Don’t Cry over Spilled Milk

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June 25, 2017

Romans 6:1b-11

It is true that sometime in our lives we will make mistakes. We are human. We are not perfect. Granted, it does take some people longer to realize that.

As children, we learn by making mistakes. How about the child that spills milk on the floor? Many of you as parents I am sure have experienced this. Of course, everyone has heard the familiar phrase, “Don’t cry over spilled milk!” Honestly, these things happen and we try to reassure our children that everything is going to be ok. While assuring the child that it is easily cleaned up, you can point out the bright side to this, as the floor is cleaned and looking better than it did before. The child’s response may then be, “Since the floor looks so great now, maybe I should spill on the floor more often!”

Um, no, I don’t think so! Just because God in Christ Jesus has the power to make things right is not an invitation to do wrong. And this is where we find ourselves this morning in Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” Last week we encountered grace through Paul’s letter to the Romans. A grace that is freely given by God, on no merit of our own.

Here it is easy for us to slip into a mode of thinking, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as cheap grace. While nothing is required of us, we must be willing to accept this grace. And as Paul says, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” We encounter death in the waters of the baptismal font. Not only Jesus’ death as he was crucified in order to bring us new life, but we also encounter our own deaths as we die to sin.

We are surrounded by sin on a daily basis, and while we confess at the beginning of service, we will quickly go out and sin once again when we leave church today. It is the grace of God that washes over us in our baptism and die to new life. This past week at camp, our campers were able to talk and share their stories of grace. Grace that abounds in the love and forgiveness of Christ.

The story of the women caught in adultery taught the campers the importance of not judging one another. While we all may have sin in our lives and continue to sin, we are no better than anyone else. Through Christ we learn to love. Through Christ we are forgiven even before we repent. In God’s grace, we experience love and forgiveness. Therefore, we should reach out with love and compassion to all of our sisters and brothers.

Sometimes, we need to disconnect to realize where God is in our lives. The campers learned that this week as the teaching of Jesus continued with the story of the prodigal son. We may think we know what is best and still make the wrong decision. In this we learn to return to God and repent for what we have done. The campers were able to listen and experience the prodigal story differently during the faith walk when it was two daughters and a mother. They learned of forgiveness and God’s unending love. We are able to rejoice, because even in death we are given new live in Jesus Christ.

In the midst of all of this, we learn that God speaks to us in ways that we may not have been expecting. We must be silent, listening for just that whisper of God. In Elijah’s case, it was a rush of wind that swept by the cave when he was in hiding from Queen Jezebel. Elijah was given rest and renewal under the broom tree and met God on Mt. Horeb. God comes to us in unexpected ways. The grace of God is not experienced in one specific way. God is all around us and we must be open to it.

Just like the two individuals walking along the road to Emmaus. We are surprised by things that we are not expecting. When we think that everything is over and wonder how to move on, we are surprised. Jesus surprises us. Through a conversation along the road with Christ, an understanding and peace is brought to those that are left numb. We are brought together in Christ and reconnected with God who we think has left us. Today we are brought together with Christ, in the Word and sacraments of baptism and communion.

In all of these stories, we are brought together as people of God. In them, they bring us to the words of Paul’s letter this morning. Reminded that we have died with Christ in the waters of baptism and are brought to new life that is abundant.

We are a people that are no longer dead. We are brought to new life just as Christ was brought to new life through his resurrection. We find life all around us. Life that is full of grace if we just stop to listen. Life that is in community if we welcome everyone with open arms. Life in forgiveness as we accept others as they are. Life that flows through every bit of creation. A creation that groans under the weight of our sinfulness, yet is redeemed through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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A Review of Radical Spirit by Joan Chittister

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Thank you to Englewood Review of Books for the opportunity to review this title.

We are a people that search. We search for the things we have lost. We search for the latest and greatest item that will make our life that much easier. These searches tend to focus upon the outward self and what will benefit us as individuals the most. The search that is easily avoided because it takes too much time and a lot of patience, is the search for the inward self. The self that is called to be in relationship with God. It is in this search that we are able to grow as individuals and nurture our relationship with God.

To begin this search, one can go to the closest book store and look at the self-help section or spirituality section and find hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the topic of personal growth. Each one meant to connect with a certain personality. I believe that few have the ability to span across the millennia and connect the past with the present in a way that leaves the learner wanting more.

In her newest book, Radical Spirit, Joan Chittister is able to do just that. The subtitle, 12 Ways to Live a Free and Authentic Life, may sound like a book that could be a quick fix to your spiritual life. However, what she presents is a life journey. It is no quick fix, but it is a way of living into your true self and building a stronger relationship with God. Our true selves have been swallowed up by the abundance of things happening around us. We are bombarded daily by social media and the news. Every second we turn around, we encounter something new and must intentionally pull ourselves away from it. As she says in the introduction, “This book is about recognizing what has mastered us and then discovering what it will take to break those chains.” We have allowed things of non-importance to master our daily routines, and this is a call for us to wake up and see how we can change.

The twelve steps that she lays out for the reader are based upon the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict. It is these very rules that she had to walk through herself as she became a Benedictine nun. These ways or rules come directly from chapter 7 in the Rule of Saint Benedict and address the importance of humility. What a telling sign in our times that the need for humility is being lifted up. In the midst of our latest presidential election and the partisan fighting that seems to be constantly happening in our government, it appears that possibly a little humility could do all of us some good.

The beautiful thing about Chittister’s offering is that it is not purely a rephrasing of Saint Benedict’s rule written back in the sixth century. She takes a chapter for each of the twelve ways in which one can work towards a humbler life and living into the true self. It is also providing the opportunity to live into a greater spiritual fullness. While she takes each step, and discusses it in depth, she does so in three parts. Her chapters may read somewhat like a catechism instruction as she digs deeper into each step of humility.

She first explores what the challenge of each step is by asking the question, “what is the challenge here?” There is, of course, a challenge to each of these steps, or Saint Benedict would not have included them in his rules. The next question that one must ask is, “What is the underlying issue?” We must venture into what it is truly deep within us that makes this step more difficult to follow. Finally, she asks the question of “What are the spiritual implications of this step of humility?” This is where we begin to work on our spiritual relationship with God. How will living into each step of humility get us closer to our true selves and thus closer in relationship to God.

Part of the wonderfulness of this book is that it also reads somewhat like a memoir. Sister Joan shares with the reader how she has progressed through many of the steps in her own personal life. From entering the monastic order while she was young to the many varied experiences that she had throughout her life encountering each step and having to wrestle with it. While not a complete autobiography, it gives the reader a glimpse into the character of Sister Joan and how she has faced the tough act of humility.

The steps to humility tend to progress on the difficulty scale as you move through them. Humility is not easily achieved overnight, and following in Sister Joan’s acknowledgement, it is something that takes a lifetime of work. Isn’t this true of all things spiritual? This is why people jump so quickly from one practice to another. They do not have the patience to walk through the difficulties associated with whatever practice they are attempting. It is the patience that is required to stick with something, even when we feel that our prayers are not being answered, that we will finally hear God’s response.  In this patience, we listen. “A spiritual life that learns to listen to the voice of God within is a spiritual life with God as its director. Then we are free; then we are truly authentic.”

This is also not just a one-time practice that as you work through the steps, you will come to completion. It is true that, “Just as the world thinks one struggle has been won, somewhere, somehow, it emerges all over again.” It is amazing how history does repeat itself, and we fail to learn from our mistakes as people of God. This is where we fall into sin. This is where Sister Joan’s work offers us the opportunity to work out of those mistakes.

What posture must we take as a people of God today? “In a society that glorifies achievement and success, the very thought of a spiritual life based on what appears to be groundless deference and debasement of self is totally unacceptable.” We allow the grace of God to wash over us and humble ourselves before God. “Spirituality is not about feeling good about ourselves. It’s about dong good wherever we are. It’s about bring good to everyone…. It’s about fashioning our souls in the kind of silence that enables the whole world to feel safe in our calm and quiet presence.”

In this calm and quiet presence, she brings The Rule of Saint Benedict back to life for those that may have forgot it; for those that may have never seen it; and for a world that is so in need of humility in this time and place.

 

 

 

A Grace Filled Summer

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June 18, 2017

Romans 5:1-8

Most of us can probably point to some reading that we have done throughout our lives that have really helped shape us as individuals. It is in these readings that we find direction and even redirection. It may have been a teacher that impacted our life through the encouragement to read. Reading is important. To continue to grow as people, reading is essential. Ask almost any person that has grown significantly in what they do, and they will be able to tell you what is on their reading lists.

Some of the early books that shaped me were The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemmingway. I remember my eighth-grade teacher telling me to revisit it as an adult because it would connect at an even different level. The poetry of Walt Whitman was also one of my favorites. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton was essential as my faith and spiritual life began to take shape.

While the ability and availability to read has increased in humanity over the last several centuries, we must remember that at one time it was only the well-to-do that had access and could afford books. Also, they were the few that were literate.

What is it about Paul’s writing that grasped the attention of the canonical councils to include many of his letters in the New Testament?

Paul had a storied history as a Pharisee. Yet, this meant he was well-trained and very educated. He was a persecutor of those that followed Jesus and did what he thought at the time was necessary to preserve the Jewish faith. However, it was in his conversion that he came to truly know Christ and was able to truly experience the gospel for the first time. He became a teacher for Christ. His letters helped shape the early Christian church.

His letters communicated the gospel to the communities he wrote. This was their first true teaching. The four gospels we are familiar with had not even been written yet. Paul was their connection to the Lord and Messiah, Jesus Christ. His letters brought hope and direction.

Somewhere along the timeline of the Christian church, this message had been lost amidst the hierarchy of the church. That is until Martin Luther recovered it in the early sixteenth century. As we each have our own readings that shape and give us direction in life, Martin Luther recovered something in Paul’s letters, and specifically Romans, that would change the course of Christianity forever.

Reflecting on Romans, Martin Luther wrote that, “this epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament, and is truly the purest gospel…. It is a bright light, almost efficient to illuminate the entire Holy Scriptures.”

Our four gospels in the Bible help share the story of Jesus Christ from different viewpoints. They share his birth, ministry and miracles, and death and resurrection. In these alone we are given hope for tomorrow. It is in Paul’s letters that we see that gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, at work in the world.

As we enter into Paul’s world this summer, through his letter to the Romans, we encounter the power that is in the Gospel that Jesus lived out for each and every one of us. In his study of the letter to the Romans, Martin Luther uncovered the good news of grace. A grace of God that is unmerited and shows the love of God for all of creation.

This is the foundation of our Lutheran faith. It is in this revelation, that Luther would eventually help be drawn to write his Ninety-Five Thesis. This Word of God was with us all along, yet got buried under the orthodoxy of the church and simple human sinfulness.

The grace of God can be found throughout our Bible. In our gospel lesson, Matthew writes that, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). This is pure grace that is shown through compassion and love for those that would not receive it from anyone else. It is this grace that Paul was given when Christ reached out to him and asked why he was persecuting him.

Prior to our lesson this morning in Romans, Paul has been discerning the righteousness of God for the last couple of chapters. It is a conclusion to his discussion on God’s righteousness that he writes, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

As Lutherans, we have come to understand that the forgiveness of sins is not on account of our merit, but by the grace of God.

There is a rift between humanity and God because of our sin. It is Christ that brings us peace and in this we are reminded through Luther that we are both saint and sinner. It is not our goodness that merits the grace, but God’s goodness that washed over us. There is nothing that we can do to merit this grace, for what would Christ have accomplished on the cross if we were able to do it all on our own.

Martin Luther was called to ministry and the study of the Bible. In his reading, he found a hope and grace that shapes us today. What have you read or who have you encountered that reflects the grace of God?

The grace of God fills our lives on a daily basis. It is this grace that we will encounter this summer in Paul’s letter to the Romans. It is this grace that fills our days and promises us life everlasting in Jesus Christ.

 

Remember, I am with you

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June 11, 2017

Matthew 28:16-20

Do you remember?

Do you remember your first kiss? Do you remember the first time you saw your spouse? Do you remember the day your children were born? Do you remember the day they took their first steps?

There are certain memories that we keep ingrained in our minds. Things that we do not want to forget. Things that are very close to our hearts. These are the memories that we can even point to when we are in the waning years of our lives. These are the memories that have helped shape us as the people we are now.

Our memories are not necessarily always good. We remember those things in our history that have brought great pain, personal and collective. We commemorate the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and remember the lives lost. Last year on September 11, we remembered the fifteenth anniversary when four planes brought tragedy to our doorstep; the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, accounting for close to three thousand deaths. Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando where 49 people were killed. We remember these dates because they mean something to us.

As we sat back and listened to this morning’s lessons, we entered into the collective memory of our ancestors and the great mystery of our God. The beginning of Genesis recalls the first creation story that is shared among the Hebrew people. It is our stories that we are called to share when Jesus gives the great commission to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a).

While it has been used to direct us in our calling, the great commission has also been carried to an extreme where people have done almost anything to spread the gospel. Quite often early missionaries to Africa and South America would go into communities thinking they were following Jesus’ great commission. In reality, they would quite often do more harm than good. Jesus approached those he spoke to with love, albeit tough love sometimes. He also told the disciples that if a village was not open to listening to the gospel then turn around, shake the dust of your feet, and go on to the next village. Sometimes, the early missionaries forgot this little teaching.

They would do whatever it took to get people to come forward for an altar call, or at least the equivalent of it. This is how many African nations were colonized by Europeans. The awesome thing is that as these continents got to understand and be in relationship with the Trinity on their own terms Christianity started to really grow. The southern hemisphere and Asia are some of the fastest growing areas of Christianity in the world. Perhaps, they need to come to the United States and Europe as we see declining numbers in our churches and do mission work.

While we have focused on the great commission of the gospel text, that is not where the real power lies within it. We tend to skip right over what truly is the heart of the gospel.

What was that last sentence of our gospel lesson?

Oh, it is a promise! A promise that never ends. “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (vs 20b).

Robert H. Smith tells us, “I am with you” (28:20) assures readers ancient and modern that the apocalyptic worldview has been broken at a crucial point. The exalted Christ does not say, “I will come again later at the end of history after an immense absence.” Matthew’s Christ is a powerful presence in the midst of ongoing history, yoked to disciples (11:29), dwelling in their midst (1:23; 18:29), feeding them the richest food (26:26-28).[1]

From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we are reminded that God is with us. From our Christmas Celebration, Emmanuel (God with us), has entered into our world as one of us. Divine, yet human.

Willing to walk with us.

Willing to talk with us.

Willing to sit down and break bread with us.

Jesus shows humanity what it means for God to be with us. To be ever present and ever loving. Through Jesus’ death on the cross we encounter a God that shows a love for us that is unbounded. A love that requires nothing in return. A love that is so full of grace that we should be willing to share that love in return, not only with God, but with our sisters and brothers.

Our sisters and brothers of all races, nationalities, sexual orientation, disabilities, religions, and on and on and on.

This is the heart of our gospel lesson this morning. While out of this, we should be compelled to go make disciples. However, it all starts with a promise! A promise that Jesus is with us.

Not, Jesus was with us back some time ago.

Not, Jesus will be with us in the time to come.

Jesus is with us, here and now. Jesus will be with us in the bread and wine as we come forward for communion. Jesus will be with us as we walk out those doors to encounter what the next week will bring us. Jesus will never leave us. Jesus is the personification of the Holy Trinity, and in his promise, we are surrounded by the great mystery.

It is in that mystery that we place our faith and embrace the never-ending promise, God with us.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you. Amen.

[1] Robert H. Smith, The End in Matthew (5:28 and 28:20): How to Preach it and How Not To. Word & World, Volume XIX, Number 3, Summer 1999

 

God With Us!

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June 4, 2017 (Pentecost)

Acts 2:1-21

What is it that makes you passionate? Is it the love that you have for your children and family? Is it a hobby that keeps you engaged with others? Perhaps it is an issue that is very close to your heart. Quite often, the Holy Spirit will help guide our passions. Sometimes it may even take many years to see the results of our passion. Joan Chittister writes, “We must see the injustice, the difficulties before us, the unfavorable conditions in which we live and then work for years, if necessary, to make the future safe for others. That sense of purpose alone makes life rich and worthwhile, successful and significant, however limited the gains, however long the journey.”

As we celebrate the day of Pentecost, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit stirring up the crowd in Jerusalem. They hear a sound from heaven like a violent rush of wind. If this does not want to send the crowds gathered for cover, I am not sure what will. I imagine it sounding like the roar of a jet engine and just as fierce. Everyone begins speaking in different languages, and for some reason they can all understand one another. A few onlookers assume that there must be some pretty good wine that is being shared amongst them and surely, they are drunk.

As Peter addresses the crowd, he reminds them that it is only 9 a.m., and that is way too early to be getting drunk. That verse has to make you chuckle a little. In the midst of this first Pentecost celebration is an excitement that cannot be contained. An excitement that is filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit which comes and rests on each of those gathered fulfilling the promise that Jesus made to all of God’s people.

Let’s not forget the fire. “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (vs. 3). The image of the Holy Spirit as fire is one that is ripe with meaning. Fire has a certain power to it. Fire could almost be deemed as important as water for survival. For tens of thousands of years, humans gathered around fire to keep warm, to cook food, to provide light. The fire provided an opportunity for community, protection, and better safer food.

Fire plays an important role in our stories from the Bible.

  • It was God that appeared to the people on Sinai as flames of fire.
  • Moses experienced God in the fire of the burning bush. When the Israelites presented their offerings to God it was through the fire.
  • As God led the people out of the wilderness, it was with a pillar of fire.
  • The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego being delivered through the flames of the furnace with a fourth person being present, points to God.
  • The Seraphim that we speak of and sing of in hymns are fire-spirits, an extension of the divine.
  • Fire was seen as divine even by the Romans of the first century. One of their coins depicted Caesar with flames above his head as a sign of royalty.

Fire is not always a good thing in scripture. It can be seen as a sign of divine judgement. The angel in Eden hides the tree of life from humanity with a sword of fire. John the Baptist prophesizes that fire will consume the chaff. Fire accompanies humanity on its journey in the world, yet it also has the power to destroy.

We have seen what fire can do. We have witnessed it or unfortunately may have experienced it ourselves as fire can quickly consume a house. However, out of the fire, can come the reminder of life.

We all may have stories to share of the power of fire. Fire can also refine. It can help shape and mold beautiful pieces of art out of glass like Chihuly. Fire in a kiln helps preserve pottery. Forestry workers do controlled burns to bring about new life and vegetation.

It is in the tongues of fire that we encounter the Holy Spirit and are refined ourselves. We don’t run away from it, because we trust the Holy Spirit. It is in the fire that we can be empowered to reach out proclaiming the Good News. We may not always understand the Holy Spirit, if we ever do. We just have to trust in it.

The Holy Spirit is alive and around us all the time. It is constantly burning with a mysterious power to reach out in love and change lives. Rob Bell says, “The bush was always burning. It just took some one moving slow enough to notice it.” Have you had your own burning bush encounter, like Moses?

Where is the fire burning within your life? Where is it that the Holy Spirit is calling you to reach out and share Jesus Christ and the love that he has so freely shared with you? Where is it that you feel compelled to proclaim God’s amazing grace?

Once again, the Holy Spirit was at work in our midst this past week. As humanity, we are called to care for the creation that God has given to us. While the decision was made at the national level to remove the United States from the Paris Agreement, the Spirit was at work. Individual states and cities were stepping up to say that regardless of this announcement, they believed it was their responsibility to care for the earth and ensure that future generations will be able to revel in its mystery and beauty.

As in Moses case, the Holy Spirit does not always make things comfortable and convenient. It does not remove us from challenges and hardships. In the Holy Spirit, we are equipped to persevere and even flourish. Martin Luther came to understand that as human beings, we are incapable of living up to what Jesus wants us to be, the Holy Spirit makes this possible. It is in the Holy Spirit that God comes to be with us.