Becoming Our Image of God

blogpic crucifixion IndiaSermon preached on Matthew 21:1-11 for Palm/Passion Sunday, April 9, 2017 at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO

What is your image of God? It’s not a question we ask ourselves or each other very often. It doesn’t come up at the water cooler at work, or even around the dinner table at home. But it’s a vital question because as I read in my devotions recently, we become our image of God.

This is the same question being asked by the people of Jerusalem as Jesus makes his triumphal entry on a donkey. “Who is this? Who is Jesus?” Matthew reports that the whole city of Jerusalem was in turmoil over this question and with good reason. Jesus is not just “a prophet from Nazareth in Galilee,” but Jesus reveals the character and nature of God. So, what image of God does Jesus’ life reveal? We join the crowds in Jerusalem asking, “Who is this?”

Does Jesus reveal an image of God who is the judge and punisher of our sins, a God who makes sure we get our just desserts, and lets us blame people for their own misfortune? If not, those of us who think we are righteous are disappointed.

Is Jesus the morality police who condemns those who don’t behave according to strict moral codes so that, “we are in, those ‘others’ (whoever those ‘others’ are for us) are out?” If not, the arrogant religious are humbled as we stand on level ground with all sinners.

Does Jesus embody an image of God as the apex of power who will defeat the Roman Empire and make Israel (or America today) #1? If not, then those among us who want a political messiah are thwarted, and violence is not justified.

Does Jesus reveal a God who is absent—an old man with a beard in the sky who does not care about us personally? Does this far-off God “watch us from a distance,” (as the unfortunate lyrics of that Bette Midler song go) as if our lives don’t matter? If not, the powerful who oppress others stand accused, for our behavior matters, and the lowly are raised up.

Does Jesus show us an image of God who is a perfectionist who demands the same from us? A God who says that salvation is all up to us and you’d better hop to it because you’re on your own? If not, then the agitators and activists are brought down from their high horse.

Who is this Jesus? Everyone in Jerusalem is disappointed, for they are not getting the God they wanted. Perhaps neither are we. Is this why the crowd who cried “Hosanna to the Son of David” shouted “crucify him!” just a few days later? Because in Jesus, they did not get the God they wanted?

When I was in chemotherapy for breast cancer 9 years ago, I was angry at God. I have never known such a depth of physical suffering combined with a dark night of the soul. I was plastered to the bed for 5 months of chemotherapy, I was on disability for 9 months and couldn’t take care of my family. I didn’t want Jesus to suffer with me, I wanted him to take my suffering away! I did not get the God I wanted.

We are so disappointed that Jesus is not the God we want, that we put God to death in the end, even death on a cross. I confess that I am guilty.

But isn’t it in this death, that Jesus reveals who God really is? God’s image and character become clear—God is One who suffers on behalf of the world God made. Jesus reveals the length, the width, the height, the depth, (as Ephesians 3 says). Jesus reveals the expanse of God’s love in that suffering, so that in our suffering we might meet God there, and embrace a relationship with the One who called us into being and loves us no matter what.

It took time, but eventually the Spirit enabled me to see God in the midst of my suffering:

• in the dinners people prepared for us;

• in the Moms who picked up and dropped off my 3 kids for their basketball, soccer, and baseball practices;

• in my parents, 2 sisters and 2 girlfriends, all who lived out of state, who took their vacation time to stay with us and help my family;

• in the cards so numerous I could have wall-papered the bathroom;

• in the prayers that so many offered on my behalf;

I could go on and on and on about the ways God showed up in my suffering.

One thing becomes clear: there is no glorification of ourselves in this God who suffers with us, and for us, and alongside us. We do not get to be more righteous, more powerful, more moral, more favored, or more perfect, more holy than anyone else, than any other country, than any other community or group. The truth of who we are is exposed in Jesus’ suffering; all we can do is receive the unfathomable love of our God, and respond with our whole life, trusting that God never allows the cross and its suffering to be the end of the story.

For the character of this God who suffers, is also and always to bring new life, new birth, new joy, indeed, resurrection out of suffering. Through our relationship with Jesus, God asks us to participate with him in bringing love, healing, renewal, hope and resurrection to all people.

Last week, a pastor serving in northern Illinois asked me to go to a local hospital and visit the niece of her parishioner, who has breast cancer. She’s 30 years old with children ages 2 and 5. She had the same stage cancer that I did, the same surgery. She looked at me and said, “It’s so good to see you got through this; it gives me hope.” In fact, all my pastoral visits have been qualitatively different since cancer, because people know that I know their suffering. People know that I know what it’s like to be in the hospital bed rather than standing at the bedside. Only a God who suffers can give this hope, when all I did was show up. That is the character of God – to bring comfort, love and hope to others through our redeemed suffering. It’s not about us, but what God can do through us.

We become our image of God. So lean in to the passion story this Holy Week, and this God who suffers on our behalf. As you receive the body and blood of Christ at Communion, hear the story that through Jesus, you know that God knows you and your suffering.

When we receive the unfathomable love of God and we say “yes” to this God who invites us into an intimate relationship, then we can ask new questions. Instead of “Who is this Jesus?” We can ask, “Who is Jesus shaping me to be through my own redeemed suffering?” And “To whom is God using me to bring comfort, love and hope because they need to know that you know their suffering? There are people who need to know that you know. That is your passion story, because it makes it possible for them to know that God knows their suffering, too.

So Jesus’ passion story continues through our passion stories as we join him in making real the love and presence of this amazing resurrection God.

Image: Jesus Dies on the Tree by Jyoti Sahi; Jyoti Art Ashram, North Bangalore, India 

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Baptism on the Beach

20170319 183134 001A friend and I attended worship on the beach during spring break in Destin.

Worshipping outside, it’s harder to pretend that we are the masters of our own destiny and determiners of our fate. We are surrounded by the powers of creation that existed millennia before we got here and will be here eons after we’re gone. We don’t need to think about our smallness in the grand scheme of the universe. We are small, sitting in beach chairs while waves crashed before us.

How awesome that the Creator of all the incredible wonders around us, wants a relationship with each one of us personally. What kind of God is that? A relational God. A Trinitarian God. A God who became like us to show us eternal love, our ultimate destiny, and how to live until we get there.

Our ritual that marks that God desires this relationship with us is the Sacrament of Baptism. I’d never seen a Baptism in the ocean before and it moved me to tears. After the sermon and Communion, about 80 of us worshipping made a circle, held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer. Then we all moved to the shoreline for the Baptism. A girl about 9 or 10 years old went forward with her dad and they joined the pastor in the waves. She folded her arms across her chest, plugged her nose, and they dipped her back in the water and up she came as we all clapped and whooped. Her dad wrapped her in a big towel and hugged her tight.

The pastor was about to give the Benediction and send us on our way, when a man came forward. He looked like he’d had a hard life, but he experienced something that evening on the beach that told him hardship wasn’t all of who he was, nor the end of his story. He was ready to commit his life to God, to follow Jesus, and enter a relationship with the Creator who could be felt in the wind, seen in the sunset, tasted in the bread and grape juice, and held in the people beside us. The pastor went back into the waves with a church leader. The man folded his arms across his chest, plugged his nose and down he went, backwards into the waves as the water God made washed over him, a sign of pure love and forgiveness, of dying and rising with Christ. The pastor and his assistant lifted him back up. And we all clapped and hollered for him, too. What a remarkable way to begin one's faith journey. Baptism is done to you, even as an adult. The man didn't dip himself back, he was dunked by two others, by love, by God. And he was raised up again. God uses us to claim others.

I had never seen so clearly how in Baptism, we not only belong to God and to the faith community, but also to the whole creation. That’s why faith is made up of the stuff of the earth—water and grains and grapes and people seeking to understand and order our lives in relationship with the Divine mystery hidden in all things. 

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Learning to Listen

blogpic DelaneyMartinThe daughter of friends tragically died recently. Her name was Delaney and she was only 20 years old, the same age as one of my own children. She did not intend to, but she died from the effects of an overdose of heroin. Delaney was just coming into her own, discovering a vocation and a purpose that fit her talents and skills. She had stopped using drugs, and was on the path of a renewed life. Something happened that upset her, got her off balance, and the old demons came calling again.

Psalm 8:2 recognizes the power of truth that comes “out of the mouths of babes and infants” and we hear this wisdom not only in the witness of Delaney’s life, but in the words she left behind. Her parents found the poem below on her computer—a poem Delaney never shared. It reveals the depth of our human struggle for meaningful relationships, to be seen for who we really are, and to live with intention, offering insight beyond her years.

In Delaney’s words, we hear an echo of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 15:11 that is it “not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth.” We also hear God’s instruction to all of us through the prophet Samuel who was sent to anoint the young shepherd boy, David, to be king of Israel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature … for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Delaney points us toward the truth spoken by Paul in Acts 20:35 that it is "more blessed to give than to receive." And we hear the admonition given in the book of James that encourages us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).

If I wanted to sit down and write a poem that encompassed messages from the Old and New Testaments as well as Jesus himself, I couldn’t do it. But Delaney did. With her parent’s permission, I share Delaney’s words in thanksgiving for her life, in honor of her memory, and in the hope that her life will continue to speak, and we will begin to listen.

by Delaney Martin

i seem to always speak words as if none of them mattered
so if you ask me why i spoke in an octave that could break glass
the only answer i have is that its already been shattered.
my sister used to ask if i could hear what i was saying
and to look into the mirror so i could see what i was displaying.
but it seems like nobody knows we weren’t given eyes to look but to see
so we just look on the outside and not what lays underneath.
and most of us know how to hear but not listen
barely grasping at the words, so all the meanings - we miss them.
what if one day someone told you life isn’t worth living?
if all you do is hear, they could be just another life missing.
and some day you’ll ask yourself why didn’t i pay more attention
to the people around me who needed affection.
and most of us run our mouths as if we're running a race
like being right or being wrong goes hand in hand with first and last place.
but I wish someone had told me sooner that every single word i speak matters
and had helped me glue together every single piece, as if the glass had never shattered.
so learn to give more than you take, rather than take more than you give,
its the difference between living a life you think you love, and loving the life you live.
we were blessed with two eyes, two ears and one voice.
once we've chosen how we use them we may never get another choice.
so make sure the way you choose, is the way you want for life
because how you choose to use them is how you’ll be seen through everyone else’s eyes

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Letting Go

blogpic LetGodA Sermon based on John 3:1-17 for the Second Sunday in Lent; Lutheran Church of theAtonement, Florissant, MO

It was 1988. My husband, Dan, and I became good friends when we met in seminary because we were otherwise involved in or recovering from other relationships. About a year later, we were both free to date, but still only good friends. I would drop subtle hints to get him to ask me out. Things like, “Dan, we should go on a date” or the even more subtle, “Dan, I think we should get married.” He would laugh and say, “oh, no, we’re too much alike, it would never work.”

Well, he was not picking up what I was putting, so after awhile, I thought I’d better accept that I was going to be single for the rest of my life. I was about to become ordained and move to my first call in Detroit, MI. I’d seen the statistics about how a woman’s chance of marrying dropped like a rock after they become a pastor. So I said, “Well, God, it’s just going to be me and you in urban ministry, and it’s going to be ok. I’m going to trust that you’ll be with me and give me what I need to follow this call.” I had a sense of peace.

About 2 weeks later, guess what happened? Dan called and, as if it was his idea, asked me out on a real date. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2008, I sent my book, Motherhood Calling to several publishers. I wanted that sense of accomplishment and recognition, to prove that I was a worthy writer, a good Mom and pastor. All I got were rejection letters, or no response at all.

My Mom died in 2012 and one afternoon a couple years ago, I was standing in my kitchen missing her terribly. I got down the cookbook that she put together, which includes family pictures and poems that wrote. I hugged the cookbook to my chest and thought, “I’m so grateful she spent the time putting this together, because cooking from it is so comforting to me now that she’s gone.” It was like scales falling from eyes, when I realized that’s the only reason to try and publish my book, so my kids have these stories when I’m gone. Who cares if anyone else reads or even likes it?

Guess what happened? 8 years after my first attempt, my book was published.

Are you noticing a pattern here? New life comes once we die to our ego and let go of control, but we resist this process mightily. Our need for control, for programs, projects, plans and preferred outcomes layered with our American flair for rugged individualism makes it hard for us to die to self.

Nicodemus, the Pharisee in John chapter 3, is also resisting letting go of his hard-earned status, education and power. As a religious leader, he wants to know if his position, authority, and religious framework is worthy, is right, and of God. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night under the cover of darkness—as a Pharisee, he can’t be seen asking religious questions—his area of expertise—to an uneducated Galilean peasant, even one who does miracles, like Jesus.

The darkness of night in the Gospel of John, however, also symbolizes spiritual misunderstanding or unbelief. Nicodemus’s spiritual confusion is made clear in his conversation with Jesus who speaks of being “born again.” Nicodemus cannot fathom how such a thing is possible. He can think only in concrete physical terms—returning to his mother’s womb—but Jesus is talking about a spiritual re-birth, of letting go and being born from above—born of water and the Spirit.

For some of our evangelical sisters and brothers, to be “born again” is an experience of conversion—a moment where Jesus’ love and forgiveness were first felt and made real. For those of us who are raised in the faith, being “born again of water and the Spirit” begins with our Baptism into Christ, but in neither instance, is it a one-time event. Similar to the pattern I began to see in my own life, to be “born again” is a life-long process that we go through again and again and again. Professor Karoline Lewis at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN defines being born again, as “recognizing that your entire existence is dependent on God, and through your relationship with Jesus, to trust God for everything that you need.”

Nicodemus was right about Jesus in verse 3, “Rabbi…no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” God’s presence is right in front of Nicodemus in Jesus. Jesus asks him, "how he can be a religious leaders and not understand spiritual re-birth?" But like us, Nicodemus resists letting go and dying to self and to his supposed religious superiority.

The question implied at the end of the story is, "Will Nicodemus let go of his ego and allow himself to fall into a trusting relationship with Jesus? Will Nicodemus die to his position, power, and privilege, and affirm that his entire existence is dependent on God?"

This is the question that the season of Lent asks all of us. We’re invited into the Paschal mystery that Jesus lived—of dying and rising anew—for this is the pattern of our own life, with each new day, each new difficulty, each new goal and each new pursuit. We resist it because we have to let go before we see what comes next, before we know what being born again will look like.

Letting go of ego needs and expectations, agendas and control, always precedes receiving something new; that is the paschal mystery—death always precedes resurrection and God is in all of it. That’s the hard part for us—to trust that God is with us even in death—the small deaths we experience as we grow older, and the big death at the end of our life.

Dying to self is the only way we allow ourselves to fall into trusting that our entire existence depends on God, and Jesus will provide everything we need. Whatever we're tightly clinging to, whatever we are resisting—that is where God is nudging us to let go, so we can be spiritually re-born from above, and deepen our trust in Christ Jesus.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that it might be saved through him.

When my Mom died, my whole family was gathered around her bed in the ICU to turn off the machines and the medicines keeping her alive. She had been alert just a few hours before. We did the Service of Confession and Forgiveness with her pastor, and sang her favorite hymns. When that last medicine was turned down, my mom died very quickly. It was excruciatingly painful to let her go, but as she was born into eternal life, I was also born again.

For suddenly I could see and understand who she really was that I couldn’t grasp while she was alive. Despite illness, mental confusion, pain and physical distress, she held on. She held on and waited for us to be ready to let her go. With a persistent, patient, unfailing love and a strength we didn’t fathom she had, my mom hung on and took care of us in her dying as only a mom can.

God’s love in Jesus Christ is like my mom’s—waiting, hanging on, holding out for us to be ready to let go. Jesus waits with a patient, persistent, unfailing love and strength we cannot fathom or imagine, until we let go.

While he hung dying on the cross, Jesus waited for Nicodemus to be ready. Down the hill, he saw Nicodemus coming to him, now in the daylight—no longer confused, but as a devoted disciple who trusts him.

John 19 says Nicodemus was weighed down with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to join Joseph of Arimathea in anointing and wrapping Jesus body for burial in the tomb.

Nicodemus didn’t know that resurrection was coming, but he let go anyway. Nicodemus was born again into a love and trust he couldn’t fathom or imagine. And so are we.

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.