Sunday, February 25, 2018

Laying Down, Letting Go: Mark 8:31-38 - Second Sunday in Lent

31[Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (NRSV)
Hill of Crosses / Collina delle Croci by * Ivan Zanotti Photo * on flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

After the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, it has become taboo to say to someone, “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.

What do you mean when you say this—and what does it mean for you to hear it?

This goes right along the lines of saying, “my heart goes out to you;” or, “let me know if there’s anything you need.”  If you say that, are you ready for them to call you up and ask you for money, or help moving a sofa?  Are you ready to do or give something that comes at a cost to you?

For starters, you’re being dishonest if you’re not actually taking the time to think about and pray for that person.  Secondly, are you ready for God to answer your prayers for that person by sending you to serve that person?  Or is your care of that person limited to speaking a worn-out cliché?

I know that’s harsh, but remember—Jesus didn’t save you with thoughts and prayers. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is telling his disciples, for the first time, that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religions authorities, and be killed—and after three days, rise again. 

Peter, however, won’t hear of it—because Jesus had just spoken the extreme opposite of everything he hoped that Jesus would do.  He had just confessed that Jesus was the Messiah—and in Peter’s defense, the idea that a Messiah would be killed by anyone was preposterous.  Nevertheless, Jesus has just dashed Peter’s great expectations…  There would be no glorious conquest of the Romans; no overthrow of the corrupt religious leaders; no chance that he or any of his fellow disciples would ascend to positions of power

God’s Messiah will be giving his life away—and the only way for you to receive life in his name is to do the very same: to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.

This, of course, goes way beyond thoughts and prayers.  It’s beyond holding to certain beliefs and teachings or performing certain rituals or sacrifices.  You’re putting everything on the line; letting it all go; laying it all down; giving it all up.  But who wants to do that? 

At no point is the Gospel more countercultural than it is at the cross... 

We live in a world that values achieving more; to accumulating more; and controlling more.  Power, strength, and even ruthlessness get rewarded.  Individualism and self-sufficiency are virtues, and self-actualization the highest good... 

How, now, shall we live? 

Consider if you will, what impact the tragedy in Parkland, Florida has had on you.  Does it scare you?  Anger you?  Make you cry?  And what do you do with those emotions?  Do you hold your loved ones closer to you? Do you cling to a gun?  Are you suspicious of people most different from you?  Have you become a prisoner in your own home? 

Consider this time of incredible challenge and change for our church.  Are you scared about the future?  Do you believe the Lutheran witness even has a future in the Kiski Valley?  Are you willing to see this church CHANGED to be more faithful to its mission?  Or, should we stay the course, dig in our heels, and never compromise?

I ask these questions because when times are tough—or times are really good—there is always that temptation to grab onto to whatever makes you safe and comfortable; whatever gives you control; whatever you need to protect what matters most.

As soon as you set your sights on someone or something other than the cross, you’ve made your own gods.  Whenever your instincts are focused on self-aggrandizement and self-preservation, the devil is never far away.  That’s why Jesus is so harsh on Peter.  Trust in God is traded for a trust in something else.  The neighbor is of no consequence; the Gospel of no concern.  You gain the world and lose your soul. 

Trying to gain the world, you lose your mind, too.  Have you noticed that the meanest, most miserable, and dysfunctional people are those who are desperate to make a name for themselves; determined to get their own way; intoxicated by their own self-righteousness?  They are in a perpetual state of war with the world around them.  They are so set in their ways that they throw common sense out the window.  You reject truth when it’s staring you square in the face. 

The truth of the cross, on the other hand, is that God has entered into the pain and brokenness of humanity.  When life hits the dirt, Jesus is in it with you: forgiving your sins; sharing your sorrow; carrying your cares.  Jesus can take what is terrible and use it for your redemption. 

But hear also Jesus’ promise—that when you take up your cross and follow him, you gain your soul.  It’s not that you’re earning your salvation, but that when you lay everything down, you enter into the life God intends.  You exchange fear, anxiety, or ambition for right and meaningful relationships with neighbors; where security comes through the love that binds us together…  Joy comes through not what you get but what you give.  When you’re willing to enter into and embrace the pain of others, you witness firsthand the grace of God at work. 

You lay down and let go to the Savior who never lets you go.  This is what Lent is all about.  Letting go and laying down gives room for the Holy Spirit to heal, transform, and renew.  It gives room for Jesus to show you the fullness of his love and grace.  Thoughts and prayers become acts of God’s salvation.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

How God Answers Violence: Genesis 9:8-17 - First Sunday in Lent


8God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9“As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” (NRSV)


Noah’s Ark by Sean.  CC BY-ND 2.0.
Noah’s Ark has always been my favorite attraction at Kennywood.  I love entering through the whale’s mouth and walking across the moving stairwells and thumping floorboards.

But I found it strange that they made a haunted house out of a bible story that is beloved by children.  Who wouldn’t love a story about a floating petting zoo?  We have Noah’s Ark painted on the wall of one of our Sunday school rooms!

Yet when you pay close attention to the story, it is actually gruesome and terrifying.  I wonder if we really should be teaching it to our children!  Setting aside the logistical challenges of capturing, boarding, and feeding two of every creature, it’s absolutely monstrous that God would “blot out from the earth the human beings and animals” God created.  God looked at creation—and saw that the hearts, will, and inclination of humans was constantly turned towards violence.  God saw only one way to stop the violence: to destroy all flesh.

But when God saw Noah, God had a change of heart.  Through Noah and his family, God resolved to break the violence and redeem creation. 

God makes a covenant with Noah—a promise that God will never again send a flood to destroy the earth.  God puts the rainbow in the sky to remind God—not us—of God’s promise to redeem the world from violence with compassion and mercy.

Surprisingly, this is good news even for the people who died in the flood!

Think of it this way: Jesus doesn’t stand on the deck of the ark and watch God’s creation drown.  Jesus jumps in the water with violent sinners and drowns with them.

Isn’t that what happens in Jesus’ baptism?  Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized, because he’s not a sinner.  But he is.  Nevertheless, he goes in the water.  He immerses himself in the human condition.  This will all culminate at the cross, where Jesus will suffer the utmost violence humanity can devise.
At the cross, he dies a sinner’s death.

But in the same way as Jesus is raised up out of the water, God will raise up Jesus from the grave. Human violence—and the violence of the flood—don’t win.  God wins.  Mercy and forgiveness win.  Love wins.

Right now, in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida school shooting, one wonders how the violence of our world compares with the world’s violence before the flood...  This was the second deadliest school shooting in American history—but also the seventh school shooting in 2018.

Here you had a young man consumed with violence until he exploded—with seventeen lives lost to his violence; countless others injured; and an entire community that will bear this trauma for the rest of their lives.

We who did not suffer this violence directly suffer another kind of violence: FEAR.

Fear can make us monsters...  Or, fear can make us wise...

We as a congregation are launching a safety plan to protect ourselves from violence whenever we gather in this place.   Personally, I think this is ridiculous.  But wishful thinking doesn’t change anything.  We have to do this—because no one ever thinks it will happen to them until it does.

It’s bad enough that we have to be concerned with weapons in schools—but our children suffer verbal violence and lynching on social media.

Our greed-driven society perpetuates violence against the poorest of our neighbors in the form of poverty wages and assistance programs that punish people for trying to rise out of poverty by taking away much-needed benefits they need just to survive.

Our consumerism does violence to the earth with the stuff we buy, use up, and throw away.

And in our endless quest to have more, do more, and accomplish more, we do violence to ourselves in the form of anxiety and depression.

Now, more than ever, we need to remember God’s promise to redeem this creation from the violence we sinners perpetuate.  It is for this reason that Jesus has left the safety of heaven and dived into the chaos of human experience.  Jesus is lifting you up out of the flood into newness of life.

Softly and gently, Jesus is inviting you to a whole new way of living.  The churchy word for this is repentance. Do you really need to have so much, do so much, know so much?  Do you really have it all figured out that nothing in your life needs to change?  Repentance loosens your grip on material possessions; it slows down your mad pursuit of accomplishment; it breaks the anxiety.

The fruits of repentance are actions that accomplish God’s will in the world.  Make no mistake—Jesus is raising up his church to answer the violence tearing this world apart.  People need deep and meaningful human connections.  People need the love and support of neighbors when they can’t make it on their own.  People need rest from their anxiety.  People need safety and security that comes only from living in the promises of God.

The need has never been greater for the mercies of God to be made real to the world through the Body of Christ.  Jesus has immersed himself in the chaos of this world in order to raise us all up for new life. Even though the world will continue on much the way it is now—and things may get worse before they get better, Jesus is leading us through Lent to the cross, where death and devil meet their end. Lent will soon give way to resurrection.  This is God’s moment.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Why We Lent: Mark 1:9-15 - Ash Wednesday


[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (NRSV)
Ash Wednesday by Lawrence OP.  Creative commons image on flickr


It started out innocently enough... 

It was Ash Wednesday; and with it being a busy day I decided to grab a quick dinner at Arby's.  I ordered the Roast Beef sandwich value meal, sat down in a booth and ate it.  I was wearing my clerics, by the way. 

I'd just taken the first bite of my sandwich when I looked across the dining room to a woman, about my mother's age, staring at me with her eyes bulging and her jaw dropped in shock.  My eyes probably got just as big with embarrassment as I realized what I was doing: a "man of the cloth" was eating meat on Ash Wednesday. 

I could've explained to her that I'm a Lutheran and that we Lutherans are under no ecclesiastical obligation to abstain from eating meat on Fridays and Ash Wednesday.  But I didn't.  Instead, I scarfed down my meal as fast as I could chew it and left the restaurant.  And I never again ate meat on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday when in a public place, wearing my clerics.  I learned my lesson. 

It's wonderful that we are free in Christ NOT to undertake spiritual disciplines during Lent.  But is it really such a bad thing? 

I don't know about you, but Lent has always had this "doom and gloom" feel to it, which I certainly don't need in my life right now.  I don't need any more guilt about being a sinner.  I don't need to be burdened with any more disciplines when life is already so stressful—and eating chocolate or meat on Fridays may just help me feel good.   

People who fast during Lent remind me of people who wake up at 5 a.m. in winter to run fifteen miles: I have neither the time, the energy, the inclination, or the discipline to do such a thing.  If you can, more power to you.   

It's only lately that I've come to see the season of Lent as a gift, and here's why: it's not a spiritual boot camp to prove yourself worthy of Christ.  And it's certainly not a time for you to prove to yourself (or anyone else) that you can live without chocolate or meat on Fridays.  It's not about your self-discipline and willpower... 

Lent exists because of JesusJesus is the focus of Lent—and not what YOU DO (or don't do).  We're journeying to the cross, where the fullness of God's love is revealed; where sinners are forgiven and freed; where death and the devil meet their doom; where new life in God begins.   

But if you believe you can be a Christian without discipline, you are mistaken.   

Without discipline, Jesus is little more than an afterthought...  Out of sight, out of mind…  Forgiveness becomes permission to do whatever you want...  Service to one's neighbor is undertaken when it suits you...  Salvation becomes a get-out-of-hell-free-card to keep in your wallet or glove compartment, to present out only when needed...   

Just consider all of the noise of today's world: you're bombarded with thousands of advertising messages every single day, all of which promise that you can buy your way to happiness with their stuff.  You have talking heads on 24-hour cable news trying to win you over to their way of thinking so that you'll keep watching and get all your "news" their network.  You're under constant pressure to get results, meet people's expectations, deliver satisfaction.  We have more food, more clothes, more gadgets, and stuff than ever before—but all we have to show for it is a whole lot of trash.  Worst of all, we're stressed, exhausted, and miserable.   

Without discipline, anxiety will consume you until the day you die.  There has got to be an end to the constant anxiety of never having enough, never achieving enough, never knowing enough, never experiencing enough, never being good enough...   

Something has got to break the cycle.  Fortunately, Jesus did.  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  And Jesus is born into the vicious cycles that devour the gift of life, in order to lead you to the God who creates and restores life. 

This is why Lent is a gift.  This is why discipline is good.  God is breaking the cycle; gently calling us above the noise; giving shelter in the storm; bringing calm amid the calamity. Jesus disciplines you—not for punishment, but for growth.  For healing.  For transformation.  For freedom from sin.  For release from anxiety.   

In Christ, you do not have to accomplish more.  You do not have to control more or know more.  You don't have to consume more.  You can rest.  You can be at peace.  Instead of being lost in life's chaos, you are found in Lord. 

What's more is that the good Jesus aims to accomplish is not limited to you.  The discipline that strengthens your faith also strengthens relationships with your neighbor.  God's invisible power is made VISIBLE in people whom God sends to do God's work.  It's people who seek out and gather in the lost.  It's people who feed the hungry.  It's people who turn loneliness into friendship.  It's people who make God's presence real.  Ordinary people.  YOU. 

Lent is a gift.  Discipline is a gift—because the object of the discipline is Jesus, and the goal is new life.  He comes to be the passion that drives you; the love that inspires you; the hope that sustains you.  His love is too great a joy to miss by passing up an opportunity to do good.  Isn't Jesus a far greater treasure than a roast beef sandwich or a Hershey Bar?  Is it not a rich exchange to trade worldly anxiety for the resurrected life?