True Peace is Hard to Come By

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on June 25, 2017 *

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

Texts for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 6:1b-11 + Matthew 10:24-39

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Please pray with me:

Holy God,
We say we want peace,
Yet true peace is hard to come by.
Guide us as we walk down this path of discipleship.
And remind us again that you walk with us.
Amen.

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One of the things I hated most about being a kid was getting hurt. Scrapes, bumps, bruises, cuts, gashes…I got them all. I loved riding my bike more than anything, so all of those were basically a weekly occurrence.
I hated the cuts and bumps and scrapes most because 1) it meant playtime had to be put on pause, but 2) because the process of cleaning up scrapes and gashes and cuts is really quite terrible.
See, because before you put a bandaid or neosporin on it, you have to clean it. Really well.
You have to wash it with water, maybe a little soap, maybe put some hydrogen peroxide on it, and if you’re anything like me, you’re thinking back to when you had to do that last part and you’re cringing a little bit, right?

In order for wounds to heal well, they have be cleaned. And that part is awful, sometimes as bad as the injury itself. But it is necessary in order for good healing to happen.

In our Gospel this morning, we hear Jesus saying one of the most un-Jesusy things in all of the Gospels, “I’ve not come to bring peace, but I’ve come to bring a sword.” It’s a hard thing for us to hear from the one we call the Peaceful One. But I do think Jesus is talking about peace here.
It’s just that I think Jesus is talking about a deep, abiding, true peace, rather than the things that masquerade as peace these days. That abiding peace—that true peace—in Hebrew is Shalom.

Jesus is saying here that true peace is hard to come by.
And I think deep inside our heart of hearts, we know that to be the case. That so much of what passes as peace these days is a false peace. False peace is a peace that is gained by violence. False peace is a peace that is peaceful for some, but not for all.
But true peace—that abiding peace—I think we know, is a long, arduous, and sometimes painful road.

Because true peace requires you to confront some pretty ugly things about yourself. It forces you to recognize and be honest about the ways in which you’ve distanced yourself from your neighbor, how you’ve hurt or harmed those you once called family, and how you’ve used your words to cause injury or violence rather than building up and healing.

I think this poem by Christian Wiman that we’re using as our Confession during this Season of Pentecost does a pretty good job of naming this: “For all the pain passed down the genes or latent in the very grain of being; for the lordless mornings, the smear of spirit words intuit and inter…”
Right? These ways in which our words smear the spirits of others. Or the pain we cause others because it’s inherent to our very being, our DNA is infused with this sense of separation from God, and our innate inclination is to distance ourselves from our neighbors or the other.
Look deep inside yourself. Isn’t that true of you?

That’s what St. Paul is talking about when he writes about our “old self.” That the sinful posture of humanity is one of turning away from God. That’s been true of humanity from the beginning.
SparrowAnd we have to fight with every fiber of that being to overcome those tendencies. It takes a conscious choice on our part to try to live in reconciled relationships with God and with each other. And it’s not a one and done thing, we have to recommit ourselves to that difficult work of reconciliation and peace-making again and again, day after day, morning after morning, Sunday after Sunday. We come to this place to hear God’s word of forgiveness; that every single hair on your head has been counted, numbered, and named; that you, precious child of God, are worth so much more than a thousand sparrows; that neither height nor depth, that nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus; that if you have been joined to Christ in a death like his, how much more surely, dear people, will you be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.

True peace is hard to come by.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was preaching a sermon on these verses from Matthew said, “Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

When we truly follow Jesus in this path of discipleship…when we take seriously the call given to us in our baptism to actively work for peace and justice in the world…when we internalize what the Reverend Doctor King noted that “No one is free until all are free” and that our liberation as humanity is inextricably tied together and caught up in “an inescapable network of mutuality”…when we really, actually work for and make justice a reality in our unjust communities…when we take up our own cross and follow Jesus…that’s how we start down the way of true peace.

But let’s be clear about where that way leads.
If you pick up your cross, if you undertake the difficult work of creating and cultivating justice, you will find yourself with Jesus along the way of the cross. And that way leads to death.

You will die to yourself, and you will have started to live for others.
You will lose your life, but in losing your life you will have gained it.

The path of discipleship, this way of the cross, is one marked by wounds and scars.
And it’s especially through the wounds and scars of the One we follow in this way of hard-fought, abiding, true peace that God gives life to all of God’s creation…including the sparrows.

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.

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.

photo-1461664255484-4d234c53b737

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.

storm

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.

 

 

Advent Devotional: Wednesday, December 31: Seventh Day of Christmas

Read Revelation 21:3-5

The idea of things being made new again is compelling, isn’t it? We get to start over. We get a clean slate. That’s sometimes how I feel about the new year. We mark the end of one year, and the start of another. We finish the chapter and close the book on 2014, and open a new book and pick up the pen on 2015. “A brand new year, a brand new you” as some New Year’s advertisements go.

But it’s not so cut and dry, is it? There’s holdover. We carry some things from the old year with us into the new. We pick and choose; keep that which is useful for keeping, and throw away the rest. And there are some things that we wish we could throw away, that simply won’t leave us. Whether it’s pain, or grief, or sadness, or all of those together… Life is messy sometimes. And God goes with us through all of that. God promises to walk with us, and never to abandon us.

I generally have wonderfully fond feelings about New Year’s Eve. I have memories of staying up to watch the ball drop in Times Square on TV while eating pizza in my pajamas when I was young, having all-nighters with my friends in high school, celebrating with friends on a beach in Jacksonville, Florida because we were there with our college marching band for a football bowl game the next day… And then five years ago, I took a beautiful girl on a date and asked her to marry me. For me, New Year’s Eve has never been about me as an individual, but always about spending time with the people I love and cherish deeply.

And I think God feels that way too. In the verses from Revelation, we hear of a God who dwells with God’s people, restores what is broken, wipes away tears, and mends what is torn. This is the God revealed through Jesus; not one who sits far off playing cosmic puppet master, but a God who enters into our humanity and walks among us and dwells with us. Another way to say this would be, God loves spending time with God’s people whom God loves and cherishes deeply. And it would seem that God having a deeply meaningful relationship with God’s people has something to do with the restoration of God’s creation.

That these things are connected is wonderfully comforting for me.

 

As we finish the chapter of one year and move confidently into the next, I hope we remain aware of God’s continuously-arriving future and keep looking for ways to engage in the life-giving and restorative work of God in the world.

 

Questions for reflection: What New Year’s memories do you have? What are some hopes you carry with you into the new year? What are you bringing with you from this past year? What possibilities excite you as you look forward to the future? What scares or concerns you? What are some ways that we can participate in God’s restorative work in the world?