Living Our Faith: Sacraments

Water surface
Water surface

October 14, 2018

Hebrews 4:12-16

I would like you to stop and think for a minute about the practices in your life that you have held close to your heart. Those things that you have looked forward to on a regular basis. Perhaps they have even shaped who you are today.

One such practice in my life became an annual tradition while I was still living at home with my parents. I was fortunate enough to grow up with an in-ground pool. The pool was a source of fun and laughter throughout the summer. To take a refreshing dip in the pool after mowing the yard was something that I looked forward to. Having friends over and not having to worry about anything on a hot summer day was glorious. For my family, pool season always opened on Memorial Day! Regardless of the weather. Pool season began when I would boldly jump in and break through the surface of the water for the first time. There were Memorial Days where I would enjoy the water and stay in as long as possible because it was eighty degrees out. There were other days that I would jump in and could not get out quick enough because it was barely in the fifties.

This became a spiritual practice for me and the water reinvigorated me after the endless cold of living through another mid-Michigan winter. There is also the obvious connection of the water to our sacramental practice of baptism. In the waters of baptism, we are washed clean and receive the grace of God.

This second week of the Living Our Faith series brings us to the topic of sacraments.

While sacraments are commonly associated with religious ritual, that was not always the case. The word sacrament originally derived from the Latin word, sacramentum, and was used by the Romans when sending soldiers out to war. It was the most serious vow someone could make, to put one’s life up for the empire. There are rituals that happened long before that through the Christian churches own Jewish ancestry. Rituals are important and play an important role in forming community.

It is easy to partake in our modern sacraments. Especially when we don’t always fully understand the promises we are making. We can take them for granted and not fully live into them as God has intended for us. It is through the word of God that the sacraments embody the Holy whenever we baptize or whenever we come to the Lord’s Table to feast. The word of God does not come lightly. In our reading from Hebrews, the author writes, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

When we approach the table every week, we are naked before God.  All our vulnerabilities are laid bare and our actions are not invisible. God knows us and desires for us to be one with the Spirit. God wants us to be vulnerable. Not just with God, but in all our relationships. God wants us to be our true selves and to live into the reign of God.

The sacraments have not always been administered properly in the church and some have chosen to use them to their advantage as leverage or control. However, it is impossible to place limits on God. The moment that we try, God breaks through the fence, knocks down the wall, or clears the way for anything that may lay in God’s path.

God’s call for us this morning is to do the same!

Once again, we hear in the letter to the Hebrews, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in time of need.” Jesus has led the way for us to approach the sacraments with a boldness that reflects our faith. A faith that lifts Christ up as our companion that can be with us in our weaknesses and cheers us on in our strengths. To be bold and confident as we are reminded of the baptismal waters that washed over us, and to eat and drink of the body and blood of Christ which brings us to full communion with God.

The following clip from the movie, Phenomenon, is an example of how Christ works in us through the power of God’s word in the sacraments.

Like the apple, when we eat of the bread and drink of the wine, Jesus becomes a part of us. Jesus is present with us and restores us. This is the grace of God at work in a world that is often at odds with itself. We are reminded of Christ’s death on the cross and the life that he has given for all of humanity. Through the sacraments, God’s word is active and thriving. God’s word fills our hearts, minds, and souls so that we may fully live into a relationship that is comprised of love and compassion.

The practices that we live in the sacraments are an outward and visible sign of God at work in the world today. All are invited to be a part of that work. To be washed clean in the ever-flowing waters; to feast on the bread of life. In these, we encounter a God that knows no boundaries and has broken down walls so that all may experience the reign of God.

Let us pray. Living and active God, you have initiated the commands for us to be baptized and to share in your body, broken for us. In the waters and at the table, may we be renewed and experience your loving grace in our lives. Amen.

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Welcome to the Table

food salad restaurant person
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August 19, 2018

John 6:51-58

Our lives revolve around food. Food is a great way to invite people in and share in relationship with one another. Jesus is no stranger to food and enthusiastically welcomes all to the table where the feast has been prepared and Jesus welcomes us to feast on the bread of life.

The doubt and the questioning continue this week as Jesus explains further what it means to be the bread of life for the world. The promise that he lays out for those listening hedge on the more graphic side this week as he says those that feast on his flesh and blood will have eternal life. Imagine what they must be thinking as they are hearing these words for the first time. Israel is not immune to sacrifice. They know what takes place. However, this Jesus guy is now talking about the life that can be found in his flesh and blood.

We, of course, have reference in the eucharistic imagery and are familiar with these words. They, however, are not. There are no words of institution in John, like there are in the other gospels, yet it is here that Jesus makes the promise of eternal life for those that come to the table and eat of the flesh and drink of the blood.

They are having trouble with what they cannot understand. Yet, Jesus does not tell them that they must understand to take part in the meal that he is giving them. He just invites them to come and eat and enjoy the feast that is set out before them.

I will admit that every time I read this passage I twinge slightly. How am I to eat your flesh and drink your blood, Jesus? YUCK!!! I don’t even eat meat and now Jesus is inviting us in to eat of his flesh. The images that we conjure up in our minds is enough to make us pause. It is like being invited to dinner and you have the whole cooked fish placed on the table in front of you with the eyes still in place. Or the sheep’s head staring up at you with a look of innocence.

If we have not fully embraced this doctrine of the church, it is not surprising that there may be a little hesitancy. The church has been arguing what Jesus means in these words and the institution of Eucharist for nearly two thousand years. As long as Jesus has rose from the tomb. We argue and bicker among denominations over who can and cannot eat of the bread of life. As Lutherans we come to the understanding through Martin Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism: “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”

Unfortunately, because of our disagreements, our various denominations argue over whose understanding is better and if we cannot believe in the same thing as others, then we are shutdown from joining them in the great feast that Jesus has set before us.  In the meantime, Jesus has to be shaking his head at our petty bickering.

In his words in John, or in the words of institution found in the other gospels, Jesus does not include any footnotes of who should be excluded from the table. It is our belief in these very words that reveal to us the grace of God that abundantly overflows the table. There is power in sitting down for a meal together. It is easy to forget that as young families, because we are constantly running children from one place to another. Quite often the meal is eaten from the drive thru in the backseat of the van.

Not only is there power in sitting down and being in relationship and talking with one another, there is power in the food that we consume. Imagine that meal that you sit down and eat with your family on Thanksgiving or any holiday for that matter. It usually is a filling meal that you can feel course through your body and provides nourishment in the form of fulfilling a hunger, but also something more. It becomes a part of you. You take in those relationships that are gathered around the table.

Those meals from around the world that I showed you earlier were just a glimpse of a culture and society. However, in each one of those meals is a relationship that is waiting to happen. A relationship with those gathered around the table and with the food itself.

There is that same type of power in the bread of life that can be found in Jesus Christ. The bread of life comes to us now and in it we find eternal life. Not an eternal life that we must look forward to in the future, but a life that we are already living into now! A life with Jesus that fulfills that promise that he made to his disciples that he will be with us to the end of time. The bread of life courses through our body like a good meal that we have with friends and family. It nourishes us and restores us. This bread of life is given for us. It is a gift. In this gift we receive the grace of God in which our sins are forgiven. In this forgiveness, we truly can begin to understand what it means to be disciples of Christ.

Let us pray. Feeding God, you are the bread of life, and in you our hunger is fed. May we continue to find fulfillment in your promise of eternal life as we live into it today and move towards the full embodiment of the kingdom of God. Amen.

 

Being Drawn to Jesus

 

priest holding hostia
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August 12, 2018

John 6:35, 41-51

When I was getting ready to enter fourth grade, I asked my parents if I could play football. I had played baseball for a couple of years and decided that I wanted to try a new sport. It didn’t take me long to realize that I did not like running as a fourth grader. Although, I would come to look forward to it as I got into my late twenties.

I begged my mother to let me not play because I disliked all the running and it seemed that whenever I did something wrong, the coach would make me run around the practice field. I remember the sobbing that took place in the back of the car and my mother’s words that I would finish what I started. I am proud to say that I did finish out the season and that I never put on a football uniform again!

This could also explain my fear of physical education in junior high and high school. I was not very good at team sports and when we would line up to be picked my anxiety would rise because I knew that I would be one of the last ones to be picked. This truly hurts when you are that age and did not do much for my self-confidence. I would focus more on academics and look for other ways to be part of something. This could be why I chose to play tennis in high school because at the most you were only on the court with one other teammate. While we may feel left out, Jesus draws us into himself, to love us and so that we can begin a relationship with God that will direct and guide our life.

This morning, it appears that Jesus is on the outside looking in. The Jewish leaders that have gathered turn hostile in our lesson as we work deeper into the sixth chapter of John. Unlike the other gospels, Jesus has no problem declaring that he is the son of God. He expands that image even more in this chapter by declaring that he is the bread of life. A bread that fills one for all of eternity.

The gathered leaders reject this notion. Jesus is the last one that they would choose to be on their team. His mother is Mary, and his father is Joseph. They know where he came from. It is ludicrous for him to say that he comes from God. However, Jesus does not let this detour him. He continues to say that those who are drawn to him will know God and will learn from God.

Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue is one that not only troubles the leaders gathered but it also speaks counterintuitively to their understanding of the Torah. This is not what they are expecting, and it is not what they are ready for. If Jesus is who he says he is, that means their authority is in question and that they must hand it all over to God. They are threatened by Jesus and do not understand how they will be drawn to him to get to know God. In their minds, they know who God is and for them, God is not in the image of Jesus that is standing in front of them. Things just are not adding up!

It is nice when everything adds up to a concise answer. Isn’t it?

Just ask an engineer or a mathematician. Everything must add up and be precise so that the answer is clear for all to see. For safety’s sake, we would like everything to add up, so planes stay up in the air and cars stay safely on the road. Because of this, we like the answers given to us. When we are confronted with the mysterious words of Jesus in this morning’s lesson, we are left scratching our heads. We too, like the Jewish leaders, are wondering how we are going to be drawn to Jesus. Some of us may get it. More power to you. Some of us catch glimpses of it and yet thirst and hunger for more. Did you know that for most of her life, Mother Theresa was constantly searching for God and felt at a lost? Some of us may just go along without attempting to further our spiritual journey and become complacent where we are.

We reject the things that are right in front of us. We reject those that try to help in times of need. We reject words of acknowledgement. We reject common sense. Now, I am not saying we all do this, but I am sure there are times that we could agree we hedge in that direction. Through our social culture, we have been told that we must be strong and independent. We have been told that it is weak to turn to others for help. Therefore, we crack under the pressure and respond in negative ways to our environments when faced with adversity. We are disturbed and threatened when we are told that we will be drawn in regardless.

In light of my experience in Phys. Ed. during junior high and high school, I would have loved to be drawn in. I would have loved the opportunity to not have to worry about when I would be picked to be on someone’s team.

This is what we find in Jesus! He comes to us willing to break down any barriers that may be in our way to knowing him in a fuller and deeper way. A way that leads us through any troubles and challenges that we may encounter. A way that leads to the foot of the cross and the waters of baptism where we experience a new birth. A birth that is like no other. A birth that washes us clean and sends us out into the world to proclaim the good news!

The notion of this is counter-cultural. The teachings of Jesus do not always coincide with the practices of this world. This is radical! In this radicalness, we experience a love that breaks us free from the chains that hold us back. The chains of our own sinfulness that we are called to repent of daily. This radical love meets us where we are.

Being drawn to Jesus Christ should provide a sense of comfort and fulfill the gospel promise that is given to us through our ancestors. We are drawn to Jesus not once though; we are drawn over and over again as we are reminded of his saving grace that was brought into the world to remind the world of the love that God has for all of creation. It is a love that knows no boundaries and a love that draws all of creation into the loving embrace of a God that knows where we are.

Being drawn to Jesus and learning from God is grace at work. It is a grace that walks with us in our journey to fully being in relationship with the creator whose image we reflect. It is a grace that meets us at the table and offers the body and blood of Christ so that we may encounter Jesus in the most intimate way possible and be filled so that we may share with others.

Let us pray. Drawing God, enable us to put down our guard and welcome your presence into our congregation, our families, and our lives. As you draw us to yourself, may we be open to encounter you in new and meaningful ways that gives us life and hope for things to come. Amen.

Set Within God’s Word

Bread and wine

April 2, 2017

John 11:1-41

I don’t know about you, but there are times throughout the week that I long to gather for worship. Times when I feel drained and know that I need to be fed by God’s Word in community and to be with you as we break the bread and drink the wine. It is in this that my longing, our longing, for God in our lives is fulfilled. We are renewed in the elements at the table, where all are welcome.

The worship planning team chose to have us sing All Are Welcome as a gathering song throughout the entirety of the Lenten season for a reason. Our gospel lessons this season have spoken of inclusion and are an invitation for all people. After Jesus exits the wilderness, he encounters Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and this morning Lazarus. All of them could be thought of as outcasts at one point. Yet, Jesus welcomes them into his flock and reminds them that they are loved. The hymn, All Are Welcome, is a wonderful witness to the love that flows in the community of Christ. In the third verse, we have the promise that comes to us in the sacraments.

Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine, and wheat: a banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet. Here the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space; as we share in Christ the feast that frees us: All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.

We have used four weeks to wind our way through, the briefest understanding of the Small Catechism. If we wanted to, we could have entire sermon series’ that focus on just the Ten Commandments, or the Apostles Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer. We have yet to touch upon the sacraments that Luther raises up in the catechism. The sacrament of Baptism and the sacrament of the Altar could also have a sermon series devoted to them alone. However, I will try to do justice to them both in this sermon.

When we encounter water, and when we encounter bread and wine, it is simply that. However, when we encounter them within our setting of worship it is not just mere water or mere bread and wine. In the sacraments of Baptism and the Altar, the water, bread, and wine are set within God’s word and are bound to it.

The majority of us, encounter the waters of baptism first. In the water we are reminded of the saving grace of God and are born again into a life with Christ. A baptism that can never be invalidated, regardless of the errors that we make along the way. It is not our faith that makes baptism, rather our faith receives the baptism, and it is in this that we baptize our children when they are yet infants. In this, baptism is built upon God’s word and command. The significance in baptism with water is stated in Luther’s explanation that, “It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

While we only encounter the waters of baptism once in our lives, we can be reminded of it on a daily basis. In the morning as we take a shower and let the water run over our heads, we can be reminded that we too were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We can be reminded when we wash our face. We can be reminded when we allow our inner child to come out and play in the rain! These are all reminders of God’s word that works in the baptismal waters.

It is at the altar too, that we encounter the Word of God working in the midst of ordinary elements. In the bread and wine we find that Christ has never abandoned us. He is there present in the bread and the wine as we come forward, even when we don’t feel worthy. As in baptism, all are welcome at the Lord’s table. This was not always the case. In late medieval-time, the Lord’s Supper was a feast for the eyes and a ceremony for the dead around a mass. Luther brought the meal back to the people and insisted that it was a feast for all, meant to be eaten and drunk while hearing the word and Christ’s forgiving presence.

It has been funny to hear of the transition of the Lord’s Supper throughout the history of the Lutheran church. There were times that people would only receive it once a year. There would be times that maybe it was once a quarter, or even a couple of times a month. In Wittenberg, Luther made sure that communion was celebrated on a weekly basis! Why? Because it is needed!!!

While we are saints, we are also sinners. It is in the Lord’s Supper that we are truly able to encounter Christ on a weekly basis. It is “for times like these, when our heart feels too sorely pressed, this comfort of the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us strength and refreshment.” It is in the words “given for you,” and “shed for you,” that “show us that forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament through these words, because there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.

This journey with the small Catechism during our Lenten days has gave us the opportunity to worship and proclaim God’s Word through the lens of Martin Luther. It is in his questions of “what is this,” and “what does this mean” that we are able to pause and think about our common Christian belief and practices that we may perhaps take for granted. The Catechism became the basis of one’s education in the Christian faith and it would quickly be translated into several different languages with each printer sometimes adding their own personal touch. In 1542, a Liepzig printer included Luther’s “children’s hymn” as a fitting conclusion to the small Catechism:

 

Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word;

Curb those who by great craft or sword

Would wrest the kingdom from your Son

And set at naught all he has done.

Lord Jesus Christ, your power make known,

For you are Lord of lords alone.

Defend your lowly church that we

May sing your praise eternally.

O Comforter of priceless worth,

Send peace, send unity on earth.

Support us in our final strife,

And lead us out of death to life. Amen.

Be Reconciled

be-reconciled-2

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.