheesi at their house. Bill also like to tell stories. Being in his 80s, he occasionally told the same story more than once. One story in particular that he told me often was about the time he was denied communion.

Bill and Grace had gone to visit their son in New Jersey. He had married a Catholic woman, and they and their children attended a Catholic congregation. Bill and Grace were in town for the grandchildren’s Christmas pageant at church. When it came time for communion, Bill and Grace, who rarely if ever missed church, went up to receive the sacrament, even though they knew that, as visiting Protestants, they weren’t supposed to. When they got to the priest, he refused to give them the body and blood of Christ.

Now, Bill was not an emotional man. He had the demeanor almost of a car salesman—very outgoing, very affable, and always energetic. But would tell this story, you could hear the anger and humiliation in his voice. “That priest wouldn’t give us communion, can you believe that? I was so mad, I almost had to leave the building. I will never go back to that church again!”

I know that some of you have had similar experiences. I don’t tell this story to criticize our Catholic brothers and sisters, but to help you imagine or remember that feeling of anger, of unfairness, of rejection that comes from being denied one of the sacraments that binds us together as God’s church. I want you to think about that feeling as we talk about the sacraments today, and about who is and is not worthy to receive those signs of God’s grace.

Paul wrote in his letter to the church at Corinth about how the Lord’s Supper should be eaten. In the early Church, Holy Communion was not just a bite of bread and a sip of wine; often it was an entire meal, shared by the community, with the bread and wine at the center of the meal, commemorating Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Corinth was a metropolitan town, a busy port city and center of trade. Members of the church ran the gamut from wealthy merchants and landowners to poor day laborers and tradespeople and even slaves.

The congregation would gather in the evening to share the Lord’s supper and worship. However, the rich people who had more flexibility in their schedules would often show up first and begin eating before the working class members got off of their shifts, and the slaves would come even later when they had been excused by their masters for the evening. By the time the last showed up, sometimes there was no food left.

When Paul heard of this, he was livid, and scolded the congregation in the section of his letter we just read. He warned them that eating the meal ‘unworthily’ brought God’s judgment, rather than God’s grace. So he counseled those who partook of the meal to examine themselves and make sure they had the right motives at heart before they shared the meal.

I think that this passage may be part of what prevents our Catholic sisters and brothers from sharing the Eucharist with us. I think they see themselves as protecting us from eating and drinking judgment against ourselves. It is the same reason we set an age for first communion. We are worried that if people take communion wrongly God will judge them, so we have elected to set up limits to prevent that from happening by keeping the people who are too young or simple to understand, or who are too different from us, or who are not baptized from sharing the meal with us.

God, on the other hand, refuses to set limits on grace. In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes how Jesus shows God’s love for us in that while we were  still sinners—enemies of God—Jesus gave his life in exchange for ours. Although turning away from sin is an important part of our relationship with God, repentance is not a precondition for God’s love; Jesus made this ultimate act of love for us while we still hated God.

When the disciples argued among one another about who was greatest, Jesus set before them the example of a little child. A child is completely dependent on her parents for everything—food, shelter, clothing, affection. We love our children not because of what they do or don’t do; we do not feed or clothe them because of how deserving they are to receive such things, but because they are ours, and we care for them because if we don’t, nobody else will. Jesus is making the point that greatness or piety or any other measure of worth that we might use is meaningless in God’s eyes: we are given love and grace because we belong to God; and God’s love and grace is shown to us in the sacraments.

Although the Corinthians didn’t take the meal seriously, this was not their mistake; their mistake was that, by their actions, they excluded people. That is why Paul chastised them: not for being too careless with the meal, but for being too careless with their fellow Christians. God would rather waste the grace of baptism or communion on hardened sinners who don’t understand the significance of the gift they are receiving than ever turn anyone away and make them feel like Bill Schuettler did at that church in New Jersey.

Personally, I am convinced that the worst sin we can commit in our stewardship of God’s sacraments is to be too patronizing and inflexible to offer them to those who need them most. Whether it is a couple coming bringing their child for a baptism when you know they have no intention of keeping the promises they make, or the confirmand who has never attended a day of confirmation class, or the atheist son or daughter of the congregation coming forward to receive communion at Easter because everybody else is doing it, God’s love and God’s grace are for them. God’s love is not based on our greatness or our worthiness; it is given to us freely as a gift which we cannot earn.

It’s hard for us to see people approach these sacraments of baptism and communion without the repentance, without the solemnity with which we have been taught to approach them. It can feel like we are belittling God’s gifts. Indeed, if we didn’t take these sacraments seriously, if we did not respect and appreciate them as the holy gifts of God, then the sacraments would lose their meaning and become empty. But in the end, we are reminded that these sacraments do not belong to us; they belong to God, and to God’s Church.

As important as Holy Communion and Holy Baptism are to us, they are even more important to God, because these are the ways through which God as chosen to give us the gift of grace. If we are ever to impress upon others (and ourselves) the true meaning and importance of these sacraments, it can only be done in community—that is, in communion—with one another through these sacraments. In other words, the only way we can teach one another who to respect and appreciate these gifts by practicing them together, rather than by cutting one another out.

One of those lessons it is good for us to remember again and again is that we are all children before God. None of us fully understands God’s grace; like little children, we are all and utterly dependent on God for everything we have. In the end, there is no “us” and “them”—we are all beggars in God’s house, all washed in the same font and fed at the same table.

As we examine ourselves as Paul instructed, one question we should ask ourselves is, “how does God want us to use these gifts?” Are we really being good stewards of God’s sacraments in the way we administer them? In scripture, God’s love is abundant; even when it is wasted on people who are broken and unfaithful, God continues to give it as freely as Jesus gave his life. If this is our model for offering the sacraments, then we should know that the font and the table are open to all who seek them, regardless of their age, their motives, or their affiliations; because the true miracle is that whether we deserve them or not, whether we appreciate them or not, the sacraments, always accomplish what God designed them to do.

We know this because God’s love is present to us in these sacraments, and where God’s love is, God’s will is done, regardless of our motives. God’s love was present on Calvary, where an innocent man was hanged on a cross; and through the power of God’s love, Jesus’ death became the source of our forgiveness rather than our condemnation. Like Jesus himself, the sacraments of baptism and communion deserve our utmost respect and appreciation; but like Jesus himself, they are given freely for all, whether or not we understand or appreciate the gift that has been set before us.

You Are What You Eat

August 3, 2014 1 comment

Sermon Series on the Sacraments #3
Text: Eph 4.1-16; Jn 6.51-58

You’ve heard the saying, “you are what you eat.” It’s true on many levels. As I have grown older, I have found that, much to my dismay, my body can no longer feel completely nourished on just ice cream and potato chips. If I eat too much sugar, I feel sick. If I eat too much food that has been overly processed and comes from cans or bags, my stomach lets me hear about it and my body feels worn out and used up, just like the empty bags and cans from which the meal came. In order to keep my body feeling fresh and whole, I need foods that are fresh and whole, full of protein and fiber, vitamins and minerals. What I eat has to do more than just fill me up, it has to nourish me.

On a deeper level, we really are what we eat. Our bodies need those proteins and carbohydrates and vitamins because those molecules that come from our food are what our bodies use to power our organs and to build our cells. The food we eat actually becomes the stuff that makes up our bones, our muscles, our skin, and our brains. That’s why in addition to carbs for energy, we need meat and fruit and vegetables, so our bodies can continue to grow and regenerate themselves.

The food we eat is both literally and symbolically what makes up our bodies. If we eat junk, we feel like junk, because our bodies aren’t getting the things they need to replenish themselves. By now you may have guessed where I’m going with this. This is true not just of the food we eat to nourish our bodies, but the food we eat to nourish our souls, and the food we have been given for our souls is the body and blood of Jesus given to us in Holy Communion.

We encounter this body and blood in simple elements of bread and wine, but in the sacrament, there is more than just the bread and wine present. What makes the sacraments is the elements plus the word of God: the word “This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers believe that the bread and wine actually change into flesh and blood in Holy Communion. While we Lutherans do not share this belief, neither do we believe that the bread and wine are merely symbols of Christ’s presence.

Luther believed and taught that Jesus Christ is just as fully present in the meal as he was on the cross. We believe that the bread and wine do not cease to be bread and wine, but we also believe that Jesus is there with them—“in, with and under” the elements. To deny that Jesus’ actual body and blood are not present in the elements is like denying that it was his actual body that hung and died upon the cross. If Christ is not in the meal, then there is no forgiveness of sins, just as if it were not actually Jesus hanging from the tree. To believe Jesus’ promise that his body and blood are given and shed “for us” requires us to trust that somehow he is actually in, with and under the bread and wine in Holy Communion.

Because this is meal is not just bread and wine, but Jesus’ actual body and blood, this sacrament gives us an amazing gift: we become what we eat. In this meal, Jesus transforms us into the Body of Christ, what we also call the Church. How Jesus’ body and blood are present with the bread and wine and how we are changed from a group of individuals into the Church are mysteries—we do not and cannot know how they occur. We simply trust Jesus’ promise that this meal is his body and blood given for us, and that because it is given for us, the meal forgives us from sin and prepares us for the work of God’s kingdom.

In baptism, God claims us and makes us holy, and prepares us for a task. In Holy Communion, Jesus gives us the means to do that task, just like the proteins and carbs and vitamins and minerals that come from our food strengthen and form us for life. The miracle that occurs in Holy Communion is that in addition to being purified and made holy so we can do God’s work, we are actually being transformed.

Each of us individually has a little bit of Jesus in us, which makes us able to be “little Christs” to those around us. All of us collectively become the Body of Christ. This is what sets the Church apart from the Kiwanis or the city council or a board of directors—we are more than just a collection of people; we are a collection of people in whom God is truly present.

This is what Jesus does. He is God-made-flesh, God-with-us in human form. Through Holy Communion, he transforms us. Through us, the meal makes God incarnate in the world again with the body and blood of Jesus and the hands and feet of the Church.

Along with these gifts of Jesus’ body and blood, we are given many other gifts from God through the Holy Spirit. Paul and others write about these gifts throughout the bible. In Galatians, Paul calls them the “fruits of the Spirit.” In Romans and 1 Corinthians, he describes them as many members of one body.

The author of Ephesians describes the gifts given by the Spirit to all who share in the one baptism into Christ. These gifts are given, he says, to equip the saints (that’s us) for ministry—for the work of God’s kingdom on earth—and to build up the body of Christ. Just as we are built up and transformed in the meal, we then go out to build up and transform the Church and the world around us. In a very real way, after we eat the bread and wine in which Christ is found at communion, we become the bread and wine in which Christ is found that is given for the whole world.

Not only are we the Body of Christ in the sense that we are the embodiment of Jesus for the world, we are also the Body of Christ given for the world for the forgiveness of sins. When our own bodies are working properly, each part works together to promotes the body’s growth. In the same way, when each part of Christ’s body is working properly, we each and all promote the body’s growth in building itself up in love. That is the purpose of these gifts of the sacraments: to equip the saints for ministry, so that together, we might build up the entire community in love.

As the Church, we are called to be stewards of these gifts, God’s servants working to build up the Body of Christ and the world. The way we care for and administer these gifts is what we call “stewardship,” and it is the guiding principle for how we treat the environment, the land we farm, the blessings we’ve been given, the money we have, and even the sacraments of God’s Church. All these things belong to God, and God has chosen and trusted us to use them wisely—so what will we do with them? If we hoard these gifts for ourselves, then they become useless and meaningless, like food rotting in a pantry. Instead, we are always asking ourselves how God wants us to use and share the gifts God has given us.

As we have already said, this is not a task we are able to accomplish on our own. Left to our own devices and our own desires, we will misuse and abuse God’s gifts. This is why God has claimed us through baptism and feeds us through communion: to make us holy for God’s work and strengthen us to do it—to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

We are what we eat. In this meal, we eat Jesus, and he becomes a part of us. Because he lives in us now, we are called and equipped to do that which only Jesus can do: to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. No mere bread and wine could do this, just as no mere human could hope to bring about God’s reign on earth. It is Jesus’ true presence—on the cross, in the meal, and in the Church—that makes all the difference. This is why we call this meal the Eucharist, a word meaning “thanksgiving.” In this meal, we give thanks to God for the gift of Jesus, who rose from death for us, and we give thanks that through us, he is still here, working for God’s will in the world.

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