A Gift Worth Boasting About

Sunday, May 27, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
John 3;1-17

 

Last week the church celebrated Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit not just to the early disciples a long time ago, but to all of us disciples here and now. Pentecost is still happening. The Holy Spirit is still speaking and moving. In fact, Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Jesus is not just speaking to Nicodemus in answer to his question – “how can a person be born again?” – but to us today.  Jesus is saying that the Holy Spirit is responsible for this process and yet we, like Nicodemus, have a hard time understanding.

This Sunday the church celebrates Trinity Sunday – the belief that God is three persons, while at the same time God is one. We profess it in our Creeds. We believe in God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth. We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. We believe in the Holy Spirit.  Yet this – like the question Nicodemus asked – is another question whose answer leaves us with more questions than answers. How can we explain the Trinity? Many have tried, with some explanations that seem to get close to understanding, but still falling short. The concept of time seems to come close for me. A day is filled with the morning, the afternoon, and the evening. Each one is separate, yet they all make up one day. The past, the present, and the future are moments in time that are separate, yet they all blend together at some point. The Trinity – like time itself – is a mystery that is still unfolding.

I’ll never forget the answer to one important question asked in seminary. One of the professors, Dr. Sterjna asked, “Why are you a Christian?” Many answers started coming forward: Because my family is Christian and they raised me in the Christian faith, because of my Sunday School teachers, through reading the Bible, friends who led me to Christ….the list went on. But Dr. Sterjna pushed us further, and finally said, “You are a Christian because of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has led you to Christ.” We never forgot that. We are Christians not because of what we have done in the past or what we do now to earn that title, or what someone has taught us, but we are Christians because the Holy Spirit has led us to Christ. The Holy Spirit has revealed God to us by initiating the belief in our hearts. God in the person of the Holy Spirit has sought us out and called us to faith. Exactly how the Holy Spirit does that we don’t know, but Jesus says, “the wind (or Spirit) blows where it chooses. We can’t control it. We can’t try and figure it out. It just is.

You see the Trinity is all about relationships. God the Father is in relationship with the Son and the Son with the Spirit and all of them together. Combined they form one God who is as the winged seraphs in Isaiah’s vision sang is Holy, Holy, Holy. And when we speak or sing this song each Sunday, we too speak of the mystery of the Trinity with the only words we can come close to understanding – Holy, Holy, Holy. It is because God is beyond all understanding that God is God.

This Holy God created us to be in relationship with God too. There’s room in God’s family for all people and the Holy Spirit is continually calling and drawing all people into this relationship with the triune God. This is why we in the Lutheran Church baptize infants, because it is not our belief that brings us into relationship with God, but it is the presence of the Holy Spirit that draws us into a relationship with God. Through water and the Spirit we are born again, as Jesus tried to explain to Nicodemus. It is not our intellect that brings us close to God, but it is the wisdom that we receive through the Holy Spirit that brings us to faith and feeds us spiritually on our journey of faith – a journey to be in a closer and deeper relationship with God every day of our lives.

God always comes to us. We do not go to God. God is always seeking us out. As John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only beloved Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God loved us that much. So much that God became one of us – in the flesh in Jesus Christ – in order that we would be saved, and brought back into a relationship with God.

Today we celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing Grace Taylor Goellner into an eternal relationship with the Trinity. She will be baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. She will be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. She will forever be called a child of God – not because of what she does or will do, not because she will lead a perfect life without mistakes because she won’t, not because she will understand all there is to know about God, but because God loves her. Plain and simple. God loves Grace, and God loves each and every one of us. It is a gift – unearned and undeserved – and that is why it is called grace. St. Paul says in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” This gift of God is something to boast about. It is an amazing and wondrous gift that no one can take away from us. We belong to God. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to live perfect lives. We only have to live lives of thanksgiving and praise for this amazing grace that we have been given. That’s a gift worth boasting about!

And it gets even better, because not only are we called children of God, but St. Paul in Romans says that we are also heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Like someone who receives an inheritance here on earth, we are given the inheritance of belonging to God’s family and everything that is Christ’s is ours as well. Through our baptism – made possible by the wonderful leading of the Holy Spirit, we are part of this great relationship of love with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit has called us, gathered us together, and sends us out to live lives of gratitude as we journey in faith with courage not worrying about what the future will bring, but trusting in the promises of God for we are born of water and the Spirit. What impact does this great inheritance and gift have in our lives? How will it change how we live today? This is a gift worth boasting about! Let’s journey in faith. Let’s journey in hope. Let’s journey in love. Amen!

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Feel the Spirit

Sunday, May 20, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Acts 2:1-21, Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

 

What do you think of when you hear the word Pentecost – the 50 days after Easter- the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Can you feel the rush of the wind around you or is it only something that happened to the first disciples over 2000 years ago? The early disciples – men and women – gathered together after Jesus ascended into heaven – gathered together in one place and then whoosh- the rush of the wind, tongues of flame – it all started. The Holy Spirit descended on them and they would never be the same again.

Do you see visions and have dreams? Or do the words of the prophet Joel only speak about a time that has already gone by? “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The Holy Spirit is an unpredictable force. Perhaps that’s why people in our churches don’t like to talk about it, because we want to be in control, and you can’t control the wind. But you can’t avoid it either. It draws you in.

My grand puppy, Zoey, is twelve years old and she loves to stick her head out the car window and feel the rush of the wind in her face. When I’m riding in the car with her, I always get a little nervous when her mom rolls the window down a little too much. I’m afraid she’ll fall out. But Zoey loves the feel of the wind against her face. The faster you go the more she loves it. She loves to breathe in that wind to the point where she almost can’t breathe. It’s exhilarating and a little disorienting at the same time ….even for a little dog like Zoey.

That’s how the wind is. It’s unpredictable. It feels wonderful when the cool wind touches our skin on a blistering hot afternoon. We need the wind.
It’s useful to harness with turbines and use it for energy. Yet when the wind violently tears up nature and buildings in a hurricane or tornado, we’re frightened by the destruction it causes. That’s exactly what happened earlier last week when a violent wind, several tornadoes actually, hit CT where my mom lives. It took me a while to get in touch with her and other family members there, and they were without power for four to five days. When I finally was able to talk with my mom she said, “the wind shook the whole house. It’s been a long time since I’ve been through a storm like that.” So while we may love the wind on the one hand, we are also a bit afraid of it as well. The wind is a formidable thing, and the Hebrew and Greek words for Holy Spirit – ruach or pneuma – mean breath or wind. It is a formidable power.

Wild wind that takes your breath away, tongues of dancing fire, visions, dreams, prophesies, noise…. these are the experiences of the first Pentecost when the Spirit was poured out and nothing was the same. Things were stirred up. Doors were unlocked. That same Spirit is still active today. And when touched by the Spirit, people do things they never imagined doing. They are changed, transformed, and change is scary for many of us even if it is prompted by the Holy Spirit.

But Jesus was right. We need that Holy Spirit. Jesus had to go away from this earth for a while, yet Jesus has not abandoned us. He has sent the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into us. Pentecost is not something that happened 2000 years ago. Pentecost is still happening today! Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to be with us and in us. We first received this Spirit in our baptism. Next week Grace Goellner will be baptized and she will be sealed by the Holy Spirit. It will be her first Pentecost. We will celebrate three baptisms over the next three weeks, and three First Communions. Now that is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit!

The Spirit is with us always breathing new life into us, and igniting in us a holy fire. Can you feel it? Those times when an answer becomes clear to you? Those times when you are literally on fire with a passion to do something that you hadn’t ever imagined doing? That knowing, that passion, is the Holy Spirit.

Can you feel the Spirit in our congregation or are we afraid to call upon the Holy Spirit? Are we afraid that it might take our breath away and cause us to feel disoriented, confused, upset, lost, or out of sorts like the early disciples? Are we afraid it may cause conflict? Maybe some of you are feeling that way right now. Maybe you’re conflicted, at a crossroads between the past and the future, and you don’t know how to move forward.
You may not realize it, but the Holy Spirit is stirring within you to transform. Conflict, or a stirring up of things, is not bad. Growth and change require a certain amount of conflict. Even in nature, the storms that thunder in the clouds are necessary to clear the way for new fresh air. The sand in the shell of an oyster is just the irritant needed to produce a priceless pearl.

We don’t always have to feel terrific to know that the Holy Spirit is working in our lives. Faith is not about feelings – faith is believing even when our feelings and our intellect tell us something different. Faith is trusting in God even when we are in the midst of a whirlwind of chaos and uncertainty. We may not know what the future holds, but we don’t have to know. We only have to believe Jesus when he tells us that the Holy Spirit or Advocate is here to help, comfort, guide, and transform our lives. The Holy Spirit is the bridge between the past and the future – the ultimate time traveler –
whose power is in embracing the now. The Holy Spirit is the one who will lead us to all truth. Sometimes the truth may be hard to accept, but the truth will set us free.

Jesus said that there were things he wanted to tell the early disciples before he ascended to God the Father, the Creator, but that he knew they weren’t yet ready to understand them. But he promised that the Holy Spirit would teach them the things they needed to know when they were ready. That same promise is for us today. Are we ready? Are we individually and collectively as the body of Christ ready to let the Holy Spirit teach us? When we pray for the Holy Spirit to come among us we need to be ready to be changed into who God wants us to be – witnesses of the gospel of Jesus’ love. The Holy Spirit will help us to lead courageous lives of faith by showing us the truth – the truth of the mystery of grace that surrounds us even when we cannot feel it. The truth of the injustices that plague our neighborhood, our country, and our world. Once we see this truth, we can listen to the Holy Spirit for ways we can be the answer to prayer. The Holy Spirit will lead us to a deeper faith, a deeper relationship with God that cannot be reached by our intellectual searching.

The Spirit of Truth that the Holy Spirit reveals to us uncovers the grace and beauty in life. The Spirit opens our eyes and helps us to see that there are more possibilities than we can imagine. The Spirit takes away our worries and infuses us with hope and courage. The Holy Spirit will open us up to listen to our dreams and visions. Like the character Ray in the movie Field of Dreams who heard “build it and they will come”, God has dreams and a purpose for each one of us, for this congregation, and for the entire Christian Church. The Holy Spirit will help us to realize those dreams.

Visions and dreams are not things of the past. They are manifestations of the Holy Spirit active today. We need not fear them. We need not fear the Spirit, for it will guide us into all truth. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church has been given by God a collective dream and mission here in this world. We exist to be the instruments through which God will be revealed. Pray for the Holy Spirit to blow through your life, to blow through this church. If you don’t know what to say when you pray, that’s okay. The Holy Spirit is praying for us with “sighs too deep for words.” Trust in that promise.

The Spirit of the Living God, the wind and fire of that first Pentecost is available each and every day – ready to transform us, ready to continue the movement of what Jesus started and carry it wherever we go. Just open the window to your heart. Close your eyes and feel the rush of the wind in your face, the wind of the Spirit that wants to give you new life. Breathe it in. Breathe out fear, and breathe in courage. Breathe out desperation, and breathe in hope. Breathe out resentment and guilt, and breathe in peace. Breathe out sorrow, and breathe in joy. God’s Holy Spirit is with you always. Breathe in the Holy Spirit and live fearlessly in God’s amazing grace, and let the fire of the Holy Spirit renew the face of the earth through you! Amen!

The Walk of Peace

Sunday, May 13, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 24:36b-48

 

There’s nothing like a good long walk to clear your mind. Whether you’re sad, angry, or confused, a walk can really help you feel more at ease. The physical component to walking stimulates that part of the brain that releases endorphins and lightens your mood. It calms your soul and gives you a renewed sense of peace.

A lot of people feel that way about running too, and we have many members right here in our congregation. But as for me, I like to walk, especially outside. I love being out in nature whether it’s walking through a forest listening to the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet, or on the beach with the warm sand under my feet and the smell of the salty air….well, you get the picture. Walking is something I like to do and I know I’m not the only one.

I usually have my cell phone with me, but once in a while I’ll leave it behind and those are the times I wish I had it. Because it always seems that when I forget my cell phone something unexpected happens when I wish I had the camera on my phone. I spot a woodpecker on a tree right near me, or a chipmunk posing in front of me, or a tree with a hollow in it that looks as though it were perfectly made as a door for some small creature. And without the aid of a camera, I am left to my own memory and storytelling abilities to relay the story as best as I can. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but words too when chosen carefully can paint an amazing picture. And that is what the disciples in our gospel text from Luke were trying to do.

Our story today begins in the middle of a conversation that began when two of the disciples – Cleopas and another unnamed disciple – were out taking a walk. They were on the road to Emmaus talking about all that had been happening since the resurrection. They recounted how the women ran to the disciples to tell them that the tomb where Jesus had been buried was empty and how they saw angels who told them Jesus had been raised. They didn’t believe the women; they thought it was an “idle tale.” So Peter had gone to the tomb to see for himself and it was true. The tomb was empty. Cleopas and the other disciple were going over and over the events and trying to grasp the reality of it when their walk was interrupted by a stranger who asked what they were talking about. They were astounded and asked the stranger, “are you the only one who hasn’t heard the news? Jesus of Nazareth is alive!” They then proceeded to tell him all the events of the last few days. They needed to tell this story; it was healing for them. Stories have a way of doing that. The disciples were filled with joy, yet uncertainty about what this all meant. They urged the stranger to stay with them and he agreed. And when he began to eat with them and break bread with them – they recognized him. It was Jesus! Their minds quickly flashed back to the last supper they had with him. He is risen! They didn’t have any cameras, and they couldn’t wait to tell the other disciples that they had seen the risen Jesus!

And that is where our story picks up today. Just as they were telling the disciples this amazing experience, Jesus came to them and said, “Peace be with you!” Yes, that’s what they need most of all – peace. The disciples were seeking safety – locked up in their houses except for the few times they went out – walking to where they needed to go – then going back to where they felt safe. They were certain they could find peace in being locked up safe and secure, trying to prevent any more sudden changes, but the truth is everything in life changes at one time or another. That is the nature of life – change. Each and every minute of the day things are changing – plants, seasons, temperatures, air currents, creatures, including humans. That’s what threw the disciples into a frightened frenzy. If the tomb was empty and Jesus was risen that meant even death was no longer what it was before. Because of Jesus even death was changed from something that was final to something that God had power over. And that threw the disciples off balance.

It can throw us off balance too. Change is hard for many people. We often resist it – preferring the familiar over the new because it’s what’s most comfortable. . We want things to be the same as they always were because we feel secure with that and we think that it will bring us peace. But that’s not always true. Hiding doesn’t really make us secure. Storing up things doesn’t make us secure. They only prevent us from seeing God’s grace as we venture out in our daily lives. We can have peace even when things are up in the air, even in the midst of the storms and challenges in our lives. We can have this peace if we put our trust in the risen Christ, who is the evidence of the truth to God’s promises.

Jesus doesn’t call us to live lives that are safe and risk free. He calls us to live lives of peace. And peace sometimes requires taking risks for the sake of the gospel. It comes from accepting that change is a part of life. It comes from moving forward beyond what is certain and stepping out in faith to do what Jesus calls us to do and be – our true authentic selves. For God uses each one of us with our own unique and special gifts – to reveal Christ in our midst. Jesus commands us to help one another on this walk of faith and recognize Christ in our midst. But we can’t do that if we are only seeking safety. Peace comes from living life to the fullest. It comes from being brave and courageous enough to let others see our vulnerability and our light – the light of Christ shining within us. The light of the resurrection doesn’t erase our scars, it transforms them.

Every day we are walking, and like the disciples walking to Emmaus that day, the risen Christ is walking with us and we need to have our eyes of faith opened to recognize him. For Christ is truly risen. This is no idle tale and this truth give us peace in the midst of our storms. We will have storms, challenges, and heartbreaks, but Christ is with us to give us peace. It’s a deep peace that as the psalmist says, allows us to let go of our worries and lie down and sleep in peace, because God gives us the true security and peace we seek. Christ’s peace gives us courage to work toward justice and peace for all. And in reaching out in love and telling this story of the power of God, we will find true peace and share it with others. We are called to be witnesses to the gospel and to walk a life of peace. Be prepared in your walk of faith to see the unexpected. Be prepared to see the risen Christ. You will see him with the eyes of faith and live your lives out of love so that others will see Christ in you. God’s peace be with you. Amen!

 

Best Friends Forever

Sunday, May 6, 2018
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
John 15:9-17

From time to time I receive mail soliciting donations. I’m pretty many or all of you have too. They range from local to national groups asking for donations to help with their cause. While many of these are worthy causes, and I believe it’s important to support them, I’m struck by the way they address their letters. The letters don’t begin with the usual salutation, “To Whom It May Concern.” Instead they begin with Dear Friend. These organizations, with whom may never have been a member, or with whom I have not previously endorsed, address me as “friend.” They don’t know me. I am simply the person who lives at the address attached to the mailing list they have somehow obtained. To them I am a future donor, a possible volunteer, a hopeful benefactor, but not friend. Yet that’s what they call me or whoever they’ve added to their mailing list. It’s a clever manipulation of rhetoric and marketing to get one to feel somehow connected to them in the hopes of contributing to their cause. Yet, the use of this word “friend” seems instead like an invasion.

In fact, J.C. Penney had a clever marketing ad that said, “Say hello to your wallet’s new best friend.” Now honestly, making a new friend is great, but my wallet? My wallet does not need a new best friend, that will as they say, give me “one more thing that you can feel good about.” Since when is a credit card our new best friends? If used wisely, a credit card can be a great asset, but if not monitored carefully, a credit card or cards can leave a person with one more thing not to feel good about. The temptation can be to use them as a source of instant gratification, which can lead down a path to worry and financial ruin. That’s hardly a description I would use to describe a friend.

So what do we mean when we call someone a friend? Is it just a word like these salutations in the letters that indicate a simple greeting that applies to everyone, like hello? Some people do use the word in that way referring to someone as friend, when in fact they may be a mere acquaintance. Rather than say, I’d like you to meet someone I know, we may call them friend. A colleague we work with may know us more than an acquaintance, but again, they are a colleague.

Like all words, friend carries a much closer relationship than merely an acquaintance, or someone we work with. Friends know quite a lot about each other and each other’s personal lives. Friends share things with one another that they wouldn’t share with just an acquaintance. To say someone is a friend indicates that we put a lot of trust in them, and they in us.

And then there are those BFF’s – Best Friends Forever – those people who know everything about us – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and they love us no matter what. They love us – unconditionally – flaws and all. They are there for us to help us through the very worst of times, and they are there to celebrate our joys with us. They love us not just when we are dressed nicely, but when we wake up in the morning with crazy bed hair and baggy pajamas. Our best friends are the ones we can call no matter what. They aren’t simply just around to celebrate our joys with us. They stay with us during the very worst of times no matter how long those times may last.  Sometimes, you meet someone and you are friends right away, but a best friend is a deep level of friendship takes time. It’s a joy to call someone a friend. A friend is one of God’s greatest blessings.

In our gospel text from John today, Jesus is talking with his disciples one last time before his arrest and crucifixion. Although it’s the 6th Sunday of Easter, we recall these stories in light of the resurrection. We can see in hindsight the real meaning of what Jesus was saying to the disciples at that time, and to us today. Jesus called the disciples from all different vocations to follow him. He knew their flaws; he knew they would make mistakes, and even deny him, but he chose them anyway. And when he was talking to them one last time he told them how important it was for them to understand that their main purpose was to love one another as he loved them. He was going to lay down his life for them – and for us – and yet they didn’t quite understand it at the time. He shared with them all the things that God shared with him. Jesus shared with the disciples God’s wisdom, God’s peace, and God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus shared all these things with the disciples because as he said, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” The disciples had been with Jesus for three years non-stop. They didn’t just visit with him for a few weeks out of the year; they were with him constantly. They heard him teaching and preaching, they witnessed his miracles, they experienced his love, and now they were no longer servants or apprentices of Jesus, they were his friends.

A few years ago I attended a workshop on relationships. One particular topic was on friendship that discussed the six golden rules of friendship:

  1. Friends invest time – they show up; they make their friends a priority.
  2. Friends earn their trust – trust is something that takes time, but a friend acts with integrity
  3. Friends listen with empathy – they don’t just have sympathy, they put themselves in the other person’s shoes. They try to imagine what it feels like to experience what they experience. They don’t just hear, they listen.
  4. Friends accept their flaws – they know the other person is not perfect, and they don’t nag them or expect them to be. They love them as they are.
  5. Friends celebrate wins and losses – good things don’t happen to each of us all the time and so if we celebrate the wins of the other person, then we always have something to celebrate and be happy about.
  6. Friends bring out their best – they compliment them when they do something good, and they speak the truth in love, kindly, when the other person needs an honest answer.

Did you ever meet someone so great that you said to yourself or others, “I wish I could be their friend!” In the case of the disciples, they didn’t choose to be Jesus’ friend; Jesus chose them. Jesus, who was the perfect model of what a true friend is chose them! He chose them knowing they would mess up, knowing they wouldn’t understand him, knowing they would deny him, and betray him, knowing they would choose fear over faith time and time again. And still, He chose to share with them who God is. He chose to breathe into them the Spirit of peace and joy. He chose to die for their sins so that they would never be separated from God. And he was raised to new life so that death would not have the final victory and all would have eternal life. That is a real true friend. That is the kind of friend Jesus was to the early disciples, and to us, his disciples today!

Jesus is the model of these six golden rules of friendship. He is the ultimate best friend. Jesus is with us always, not just when things are going great, but when we are experiencing the darkest moments. It’s not Jesus who ever abandons us; it is we who abandon him often without realizing it. So often our relationship with the gifts from God – our money, our homes, our jobs, our time – are deeper than our relationship with God. All those things can be gone in the blink of an eye. Even the people we know and love may hurt us, betray us, or leave us. But Jesus is with us always. Isn’t that relationship the one we should nurture the most?

Jesu is present here in this place of worship today and in the Holy Meal we will share. Jesus has earned our trust because he is faithful to the promises he made to us – the promise to never leave or forsake us. He listens with empathy and answers our prayers. Sometimes we may have to wait for the answers, and sometimes they may not be what we may have wanted, but God always gives us what is best for us.  We can be certain of that. Jesus accepts our flaws and loves us anyway, just as we are. He celebrates with us and cries with us. Jesus knows and feels our pain. And he brings out the best in us. This is why Jesus gave us the commandment to love one another as he has loved us, because love will transform us. Love like Jesus’ love will bring out the best in us, and in our world. Jesus – the Word of God made flesh – the risen Savior – calls us, his disciples, friends. And we can call Jesus our true and very best friend forever because of all he has done. He has saved us, and will always come to our rescue. Always.

Unlike the letters we may receive in the mail that call us friends out of some marketing campaign, Jesus calls us friends from his heart. Jesus knows who we are – sins and all – and still calls us friends. What a friend we have in Jesus! We love because he first loved us. Share that love with one another. Amen.