Seeing With Love

Sunday, September 25, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 16:19-31

Love and belonging – that’s what we all not only want, but need in life. We all need to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. We need to know that we’re not all alone in this world. We need to know that we are loved. We need to be seen. Yet not everyone is seen. Sometimes a person may feel invisible, like no one even knows they are there, like no one would even miss them, like no one would care if they lived or died. This was certainly the case for the person named Lazarus in our story today. In fact, when we first hear the name Lazarus our thoughts go to the Lazarus who was Jesus’ friend whom he raised from the dead. But the Lazarus in today’s story is not that person. This Lazarus was a very poor man, so poor that he was homeless and sick, and an outcast from the rest of society. He didn’t have any sense of belonging to a community – everyone stayed cleared of this Lazarus because he might “contaminate” them. Lazarus had sores all over his body and people were repulsed when they looked at him. So they didn’t look – they didn’t see Lazarus – they turned away or they were just so focused on themselves that eventually they couldn’t even see him.

That was the case for the rich man that Jesus tells us about in today’s story. Jesus wasn’t condemning the rich man because of his wealth, but because he let his wealth drive his actions instead of serving God. He let his wealth put up gates or walls between himself and those in society that needed him. Every day this poor man named Lazarus (who incidentally means God helps) needed help from this rich man who had more than enough to help him. The rich man had the best clothes, the best foods, the best means to provide care for not only himself, but others. He could have made a difference in Lazarus’ life. He could have shown God’s love to Lazarus. He could have been the answer to Lazarus’ prayers. Instead, Lazarus died – maybe from starvation even though he was right in front of the rich man’s house, maybe from freezing to death while the rich man slept in fine linens, maybe from infection due to the sores that were getting worse on his body while the rich man enjoyed hot baths and oils to anoint himself. We don’t know how Lazarus died; we only know that he died without that sense of love and belonging that the rich man could have showed him.

Extending God’s love and belonging to others is risky business. If the rich man had opened his gates and his arms to Lazarus it would have changed him as well as Lazarus, and change is not something people normally welcome. Most people like their own routine. They like doing things the way they’ve always done them. There’s a comfort it that.
Changing the way you live and welcoming new ideas challenges us and makes us feel uneasy, maybe even a little threatened.

Many years ago a friend of mine told me an incident that happened in their church that illustrates this. One Sunday morning, a woman walked into their church with old, dirty, ragged looking clothes and sat down in one of the pews. It was obvious she hadn’t showered in a while, she smelled a little, and looked like she perhaps had slept in the streets. The service hadn’t started yet, but she started talking to herself and making noises. As more people came into the church, they started looking at her and talking. They soon realized she was sitting in someone’s unofficial assigned seat. Quite a few people decided they were going to have to ask her to leave and so they went to a couple of the church council members and they agreed to escort her out. She was making everyone feel quite uncomfortable. When they approached the woman, she didn’t leave, instead she went to the front of the church. She went toward the pulpit and proceeded talk to them, while she started taking off some of her clothes. Underneath, were other clothes, and she wiped off her face, and fixed herself up revealing she was in fact, their pastor. Now everyone was even more uneasy.

The pastor didn’t do this to be manipulative. She did it to illustrate how easy it is for us an sinful humans to judge people by their appearances and how like the rich man in today’s story we put a separation – a gate or wall between us and those we want to keep out. The people in that church were not bad people, neither was the rich man, but they had a certain way of living that was challenged by the presence of these individuals who were different. And rather than change and think about doing things a little differently, then chose to ignore or send away those who would cause them to live and think differently.

That’s exactly what happened to Jesus. He challenged people to think and behave in ways that were different than what they had grown up to believe. He challenged people to see themselves in a different light. He challenged them to open their eyes and their hearts to all people with the compassionate love of God. Jesus challenged people to live their lives based on generosity and gratitude for all God had blessed them with and to spread the kingdom of God here on earth. Jesus is still speaking to us today and challenging us to be his faithful disciples by living lives of loving generosity and gratitude.

Every day we are given opportunities to be God’s hands and voices wherever we are. We are all God’s children and God lives in each person. Sometimes it’s not always easy to see that. There are times when people may hurt us or we may hurt others – and we must pray that the Holy Spirit open our hearts to see God in that person. When we see others as God’s beautiful creations, it changes us and changes the way we treat them. The story of the rich man and Lazarus today could have had a very different ending. The rich man who died did not have a second chance to go back and do things differently and neither do we. We have one life to live and Jesus demands that his disciples live it in a way that gives glory to God.

This week, this day, ask the Holy Spirit to open our hearts that we may embrace all people with the love of God, that we will make Christ known by the way we live our lives – lives that are overflowing with love, overflowing with gratitude, overflowing with generosity. That is what faithful disciples are called to do so that everyone may know Christ’s love and be embraced by his gracious love and belonging. Amen.

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Seeking First the Kingdom of God

Sunday, September 18, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 16:1-13

“You can’t serve God and wealth.” That line from Jesus is pretty straight and to the point. Jesus is saying we have to make a choice. We have to pick one – God or money.  Which one are we going to serve? It would seem at first glance that this is a real simple question and an easy one to answer. But nothing Jesus ever said was easy. And he assured us that being a disciple wasn’t easy. In fact, he said it’s costly. So before we answer the question, “Which one are we serving?” Jesus tells a parable to confuse things just a little.

He tells a very strange parable about a rich man who was told his manager was not taking care of his property well. Before he fired him, he wanted an account of the books. This sent the manager into a state of panic as to what he would do without a job and therefore a place to live and how he was going to take care of himself. So the manager decided to quickly get the money that was owed to the rich man by reducing the amount that people owed. He had two reasons for doing this. First, he may have been overcharging them a lot of interest anyway, so the amount he was collecting was probably actually what they originally owed. Second, by doing this he gets the money to his boss, and the people who paid less were happy and would take care of him when he was unemployed. This indeed is clever and shrewd and Jesus actually commends this behavior in a sideways sort of way. I imagine he may have said this with a sort of smile on his face saying, “Yes, that was really clever. Good for him.” And that is indeed the case when talking about business matters. In business, money and self-interest seem to be the bottom line.

Yet, Jesus also talks about the children of light – the beloved children of God – who are called to live a different way.  As the church, we are called to have a different bottom line. Love of God and of other people is always the bottom line. This was the new commandment Jesus was always talking about and it takes precedence over everything else. As the church – a community of believers – we are called to serve God and spread the God’s kingdom through everything we say and do. The mission God has for our congregation is always the bottom line. And that is what makes the choice Jesus sets before us so difficult.

So often churches want the bottom line to be about money – not money that is pooled together to carry out the mission God has for us to do, but how much money we can store up for ourselves or our congregations. Churches were never meant to be banks. They were never meant to be so shrewd in their business dealings that the ministry of God’s church came second. We as members of Christ’s church are stewards of God’s money, and time, and possessions, just like the manager in the parable in today’s lesson. And God wants to know if we are squandering his possessions. That’s the new way of thinking that Jesus is trying to get us to understand. Nothing we have is ours. Everything belongs to God. We are merely stewards of all these things – ourselves, our time, our possession, our money – everything. And it is all to be used to the glory of God. It is all to be used to praise God. But it’s easy to forget that, because all things can tempt us into believing that it all belongs to us. And when that happens serving God no longer becomes a priority for us individually or collectively as a congregation.

It’s the 18th Sunday after Pentecost – after the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, after Jesus ascended into heaven, after Jesus rose from the dead. Yet, as I mentioned last week, there are certain moments in history that we can never forget – that are forever engrained in our hearts and minds – and the resurrection of Jesus needs to be the most significant one of all. Because that is the defining moment for us as Christians. That moment determines how we answer the question of whether we will serve God or wealth. Helen Montgomery Debevoise, a Presbyterian pastor in Tampa, Florida sums this up beautifully. She says, “Not long ago, we shouted ‘He is alive!’ but already we are whispering our faith because we do not quite believe it anymore. Somewhere in the middle of our journey we stopped living for Christ. We stopped believing that Jesus died and was resurrected and that life was made new. Somewhere along the way it became easy to serve all those pressing demands: of people, of schedule, of money. Somewhere along the way, the vision for God’s call became cloudy and muddled. We stopped hearing God’s voice and joined the crazy survivor-takes all mentality. Somewhere along the way, the challenges seemed so much bigger than the answers. So we huddled in an effort to save whatever was left and forgot about living for something greater. We buried our treasures.”  She’s right and in the process we have made the decision – unknowingly or not – to serve wealth instead of God.

There is hope however in this confusion that we live in. The Holy Spirit calls us back to God. The Holy Spirit has called us here today to hear God’s word, to be reminded of our true priorities, to be reminded of our baptism where our relationship with God through Christ is our number one priority, to be fed by the body and blood of Christ and therefore to become more like him through this meal of forgiveness and grace. And that is even more good news, that we are called by the Spirit to see how we have failed to serve God, to repent, and to turn back to God. The Holy Spirit guides us to live a life that is faithful in the small things and the larger things of the kingdom of God. Because all the little things we do each and every day – of choosing God’s kingdom over the world’s kingdom – investing in people over wealth, all the sacrifices we make investing in relationships over possessions–– bring us closer to one another and to God.

Jesus said we cannot serve God and wealth. We must choose one to serve. We serve God by serving one another – being kind to one another, loving, compassionate – not by building up our treasures here on earth, but in seeking first the kingdom of God and having the faith and trust to know that God will provide for all our needs. Amen.

Finding Joy Among the Lost

Sunday, September 11, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 15:1-10

There are certain moments throughout history that are forever engrained in our memories. Moments that bring us intense new found joy. It may be the celebration of a birthday, anniversary, or baptism. It may be the new found joy at finally achieving a personal goal, or finding just the right words to say to someone who needs a word of comfort, or finding your way to a particular place when you’re lost. (I personally, am so grateful for whoever invented the GPS!) When something is found it is a cause for great celebration.

But what about the moments in our lives that are forever engrained in our memories not because of joy, but because of something that is lost? It might be the moment when the doctor gives you the news of a terminal illness – at that moment you might literally lose your mind at the loss of time. It may be the loss of a relationship through distance, divorce, or even death that leave you with an empty space in your life. These moments are significant, forever engrained in our minds and hearts.

There are other moments in history that collectively as a nation we all experience the losses together. The bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. and on this day 15 years ago, the terrorist attacks on our country. On September 11, 2001, everyone who is old enough to remember can tell you exactly what they were doing that day when the country experienced the tragic losses. Time seemed to stand still and more than lives were lost that day. Our country lost a sense of security as we felt vulnerable to attack. We lost our sense of safety as we felt and continue to feel a growing sense of fear. And on this day we are reminded of what we lost.

The two parables we read from Luke’s gospel today speak to us about this sense of loss. Jesus tell about two things that were lost. A shepherd having 100 sheep loses one. What a sense of urgency and panic he must have felt. You might say, “But it was only one sheep.” But to that shepherd every sheep is important. Every life matters. The other parable tells about a woman who had ten silver coins, but loses just one. And she too is in a state of grief until she finds that coin. Again, it’s only one coin, but it’s still valuable. That’s why the losses in our life hurt so much because each person is valuable. Each life is valuable. Each dream is valuable. When dreams are lost there is a profound sense of grief.

That’s why are congregations are grieving. We grief over not only our personal losses, our collective losses as a nation, but also our losses in our communities of faith. We grief over the loss of membership, of working together, of the way things used to be. We grieve what was and it can be paralyzing. Yet in our parables today Jesus tells us that we don’t need to be paralyzed by grief and loss. There is a way through it, and that way is by taking action in faith.

When the shepherd lost his sheep he didn’t stay paralyzed, but left the security of his home to find the one lost sheep. He went after it. He looked everywhere and he didn’t go back home until he found it. And when he did, he layed it on his shoulders and brought it home. And the woman who lost her one coin lit a lamp in her small house for light to see. She swept the house over and over again until she finally found that coin. And both of these people – the shepherd and the woman – then called their friends and neighbors and threw a celebration party. They rejoiced, because what was lost was now found. The sheep and the coin could find themselves; they needed someone else to find them, and so do we.

We all have been lost at one time in our lives or another. We’ve all been lost to sin. We’ve all been lost in our own grief. And we can’t find our way out of this ourselves. God is like the shepherd and the woman who lost the coin and God continues to search for us day and night until we are found. Whenever we are lost – to sin, to grief, to giving up, to giving in to the status quo, to forgetting who we are as beloved children of God, and disciples of Jesus – God searches us out and brings us back. Most often God does that through using ordinary people to speak God’s words of hope and promise to us. And Jesus wants us to search other people out too. Over the last few weeks we’ve heard in Luke’s gospel what Jesus expects of us as faithful disciples: to put God first in our lives, to make God our #1 priority, to cling to God and not those things that pull us away from God, and to understand that the cost of discipleship is high. It means we have to go out and search for the lost in this world and to welcome them into the community of faith. We have to seek them out and invite them to experience Jesus.

We – and congregations all over the ELCA – are doing that today as we celebrate God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday. Yes, celebrate! There is joy and meaning in serving and others. There is joy in searching for others. The brave men and women who helped save others during that fateful day on 9/11 – the firefighters who went in and saved people over and over again – did so not out of resentment, but out of a heart that understood that all lives matter. They didn’t stop to think about if the person looked like them – if they were American, or Middle Eastern, or any other ethnicity. They didn’t ask them what they believed and if they were the same religion – Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhist or any other religion.

They didn’t ask them if they lived their lives the same way they did or if they were gay or straight. They were saving the lives of anyone they could, because every life matters.

Every life matters to God. God loves everyone. That’s why Jesus came and suffered and died for all people – because every life matters to God. So today, we may not be pulling people out of a burning building, but in putting together Birthday Bags for those in the Northeastern Food Pantry, we are saving lives. Sometimes a person in a desperate situation is only a meal away from totally giving up. These small bags are bags of hope. They are bags that say God loves you and we are praying for you. They are gifts that give them the opportunity to celebrate even in the midst of the losses in their lives. There will always be losses in our lives. Because we live in a broken and sinful world there will always be pain, and death, suffering, and sorrow, but we have reason to celebrate even in the midst of these losses.

There are certain moments in history – certain moments in our lives – that are forever engrained in our memories. For Christians the most important moment is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That moment is the defining moment of our lives. That moment is the reason we can have joy even among the losses of our lives. That moment is the promise that God will always keep searching for us, that God will always find us, that God will never abandon us, and that God will always be the source of our safety and security. We are Easter people and that is reason to celebrate every week and each and every day! Amen.

A Costly Quest

Sunday, September 4, 2016
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Luke 14:25-33

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Can every Christian call themselves a disciple? Is there a difference between being a follower of Jesus and a disciple? These are questions that require a lot of thought. There’s certainly a lot of books and articles written about this topic. I don’t know how often the average member of a congregation thinks about these questions, but in our gospel lesson today, Jesus certainly felt it was critical for a person who wanted to be a disciple knew what they were getting into. He made sure he explained that the cost of being a disciple was high. And when he addressed the crowds he laid it all out. If you want to be a disciple you have to put Jesus above anything or anyone else – no exceptions. Jesus said we have be willing to deny our family if that’s what it takes. We have to be willing to carry the cross of Christ. We have to be willing to go wherever he leads. And we have to give up all our possessions. If these three things are requirements of discipleship, then they seem all but impossible to keep.

Does Jesus – the embodiment of God’s love – really want us to hate our family? Hate may be a strong word used to illustrate the importance of what he was getting at. It certainly gets people’s attention. Yet Jesus wanted to get the attention of the crowds he was speaking to then and to us today. If you decided to follow Jesus and be his disciple at that time it meant you were giving up your family. You would be shunned because you believed Jesus was the Messiah – the Son of God. Most people may not be kicked out of their families today for following Jesus, but some still are. And the point Jesus was trying to make was that we have to be willing to leave our family behind if that is what it takes to follow Jesus. If they choose not to follow Jesus, we have to be willing to let them go. Those are not easy words to hear.

Second, Jesus says we have to be willing to carry the cross of Christ. We know where that cross leads to. It leads to death before it leads to resurrection. Disciples of Jesus have to be willing to go where the cross leads us even if it means hardship and struggles. We can’t always choose the easy way. Sometimes we may have to make choices that go against what other people think we should do in order to follow Jesus. If someone is being mistreated or ridiculed or spoken ill about by someone, a disciple of Jesus has to be willing to do whatever is necessary to stand up and help that person. It may mean we lose friends and family over that decision, but that is what carrying the cross of Christ means. It means that our life is no longer just about us; the decisions we make every day are based on what Jesus is calling us to do and to be. It’s not about our way, but God’s way. We can’t call ourselves disciples and continue to try and get our own way all the time and treat people – even those in our congregations with anything less than the love of Jesus.

And third Jesus says if we want to be his disciple we have to give up all our possessions. Does this mean that Jesus wants us to get rid of everything and live on the streets so others have to take care of us? For some, like Mother Theresa who is being canonized as a saint today, that was the case. But most of us are not called to that kind of poverty. Yet, Jesus stresses to us the danger of letting our possessions own us. In a culture that is taught more and more possessions are a sign of success, Jesus says that more and more possessions can take hold of us to the point that we will do whatever is necessary to keep them even at the expense of giving up Jesus. Many people actually make that choice without even realizing it. They choose things over Jesus. Sports over time with Jesus. Other opportunities over time with Jesus. Money over the ministry of Jesus. It’s easy for people and things to pull us away from Jesus who ends us getting the leftovers of our time, possessions, and money. And that is what Jesus is saying today plainly and clearly – to be a disciple, Jesus has to come first – no exceptions. To do this requires sacrifice.

We’ve all made sacrifices of one kind or another. We sacrifice time of enjoyment to go to school and learn. We work long hours at jobs and sacrifice to make sure those we care about have what they need, but we have to be careful not to sacrifice all our time to work and neglect our families and our spiritual life. Parents sacrifice a lot for their children to make sure they have everything they need for a happy and comfortable life. And while that’s an important part of caring for children we all need to remember that teaching children to have a close relationship with Jesus is the most important gift we can give them. It’s what each of us promised when they were baptized and we have a responsibility to follow through with those promises. We need God even if we don’t realize it and even if following God through Jesus causes us to feel uncomfortable.

Jesus says that there is a danger is wanting life to be too comfortable. Discipleship takes priority over our safety and security. Discipleship involves taking risks. Discipleship requires courage and persistence. There’s a saying usually attributed to William Shedd that says, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” The temptation for Christians is to keep ourselves safe in the harbor, to not venture out in the deep water where the seas are rocky and we may encounter dangers. The temptation is to not try new things and just keep things the way they’ve always been. But that’s not what disciples were meant to do. That’s not what we were made for. We were made to go out and tell people about Jesus. We were made to reflect God’s love to all people. We were meant to show kindness and compassion and to care for others especially those who society says are not worthy of attention. We were meant to fight for justice and equality and the well-being of all people even if others get angry at us for that. And we were meant to sail spreading God’s love wherever that may be, not weighed down by the many possessions – physical and emotional – that may try and keep us anchored at shore.

Venturing out into unchartered waters need not be a frightening quest, because we are guided by the light of Jesus Christ. Just as a lighthouse guides a ship safely to its destination shining the light in the darkness, so Jesus will be our light in the darkness. That is what it means to be a disciple. It means to put the mission of Jesus, the cross of Christ, as our guiding principal in life. No matter who or what tries to steer us off course, we must stay the course. We must continue the quest. On our own we can’t be a disciple. It is a daunting task. That’s why Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to us. Through the power of  the Holy Spirit, given to us at our baptism, we have everything we need to sustain us when we want to choose safety over discipleship.

Jesus calls us to be his disciples. Are you ready? That’s the question Jesus asks us today. We have a decision to make. We’re either going to be committed disciples or not. We can’t be part-time disciples. It’s all or nothing. Are you ready to carry the cross of Christ out of this congregation today and with you wherever you go? Are you ready to put God first? Are you ready to give your whole life over to God? Being a disciple of Jesus is a costly quest, but isn’t the kingdom of God worth the cost? Jesus certainly felt we were worth the cost.  Amen.