There’s No Place Like Home

Sunday, March 31, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 & 2 Cor. 5:16-21

Today’s gospel lesson focusses on a well-known parable normally referred to as The Prodigal Son. Prodigal is an odd word. What does it actually mean? When I looked it up in the dictionary it gave a few definitions. It said spending money or resources freely and recklessly, wastefully extravagant, and having or giving something on a lavish scale. So who in the parable today is being wastefully extravagant? Let’s explore that.

The parable known as The Prodigal Son is one of the longest parables Jesus ever told. It must have been important or he wouldn’t have gone into such great detail – details like just how lost some people can get. The youngest son was so self-centered that he wanted his father’s inheritance before his father even died! He couldn’t wait. He wanted his money and he wanted it right away, not to go away to college or invest in the future, but to blow it all away in sinful and selfish living. He certainly was a prodigal son wasting and spending the money freely and recklessly. The younger son was getting further and further lost. He was a long way from home, yet he didn’t even realize it. Until he was out of a job, out of money, starving, and homeless. In fact, he was so destitute that he was forced to tend to pigs (a job no respectable Jew would ever do since pigs were considered unclean). But this young man had stooped that low. He was really lost. Until like Dorothy in the Wizard of OZ, he found himself saying, “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” And off he went – practicing the speech all the way home of what he would say to his father of how he had messed up.

But before he even had a chance to say those words to his father, his father saw him “while he was still far off” (which means he must have been looking for him) and ran to him. He put his arms around his son and kissed him and planned for a huge celebration. That was outrageous! No respectable Jewish father would embarrass himself like that especially after what his son did! Is that what any respectable parent would do if their son or daughter took all their inheritance and threw it all away? If they took all their money and gambled it away at a casino, or on drugs? Would they or any of us throw a big welcome home party? The father that Jesus is describing seems like quite an outrageous character, one could even say a reckless one. What father would act like that? Was he lost too? Had he lost his mind?

That’s the question that the older son asked. Why? Why when his younger brother had spent all the money and disgraced the family was he treated like a celebrity? Why did the father greet him with open arms and celebrate when this young man was probably just going to do the same thing all over again if he had the chance? And what about the older son? He stayed at home, took care of the father and did everything right and he never received a party at all! This didn’t seem fair and the older brother was angry. Everything the father had was his and he could have had a party at any time if he only asked his father, but instead he let his anger seethe under the surface. Every day, year after year, he let it grow and grow. One could say that this son too was prodigal or extravagant in the amount of anger and resentment that he flung around. His younger brother had disgraced his father. Maybe he was angry that his brother was not there helping him and now his father welcomed him back with open arms! He was angry and jealous and hurt and wanted nothing to do with the father or the great celebration that was taking place for that prodigal, good for nothing son, that sinner! What kind of person “welcomes sinners and eats with them?”

That’s the same question the Pharisees and scribes were asking about Jesus. And that’s why Jesus told this parable, because he challenges us to look at people through new eyes – through God’s eyes. Because when we do that we, as St. Paul says in 2 Cor., “regard no one from a human point of view.” We see people differently when we see them as God sees them – like a father who welcomes his children home and is willing to forgive and be reconciled with them. This is what the story is all about. Perhaps a more fitting title would be the Prodigal Father because of how extravagant he was, and how extravagant God is. It is a story of how much God loves us and is waiting to forgive us with open arms. And being a disciple of Christ means that we are to do the same with each other. St. Paul tells us, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new.” He tells us that “this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” What does Paul mean when he says we are to be in Christ? He means we are to be immersed in Christ. Our whole lives are to be centered in Christ. Everything we do, every decision we make, every conversation we have needs to begin in Christ. If we live this way, then life is different. We are then a new creation.

A new creation means that our old selves are gone. Our sins are forgiven and we can begin again. We can envision a new future because the Holy Spirit has awakened our holy imaginations. The Holy Spirit will open our eyes to see possibilities where they never existed before. When we have lost our way, the Spirit will guide us home in Christ. That’s what it means to be in Christ, in means to have our home in Christ. Our home, our joy, our peace is found in Christ.

Jesus who is the character of God in the flesh, like the Father, “welcomes sinners and eats with them.” We are all sinners. We are all the prodigal sons and daughters in that we have so often wasted the grace God has bestowed on us. We’ve all gone astray and found ourselves lost, but in Christ God welcomes us home. God is the father in this story who is prodigal or extravagant. God’s love for us is extravagant! God’s forgiveness is extravagant! God’s grace is extravagant! God stops at nothing – even coming down from the glories of heaven and dying on a cross – to bring us back home. In Christ we experience the love of God that is bigger and wider and deeper than anything we can comprehend. None of us deserve all the inheritance that God has for us, yet even when we are far off God comes to us, welcomes us, and lavishes upon us countless grace. What an outrageous thing to do, but what an outrageous, awesome, and prodigal God we have!

As we continue our Lenten journey – our journey to the cross and our journey to Christ – may the Holy Spirit lead us to find our way home. May the Holy Spirit help us to remove any places in our hearts that are filled with anger and resentment and guide us to make peace with one another and reconcile with each other as Christ commands us to do. May we forgive even ourselves, so that we are free to be all God created us to be. And may the Holy Spirit give us eyes to see others with the love of God so that we can be prodigal or extravagant with the love of God. In Christ we are a new creation. In Christ we have a true home and there’s no place like home. Amen.

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No Time to Waste

Sunday, March 24, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 13:1-9

Our gospel reading today begins with “at that very time…” What time is Luke referring to? To understand that we have to go back to the previous chapter in Luke, chapter 12, where Jesus was talking to the crowds and the disciples about time. He told them several parables such as the Rich Fool who stored up all his grain for himself in bigger barns that he built, only to die before he was able to enjoy it. He also told the parable of the Watchful Servant who needed to be ready when the owner came back. Jesus said, “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Jesus spent a lot of time talking about time and being ready. And it’s right after this that the readings today continue with people asking Jesus, but what about all those Galileans who were persecuted and killed? They must have done something to deserve that? And what about those people were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? What kind of sin had they committed?

So many people today still think the same way. They still ask the same questions, “Why is this happening to me? Why is this happening in the world? I hear over and over again from people that they think their suffering is because they are being punished by God for something. There is a belief that God causes the terrible tragedies in this world for some divine test. Jesus however, sets the record straight. He said, no. the tragedies the people experienced weren’t because they were being punished for their sins. He says the people who suffered weren’t any worse sinners than you or I.  He told the crowd to repent, because the same thing is going to happen to them. It sounds rather harsh doesn’t it? But what Jesus was saying is a continuation of what he was talking about in chapter twelve. Time is of the essence. We don’t know how much time we have on this earth. And bad thing happen to good people, so we have to make the most of the time we have.

That’s the truth of it. For generations people have tried to answer the question of theodicy. Why do bad things happen to good people? It’s easier to blame God, or someone, for our suffering because at least there’s an answer. When there is no one to blame, it’s hard to understand. It’s hard to change our perspective to realize that this broken and fallen world we live in is filled with tragedy and pain as well as joy. We don’t have to look far to be reminded of that. There are so many stories of senseless tragedies – floods, shootings, suffering. What do we do when the Pilates of this present age inflict senseless evil on innocent lives?

Jesus’ answer for us is to repent. Repentance means to be aware of what is truly happening – not to bury our heads in the sand – and be part of the solution. When we repent we turn our direction and our focus back to God because God is the One who can help us make sense of life when it all seems senseless. Repentance helps us to shift the focus of our questions from “Why did this happen?” to “What can I do now with the help of God?” This is critical because the evil of this world wants us to give up hope. The evil in this world and within ourselves wants us to judge and blame others so we don’t have to do anything. Yet, Jesus wasn’t swayed by the propaganda of doom and gloom. He didn’t give in to the temptation of evil to give up or to join in the blame by scapegoating, but he dispelled fear with confidence in the faithfulness of God. That’s why Jesus told the parable of the faithful gardener who is God, and who gives each one of us a second chance to bloom and grow and flourish. Our job is to bear fruit because time is of the essence.

When we bear good fruit, we help to add to the collective hope that this world needs. Fear and hate cause death, but hope leads to life. Hope causes things to grow and flourish and thrive. Hope gives us courage to stand against the forces of evil confident in the power of the Holy Spirit to stir up positive change. We can’t bear good fruit on our own though. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to help us. We need God – the faithful Gardner – to dig deep around our roots and prune out whatever it is that keeps us from growing spiritually. God – the faithful Gardner – helps us to draw out the nutrients – the gifts – from the manure we find ourselves in so often, in order to produce good fruit for everyone to enjoy. It’s not easy or pleasurable when we find ourselves knee deep in manure. It’s not easy when we find it necessary to be pruned, but God is faithful, and will bring us through the tough times and help us to grow. And we, like the fig tree, need nourishing water too. We thirst, as the psalmist says, for life giving water. So often we feel parched in our souls. Where is the nourishing water to be found? Again, our nourishment comes from God whose “steadfast love is better than life.” God, like the faithful Gardener, gives us a second chance – again and again – to repent, to turn around back to God who is the source of life.

As we continue our Lenten journey, let us be bearers of good fruit. Kind words spoken and written, compassionate listening, thoughtful actions, letters to representatives that urge just treatment for others, witnesses of God’s love and grace wherever we are – these are examples of the kind of good fruit we are called to bear. Even the smallest things we do have ripple effects. We must use our time wisely. The time is now. We have no time to waste. Amen.

 

A Courageous Call

Sunday, March 17, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 13:31-35

Trouble was brewing and people were out to kill Jesus. When people get that upset there are two things a leader can do – give in and let the people have what they want and tell them what they want to hear, or stand up, be courageous and tell the truth. How tempting it must have been for Jesus to heed that advice and take the easy way out. But as we heard in last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus didn’t give in to temptation. He stood firm in the promises of God and what God’s mission was for him no matter how hard it was.

When the Pharisees warned Jesus of Herod’s desire to have Jesus killed, you’d think Jesus would have been a bit afraid – and I’m sure on a human level he was, because no one wants to suffer or die, especially a brutal death like Jesus knew was coming his way – but instead Jesus answered with what was sure to get those who were against him even angrier…”Go and tell that fox for me….” Followed by words that said essentially he would not let anyone or anything deter him from going to Jerusalem where he knew he had to go as part of his mission from God. Those are bold words from Jesus. He had to know he was not making friends by saying these things. Why didn’t he just stop. I’m sure the disciples wondered, “Why didn’t he just back off and lay low for a while? Why did he have to keep riling up the crowds?”

Because he loved them, deeply, entirely, like a mother loves her children, and when you love that much you do what’s best for that person, not necessarily what they want. . “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!
How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This lament from Jesus tells us where his heart was. He wanted to gather the people together and protect them. He wanted to nurture them. He wanted to be the one they would come to for life. Jesus didn’t want to push them away, he wanted to gather them in. But like a mother hen or any other mother or parent, Jesus’ job was to embrace them with telling them the truth in love. And that’s not always easily received. Jesus knew what was best for them, but what’s best isn’t always what’s easy and that’s not always well received.

I remember- and maybe some of you do too – being sick as a child and my mother saying to take a certain medicine that would make me well. She’d say it won’t taste good, but it will cure you. She was right; some of it was just revolting.  In fact, I learned that if I held my nose before I swallowed, it wouldn’t taste quite so bad! It was awful, but it did cure the illness. Yet you know, not all children – or pets for that matter (including my cat) – are quite so compliant. They’ll hold their mouths shut so tightly that you need a crowbar to get it open. They know it’s going to taste horrid, so they will resist no matter what. It can become a real fight. And it’s not that the mother or parent wants to hurt the child – despite the angry words to the contrary – but that they want the child to get well. The mom knows the only way to cure the illness is to do what’s necessary.

There’s a serious illness in our country and in our world today; it’s called hatred. That kind of evil illness is what caused the horrific shooting of good, kind people in the mosque in New Zealand on Friday. We must stand against this kind of hatred and evil. We must not continue to allow hatred, racism, and prejudice of any kind to continue. We are all beloved children of God, no matter what our faith. Jesus’ lament continues today only it’s not just for Jerusalem; it’s for the whole world. “Christchurch New Zealand, Christchurch, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The lament continues for every city in America- Detroit, New York,- every place in the world where senseless killing and violence is happening because of hatred. Jesus’ lament continues for African Americans who continue to suffer at the hands of prejudice, for Native Americans, for the LGBTQ community, for refugees, and for every person and group who is targeted because of hatred. Jesus’ lament is for every one of us when we allow hatred and fear to take over our hearts rather than God’s all-inclusive love.

God knows that many are not willing to hear the truth because it’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow, but it is the only thing that will set us free. Jesus spoke the truth in love, but often it was seen as too harsh, like go and sell everything you have and follow me, or love your enemies. Jesus could have taken the easy path. He could have said the words people wanted to hear and been the kind of leader they wanted him to be, but that would not have been true to who he was and what he was called to do. So Jesus allowed himself to be vulnerable and courageous both at the same time. He was vulnerable in that he was willing to stop at nothing to protect us even if that meant death. He was equally courageous as he spoke the truth from his heart. We as Jesus’ followers are called to do the same.

It’s a courageous call that we all have as Jesus’ followers. It’s not for the weak of heart. And the temptation is to turn back. To tell people what they want to hear, to say yes to everything so that we will not be the target of ridicule or persecution, or to just sit back, keep silent, and give up because the effort is too much for us.

Being a disciple of Jesus can be hard because often we are called to go against the grain of what the majority tells us. When we suggest a different way it can ruffle some feathers, and lead to retaliation. But Jesus commands us to be courageous and to treat one another with the kind of love he has shown to us.

We are lured by sly foxes like jealousy, fear, prejudice, racism, and hopelessness, and we can’t outrun them. So God runs to us with outstretched arms like a mother hen who gathers her chicks. Our psalmist today affirms that God is our refuge. God speaks through the prophets “do not be afraid…I am your shield.” We as a community of faith must be that shield for others. We are called to help gather all people together under the safety and protection of God’s holy wings. This can only happen if we like Jesus keep a steady course toward the mission God has for us in loving all people, and speaking out against hatred of any kind.

This week, as our Lenten journey continues, be aware of what is going on around you and within you. Embrace one another with God’s motherly love that longs to gather all people together. Think about your words and actions; let them be filled with love. It is the only way to overcome hatred.

Let us pray, O God you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen!

Eternal God – The Tree of Life

Wednesday, March 13, 2019
First Lutheran Church – Albany
Proverbs 3:13-18 & Rev. 22:1-5

 

“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…. So God created man in his own image. In the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them and God blessed them.” So we hear through Scripture that God created all humanity in God’s image, but what exactly does God’s image look like? People have thought of some interesting images for God – a wise old gray haired grandfather, the man in the sky, the great Oz behind the curtain…..to name just a few. But these images actually make God in our image, our likeness. And that’s somewhat understandable as God is unimaginable, but we were made in God’s image, not the other way around. Over the course of the next five weeks we are going to explore ways that we can reimagine the unimaginable. We’re going to expand our image of God through looking at Scripture.

Tonight, we are going to explore God as the Tree of Life. What comes to mind when you think of a tree? Does it evoke any feelings? For me, ever since I was a child I have always loved trees. In fact, my favorite poem as a child was “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. In that short but poignant poem, he showed us how a tree was more than just a tall profile reaching to the sky, but a living, breathing, being whose “mouth” has tasted the earth, whose “hair” has sheltered birds, and whose leafy “arms” lift up in prayer. Trees were friends of mine, especially one large weeping willow that lived in my childhood yard. This tree provided shelter for me in more ways than one. It shaded me from the hot sun – essential for this pale Irish skin, and its leaves blowing in the wind were like a cool fan on a hot day. This tree was a great listener. I could tell it all my problems, and it never judged or criticized me. I could depend on it to be there whenever I needed comfort or companionship. I always felt so close to God near that tree. Perhaps it was because God and the tree shared so much in common. They both were strong, yet caring, a shelter from the storms of life, a source of comfort and companionship, and a place to go whenever life got tough or I just needed someone to listen. God is the Tree of Life whose strong yet caring arms give us shelter, protection, comfort, and companionship.

As I grew older my love of trees and nature continued. Yes, some might call me a tree hugger, but it’s more than that. Trees have taught me about the interconnectedness of all life. Unlike humans, trees breathe in the toxic and poisonous carbon dioxide that we exhale, and exhale out the oxygen that we inhale. It’s a perfect balance, and without trees the carbon dioxide increases and our oxygen is depleted. Without trees we literally can’t breathe. God is the Tree of Life who takes in our toxins, and breathes out into us life-giving breath.

Walking the battlefield of Gettysburg while in seminary, the rangers pointed out a couple of very old trees known as witness trees. They were called this because they were there long before the Civil War and therefore were witnesses to what had happened. These trees hold the stories of the violence and the bloodshed. They felt the fears and the tears. They heard the private and last words that were spoken. These ancient witness trees hold a wisdom that can only be heard by those willing to listen. The passage we read from Proverbs says, “Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her. Those who hold her fast are called happy.” God is the Tree of Life – Eternal – who existed before the world began and whose wisdom is ours if we only embrace her.

And many of the healing medicines for illnesses such as cancer can be found only in the tropical rainforests. For example, the now-extinct periwinkle plant found only in Madagascar, increased the chances of survival for children with leukemia from 20 to 80 percent. Over 130 different species of plants in the rainforest go extinct every day due to deforestation from logging and farming, and as a result many possible cures for life-threatening diseases also disappear. Trees are sources of great healing, and so is God. The passage we read from the book of Revelation says that the leaves of the Tree of Life are for the healing of the nations. God is the Tree of Life whose sacrifice was given for the healing of the nations.

This healing however, was not meant only for humans; it’s meant for all of creation. St. Paul tells us in Romans 8 “Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” The earth is suffering. Climate change is a reality and our planet is suffering in large part because we have always believed that humans are the only ones created in God’s image.
Yet all life, all creation, reveals the glory of God. We all are made of the same substance as the rest of the universe. We share the same DNA. The same stardust that formed the galaxy, lives within us, as well as the plants and the animals.  We all deeply connected to one another. The roots of the tree reach down deep and impact the soil, the water, the vegetation, and everything else around them. They spread in surprising directions.

God is the Tree of Life whose roots of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and faithfulness run deep. The branches – the arms of love and compassion of the Tree of Life – spread wide and far, touching everything. Eternal God, the Tree of Life is for the healing of the nations, the healing of all creation. May this image be a source of comfort, strength, healing, and joy as you ponder with awe and wonder the expansiveness of God. Amen.

 

 

A Question of Identity

Sunday, March 10, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 4:1-13

Today is the first Sunday in Lent so after service we are going to lock ourselves in our houses and not eat for 40 days. Okay, just kidding! But I did get your attention. And today’s gospel grabs our attention too. Right after Jesus was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness where for 40 days he was tempted by the devil. Jesus didn’t eat at all during that time and it’s fair to say he was starving and exhausted. Yet he was led there for a sole purpose – to pray and prepare himself for the mission God had for him that he was about to begin.  Being weakened in body was the perfect time for the devil to try and get Jesus to give in to temptation. It was the perfect time to try and get Jesus to choose the easier path.

Luke’s temptation account reminds me of another story, my favorite movie called It’s a Wonderful Life. You may wonder what I am doing bringing up a Christmas story during Lent, but it’s more than just a Christmas story. It’s a story about character, temptation, and identity just like today’s gospel story. If you’ve ever seen the movie, you may wonder why the title is a wonderful life because the life of the main character, George Bailey, was filled with challenges.

George was a man of great integrity. His life wasn’t easy and he made a lot of sacrifices for the people he loved. He wanted to go away to college and see the world, but he ended up staying in the small town of Bedford Falls where he grew up to run his father’s small savings and loan company so his brother could go to college first. George didn’t want to do that, but he put his family’s well-being and the well-being of the whole town ahead of what he wanted. He did the right thing no matter how hard it was, and the people in the town loved him…. except for Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter was the richest man in the town. He owned everything, but he didn’t use his wealth to help others. He got it through being dishonest and he didn’t care who he hurt to get what he wanted. But there was one person he couldn’t buy and that was George Bailey. Oh he tried all right. George really needed to earn more money for his family, and Potter figured if he wore him down enough George would eventually give in to the temptation of working for and being just as dishonest as Mr. Potter. It would have solved a lot of problems for George. It would have enabled him to provide financially for his family so they didn’t have to struggle so hard. And more money would have enabled him to help others in the community too. But George didn’t cave in to Mr. Potter’s temptations – which led to more struggles – because George knew who he was and he knew who Potter was. George could see the truth and he trusted in that truth, the truth his father had taught him.

That’s exactly what Jesus did when He was tempted by the devil. He trusted in the truth of God’s Word to see through the lies that the devil was trying to tempt him with. Ultimately, the devil was trying to get Jesus to question his own identity – “if you are the Son of God…” The devil wanted Jesus to doubt his relationship with God, to doubt that he wasn’t enough and needed the devil’s false promises. But Jesus’ connection to God was unbreakable. He was rooted in prayer, rooted in God’s word, and confident of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the devil quoted Scripture; He quoted part of Psalm 91 that we read this morning. But Jesus knew Scripture as well, and he didn’t try and use it to justify his own purposes. Jesus knew the reading from Deuteronomy that we read this morning. And when he was tempted he remembered that it said the Lord hears our affliction. He remembered that God delivered the Israelites from their oppression – even though it took a long time. Jesus modeled for us the importance of being grounded in our identity as beloved and claimed by God.

We too, have the Holy Spirit with us in our moments of weakness and doubts, and that can give us confidence. Our biggest temptations are those things that try and get us to doubt our own identity in relationship to God. Maybe we even doubt God’s existence at times; we may feel abandoned by God. Even Jesus experienced that. We all have doubts; that doesn’t mean we don’t have faith. Faith that isn’t tested isn’t really faith. But one thing we don’t have to doubt is our connection with God who loves us and has claimed us forever. When we are sure of our identity as beloved and claimed children of God and don’t question that, we can be spiritually strong even in our weakest moments like Jesus was during those difficult 40 days of temptation, and for the days that would follow leading up to his death. The Holy Spirit was with him and is with us.

That’s how the character George Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life, was able to resist the temptations of Mr. Potter. George Bailey prayed, his family prayed and his friends prayed. The movie began with all the prayers for George being lifted up to heaven and it ended when those prayers were answered in a most unexpected way. George prayed, “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way… show me the way.” Like Jesus, following God’s will instead of his own didn’t lead to an easy life for George Bailey, but it led to a wonderful life, a life lived in relationship with God.

During this season of Lent, you will see in your bulletin inserts a 40 Day Challenge. Commit during these 40 days of Lent to grow spiritually. There are so many opportunities. Come to Sunday worship, the mid-week Wednesday Lenten Soup and Services, our Intergenerational Bible Study or other Bible studies, and our Just Breathe Contemplative Practice. It’s only 40 days, but this spiritual journey will change you as you grow closer to the God who loves you more than you can imagine, and gives you your identity. Amen!

Revealing God’s Glory

Sunday, March 3, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 9:28-43

Our gospel reading today begins with “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter, and John, and James and went up the mountain to pray.” What sayings was Luke referring to? Before our reading today, Peter had professed Jesus to be the Messiah, and Jesus told them about his impending death. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? After hearing this news, they went up the mountain to pray. After revealing all this to the disciples, and thinking about the suffering that was to come Jesus certainly needed to pray, and connect with God. It was his first response to any situation.

What happens when you pray, when you connect with God? Are you transformed? Do you visibly reflect God’s glory? Our gospel today says that’s exactly what happened to Jesus. For quite some time, Jesus had been traveling with the disciples teaching, preaching, healing and praying. He did a lot of that. In the third chapter of Luke we are told that when Jesus was baptized and was praying, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him and said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Before choosing the apostles, Jesus went to the mountain alone and spent the whole night praying. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah was revealed while Jesus was praying. Jesus prayed when He was in the garden of Gethsemane. And Jesus prayed even while He was dying on the cross. It seems quite obvious that Jesus placed a very high value on prayer.

And on that day Jesus went off to pray again. He took Peter, James and John along with Him, up to a mountain. “And while He was praying, the appearance of His face changed, and His clothes became dazzling white. No wonder the disciples were in a state of shock and amazement. Wouldn’t we all have been? One minute Jesus was the teacher the disciples thought they knew and the next minute……Jesus was on fire with the glory of God. It was a holy experience. And it didn’t end there. Suddenly – Peter, James, and John saw the prophets Moses and Elijah talking to this radiant Jesus! They didn’t want this moment to ever end, and Peter’s suggestion to make three dwelling places or booths for each of them seemed like a great idea at the time. They wanted that glorious moment, that mountaintop experience to last forever.

I can understand how Peter felt. Mountaintop experiences can be pretty amazing and you don’t want them to end. I’ve been to the top of a few mountains. The tallest was Pikes Peak in Colorado – 14, 110 feet up – and standing at the top what a view awaited me! Looking out over four states it felt like I was on the top of the world. And NH has almost 150 mountains. I’ve been to the top of one of them – Mount Washington twice so far– not quite as tall as Pike’s Peak, but the tallest mountain in the northeast. At 6288 feet up it may not be the tallest, but it does boast the world’s worst weather. It’s covered in fog 60% of the time, but on a clear day your view stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the east, across VT to the NY Adirondack Mountains in the west, to Canada in the north and MA to the south. It’s a glorious view. There’s something about being high up on the top of a mountain that changes your whole perspective on things. And standing there on the summit, you don’t want to leave. We feel the same way any time we experience moments of great joy. We don’t want those moments to end. We want to savor them, and we want them to last forever.

But those moments aren’t meant to last forever. Not even Jesus stayed on the mountaintop, not because he couldn’t, but because he chose to go down. He loved the world so much that he chose to go down and be with God’s people. In psalm 99 this morning we heard how God is almighty and holy and so different from us. Yet, Jesus came into this world to bring God closer to us. And so Jesus went down from the mountain to bring God closer to us, to bring the holy to us. Down from the mountain people were waiting to be healed. Down from the mountain people were waiting to be delivered. Down from the mountain people were in need of transformation, in need of a transfiguration just like Jesus. And how did Jesus’ transfiguration begin…..prayer. “While He was praying, His face changed….” That mountaintop experience was spectacular not because of the location, but because of the presence of God through prayer. Prayer is the means by which we are connected with God. And it’s not just about us speaking to God; it’s being quiet enough to listen to God speak to us. It takes time. Like any deep and meaningful relationship it requires spending time with that person. And one person can’t do all the talking. Each person needs to share the communication. So often in our communication with God we tend to do all the talking and rarely listen. But if we do – though we may not hear God’s actual voice like on the mountain of transfiguration that day – we can actually receive a message in our minds so clear, yet so different than we would have ever imagined that we know it is God’s wisdom speaking to us. Other times God’s answers come through something we read, or see, or hear like music, or even the words or actions of someone else.

Prayer is a way of life; it’s abiding in God’s presence. Our work, our leisure time, the things we do every day can all be transformed when they are done as a living prayer. Prayer changes our circumstances because it changes our perspective. Heartfelt prayer changes our focus from ourselves to God and to others. To pray, “Thy will be done” is a courageous prayer, because it takes control out of our hands into God’s. It changes us. When Moses spoke with God on Mount Sinai his face was visibly changed. It was shining from the reflection of the glory of God, just like Jesus at His transfiguration. Moses was changed – changed to bring the message of God to God’s people.

Can we not expect the same transformation through our encounters with God in prayer? We don’t have to go to a mountaintop to pray, but prayer can lead us to a mountaintop experience. We don’t have to hide or veil ourselves from God. God knows everything about us and deeply loves us. God has come to be with us. m God wants to transform us, to change us, so that our faces, our lives, will radiate the reflection of God’s glory. Imagine the healing that could happen in our lives, our community, and our nation if we all shined our collective light. May the Holy Spirit ignite in us a holy fire to reveal God’s glory. Amen!

 

 

Embracing the Enemy

Sunday, February 24, 2019
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies.” How shocking that must have been for the crowds who heard Jesus say these words so many centuries ago. Yet, for us today, it isn’t any less shocking. Loving your enemies is not an easy thing to hear or act on. So, the first thing we need to ask ourselves is who is an enemy? The dictionary describes an enemy as a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something. An enemy is a person or thing that harms or weakens something else. An enemy is an adversary, one who works against us, inhibits us, and who keeps us from being all we were created to be. No one wants to have an enemy or be an enemy. No one wants to be hurt or be beaten down. Yet, enemies exist real or imagined.

Fear, prejudice, guilt, shame, resentment…these are some of our biggest enemies. And the truth is that these enemies reside within all of us. Yes, we ourselves, can be the biggest enemy. Everyone, at one time or another, has been their own worst enemy. We put ourselves down for our perceived failures. We ridicule ourselves for being less than we know we can be. We say things to ourselves that we would never say to anyone else. Or we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are better than others. Either way, we are being the enemy. We are holding ourselves back from all that God created us to be. And when we do this our perception of others is altered as well. So often, the thing we hate or judge in someone else is the very thing we struggle with ourselves.

While it’s true that the crowds that heard Jesus first speak these words were most likely thinking of their oppressors like the Roman government as enemies, and the people and places that didn’t follow their own customs and religious beliefs like the Samaritans for example, but Jesus was trying to get them to understand on a deeper level that the enemy is a lot closer. And even those who have themselves been abused – through no fault of their own – at some point end up hurting themselves more because of self-blame because it has become internalized. Thomas Merton, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, says, “Instead of hating the people you think are war-makers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not another.” Jesus challenges us to go even further. He challenges us to overcome hate with love, and that begins with loving ourselves first. This is not a narcissistic self-love, but a real love that comes from embracing who we are as beloved children of God. We were each created in God’s image, and made to be bearers of God’s divine light. Yet, along the way we have forgotten this. And more times than not, we focus on the perceived darkness in everyone else, which diminishes not only their light but our own as well.

What if we took Jesus’ words to heart? What if we truly listened to these words he spoke on the plain? What if we loved our embraced the enemy? What would that look like? It requires thinking in a new way. Jesus said, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” This may seem that Jesus is advocating for us to be doormats, and allow people to abuse us. But Walter Wink, in his books The Powers That Be, and Engaging the Powers, explains more about the culture of the day in which Jesus spoke these words.

If I hit with my right hand—it lands on your left cheek. I could hit with my left hand and land on your right cheek but in the Middle East left hands are saved for unclean actions With my right hand to your right cheek, I have to back hand slap you, and back hand slaps were to insult or humiliate an inferior person. They were never done to an equal. So by turning the other cheek, a person was causing the one about to hit them to have to use the right hand against the left check requiring an open hand or fist meaning they would be acknowledging that person as an equal. And by giving someone your shirt as well as your coat would mean you were left standing in front of the person half naked. The person viewing your nakedness in that culture would be shamed the most. It was a way of saying, here, “You want my coat, take everything!” So what Jesus was challenging people was to not only stop seeing themselves as victims, but to stand up to their oppressors in a powerful non-violent way. When we change the way we look at things, things begin to change. Our perception makes all the difference.

Loving our enemy enough to allow transformation to happen first must take place within ourselves. We must see and acknowledge the enemies within ourselves – fear, prejudice, judgement – realize they are there, embrace them for what they are, and let them go. Once we rid ourselves from the enemies that hold us back, and accept that we are beloved children of God, then we can see others in a different way. Through self-forgiveness we are freed to forgive others as well. By focusing on being bearers of God’s light and love in the world rather than focusing on the darkness we add more light to the world.

As this season of Epiphany draws to a close, may we be open to feel and experience God’s transforming grace and mercy that transforms enemies and brings true peace. Amen.