Changed for the Better

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February 26, 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

While I was in seminary, every January we would be required to take a J-Term course. These courses varied from Biblical Hebrew, to ministering in the inner city, to trips to the Holy Land or Haiti. In my second year of seminary I found myself at The Abbey of Gethsemani for an entire week on silent retreat. It was part of a two-week course on monasticism and exploring different forms of contemplation and prayer. The Abbey of Gethsemani is a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, surrounded by beautiful rolling hills.

I chose this specific J-Term course because I had always been intrigued by the monastic life and this was an opportunity to learn and experience more. At this time, I was also questioning whether I wanted to continue on in my seminary studies, which I believe is a part of many seminary student’s journey, where we question our call to serve the church. My week at Gethsemani was a turning point and the beginning of a transformation. Jesus calls us to change as we are transformed through God’s Word and in prayer.

This week I have had the opportunity to experience all of the facets of Christian life. Having the opportunity to baptize an adult, as Katelyne will be in a little bit, reminds me of the power of community as we worship together proclaiming the good news and leading people to the baptismal waters. On Thursday the life of Bob Wetzel was celebrated as he lived to 98 before entering into eternal life. While baptism and death are the bookends of our earthly Christian lives, something mysterious happens in the time in between.

Baptism is not the pinnacle of our Christian life, it is only the beginning. As we enter into community with others and worship and pray together, the mystery of God works in and among us. Drawing us together in ways that we could never fathom. And the thing is, we more often than not, get in the way of God’s work. We put up our own personal roadblocks. We stop short, thinking that we could not go any farther, or we are just satisfied with mediocre. Sometimes we even stop right in the midst of the transformation itself. Look at our gospel lesson. Peter would have been content if they were to stay up at the top of the mountain for the rest of their days. Jesus lets us know that there is work yet to be done. Jesus with Elijah and Moses on the mountain top was just a glimpse of the kingdom to come. Like Peter and the other disciples, we today still have to be God’s hands and feet in the world as we care for our neighbors and those that cannot care for themselves.

In the midst of proclaiming the good news through our words and actions, we are transformed and begin to experience God at an all new level. James Finley shares his thoughts on change in Richard Rohr’s daily devotional:

Imagine that you have a dream in which you are climbing a high mountain. The valley below is where you grew up, where you experienced pain and made many mistakes. You are trying to transcend and leave this place by reaching the summit, on which you will be sublimely holy and one with God.

As the summit comes into view, the wind rising from the valley brings with it the sound of a child crying out in distress. You realize that there is no real choice but to go down the mountain to find and help the hurting child. Turning back, you descend into the valley. Following the child’s cries, you arrive at the very home you tried to leave behind.

You gently open the door and look inside. Sitting in the corner on the floor is your own wounded child-self, that part of you that holds feelings of powerlessness and shame. You sit down next to the child on the floor. For a long time you say nothing. Then a most amazing thing happens. As you are putting your arms around this child, you suddenly realize you are on the lofty summit of union with God!

To be transformed in compassionate love does not mean that you do not have to continue struggling and working through your shortcomings and difficulties. It means learning to join God who loves you through and through in the midst of all your shortcomings. As you continue to be transformed in this way, you come to realize that right here, right now, just the way you are, you are one with love that loves you and takes you to itself just the way you are. [1]

We find ourselves on the doorsteps of Lent this morning. This coming Wednesday, we will join together to be reminded of our own personal need for repentance and for God’s mercy. We exit the season of Light that we know of as Epiphany and turn towards a self-examination that happens during Lent, only to encounter Jesus’ death on the cross and Resurrection to life everlasting.

Lent is a time to be transformed as we repent of those things known and unknown that steer us away from the knowledge and love of God. May Jesus’ own transfiguration on the mountain top awaken a transformation within you. While change can be difficult and uncomfortable, it is in our own transformation that we experience change. Changed for the better. Changed for the life to come.

[1] Finley, James. Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation, February 24, 2017

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Letting Go of the Bitterness

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February 19, 2017

Matthew 5:38-48

For those of you that I have had the opportunity to work with and receive feedback from, hopefully you have learned that I am able to take criticism very well. I will admit that at times it helps redirect me and at other times I file it away for later discernment. I have learned that this is one way to grow as an individual and as a person growing in relationship with God.

When it comes to criticism, we tend to sell ourselves short and are our own worst personal critics. Even when I look back at my past accomplishments and the movement forward I have helped the congregations I have been a part of, I always feel like I could have and should have done more. This is my calling and in this my passion to share the love of Christ with others is stoked. So, imagine what my first thoughts are when Jesus tells us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

My first thought is, I am trying Jesus. For our culture today, to be perfect is to be at the top of your class or the top of your game. To be perfect is to get a 100% or an A+. To be perfect is to bowl a 300 game. To be perfect is to have a 0.00 ERA as a pitcher. Recently Nike has formed a team to work on running under a 2-hour marathon; to me this would be perfection. Honestly, we should endeavor to live a perfect life, perhaps not just the way that our culture perceives perfection.

Jesus’ image of perfection goes beyond what we think of perfection today. To be perfect, is to be whole. To be perfect, is to be complete. To be perfect, is to be impartial and even-handed.

To be perfect as Jesus is perfect, seems nearly impossible. Especially in light of the rest of our selection from the gospel. Jesus’ words seem demanding. We are to turn the other cheek? If someone sues us, we are to give them even more than they are asking for? We are to go the extra mile for someone when they ask for even the littlest of things? We are not supposed to refuse anyone that asks for food? What if they are on the same street corner every day?

He even calls us to love our enemies, can you believe that? Who can live up to these expectations? It is just so much easier to be mean and hold grudges. It is easy to ignore that person standing along the road asking for money or even something to eat. We don’t want to appear too nice, because then we may be perceived as weak or a pushover. While we may not say these out loud, I am sure that many of us have had these thoughts, myself included.

We could take the view of a monk I read about on his 91st birthday. As everyone gathered around him to celebrate and hear stories of his life, family, and ministry over the years, he was asked about the difficult and challenging times as well. Especially some of the challenges he may have had with his brothers.

He mentioned the difficult times and seemed to have a very tough time talking about the brothers who were in charge of his formation in the early days of his religious life. He then said that he felt as if they were against him and became almost enemies to him. He was asked, “So, how did you overcome that feeling, or do you feel better about them now?” His answer caused an uneasy laughter among them. He said, “Hey, I outlived them all and proved them wrong!”

It is true that we are going to have our fair share of disagreements with those that we are close to and to those we may not be close to at all. Within this bitterness that develops towards others, we can allow an anger to grow and fester. Late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson is quoted as saying, “bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.”

It is to this that Jesus is speaking when he wants us to foster a love for our enemies. Jesus knows what the bitterness and anger will do inside of us. Jesus knows what it will take for us to work towards that love and to give the coat off our back, go the extra mile, and to turn the other cheek. In living out this very gospel, we live towards that perfection that Jesus speaks of.

To be perfect is impossible. We cannot do it on our own and Jesus is well aware of that. Yet, I believe that he meant every word that he said. For when we start to work on just ourselves and allow a transformation that is shaped by Christ, we are then able to begin that transformation within our own communities. We are called and named by God and God sees much more in us than we ever will. God knows of the deep love that resides in each and every one of us, because that love is God. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Jesus Christ is the light of the world that shines through the darkness within us that shines a light on the love that resides within each and every one of us. We cannot and are not expected to do this on our own. In Jesus’ death on the cross we were shown the love that God has for all of us, and in his resurrection, we experience the hope of the life to come.

To be perfect is a tall order, one that only Christ can fill. First, let us live towards what God is calling us to be. God created each of us to be an integral part of this community. Who are you called to be? Go out and begin practicing it, perhaps by trying to pray for someone with whom you are bitter towards and have been struggling. Amen.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: A Review

This memoir has been added to many must read lists as we are now in a country where a Donald Trump presidency is possible. It is suppose to explain to some extent why the outcome of the election happened the way it did. It is suppose to connect with the core of the American blue collar worker that was not happy.

Vance does a good job of explaining his background and even that of many that moved from Appalachia searching for better jobs and pay. He grew up in circumstances that those growing up in the middle class would find hard to understand. He also is eager to get away from that culture to an extent where he wants to better his life and break the cycle of anger and violence that he associates with being a “hillbilly.”

Whether it gets to the core of our current political situation, I cannot quite say. It touches upon it and does reiterate the displeasure of not being able to move up within society. Therefore, the people to blame would be the current administration that is running the government. I will admit that being a white male from a middle class family, I have a hard time connecting the two.

Overall, Vance is a great writer and shares his story beautifully. To be born into a family in the hill country of Kentucky and to raise himself up to attend Yale and become an attorney is a great success story. One, as he says, helps deliver the American Dream.

Perhaps though, we need to rethink the American Dream.

Be Reconciled

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February 12, 2017

Matthew 5:21-37

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I don’t know about you, but if there was any other day that I really wanted to focus on another text, it would be today! Luckily, there are two other lessons that have been read, as well as the Psalm. While there is plenty of valuable insights to mine from Paul’s letter and Deuteronomy, I also realize that I am stubborn and know that my aversion to today’s Gospel, means that we should probably sit with it for a little while longer and see what good news it has to say to us.

Much of the gospel lesson seems to be strict instruction from Jesus, even a clarification per se of the Ten Commandments as Moses gave them to the people of Israel. While it was easy to look at the Ten Commandments and follow them, Jesus’ clarification seems to tighten the law a little more. Personally, I am left wondering, how can we expect to live up to this teaching of Jesus in our sin and brokenness.

Let us remember that the Ten Commandments were given to the people as a gift. We can all appreciate the rules and laws within our own lives that we have to follow. This is what a loving parent does for her children. She sets out rules and guidelines, certain expectations, to live by. In these rules, we are able to live into relationship with one another. By being in relationship with one another, we experience the inbreaking of the kingdom of God.

Let’s be honest though. It is not easy to be in relationship all of the time. We each have our own characteristics and personalities. We each have our own little quirks that can irritate the pet peeves of others. Yet, despite this, we need each other. We need to be connected with one another so that we can accomplish wonderful things and make a difference in the community around us. While many of us insist that we are very independent people and do not need anyone’s help, there is still a strong sense of dependency that is part of our beings that require us to work and live together.

In the midst of Jesus’ words concerning anger, adultery, divorce, and making oaths, we find a call to reach out to one another. We are called to reach out to one another in mutual respect and love, so that we may be reconciled to one another. Within this reconciliation, we must first honor the need for forgiveness. Not just an empty forgiveness, a forgiveness that brings us back into right relationship with one another. A forgiveness that welcomes God in so that we can move forward in faith.  This forgiveness is the first step towards reconciliation. In Jesus, God is revealed for us and in this we can see God’s desire to be reconciled with all people. As we work towards reconciliation, we are living into God’s intent for humanity, living into loving relationship with one another.

Sometimes we wonder why we do certain things as Lutherans. We wonder why our worship service takes on the shape that it does. We wonder about the various aspects and parts of worship. Each part has a biblical and liturgical component to it. We practice forgiveness and reconciliation every week during our worship service. Were you aware of this?

Every week after our prayers of the people, the peace of Jesus Christ is shared. It is in this sharing of the peace that we have the opportunity to seek out those that we have harmed, or those that have hurt us, and begin our steps to reconciling. We reach out our hand and offer the peace of God. It could be for those things that we know we have done, those things that we are not aware of, or those things that we have left undone. The sharing of the peace is not meant as a time to catch up on the past week. It is a time to be in relationship with one another, reaching out and sharing the peace, just as Jesus would have shared it with his disciples and everyone that he encountered. In that peace is the foundation of our reconciliation with each other and ultimately with God.

It is fitting that we do this before we come to the altar, because at the altar we are all equals. At one time in England, there was a movement to return to the church. It was known as the Oxford Movement. One member of the movement was quoted as saying, “The Holy Eucharist is the only truly democratic moment in life when we are willing to come together to the altar, offer ourselves completely, and receive in return all that we need, not just to survive, but to live, then we have experienced something remarkably different and essential.”

There is no greater time for us to come together and be reconciled with one another. As we do so in the church, let us pray that our message of love and hope spread beyond our communities. In Jesus’ message in Matthew’s gospel, we are reminded that he did not come to abolish the law and prophets, but to fulfill the law. Through him we are witness to the grace of God that is for all people throughout the world.

As you leave here this morning, who is it that you are called to forgive and be reconciled? May all of our single steps of reconciliation lead to the reconciliation of the world.

 

The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr: A Review

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The Trinity is quite often an overlooked aspect of the spiritual life. We tend to think of God and Jesus Christ, yet tend to leave the notion of the Holy Spirit out of the equation. When we include all three into the equation, we are able to truly dig deeper into our own spiritual well-being.

Richard Rohr, along with Mike Morrell explore the Trinity in The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. Bringing in the image of Andrei Rublev’s The Trinity painting, allows the reader to get an image in their mind, as well as the possibility of us being the fourth person sitting at the table with the Trinity.

God wants us to be in relationship with all three and it is here that Rohr is hoping to lead us into that great encounter.  Beginning with the vast view of the Trinity throughout time leads us to the present and the need to engage with the Trinity here and now. Until we come to the realization that everything in creation works together and is required to bring us into the kingdom of God, there will be brokenness and sin. I believe his theory on growth of Western atheism is right-on:

Do you ever wonder why Western atheism is on the rise? Why does the Christian West, by far, produce the highest number of atheists? What I believe, and have dedicated my life to reversing, is that we have not moved doctrine and dogma to the level of inner experience. As long as “received teaching” doesn’t become experiential knowledge, we’re going to continue creating a high quality of disillusioned ex-believers. Or on the flip-side, we’ll manufacture very rigid believers who simply hold on to doctrines in very dry, dead ways with nothing going on inside.

And so we have two big groups on the landscape today: those who throw out the baby with the bathwater (many liberals and academics) – and those who seem to have drowned in the bathwater (many conservatives and fundamentalists).

How about allowing the bath water to keep flowing over you and through you?

It is anyway, but we can considerably help the process by gradually opening up the water faucets–both the cold and the hot.

Rohr’s writing, as usual, is easy to read and very engaging. He brings a truth to his writing that I wish more people would pick up on. Until we start to experience the Holy Spirit within us and listen to where it is calling, then we will not fully live into the life that God is calling us to. Our interaction with the Trinity is truly a dance that is beautiful and as robust as we make it.

Salt and Light

Sea salt wooden spoon on brown wooden background.

February 5, 2017

Matthew 5:13-20

Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Needless to say, the news of the past couple of weeks has been all over the place. At times, it has been riveting, in the sense that you don’t want to turn away for you may miss something. Other times, it has been detestable, and you cannot turn off the television or change the channel fast enough. Of course, what some of us find riveting others may find detestable and vice versa.

In light of everything that happens in Washington D.C., in our country, and around the world, we have been presented with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This just happens to be part of our lectionary cycle that we are in, Year A, the year of Matthew. Regardless of where our opinions lie on the current conditions of politics in America, Jesus brings us truth in the gospel of Matthew. It is a little hard to argue with Jesus. Jesus speaks of a righteousness that seems hard to come by these days, at least something other than a self-prescribed righteousness.

In Jesus’ righteousness, we are promised righteousness ourselves, and this is what makes the kingdom of heaven, here on earth, possible. In that righteousness, we are blessed. We are blessed to be welcomed into the kingdom of God, and we are blessed to be able to say that we are doing our best to follow the example that Jesus has set.

When we live in brokenness, it feels like everything is falling apart around us. In times like these, it is important to remember that we are blessed by Jesus. And this can make all the difference. While we received his message of blessing last week in the beatitudes, Jesus continues that into this week’s lesson. We can hear his words as they are directed to the disciples.  Words that call us into being here and now.

Jesus is not setting the stage for what the disciples are going to be in the future, or perhaps for what they should strive for. He is stating who they are and what difference they can make in the world that they are called to lead. We too can hear Jesus’ words as ones that speak to us in this time and place. “You are the salt of the earth.” It is with salt that we are able to enhance and alter the taste of food. There is a power in salt that brings the goodness out in things and brings them to life. Salt can also be used as a preservative to keep things fresh longer. Salt also stimulates thirst. Imagine being the salt that brings someone to the baptismal waters of Christ.

“You are the light of the world.” It is in the brokenness of our world where it appears dark. That light brings a sign of hope and perseverance. There is an energy around light that enlivens. Living in Michigan, we know the power of the sun. This past week has been awesome as we have been able to increase our natural vitamin D absorption by 1000%, as the sun has actually been out! The sun does not only make us feel better, it helps things grow! If it were not for the sunlight, our plants would not be able thrive. Imagine being the light that helps someone grow in their faith.

Herein, is where the problem resides. Do you know that you are the salt of the earth? Do you know that you are the light of the world? As Christians, we can all too often get caught up in the business of doing church. We want to make sure that we have everything in order. We want to make sure everything goes smoothly in worship. Like the Pharisees and Scribes, we tend to focus more on observing tradition, our public displays of piety, and our adherence to the letter of the law. This is where they find their righteousness. Jesus, on the other hand, focuses on his relationship with God, and in this lies the foundation for his relationship with his followers. Jesus lets them and us know who we are as people of God. A people that are blessed. In that blessing, we are informed that we are the salt and the light of the world. We don’t want to lose our saltiness, for if we do, then we bring nothing to the table of change. We do not want to let our light be hidden, for in that light is the love of Christ that wants to shine in the darkness.

We have witnessed people these past couple of weeks that are truly showing what it means to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The millions of women that marched around the world during the women’s march were being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. They were not holding back and were not afraid to let their voices be heard. There was a pro-life march and rally in Washington D.C. last weekend where people were being salt and light. The protests we witnessed in airports last weekend over the refugee and immigrant ban was a witness to people being the salt and light of the world. I am not saying you have to agree with all of these. What I am saying is that this is what Jesus is calling us to when he tells us we are salt and light.

We are to be vocal and step up for what we believe in. As Christians, we are to follow the words and actions of Jesus. This should be the foundation of our own actions as we reach out to make a difference and initiate change. We can do so by supporting causes that are near and dear to us and letting our voices as Christians be heard.

Jesus was born into this world to bring light to the darkness. Through his death on the cross we are reminded of God’s grace that brings us salvation. Remember as you go out this week that you are loved, you are blessed, and that you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Amen.

 

It isn’t Easy to Follow Jesus

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January 29, 2017

Matthew 5:1-12

I don’t know about you, but I have always been a little anxious when starting something new. Whether it be a new school year with new teachers, or a new job with several new people to meet. Perhaps, I may have even been a little anxious when receiving a call to Trinity. There is an anticipation of the things to come and a wonder to how everything is going to work out.

I have to imagine that is the feeling that the disciples were having when they followed Jesus up the mountain. They knew there was something different about him, and they were anxious to find out more. I’m sure they had butterflies in their stomachs as they waited for what was going to happen next. As Jesus goes to sit down, the disciples would have known that he was about to teach, as this was the common practice at the time of rabbis and other teachers.

This teaching will continue for the next three chapters of Matthew, although, we will only get through chapter 5 in four weeks. Imagine being able to sit down and take in everything that Jesus has to say.

And so, it begins. Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, not with a quaint little story, but getting right into the essence of what it means for them to be a disciple. Being a follower of Jesus is not easy.

This lesson on the beatitudes is part of scripture that many of you are probably familiar with. You have probably heard the beatitudes several times and possibly in different variations.  The teaching begins in a way that the disciples were probably not quite expecting. They have not known Jesus very long, and now he sounds kind of like a revolutionary. In all reality, they are living in land occupied by the Roman Empire. The culture in the first century celebrated wealth and military might. Jesus, on the other hand, lifts up those on the other end of the spectrum as blessed.

Have we as a society changed much in the 2000 years since Jesus? The characteristics that Jesus names as blessed are those things that we quite often do not want anything to do with. We steer clear to avoid them in all manners of ways. To be broken or poor in spirit, I don’t think so. We fear those things that bring us to mourn. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is an awful lot of work, can’t you just tell me what to do or think. To be pure in heart is easier said than done, plus doesn’t it take the fun out of things. And, who wants to get in the middle of a conflict and try to keep the peace. If we get this far, you’re telling me that I could get persecuted, reviled, and scorned. Isn’t there an easier way?

There are times throughout history where there is a need for revolutionary people to step up and lead. Jesus was the ultimate revolutionary 2000 years ago, as he brought hope and compassion to his followers and ultimately an unbreaking love that sent him to the cross. Martin Luther was a revolutionary as he started the reformation 500 years ago, steering people back to the grace of God.

Martin Luther King Jr. is a person that we can feel closer to as far as time in our own country. He was seen as revolutionary to some and sought equality for all and knew what the church was called to. He writes in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…”

His words may seem harsh to some, but in all honesty, they are not much different than the counter-cultural message that Jesus brought to his disciples and ultimately the world. Karoline Lewis says, “In the Beatitudes, we hear a call to action to be church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest when the world tries desperately to silence those who speak the truth.”

So, where are we to go from here? Jesus has shaken our foundation and everything that we have tried to avoid is now what Jesus deems blessed.

We are called to follow him. Follow him up the mountain and sit down and listen to his teaching. For in the learning is our first act of discipleship. We too are blessed when we follow Jesus and proclaim the Good News throughout our community in our words and actions. The Message translation may give us another take on the beatitudes:

 3“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

6“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘careful,’ you find yourselves cared for.

8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11 “Not only that – count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable.

12 You can be glad when that happens – give a cheer, even! – for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

 

It is in the beatitudes that Jesus teaches us that being more is greater than having more. May you learn how to be with Jesus. May he guide you in your prayers and meditations. May he bless you as you do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.