Holy Week 2017 at New Hope Lutheran Church

As we move ever closer to Easter, you may have heard an announcement in church or overheard one of your friends talking about Holy Week.

But what is Holy Week? Why do Christians celebrate it?
And what the heck is a Triduum?!?

In the earliest years of the church, devout Christians would travel to Jerusalem during Passover to reenact—and in some ways, relive—the events of the week leading up to the Resurrection.
This profound act of remembering Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection served as a way for the earliest Christian believers to grow in their own faith by recalling the formative and foundational events of their faith.

By retelling the story year after year,
we remember the
why behind the what of our faith.

Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday and goes all the way through Easter Sunday. This is the most important week in the life of a Christian.
And the pinnacle of Holy Week is the Great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Rather than three distinct worship services, these separate liturgies are best seen as one large complete worship service over the course of three days. Collectively known as the Triduum (trid-doo-um)—which is Latin for “three days”—these three worship services are the most important worship events in the midst of the most important week in the life of a Christian.

Taken all together, the worship services of Holy Week give us the most complete picture of the fundamental people, places, events, and beliefs of the Christian faith.

You are invited to join us as we journey this holiest of weeks together.
All services are held at New Hope Lutheran Church.

 

Palm Sunday – Sunday, April 9, 2017 at 8:00am and 10:30ampalm crown

We’ll hear from the Gospel of Matthew and recount Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We’ll begin outside, waving our palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” as we celebrate the king who rode a donkey rather than a valiant horse, who wore a dusty cloak rather than fine linens, and who would later ascend a cross rather than a throne.
Also known as the Sunday of the Passion, we’ll also hear Matthew’s account of the crucifixion.

 

Maundy Thursday – Thursday, April 13, 2017 at 7:00pm

Taken from the Latin word for “commandment,” we’ll retell the story of Jesus with his disciples when he washed their feet and gave them a mandatum novum—a new commandment—that we should love one another as Jesus loved us.
We mark the official end of Lent by receiving individual absolution, or forgiveness—the oil marking the cross on our forehead just as the ashes did on Ash Wednesday. We’ll remember the new commandment by having our own feet washed, and we’ll share in the meal that Jesus shared with his friends.
We’ll conclude by stripping the altar, as Jesus would be stripped of his clothes before being handed over to be crucified.

 

Good Friday – Friday, April 14, 2017 at 7:00pm

Jesus Christ crown of thorns and nailIn this solemn service of fading light, we’ll hear John’s account of Christ’s Passion and ponder the mystery and majesty of the cross. The Passion will also be performed in mime and the service will end with an opportunity to venerate the Cross, showing reverence to this instrument of death that God used to redeem all of humanity and give life to all.

 

The Great Vigil of Easter – Saturday, April 15, 2017 at 7:00pm

candle vigilIn the early Christian church, they would gather together on the night before major festivals and keep vigil until the morning. While we won’t stay up all night, we will gather together to celebrate this most ancient of Christian festivals. In the early church, the Easter Vigil was the most important worship service of the year.
We’ll gather down at our lakeside chapel where the new fire will be lit and our new Paschal candle will be blessed. We’ll then process into the sanctuary to retell some of our salvation stories, remembering God’s promises throughout the ages to save and redeem us. This will be the first reading of the Resurrection narrative from the Gospel of John, and we’ll shout “Alleluia!” and give thanks for our new life in the risen Christ by sharing in Holy Communion.

 

Easter Sunday – Sunday, April 16, 2017 at 8:00am and 10:30am

On this glorious day of resurrection, death has been defeated, the grave is empty, and life eternal is promised to all. Our rafters will ring with glorious music and we’ll gather around the table to celebrate the new life given to us through Christ’s Resurrection. We’ll also have breakfast being served in the Community Center to help our youth raise money to attend the National Youth Gathering.

Hinge Point

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 26, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the Transfiguration of Our Lord:
Exodus 24:12-18 + Psalm 2 + 2 Peter 1:16-21 + Matthew 17:1-9

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Please pray with me this morning:

Loving God,
You call us to live in the in-between.
Between the now and the not yet…
The is and the what could be…
Between death and life.
Open us to being transformed today,
And give us courage to live transfigured lives.
Amen.

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At one of the churches I served in Chicago, we had a program that we called Community Dinners. It was an outgrowth out of the food pantry that we housed there, but it took the concept a step further. See, instead of only giving people food, our volunteers cooked a meal, every week, and we opened our doors and fed anyone who wanted to come in for a meal.

We served the meals family-style, around big circular tables, and members of the church interspersed ourselves among members of our neighborhood. We had a prayer, and then the rest of the meal was just conversation. Seeing how things were going, checking in with each other’s families, things like that. It was truly a vision of the kingdom of heaven.

Because what made these Community Dinners unique was that the folks that were coming through our doors were predominantly homeless, nearly all were unsure of where their next meal would come from, and most were native Spanish speakers. There were immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, and a few other Central American countries. There were refugees from countries ravaged by war and economic depression. And every single one of them had a remarkable story about life in their country of origin, their attempts at a better life in Chicago, and how they were currently managing through tough times.community_dinners_12_18_13-0129-3

My eyes were opened and my heart was broken in ways that they wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t conversational in Spanish and couldn’t hear the nuances and intricacies of their stories as they told them in a language that was familiar and comfortable for them.
My experiences at Community Dinners combine to form a hinge point for me in how I understand myself in ministry and in my understanding of the complete and utter expansiveness of God’s love and God’s mercy in a world full of nuances and intricacies.

We are transformed by experiences and stories.
We are transformed when we intentionally place ourselves in situations to experience and hear God’s story of love and redemption in new and unique ways through voices that are different than how we’ve experienced and heard that story before.
This is what I mean when I say that we must be open to transformation.

Our text for today forms a hinge point in the Gospel of Matthew. From the time Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down off of this mountain, they are making their way toward Jerusalem.
Starting this Wednesday at 7pm here in this sanctuary, we’ll also be making our way toward Jerusalem with Jesus.

Transfiguration is when we see God for who God truly is. When God is viewed in all of God’s glory. In Exodus, when Moses sees the glory of the Lord, that Hebrew word for “glory” translates as a heaviness, it’s a weighty thing. God’s glory is not something filled with rainbows and bluebonnets.
The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus’ face shone like the sun. Church, if you’ve ever stared at the sun, you know that sucker’s bright, it hurts your eyes.
The glory of God is not a thing to be beheld lightly. Of course the disciples were afraid!
Placing ourselves in situations to hear how God is at work in someone else’s life is an uncomfortable thing. It intentionally stretches us and challenges our preconceived notions about our neighbor.

Transfiguration and transformation are linked experiences, I think.
I think transfiguration is an outward reflection of an inward reality of transformation. That is, when we are transformed, when our heart starts to break open and our very being starts to fundamentally be altered, I think it has an effect on our outward appearance.
Transformation happens, incrementally, little by little, when we come down off our mountaintop experiences, and truly engage the world and the people in it.

Mountaintop experiences are important. We need to be reminded of those overwhelmingly tremendous experiences of seeing and feeling God in all of God’s glory. But we are not called to stay on the mountain. Peter wants to build dwellings, to contain and preserve this glorious moment. But just as quickly as Moses and Elijah appeared, they were gone.
We’re not called to stay on the mountain, we are called to come down from the mountain and follow Jesus.

Because notice what happens immediately before our verses for today. If you have your Bibles with you or your Bible apps on your phone, go ahead and flip to Matthew, chapter 17, to our Gospel lesson for today…
Go ahead…I’ll wait……

Got it? Ok, now look back just 5 verses to chapter 16, verse 24. Just before the Transfiguration, we hear these words from Jesus: “If anyone wants to become my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. Those who want save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

When we follow Jesus down off the mountain with Peter, James, and John, we’re following Jesus to the cross. We’re making our way, with Jesus, to certain death.
But we who live on this side of Easter know that death is not the end of the story.

Save by giving up….
Gain by losing…
It’s upside-down and backwards logic to a world that tells you to build bigger barns and store up as much as you can, to wall yourself off from others, to build bigger fences rather than longer tables.
A world that champions hyper-individuality over radical hospitality and inclusivity.
One thing I learned at Community Dinners was that my own story is richer and more full now that I have Angél’s, and José’s, and Pedro’s, and Amalia’s stories to carry around with my own.

I was transformed by those Community Dinners, and as a result of that transformation, I was transfigured. Where once I was blind to the crushing realities of homelessness and food insecurity, I began to truly see people as God sees them. As so incredibly precious and so deserving of love and dignity and care.

As we make our way to Lent, church, you might be considering giving something up. Lent is a time for practicing and cultivating spiritual disciplines. I want to suggest to us a communal Lenten spiritual discipline of serving.

New Hope Lutheran Church has started and sustained 2 incredible social agencies in our area. The East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry and Fort Bend Family Promise both have deep ties to our faith community. Over the past few months, as I’ve had the opportunity to meet with both organizations, I’m both extremely proud of the work they’re doing and convicted by what I think we can do better.

I want to challenge you this Lent, church. During these 6 weeks of spiritual housecleaning and spiritual growth, gather a group of people together. Get a group of 5-10 people; it can be the commission that you serve on, your bible study group…it could even be a group of your friends. However you choose to get people together, coordinate with Mark Perin, or Don Fought, or Jim Uschkrat and go and serve people at either the East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry or Family Promise.
Please do this at least once, ideally twice in the next 2 months.

Put yourself in a position to be changed by the experiences and stories of someone you’ve never met before. And then come and tell me about it. I want to hear your stories of transformation.
Be transformed.
I guarantee you that it will happen.

It just might be a hinge point in your own life of faith.
It will change how you view the world and God’s people in it.
Be transformed. And live transfigured.

 

Love Without Restrictions

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 19, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 + Psalm 119:33-40 + 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 + Matthew 5:38-48

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Please pray with me this morning:

Holy One,
We are often caught up in the world’s
cycles of retribution, and revenge, and violence.
Increase our capacity for love, as you have loved us.
And by loving, may we begin to overcome and end those cycles.
Amen.

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For the past 2 months, as we’ve been moving together through this season of Epiphany, I’ve been centering us in the narrative of a life of discipleship. I’ve been noting for us how a life of discipleship fits certain patterns of life, how a way of living and being that is modeled after the life and ministry of Jesus looks a certain way and reflects certain values. I’ve been calling attention to the ways in which living and being this way, as a Christ-follower, sometimes…oftentimes…looks very different than the patterns of life that are lifted up as good or desired or admirable by the world.

But mostly, I’ve been highlighting how these patterns of living and being aren’t easy and don’t come naturally for us.
In my own sermon preparation, in my devotional time, or in leading weekly Bible studies for the staff, I find myself saying, “These are some of the most difficult words from Jesus.”
In fact, it’s possible that I’ve said those words explicitly each week for the past 4 weeks as we’ve been working through the Sermon on the Mount.

Each week it feels like Jesus is taking the calling on our lives a little further. Each week, it feels like the expectations are increasing, like the bar is being set higher and higher. Each week, it feels like Jesus is trying to outdo himself from the previous week.

And this week is no exception.

This week, with his talk of resisting retribution and loving enemies and nonviolent resistance and praying for those who would prevent others from living full and abundant lives, Jesus is taking this Christ-like living to another level.
But how can we? How can we truly love like Jesus is asking us to love?

The word for love here is not the emotional kind that we associate with the holiday from this past week. This love is consequential relationship. It’s a deep and abiding love. But I want to suggest something to you this morning that I think will help us as we unpack Jesus’ words, and it’s something that I also hope will totally shift how you think about and live out love.

Love…is an action verb.
You cannot love passively. This type of love that Jesus is talking about is actualized. It’s embodied. Love requires something of you. Those of you who have deep and abiding love for your partner or spouse or significant other or children or grandchildren or family or loved ones know that this is true.
Love requires something of you.

merton285Father Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk and mystic who lived in rural Kentucky said, “Love seeks one thing only; the good of the one loved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”
Love seeks the best for the one being loved, not the one doing the loving.

Love means that we risk vulnerability. That we give up our innately human desire to pluck out eyes and pull teeth. Love relinquishes the need for retribution or revenge.
Love has no use for violence, because our world is violent enough.
Love is the ultimate self-giving act… It’s a cruciform way of living… It’s the way of the cross.

When we say that God is love, we mean that God seeks, above all else, the best for God’s beloved, which is all of us. And not just us here, but those that are not here this morning.
God so loves the world, right? Do we take God at God’s word?

When Jesus says to us this morning, “Be perfect, therefore, just as God is perfect,” I think he’s talking about perfect love.
The Greek word for “perfect” here doesn’t mean to be morally right, as we so often characterize it. In fact, it has nothing to do with morality or sinless living. It means to be complete, to lack nothing necessary for completeness. To live with integrity, like we talked about last week. To let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No.”
To truly love is to be lacking nothing in completeness.

We live incomplete lives when we place restrictions on our love. You know what I’m talking about when I say “restrictions,” don’t you, Church? When we try and characterize “us” as “us” and “those others” as “them.” When we try and step in and do God’s job for God…thinking that we get to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out”… Who’s covered under the bounds God’s love and who is not…

At the end of our reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul gets at this. “Whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas…or the world…or life or death…or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ. And Christ belongs to God.”
All things belong to God, church.
You belong to God.

St. Paul uses this language of belonging to talk about ownership. You are God’s. All things are God’s. Your employment status does not own you. Your earning potential does not own you. Your depression or addiction or marital status or anything else does not own you.
You…are God’s.
But to take Paul’s words further I think is to get at what Jesus is talking about with this “love your enemies” thing. Because if I belong to God, and all things belong to God, then how I treat you depends on my answer to a fundamental question: Who do I think *you* belong to?

Does the person sitting next to you belong to God? What about your next door neighbor? Your co-workers? People of other faiths? People of no faith?
All things belong to God.
What about your enemies? What about people that don’t wish the best for you?

Who do I think you belong to? Who do you think they belong to?
How we answer this question is essential to how we understand ourselves in relationship with other people. If I belong to Christ and you belong to Christ and all belongs to God, that radically reorients how I treat you.
And here is where I think Jesus’ command to love your enemies makes us maybe more than a little uncomfortable. Because it sounds like foolishness.
But it is the way of the cross.

Jesus, even on the cross, did not shout curses at those acting on behalf of the empire, putting him to death. He cried out for forgiveness: “Forgive them, God, they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus proclaims blessing to those he was executed alongside: “Today I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”

A couple of chapters earlier in First Corinthians, Paul calls the way of the cross foolishness and a stumbling block. This word translated as “stumbling block,” it’s an interesting word. The Greek word is skandalon. Any guesses which word we get from skandalon?                     —– Scandal, right.

Living a life of discipleship, living a life that is cruciform, following the way of the cross is scandalous.
Loving your enemies, actively seeking the best for them, is certainly not easy, but it also isn’t very fair, is it? At least according to our Western ideals about fairness and justice.

And you’re right. It’s not fair. But fair is not for me to decide. Fair is not for any of us to decide.
We restrict our love. God does not. All things belong to God. God makes God’s sun rise on the evil and on the good. God sends God’s rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
God is absolutely and completely abundant and extravagant with God’s mercy, grace, and love, and quite honestly, most of us find that offensive.

And you’re right. Grace is offensive. It is a scandal. Because grace means that “they” don’t get what “they” deserve. But grace also means that I don’t get what I deserve. And thank God for that.
Thank God that I don’t get what I deserve, but instead God delights in lavishing me with mercy, grace, and love. Thank God that none of us get what we deserve, but instead God is pleased to shower all of God’s creation with the cleansing and refreshing rains of justice and mercy. Instead God delights in warming all of God’s creation with God’s sun of grace and love.

And if God doesn’t restrict God’s love, who are we to restrict ours?

The Christian life…the life of discipleship…is not easy, church. I’ll say it again, it will demand your life.
But by truly loving—by actively working and fighting for the best for—not just those who we agree with…or those who look like us…or think like we want them to think…or act in ways that we might not understand or agree with…we begin to live ever more closely to the heart of God.

Reconciled Beggars

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 12, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 + Psalm 119:1-8 + 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 + Matthew 5:21-37

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Please pray with me this morning:

Gracious God,
We are not saved by our works,
But instead we are saved for works of love.
Give us hearts to understand that we are connected,
One to another. Given to each other, for each other.
Amen.

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I’m a perfectionist. I like things to be just so, and I have a mind for details. I also have high standards and high expectations of myself. And when I’m not meeting those standards and expectations, I’m often not very gracious with myself.

Jesus feels very legalistic here. It doesn’t feel like Jesus is being very gracious.
It feels like Jesus is setting up impossibly high standards for us to measure up to.

And there’s a frame of reference that I think is really important for us to keep in mind as we work through the Gospel today, and that’s Jesus’ statement from last week’s Gospel text, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.”
If we keep that in mind, I think it will help us more deeply understand what Jesus is doing here.

See, Jesus is highlighting certain pieces of the Law, of Torah, and taking them further. It’s not enough simply to not murder, but even if you are angry with someone else, you’re breaking the commandment.
You know adultery is wrong, but even if you look at someone else with desire, well, better to pluck your eye out and throw it away.

But all of this sounds so very rigid and legalistic, and not so much like the gracious and loving God that we hear about and experience so often.

And so it’s important here to understand the function of the law. See, Biblical law, Torah, was instituted by God in order to form…to create…to set the bounds around…God’s people. Torah, then, is used as a kind of fence, providing the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is expected as people who call themselves God’s people. And while Torah is used as an identity marker of people of the Jewish faith in the Old Testament, Christians understand themselves as being in line with that faith tradition. St. Paul describes it as being grafted into the family tree.

The author of Matthew is writing this Gospel to a community that was trying to reconcile what it means to be culturally Jewish and Christ-followers. One of the fundamental questions that the author is trying to answer in this Gospel is, “How can was understand the Torah, in light of the grace we’ve received from God through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus?”
Through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the ideas about who are considered to be God’s people are expanded to include us in the Christian community, but that does not mean that the Torah is no longer applicable or useful. It just means we have to reinterpret the function of the law.

Lutherans make a clear differentiation between Law and Gospel. Very simply, the Law gives us guidelines for how we are to live, and the Gospel communicates the liberating grace of a loving God. It’s not one or the other; we need both. But while the Law says, “If you are my people, you should do these things;” the Gospel says, “Because you are my people, and I have liberated you from the power of sin and death, you are free to do these things for your neighbor.”

So, when we understand the Law in light of the Gospel, the Law, then, isn’t about you, the Law is about your neighbor.

The 10 Commandments can be best grouped into one table of 3 and one table of 7.
The first 3 commandments are all about our relationship with God. There is one God, don’t use God’s name wrongly, and remember to take Sabbath.
The other 7 are all about your relationship with your neighbor, with each other.
Which I think is what Jesus is fundamentally getting at in our Gospel lesson today. These teachings about anger, and adultery, and divorce, and swearing oaths, are all about how we live together, with each other, in relationship together, as a community.

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. asserts that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And the reason why that’s true is because, as King notes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied together in a single garment of destiny.” Because “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk-in-jailWhat Dr. King is articulating is the interconnectedness of all things, even the interdependence of all things on each other. This means, friends, that the oppression of anyone, oppresses all of us.
Whatever prevents anyone from living fully and abundantly as God intends all of God’s creation to live, whether it’s homelessness, hunger, poverty, joblessness, prejudice, bias, addiction, desire to exert power or influence over another, fear of those different than yourself…all of these oppressions, prevent all of us from living fully and abundantly as God intends us, God’s creation, to live.

The good news is that if our oppression is bound up together, then so is our liberation. That God has freed us to actively work and fight for all of God’s children to live full and abundant lives, and by doing so, you are also working and fighting for your own ability to live fully and abundantly.
If we truly understand ourselves as interconnected, even interdependent, I think that radically shifts how we approach the Christian life and the life of discipleship.
For weeks now, you’ve heard me talking about living a life of discipleship, and Jesus here puts real meat on what it means to be a Christian. They are impossibly high standards, but they are ways of living together that have real and meaningful consequences.

While it’s hard for us to dissect everything Jesus lays out for us this morning, there’s one example that I think encompasses much of them.
“If your sister or brother, if your sibling, has something against you, leave what you are doing at the altar before God, and go, first, and be reconciled to your sibling in Christ.”
Reconciliation happens before you come to the Lord’s Table together.

Holy Communion is the great leveling meal. What I mean by that is that we all come to this table as beggars. No one is of higher status or of greater importance before God. The lowliest are raised up and the mighty and powerful are brought low. From the most successful executive with millions in her bank account to the homeless addict fighting and clawing to get back on his feet, we all come to God’s table of mercy and grace with arms outstretched. And we all receive the same, a crumb of bread and a sip of wine, the very body and blood of Christ, broken and shed, for you, for your sake, nourishment and food to sustain you as you continue to work and fight for justice and for peace.

But before you come, as a beggar, to be sustained and nourished, first be reconciled.
And not a superficial reconciliation, but rather reconciliation that is borne out of the tough work of cultivating trust and love in relationship together.
And forgiveness precedes that reconciliation. There can be no reconciliation without first an honest admission of wrongdoing, followed by forgiveness. But I want to be clear, the responsibility of apology, the burden of asking for forgiveness is on the one who has wronged the other, not the one who has been wronged.

So whether anger, or desiring another, or divorce, or swearing oaths, we should, as much as possible, seek to live in reconciled relationships with one another. That doesn’t mean that we won’t ever be angry or that marriages won’t end, but it does mean that God’s ultimate hope for God’s people is that we seek, as much as possible, to overcome our sometimes irreconcilable differences, and seek to live in relationship with one another as reconciled people in community together.
But again, I want to stress, the burden of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation is on the one who has wronged the other, not the one who has been wronged.
And just as I’m sure we can point to examples in our lives when we are the ones who have been wronged, I’m much more certain that we can all think of many relationships in our lives where we are the one who has wronged the other.

And so when I say that the Christian life, this life of discipleship, will demand everything from you, I don’t say that lightly. To truly follow Christ will find you at odds with yourself over the ways of the world. Sometimes to follow Christ is to outright reject the patterns and systems of the world. Jesus calls us to humble ourselves, to be honest, to recognize the ways in which we are oppressing others, and to instead actively fight for their liberation.

The life of Christian discipleship demands that we live with integrity. That our “Yes” be “Yes,” and our “No” be “No.” Integrity means that we don’t hear one thing on Sunday morning and live Monday through Saturday as if none of it matters.
Quite the opposite.
The Christian life requires that we be open to being transformed. That we allow God to so fundamentally change us that our patterns of Monday through Saturday being and living are the same ways that we hear God calling us to live and be on Sunday.
The commandments aren’t about you, they’re about your neighbor.
This is integrity, church. That you call yourself a Christian, so live like it.

The standards are high, and we are not perfect, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t try to live as God calls us to live.
As people with integrity, in meaningful relationship with one another, in community together, tied together in an inescapable network of mutuality, whose liberation is bound up together, who actively seek and work for and fight for that liberation for one another.

Christ has shown us what laying down one’s life for the sake of others looks like, and has given his very self for us so that we might do the same.
Choose life. Receive grace.
But first, be reconciled.

Festival of Incarnation

Christmas.
The Festival of the Incarnation.
A celebration of God’s enfleshment and embodiment.

As I’m reflecting on Christmas and preparing myself to lead my community in the celebration of the birth of Christ, I’m considering the connections between the festival of Christmas and the community of faith.
The church, as the body of Christ, is an embodied thing. We bring our selves to worship. We join in community with one another. We exist in relationship together. I sincerely hope we come together over certain common beliefs, even if peripherally, we disagree about many other things.

That last point is what I’m considering in particular today. Because it’s deeply consequential that we say that God became human. It means that God reveals Godself most completely as a human. And not just a human, but God entered this world as an infant—the very embodiment of vulnerability and dependency. To an unwed teenage mother—another vulnerable person. To a family who became refugees in Egypt—yet another marginalized group—to escape Herod’s terror being visited upon the infant boys in Bethlehem.
To me, this makes God’s connection and concern for the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, and the furthest outcast from our society undeniable. When we say that God entered into our existence as a baby, that means something.

manger-light

I believe this is one of those certain common beliefs that I hope we come together around as a community of faith.
If the church is the body of Christ; and we assert, as St. Paul does in 1 Corinthians that, “If one member of the body suffers, all members of the body suffer with it;” then I believe we have a scriptural mandate to hold particular concern for and show explicit care to vulnerable, outcast, and marginalized groups, as God does, particularly children, the homeless, unwed parents, refugees, and all others seeking relief from their suffering.

 

My prayer this Christmas season is that we strive to more fully comprehend the consequence of the Incarnation. As a body made up of human members, the body of Christ is far from perfect, nor is it able to be fully immune to basic human fallibility. However, we can try to live better together. We can commit to disagreeing well together and seeking to build bridges across our peripheral differences from our places of shared convictions.

Being in community together is a noisy, messy, and wild thing.
So it is also with babies, born among livestock, resting their heads on beds of hay.

A Word of Hope…and an Invitation

A little over a month ago, I preached a sermon talking about the difficulty of being in community together and how being in community together can also be messy. In that sermon I asked for forgiveness for the inevitable ways that we, as a faith community, would let you down and disappoint you. This blog is not an apology, but rather a reminder of what it means to be committed to being in relationship and community with each other.

“We will let you down” is an idea adapted from an excellent Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. In her book, Pastor Nadia writes,

[A]t our quarterly “Welcome to House For All Sinners and Saints” events, we ask the question, What drew you to HFASS? They love the singing, people often say, and the community, and the lack of praise bands, and the fact that they feel like they can comfortably be themselves. They love that we laugh a lot and have drag queens and that it’s a place where difficult truths can be spoken and everyone is welcome, and where we pray for each other.
I am always the last to speak at these events. I tell them that I love hearing all of that and that I, too, love being in a spiritual community where I don’t have to add to or take away from my own story to be accepted. But I have learned something by belonging to two polar-opposite communities—Albion Babylon and the Church of Christ—and I wanted them to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.

The reality of being in community together, like I said on Sunday, is that we bring our full selves to this relationship. We don’t ask anyone to leave who they are at they door. We invite, we hope, and we expect that you bring your complete self to this relationship because by being honest and genuine with one another, we can begin and continue to build trust.
Trust is the foundation of any healthy and fruitful relationship, and it’s what allows us to disagree about certain things but to disagree well and struggle well together. Trust is what allows us to work out in our community that which God is calling us to. And it is from that foundation of trust that we can further build up our community, begin to move forward together, and do the work of the Gospel that God calls us to: transforming our selves and our world into God’s reign of peace and justice that God envisions for God’s world.

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Sometimes when we bring our fullest selves to a relationship we find that we don’t always think alike, or that we don’t all view the world the same way. But I really believe that those differences in perspective don’t preclude or prevent us from finding where we do share common ground and working together from those places.
My hope and my prayer is that if you’ve recently found yourself surprised or disappointed or let down by this community, that you will also be committed to trusting that God is at work in the midst of that disappointment and that God is actively filling in the spaces left by our community with God’s love and mercy and grace.

Transformation and healing are beautiful and miraculous things if we allow ourselves to be open to seeing and receiving them.
I hope that we all leave room in our lives for God to do God’s work of transforming.

This upcoming Sunday is Reign of Christ Sunday. We’ll hear stories of how the power and authority of God sits above and apart from our conceptions about what power and authority looks like. The second reading, from Colossians, reminds us that Christ is the head of the body, which is Christ’s church. And like I said on Sunday, the body of Christ is a celebration of diversity within the unity of the body. By reminding ourselves that Christ is the head of this body, we can trust that we can have diverse thoughts and perspectives and still work to love and care for the world and the people and the creation that God so loves.

Finally church, I invite your thoughts and reflections. The building of relationship doesn’t happen without dialogue and interaction, and so I sincerely invite you into that space of dialogue. Please email me at pastor@newhopelc.org and let’s set a time to meet together and have conversation. I’m serious about this. I can’t know you and you can’t know me fully apart from dialogue and interaction. I’m eager for your thoughts, your conversation, and your reflection.

Peace be yours,
Pastor Chris

Hurricane Winds of Change

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on October 9, 2016 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost:
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c + Psalm 111 + 2 Timothy 2:8-15 + Luke 17:11-19

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Please pray with me this morning:

Healing God,
Be here among us.
Turn our eyes, our hearts, our selves to you.
Root us in you.
So that we might be made whole in you.
Amen.

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As we sit here this morning, I’m keenly aware that just about 1,000 miles to our east, the worst storm to hit the Caribbean and the southeastern United States in many years has just turned away from the coast. Scrolling through photos on NPR, the devastation is striking. Hundreds of people lost their lives in Haiti. Over a million people have been impacted in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Bahamas, and the US.

There were photos of people boarding up their homes in preparation for Matthew, photos of massive trees brought down, people digging out of the rubble, entire cities leveled, photos of neighbors helping each other, providing aid and rescue, carrying each other through flooded streets… There’s a kind of community that seems to come together almost organically around disastrous events.

We know about the before and after around devastating storms, don’t we, church? We know about the boarding up, the stocking up, the packing up, and the cleaning up. We know about extending our hands out to help because we’re all in this together. We know about that kind of community.

Some communities form around tragedy, others around shared values or ideals, some communities come together around a shared love of brunch, or a common interest in the outdoors…but not all communities self-select.

In our Gospel today, we hear of Jesus and his followers walking into a town and encountering a group of lepers. The thing about leprosy in the ancient world was that not only did any skin abnormality qualify you as a leper, but you were also sent away, outside of the city, to live and be with others who had any manner of skin irregularity. You were ostracized from whatever community you used to identify with and forced to be part of this new community of undesirables, untouchables… Seen as unclean…
Not the kind of community one self-selects to be a part of.

And it’s important to understand that to grasp the weight of what Jesus actually did in this story. See if lepers, deemed unclean and unworthy, were some the most ostracized and vulnerable in that society, then by curing someone of their leprosy, Jesus wasn’t just restoring physical health, Jesus was restoring these 10 people to their community. The point really isn’t the physical healing, but rather the restoration—the making whole—of broken and severed relationships to something complete and life-giving.

 

Church, I want to challenge you a little bit this morning.
Yes, of course we should be reaching out to alleviate whatever suffering we can. Our Christian vocation should absolutely be that of healing, mercy, compassion, of repairing brokenness.
But I want to suggest to you that we, in fact, are the lepers in this story.

We are the ones longing to be restored into community. And if you’re wondering if that’s true, think about the last time you felt sad or disappointed or angry or dissatisfied or distant from this community, from New Hope Lutheran Church.
Think deeply. Was it in the last month? The last 6 months? The past year?

I know I have, and I just got here…

And here’s where Pastor Chris is going to be a little bit vulnerable with you. Change is hard. It’s difficult and it can be messy and despite our attempts for smoothness, things rarely go exactly according to plan. I know, because those feelings that I’ve heard from many of you about newness and difference and anxiousness, are some of the same feelings that I have. It’s scary for me too. I wake up at night wondering if the sermon hit just the way I intended, or if something I’ve said or done caused undue stress on an already stressed system.

I feel it, church. I do.

It feels like it could all come down at any moment. Like we’re standing in the midst of 120 mile per hour winds, buffeted by rain and debris, that the storm is ripping the roof off, knocking walls down.
It can feel like a hurricane. I feel it.

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Because here’s the thing about communities, and specifically about churches: we’re made up of people. People who are imperfect and broken and sinful and rough around the edges and scarred… Your pastor, is imperfect, and broken, and sinful, and rough around the edges, and scarred.

And church, we will let you down.
We won’t do it on purpose, but we are human, so we’ll mess up. We sin, despite all our attempts not to, we separate ourselves from God and each other, and we fall short. And for that, for inevitably letting you down, I ask your forgiveness.

 

But here’s the other thing about churches: we trust that even in the midst of our mess ups—especially in the midst of our mess ups—that God is there.
We trust that we can cling to the strong and sure faithfulness of God, and hang on for dear life, and that by trusting God’s promises, God restores us to community, to relationship with one another and with God.
We trust that God comes among our imperfection and roughness as an infant, and in the broken, scarred, and crucified Christ takes our sin upon himself. And through Christ’s resurrection, God redeems and restores us.
Scars and ugly parts and all, God call us redeemed…beloved…saved…child…

In Jesus, God speaks a word of love to a world that shouts hate.

 

It’s a love that I felt viscerally on Wednesday night. As I was leaving the church after Confirmation, I swung through the sanctuary to listen to the choir practicing. And they were practicing an anthem that they’ll be performing at my Installation. (Which, by the way, is next Sunday, October 16th, at 2pm right here in this very sanctuary…) And it wasn’t so much the text of the piece, which is beautiful, but for maybe the first time in 3 weeks, I allowed myself to settle and reflect. And as I listened, goosebumps ran up and down both of my arms, and I thought, “These are my people. These are the people that God has called me to. You are the people that God has entrusted me to care for. You are my people. We are the people that God has called to be in relationship together.”

 

And when understood that way, how can my response to God be anything but exultant praise and thanksgiving? What words do I have other than thanks to God for forming us into community?
Like the Samaritan leper, how can I help but give thanks to God for this gift?

 

As unlikely as it might seem.
Just like the Samaritan leper, the double-outsider, not only ostracized for his physical appearance, but also not part of the Jewish believers that the author of Luke was writing to, healing and restoration and thanksgiving come from the most unlikely of places.

 

Church, our worship is an act of gratitude. Worship is not for us, but is an offering of thanksgiving to God for everything God has done for us.
And in worship, we are re-centered and re-focused to God. The God who is steadfast, and sure, and gracious, and faithful. Who is our refuge and our strength. Which is consolation when it feels like hurricane-force winds might blow us over.

 

Here is refuge. Here is a safe place from the storm.
In these waters of baptism and in this meal are promises you can trust.