Monthly Archives: August 2016

Vacating: Day Two

Rain drips from the pine trees into the lake. A mist hovers over the water, like the Spirit at Creation.

This is where healing begins, going back to the very beginning, when everything was new, before corruption began to eat away at the perfect balance.

Even now, the forest is greater than the houses that peek out from their clearings: tiny shelters against the elements that were designed to sustain us (before we broke everything and had to hide from perfection).

Even now, creation claims its rightful place in the Order established by Creator God. Only we struggle into and out of that Order. Only we fight against accepting our place in it.

Creation waits for us to figure it out, to realize that true rest and peace comes from submitting ourselves to the great design. For this is where healing begins: back at the beginning, as the rain drips from the pines into the lake, and the mist hovers over the water.

Sign of the Times – Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

August 14, 2016

I have had a crazy week – how about you? There have been meetings, and we started a new worship service at Ridgeway on 23rd, plus the County Fair, with our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station, and Thursday night’s concert with 7th Time Down and Bob Lenz… it’s been busy, busy, busy around here! The constant hum of busy-ness fools us into thinking we have everything under control, as long as we can keep checking things off our “To Do” lists.

And then Jesus shows up and wads up the list and calls us nasty names. Just when we think we know what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace lashes out at us and calls us hypocrites – just about the worst thing he could possibly call us. You think I’m making this up?

Jesus said to his disciples (that’s us, by the way):

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;  they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12:49-56

Not a very cheerful passage, is it? Remember that Jesus and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem. As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him. There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule. They were still looking for a Messiah who would be a military champion, someone to bring down Rome in a great show of armed strength. They were looking for a king who would restore the throne of David. They were not looking for a King reigning on the throne of heaven, or a king who would be a servant, or one who would be tortured and executed. They were not expecting that kind of king.

It must have been very frustrating for Jesus. Here he had been teaching with stories and parables about the way the Kingdom of God works, and they still didn’t get it. Once in a while, there would be a glimmer of understanding, but it would quickly fade, as the disciples who knew Jesus best kept trying to put him into the box of their own expectations. Can you hear the exasperation in his voice, as Jesus starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?

Earlier, Jesus had rebuked James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them (Luke 9:51-56), and now he declares that he cannot wait to bring down fire himself. Can’t you just hear James and John complaining, “How come you get to when we don’t?”

There is a difference between cleansing fire and fire that consumes. James and John were eager to destroy, but Jesus is talking about cleansing, purifying fire. He knows what lies ahead for him, and for his disciples, and he wants to be sure they have been refined and tested, so that they can remain strong when the time comes.

And that time is very near. Very soon, Jesus will ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds shout “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” A few days later, these same crowds will cry out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and he will be led to the place of the skull, hung on a cross, and crucified. There isn’t much time left before the prophets’ words will be fulfilled.

Against this image of cleansing fire, Jesus throws another image, one we normally associate with water. He speaks of his own baptism, not as water to extinguish the flames, but as an example of what purification by fire prepares us to endure. He knows he will be put to the ultimate test.

The Jesus we see in this passage doesn’t seem much like the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor. No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace. His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes.

This Jesus is fed up with the way people keep insisting that their rules are more important than God’s love. He didn’t come to endorse the status quo. Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world. The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission. That mission is to redeem a broken world.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus pits “peace” against “division,” treating them as opposites? We often think of the opposite of peace as war, and the opposite of division as unity. But here Jesus turns the dial another notch. It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without unity.

Yet he knows that his own mission and ministry will cause division, even between family members. Jesus describes how following him with undivided hearts can set children against their parent or parents against their children, if those we love do not follow Jesus, too. It isn’t that Christ intends to cause ruptures just for the sake of disruption, but he knows that being his disciple carries with it the cost of forsaking everything else, and not everyone will make that kind of commitment.

Did you notice that all the divisions Jesus lists are between generations? Jesus is telling us that family ties no longer determine a person’s identity, loyalty, or status. Instead, what marks us is whether we accept or deny Jesus as Lord. What ties believers together is not our ancestry, but Christ. Jesus overturns the world’s priorities, causing division and clearing the way for God’s divine plan for peace to come to its fullness in the Kingdom of God.

God’s divine plan for peace is not always welcome. Those who benefit from the status quo, who hold positions of power at the expense of the powerless, will oppose any who come alongside Jesus to bring peace and justice to others. It is a sign of our times that political and military power struggles are escalating throughout the world, not just here in the United States. That sign, Jesus says, is something we need to pay attention to.

Even those of us who aren’t farmers will check the weather report before we go to bed, and again first thing in the morning, so we can order our lives accordingly. This week, as the temperature and humidity levels rose, I was watching the radar pretty carefully on my phone’s weather app. I was grateful when concert organizers used the same tools to determine we should move Thursday evening’s concert indoors, instead of risking a violent thunderstorm hitting the grandstand during the performance, or someone being overtaken with the heat.

Jesus is saying that it is nothing less than hypocrisy when the same skills are not brought to bear on recognizing that the day of the Lord is near. In Luke 11, Jesus chastises the crowds because they keep asking for a sign that he is the Messiah. Now, he chastises them for their complete inability to interpret the signs they are given.

The problem is not so much that we are unable to interpret the signs of the times, but more that we are unwilling to do so. It’s interesting that Jesus uses this word “interpret,” because the root word of hypocrite – that nasty name Jesus aims in our direction – also refers to an actor, or interpreter. Just as an actor puts on a character different from his own and interprets a role, so a hypocrite interprets the weather but not the more obvious current state of affairs. This kind of interpretation is superficial, not authentic, just like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup. It is hypocrisy.

So what does the weather look like today, here in New Ulm? What time is it getting to be? What are the current concerns of the Kingdom, which Jesus is so eager to bring to completion? How are we being hypocrites, acting out our own short-sighted interpretation of “the way things are,” and missing the point of the way things ought to be? On the surface, like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup, we look fine. But are we really paying attention to what time it is?

As I listened to Bob Lenz speak at the 7th Time Down Concert on Thursday night, something was troubling me about his message that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until later. I realized that, for all his talk about claiming resurrection power in our lives, he never once said anything about repenting of our sin or how that resurrection power transforms us into people who love more.

Earlier in the day, I had talked with Cathy Townley, who is consulting with our “Boost Sunday Morning” team to help us look at ways we can make worship more meaningful and rich. During our conversation, Cathy said, “You need to look at what makes your church unique in your community, and live into that identity. Don’t try to be the Cool Church or the Hip Church, if that is not in your DNA. But figure out what it is your church is offering that no other church in town offers, and live into it.”

Well, I thought, we have identified that. We are forming our identity around hospitality, because that’s what we’re good at. In a moment, Jerry is going to share with you some of the ways we are already beginning to make changes to help us focus on that identity.

But as I struggled to identify what it was about Bob Lenz’s presentation that didn’t sit right with me, I realized this was also the very thing we need to be sure our identity as a church makes clear to the whole community around us. Bob talked about claiming resurrection power, but it isn’t just any resurrection we are talking about. It is the power of Christ’s resurrection, offered to all who believe in him.

I’m also not just talking about life in heaven after we die. I’m talking about being resurrected from our current state of sinful death into a new life that begins immediately when we decide to turn away from living in ways that are killing us, and begin to follow Jesus into life that is rich and full and filled with joy and peace.

This church isn’t just about hospitality, because you can find that at any of the local restaurants or bed and breakfasts around town. We are about extending Christ’s hospitality to people no one else wants to welcome. We are about showing love to people no one else wants to love, in the name of Jesus. We are about helping people no one else thinks they can help, because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.

Jesus holds division and peace in tension, and asks us to interpret the times through God’s clock. What time is it? The same time it was 2000 years ago. Time to wake up. Time to take off the blinders and see what God sees. Time to repent of our complacency, our hypocrisy, our willingness to act one way in public and be something else in private, our willingness to maintain the status quo instead of moving radically into the demands of Kingdom living. It’s time to take a good hard look at who we are, and what we do, and recognize that Jesus calls us to be more – not in our own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s time to realize that the weather is shifting. In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6:2)” It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ. The time is now. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Have No Fear – Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

August 7, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus continues to teach us what the Kingdom of God is like, and how different that Kingdom’s priorities are from the priorities we set as sinful human beings. Let’s join Jesus and his disciples as they travel toward Jerusalem.

 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.  Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” – Luke 12:32-40

 

Three years ago, as I began my appointment to this congregation, I talked about not being afraid, storing up treasures in heaven, and being ready for the Kingdom of God to come in its fullness. I could probably preach that same sermon again, and all the things I said three years ago would still be true. But today, I’d like to focus on just one verse in this passage, because I think it sums up the whole reading pretty well. It’s the first verse we read: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.“

DO NOT FEAR…

We hear the opening phrase, “Do not be afraid” throughout scripture, whenever people encounter God directly or through a heavenly messenger, like the angel Gabriel. You probably know by now that it is one of my favorite phrases in the Bible.

I’ve shared with you before that the Greek phrase for “Fear not,” or “don’t be afraid” really means “Stop being afraid.” We aren’t talking about hypothetical fear that might occur sometime down the road here. This isn’t even a warning against becoming afraid. We are talking about real fear that is already present, fear that has been with us for some time already, fear that won’t let go of us. And Jesus says, “Just stop it. Stop being afraid.”

We live in a world that runs on fear, it seems. We fear what we can’t see, what we don’t know. Our imaginations see threats to our community and nation on every side. As individuals, we fear losing control of our lives, making ourselves vulnerable to someone else. We fear getting hurt. We fear what others might think of us.
We fear shame and embarrassment.

We may try to escape our fear by ignoring it, or by building elaborate fantasies to hide from it. We may even try to escape our fear through self-medication in various forms. Maybe we overeat. We might try to accumulate comfort to offset our fear, buying things we don’t really need, in the hope that they will provide some kind of security.

None of these things will take away our fear.

Yet Jesus says, “Stop being afraid. Your Father in Heaven knows what you need.” In fact, it gives God pleasure to give you what you need.

… YOUR FATHER’S GOOD PLEASURE…

I have a sister who loves to give presents. She would much rather shop for gifts than for groceries. It’s her nature to give things away. She loves to be generous. It gives her pleasure.

In ancient Rome, gifts were given to create a sense of obligation for repayment. It was the way one climbed the social ladder – making sure others were in your debt and owed you favors.

But in Kingdom Economy, God lavishly gives away his entire Kingdom to us, and when we, in turn, give without expecting anything in return, we participate in that Kingdom and receive even more from God. More love, more joy, more peace, more patience, more kindness, more generosity, more faithfulness, more self-control, more, more, more.

More … treasure.

Your treasure is the Kingdom of God, which he has already decided it is his pleasure to give you. What stands at the core of this Good News is not the fear of shame, but God’s amazingly tender concern for us, his own little flock. This is an invitation to trust that our future rests in the gracious promises and presence of God. The Gospel invites us to put first things first. The Gospel says, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

Because it was God’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom in the first place. Have you ever thought much about what gives God pleasure? The movie Chariots of Fire follows a couple of English runners through the 1924 Olympics. One of those runners, Eric Liddell, is torn between his devotion to serving as a missionary in China, and his desire to run. In one scene, he tells his sister, “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

What gifts or talents do you possess, that can be put to use for the benefit of the Kingdom of God?

What do you do that gives God pleasure?

This is the same good pleasure (or “delightful decision”) that the angels announced at Jesus’ birth when they sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14). It is the same good pleasure God announced at Jesus’ baptism when he said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

And this good pleasure, or “delightful decision” has already happened.

…TO GIVE YOU THE KINGDOM

The Kingdom of God is not just eternal life in the sweet by and by; the Kingdom of God’s active and current reign over heaven has already begun in Jesus’ ministry, and continues to the present time. It is here, now.

God has already given us the Kingdom. We respond by carrying out the values and standards of that Kingdom, which include getting rid of possessions, giving to the poor, and making purses that contain ultimate, inexhaustible, heavenly treasure. Instead of getting rich by accumulating human treasure, our hearts are set on what God ultimately treasures, which is compassion and mercy for those in need.

Since God, in his own good pleasure, has already given us the Kingdom, we are called to be prepared for its fulfillment when Christ comes again.

While Jesus is certainly talking about the end of time, when he will come again in glory to reign over a new heaven and a new earth, we should not be distracted by attempts to pinpoint the day and the hour this will happen. We should also not be lulled into passively twiddling our thumbs while we wait for Jesus to return. Luke offers the certainty that Christ will come again, and the uncertainty of when that will be. This certain uncertainty reminds us that, instead of passively waiting or living wildly because the end is near, we need to be faithful and alert.

Being ready for Jesus’ coming is less about any actual time and place and more about recognizing Jesus’ activity in the world when and where you least expect it. In other words, waiting around for further instructions doesn’t cut it. Fearlessly claiming your identity as a child of God allows you to immediately participate in the Kingdom that it is your Father’s good pleasure to give to you.

Karoline Lewis writes,Jesus is asking us, what is it that encapsulates the Kingdom of God for you? What is the one thing that if someone asked you about it, you would be able to give witness to your faith in God, your belief in the work of Jesus, your confidence in the presence of the Spirit? … Jesus says that the treasures close to your heart are those you can actually clarify to another in a way that the other gets what you mean, can sense that it matters, and that it matters deeply. … This is not a call to recite proper doctrine, but to be able to express in your own words, close to your heart, what your faith means to you. … confessing what matters.” 

What matters is this, dear friends. Christ calls you to let go of your fear, and accept the gift of the Kingdom of God, which it is your Father’s good pleasure to give to you. Will you receive it? Will you accept this precious gift? As we approach Christ’s Table, I invite you to drop your guard, to let go of your concern about what other people might think, and simply receive the assurance that you are God’s own beloved child, redeemed through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.