Monthly Archives: November 2013

No Thanks

When did “No, thank you” become “No thanks” in our world? Somewhere along the way, we’ve stopped including the comma that makes this sentence a polite regret. Somewhere along the way, we’ve turned it into a denial of gratitude.

Did you even notice? Can you see the difference between the meaning of these two sentences?

Having no thanks is a lot different from “no, thanks.”  It’s like the difference between “I am completely without gratitude” and “Oh, I’m sorry, but no, thank you anyway.”  That little comma lets us keep a little “yes” in our “no.”  It implies a longing for yes, and a regret that the answer – for now, at least – must be no.  That little comma keeps the gratitude, instead of denying it.

So I urge you, this week, to pause for the gratitude.  When you turn down that second helping of potatoes or pie, stop for just a second between the “No” and the “Thanks” and let the comma be heard as an affirmation that you really are grateful.  See what it does to you, and get back to me on that, will you?

Common Criminals – Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 for Reign of Christ Sunday (C)

This is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the church year. This is the day we celebrate Christ’s rule over the Kingdom of God, already in place and evident in our lives, even while it has not yet been brought to full completion. As we prepare to enter Advent, the season of expectation, we hope for that Kingdom to come in its fullness, for all things to be made whole and holy, for the brokenness of this world to be fully redeemed and healed. But it is not Advent yet. And it is certainly not Christmas, despite what you see on store shelves and television ads, or hear from the Chamber of Commerce. Before we can begin the church year anew, and start fresh with our hope and expectation of the coming of Jesus into our world, we must end this church year. We must pay attention to the way Jesus fulfills his ministry on earth by claiming his kingly crown.

We have spent this year following Luke’s version of the story, and next week begins a new journey with another gospel writer. If we’ve learned only one thing from Luke, it is that, when God breaks into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, everything gets flipped. We have come to expect that our expectations are upside down. It seems only fitting, then, that on this Christ the King Sunday, our text does not focus on the triumph of Christ over sin and death, but on his humiliation and suffering. Instead of reading about Christ’s ultimate reign over the new heaven and the new earth, we read about his crucifixion. Instead of white robes and a golden crown, we see him stripped of his last shred of dignity, bleeding and dying under a crown of thorns, crucified between two criminals. Continue reading

Firm to the End – Sermon on Luke 21:5-19

I had my tonsils removed during my junior year of high school. While I was in the hospital, my high school choral teacher paid me a visit. He brought me a paperback book he’d picked up at a garage sale, to help me pass the time while I waited for my throat to stop hurting. It was some futuristic novel about a group of people who survived a nuclear attack – the sort of thing that would make a great summer movie these days – and as I read it, I became deeply interested in the story. It was a real page-turner. Just as I was nearing the end of the book, when all the loose ends were starting to come together, I discovered that the last four pages of the book were missing.

We don’t like things to be unfinished, do we? We don’t like half-baked pies or ideas. We aren’t too fond of running out of paint just before the last wall in the room gets a coat. No one likes a runner who stops just short of the finish line. We like to know the ending. We like completion.

So it isn’t surprising that, when Jesus starts talking about the way things will be “at the end of the Age,” his disciples want to know “When, Lord? How will we know? What will be the sign that these things are about to take place?” But it also probably isn’t surprising that Jesus doesn’t give a cut-and-dried answer.

To put today’s reading into perspective, we need to backtrack a little. A couple of weeks ago, Jesus was still on his way to Jerusalem, a journey that began back in chapter nine of Luke’s gospel. We have followed him along the way, and listened along with his disciples as he taught about the Kingdom of God. But the readings for the past couple of weeks skip over an important high point in the story. While we weren’t looking, Jesus entered Jerusalem as people shouted “Hosanna!” and waved palm branches. Here we are, on the next-to-last Sunday of the church year, and we’ve been following Luke’s story faithfully. We’re in the final pages. Today’s lesson puts us smack in the middle of Holy Week. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem, and within a few days, he will complete his journey to the cross, where he will die for my sins, and for yours.

Jesus spends much of this final week with his disciples in or near the temple, worshiping and teaching. Before we hear his words, it might be helpful to understand a bit more about this temple in Jerusalem, the place where faithful Jews came to worship, and the center of Jewish identity.

Remember that Solomon had built the first temple, and it had been a thing of grandeur. Solomon’s father, King David, had collected items for the temple throughout his life, and Solomon used the building materials and golden objects from his father’s collection to erect an awe-inspiring structure. It replaced the tabernacle that had accompanied the Israelites on their forty-year journey to the Promised Land. The Ark of the Covenant rested in Solomon’s temple, just as it had in the tabernacle. When the temple was finished, Solomon dedicated it with burnt offerings and prayers, and God’s presence filled the temple with thick smoke. The glory of the Lord was real, and evident to the people of Israel.

But they did not stay faithful to God, and the nation of Israel was divided, then carried off to Babylon. Solomon’s temple was destroyed, and left as a heap of rubble. It was out of that rubble that Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the temple when they returned from exile. The Ark of the Covenant had been destroyed, and the Urim and Thummim were gone, but many of the golden lamp stands and sacrificial bowls were brought back from Persia, and the temple was rededicated. But the presence of God, the glory of the Lord, did not fill the temple as it had before.

Fast forward a few centuries, to the birth of Herod the Great. Herod was known both for his brutality, and for his building projects. Herod was born around 74 BCE in Edom, south of Judea.Herod practiced Judaism, but even though Herod may have considered himself of the Jewish faith, he was not considered Jewish by the Jews of Judea, particularly the Pharisees.[1] Herod was little more than a puppet king, serving Rome and his own ego with more devotion than he offered to God. His greatest building project, the temple at Jerusalem, was more of a monument to himself than to the Lord of Abraham and Isaac.

And it was quite a monument. The first century historian, Josephus, tells us that the structure was impressive. Herod had leveled the old temple and laid a new foundation of stones so immense, that some weighed well over 100 tons. The largest foundation stone was more than 44 feet long, 11 feet wide, and 16.5 feet high, and it weighed somewhere between 500 and 700 tons. The temple gleamed from the top of Mount Moriah, white stone and gold making up every visible surface. The temple itself, inside the 35-acre compound, probably only took about three years to build, but the whole structure required more than forty years of labor, and may still have been under construction at the time Jesus walked there. The outer court could hold up to 400,000 people. It was huge.

But the Temple created a problem for practicing Jews. Yes, it was the temple of God, but it was also, quite obviously, a monument to Herod himself, designed to rival the temples built to pagan gods. Just as there is no record of God’s glory filling the reconstructed temple of Ezra and Nehemiah, we have no indication that God’s presence was ever evident in Herod’s temple.

It is this temple where, a few verses before today’s passage, a poor widow threw her two coins, all she had to live on, into the offering box. It is this temple where Jesus drove out the money-changers and pigeon vendors. It is this temple where Jesus and his closest followers are walking as he warns them of the time to come.

Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 21, verses 5 through 19.

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”

“How will we know the end is near?” the disciples ask Jesus. Well, if we had to boil down Jesus’ answer into one sentence, it might sound something like, “Things are gonna get a whole lot worse before they get any better.” His warnings of natural catastrophes, wars, famine, and other signs that the end is near do not offer much encouragement. And it gets worse. Not only will there be terrible things happening throughout the world, terrible things will happen to those who follow Jesus. Jesus warns the disciples that they will be betrayed by family members, arrested, persecuted, hated, and some will even be put to death.

Keep in mind that, as far as the disciples are concerned, Jesus is only talking about the destruction of Herod’s temple, not “the end of the world as we know it.” Some scholars think that we should limit our interpretation of this passage to just that: the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, an event that would have already taken place by the time Luke wrote his gospel. Luke’s inclusion of this conversation would have served to prove that Jesus was a true prophet, predicting events that had, in fact, happened. But if we read a few verses further into chapter 21, it becomes clear that Jesus is talking about more than tearing down a building. Things are gonna get a whole lot worse before they get any better, and we are talking about a very long time. Centuries. Millenia. We don’t know how long.

Every time the media brings us news of another disaster, we may wonder, “Is this it, Lord?” Perhaps those thoughts crossed your mind last week, as the devastation in the Philippines topped every broadcast, and images of people picking through the rubble appeared in every newspaper. After a while, rubble just looks like rubble, doesn’t it? Until one item catches our attention, and we are reminded that real people are connected to this great loss. For me, one of the most moving images was that of a mass grave being filled with black plastic coffins. Each unidentified body had a portion of the femur removed before burial, in hopes that later, when the urgency of caring for survivors has diminished, DNA testing may help identify those who lost their lives in the storm.

While we may think we are safe from religious persecution here in America, Christians in Egypt and China fear for their very lives as they boldly continue to openly worship God. The Voice of the Martyrs organization estimates that Christians in more than 60 nations suffer persecution because of their faith in Jesus. The suffering that Jesus predicted for his disciples is still going on throughout the world.

But Jesus says, “Not yet.”

Jesus says, “Do not be terrified.”

Jesus says that, when we are called to testify in court because of our faith, we don’t need to prepare an elaborate defense, because he will give us “words and a wisdom” that our opponents will not be able to contradict.

Stand firm to the end, Jesus tells us. “By your endurance, you will gain your souls.”

In the light of this encouragement, we only need to ask two questions:

How shall we endure?

What does Jesus mean when he says “you will gain your souls” ?

How shall we endure? Make no mistake, Jesus is not telling us that we must do this in our own strength or by our own force of will. Just as an athlete trains for endurance, we must also train for spiritual stamina to withstand the trials that must come, but we do not do this on our own. We endure because we have been redeemed. We endure because we have believed. We endure because we are children of God, completely dependent on God’s grace alone. This is what Paul meant when he wrote to the Colossians, in a passage we will read again next week:

“May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”[2]

And in his second letter to Timothy, Paul quotes a hymn from the early church:

“The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.”[3]

How shall we endure the suffering that comes with being a follower of Jesus Christ?
By being a follower of Jesus Christ.

For it is in following Christ that we gain our souls. The word Luke uses here describes the essence of who we are. Some versions translate the word “psyche” as “very life.” By your endurance you will acquire your own very life. Jesus offers us more than mere existence. He offers us life that is full, rich, abundant, and eternal.

Such life, such endurance, is God’s gift freely given to all who believe, to all who claim Jesus both as Savior and as Lord. No matter what trials we face, no matter what disasters overtake us, we have the power to endure to the very end if we accept God’s gift to us. That gift of unshakeable faith will see us through whatever may come, whenever it happens.

The time may be short or long. We don’t know. All the signs Jesus described to his disciples have been showing up for the past 2000 years. There have been earthquakes, famines, wars and insurrections. Christians have been persecuted, and continue to be persecuted throughout the world today. All that’s left of the temple in Jerusalem is a fragment of wall, now called the Wailing Wall. Just as the destruction of that temple testified to the truthfulness of Jesus’ words when the Gospel of Luke was written, so does our faith bear witness to this truth: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Christ has died that we might have life. Christ has risen, that we might have eternal life. Christ will come again, that we who endure may enjoy eternal life, abundant and full, as we reign with Christ in glory forever and ever.

You can claim this promise of enduring, abundant, eternal life for yourself. Will you accept the invitation Jesus offers you? Will you turn your life over to him, so that you can endure to the end, following Jesus through whatever trouble you may face? Will you receive the life that Jesus wants to give to you, a life of peace and wholeness, a life of joy, a life that has been changed, so that you are free of fear and able to endure? Now is the time.

Let us pray.

O Lord, open our hearts to your grace.  Make us new.  For those of us who have not made you their Lord, grant the willingness to surrender to you. For those of us whose hearts need re-kindling, light your flame in us that we might endure to the end, and gain our very souls. Through Jesus Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

[2] Colossians 1:11-12

[3] 2 Timothy 2:11-12

Burning out or burning up?

I didn’t write a sermon this week.

We had a guest speaker from Operation Christmas Child this morning, so the story about the Sadducees trying to trap Jesus into admitting that resurrection was a ridiculous idea didn’t cause me to lose sleep or fret over how it could possibly apply to my congregation.

Instead, I caught up on paperwork and filing. I spent 8 hours in the car, driving to and from the nearest Genius Bar (twice) to resolve a computer issue, and rediscovered the healing peace of solitary driving.  When you’re on the road, there isn’t anything else you can be doing but think. The freedom from constant multi-tasking, the freedom from feeling guilty because I’m not doing more, the freedom to simply drive, think, and pray – these are blessings. I took time to really listen to some folks who needed to have someone listen to them. I read. I cooked dinner for my husband, who usually cooks dinner for me. I had a pretty good, relaxing week.

In the middle of it, my husband and I went to a restaurant for a late meal after an evening meeting at church. As we waited for our food to arrive, the conversation turned to that new hot-button topic in ministry circles: self-care. And Bruce said something that struck me as deeply profound.

There’s a difference between burning out and burning up, he said. Burn-out is when the flame dies within you, but burning up is when the flame consumes you, using up all your “fuel.” When the passion is gone, you’ve burned out.  When you still have passion for what you do, but you’ve exhausted your inner resources to do it, you’ve burned up.  Burning up requires gathering more fuel to keep the flame alive.  Burning out requires kindling a new flame.

Dear God, help me to keep the flame alive that you have kindled in me. Let me always be mindful of my complete dependence on you for the fuel needed to keep that flame burning brightly. Let me never burn out, growing cold to your grace. Keep me alert to the need to stop what I’m doing every once in a while, to gather more fuel for the fire. Amen.


Blessings and Woes – Sermon on Luke 6:20-31

East of downtown Denver Colorado, stands an old church with beautiful stained glass windows and an arched, heavy wooden door. But don’t let the 100-year-old building fool you. There are no pews in the sanctuary. It makes it easier to clear the room when it’s time to dance. In addition to Sunday night Eucharist services, there’s yoga on Wednesdays. Theology Pub got its start here. About once a quarter, they have Beer and Hymns, which, according to the website, is just what it sounds like. And there is the annual Blessing of the Bicycles. This is the House for all Sinners and Saints, founded by  Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber (Nadia retired from House for All in 2018, to pursue full-time her call as a public theologian.) I think Jesus must have had something like this place in mind when he preached to his disciples early in his ministry.

Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” sounds a lot like Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.” But there are some significant differences. For one thing, it’s shorter. Luke includes barely half of the Beatitudes found in Matthew. But Luke adds something to Matthew’s reassuring list of blessings that might make us squirm a bit, if we listen with honest ears. Along with his short list of blessings, Luke includes a corresponding list of Woes in Jesus’ sermon. One commentator suggests that any pastor preaching on this text would do well to put on a hard hat and protective gear, because there is no way to approach these blessings without hearing the Woes that go with them. So, as we read this passage together, you will want to follow what is on the screen, because the verses aren’t going to come out in exactly the same order found on the printed page. I will read the plain text; you read the bold.

20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

24 ‘But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

21 ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

25 ‘Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

21b ‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

(25b) ‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

22 ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you* on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

26 ‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.  

27 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,

28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;

and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

30Give to everyone who begs from you;

and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

31Do to others as you would have them do to you.

So, what do the blessings and woes from the first part of this passage have to do with Christ’s instructions for living like true saints of God in the verses that follow? At first, it sounds like the very things that bring us woe are the same things that bring us blessings, doesn’t it? Ah, but there is a difference. Look carefully at what Jesus is saying in these Beatitudes and their matching woe-itudes. What do all the blessings have in common? Seeking God. What do all the woes have in common? Seeking ourselves. I think the message is actually pretty simple: We are blessed when we seek God, regardless of our earthly circumstances, and we find woe whenever we are self-satisfied instead of God-hungry.

When Jesus blesses the poor and hungry, the sorrowful and the ridiculed, he isn’t saying that we should all aspire to poverty, hunger, sorrow, or being verbally abused. He is saying that God is present with us, even when the world has abandoned us, that God loves us, even when everyone else hates us. As saints of God, then, we find blessing in seeking God, being hungry for God, loving those whom God loves, no matter what.

When Jesus announces woe to those who are rich, eat well, and enjoy fame and admiration from people, he isn’t saying that wealth, good food, and popularity are bad things. He is saying that when we start to take material blessings for granted, or worse, think that we have somehow acquired these gifts by our own efforts alone, we abandon God, and our self-dependence will be our spiritual doom.

But then we come to Vs. 27 – “But I say to you that listen…” No matter which camp you put yourself into up to now, whether blessed or woebegone, none of us can escape Christ’s direct commands. We are all here, right now, hearing the Word of the Lord together. There’s no fudging on this one: every one of us is being told to love our enemies, bless the people who curse us, and do good to the very people who hate us.  If someone slaps us, we are to turn the other cheek.

Make no mistake. Jesus is not telling us to passively accept abuse here. In that time and place, striking someone on the right cheek meant a backhanded slap that was intended to establish superiority. If I wanted to punch you in the face with my fist, my right hand would hit your left cheek, and I would, in effect, be calling you my equal. When Jesus tells us to turn our left cheek to someone who insults us by assuming superiority over us, he is telling us to affirm our own value as a beloved child of God. In essence, turning the other cheek is like saying, “I refuse to accept your arrogant insult. I dare you to consider me your equal.”

Likewise, offering your undergarment to someone who has sued you for your cloak would leave you stark naked. But there was no shame in being naked in first century Palestine: the shame was in causing or viewing another’s nakedness. Once again, Jesus is turning the tables on us, reminding us that God’s kingdom doesn’t play by earthly rules. The things we think are important: wealth, fame, power – these mean nothing in the Kingdom of God, where love, mercy, and compassion mean everything.

Loving our enemies is not a ticket into sainthood. Christ’s command to love our enemies is borne out of our sainthood.It is the way we are to respond to being blessed:

When we are hungry for God, we want the things God wants. God wants every person on earth to know him and love him.

When we are seeking God, we feel the pain and sorrow God feels for people who are hurting. These are the people God loves, remember. Every person on earth.

When we are focused on spiritual wealth, money loses its power over us. As we practice generosity, we lose the desire to accumulate more than we actually need, and we may even find that we need considerably less than we thought we did before.

When we stand up to injustice with love and generosity, we affirm that every human being is loved by God, worthy in God’s sight.

Here’s the thing:

We are saints because we are sinners – sinners who have been forgiven and loved and graced into sainthood. It has nothing to do with what we do, and everything to do with who God is. God loves us. God made us for that very purpose, so He could love us and we could love him. He loves us enough to forgive us for being satisfied with ourselves, for gorging ourselves while others go hungry, for hoarding our wealth while others have nothing. Yes, he loves us enough to forgive us for everything we have ever done to separate ourselves from Him. If we will only ask his forgiveness, he will forgive. God loves us enough to transform us from sinners into saints.

We join the great company of saints who have gone before us, and the great company of saints who will come after us – all of us forgiven, all of us loved to our very core. We come together around this table to remember that God’s love isn’t limited by our standards. In his Son, Christ Jesus, God is setting a new standard: love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Do to others as God has already done for you. Not so you can become a saint, but because you already are.

Drive Time

It’s been a rough couple of weeks – my computer got sick, and the process of getting it diagnosed, determining possible treatment, and coming to terms with its demise became … complicated. Living two hours away from the nearest Genius Bar can be frustrating.

So, I’m behind on posting sermons and other computer-dependent tasks. The good news is that this week, my church has a guest speaker, so I didn’t need to write a sermon. And the other good news is that I have had eight hours of quiet drive time (two round trips – one to drop off my laptop, and the other to pick it up) to contemplate God’s goodness, marvel at the beauty of freshly tilled soil that has been dusted with the season’s first snow, and pray for some people who could use an extra prayer or two.

I’m one of those people, I confess.

So, how was your week?  What woe turned out to be a blessing, or vice versa? I’ll be posting last Sunday’s sermon tomorrow afternoon, and we’ll talk more about that blessing/woe thing then. Meanwhile, I have a date with my husband tonight, and our church’s Fall Bazaar to attend in the morning. Coffee’s on at 8:30, I hear. Be there, or be square.