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Blessing For the Most People Possible

Mafa015 mediumMessage for Epiphany 7 on Luke 6:27-38 given on Feb. 20, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I have shared before that in seminary in my twenties, I spent five months studying at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. One weekend, a local student named Phillip invited another seminary student, Todd and I to visit his grandmother in his hometown of Mutoko about 150 kilometers away in the Eastern highlands. Phillip had few resources, so Todd and I rented a little 4-seater car that Phillip drove. The trip was going to take about 2 ½ hours depending on road conditions. We drove out of town and as we chatted away, Phillip saw two people walking on the side of the road. He stopped and talked with them, and they got in the back seat with me.

I had the back seat to myself —a back seat I had paid for—and now I was crowded. We headed off again. A little further down the road, Phillip stopped again, and he picked up two more people. Todd now had a woman on his lap in the front seat, and I had someone half on my lap, half on the person squished next to me. Jammed up against the door handle with the window crank in my ribs, I put my face out the window to get a little air. I was so uncomfortable and started to get mad. Todd and I had paid for this car—it was our money; it was our car, even though Phillip was driving. This was our trip, and essentially, and it was our right to determine how uncomfortable and inconvenienced we were willing to be when spending our money.  And we were being nice! Phillip would never have gotten home if it were not for us.

Fifteen minutes later, Phillip stopped the car again, and picked one more person to make 5 in the back and 3 in the front in a car built for 4 people. I was mad!

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus continues his sermon on the level plain—he came down to a level place so that everyone would know that they are equal in the kingdom of God. Now he gives a little more detail about what living in God’s kingdom is really like if we are still listening!

• Love your enemies,
• bless those who curse you,
• Give to everyone who begs from you;
• Do to others as you would have them do to you.
• lend, expecting nothing in return.
• Be merciful,
• Do not judge or condemn
• Forgive and give

Jesus reveals a society where everyone trusts ultimately and only in God’s goodness as the pinnacle of our life, our relationships, and even our social networks. Jesus wants all people to experience blessing, and for us to be the vehicles of God’s goodness—not based on how other people treat us, but rather based solely on how God treats us—on God’s unlimited love and mercy for us.

It's hard to imagine isn’t it?

• Never letting someone make you mad,
• never giving into vengeance,
• never expecting someone to return a favor,
• never wanting them to give back what they borrowed,
• not hating the person who has done you wrong,
• not resenting being completely squished in the backseat of a car that you’ve paid for without even being asked

Instead, Jesus invites us to be so singularly rooted in God’s over-powering, out-pouring, over-flowing love and mercy and grace, that all of those negative thoughts and feelings fade away; love and forgiveness and generosity come pouring out instead.

Jesus not only did this throughout his whole ministry, but he also behaved this way from the cross:

• seeking mercy for the soldiers who executed him he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
• offering salvation for the criminal who hung next to him, he said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus died blessing people.

Jesus rose again so that we might join him and live out his mission of blessing people. Through his resurrection we are filled with his Holy Spirit, so that through him, we might have moments and ministries when we love as God loves, when we offer mercy as God offers mercy, when we give generously as God gives generously. None of us do it perfectly all the time, but through the gift of Jesus Christ flowing through us, we can offer God’s love and mercy and generosity more often than we know.

When we arrived on that car trip to Mutoko, Zimbabwe, we were like clowns pouring out of a Volkswagen. We all stretched and worked out the kinks. I was so relieved to get out of the car and take a deep breath. I was still trying make sense about what had happened in my car that I had rented. Then I looked at the faces of the 5 people we had picked up. They had such huge smiles on their faces! They were so grateful, and so, so happy. They were shaking hands with Phillip and each other, and laughing—they were so excited and so relieved—they had made it home! They could spend more time with their families whom they had come to visit. We had driven nearly 100 miles—it would have taken them 3 days to walk the whole way.

If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again…. Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It was a humbling lesson.

Before we headed to his home, Phillip took us on a hike through the foothills off the road just to look around. We came upon a hut with a thatched roof, and an elderly woman came out to greet us. She was very thin, wore a white wrap around her head. Her old shirt and skirt were threadbare. She gave us the traditional greeting by clapping her hands in welcome, she bowed down and offered us water. We sat with her outside her home and after bringing water, she knelt before Phillip and asked him if we would be staying for dinner, or if we would need to stay for the night. She had no idea who we were and yet she was ready to offer what little food she had, and her home as shelter from the wild animals at nightfall. Phillip thanked her for her hospitality and let her know we would be moving on to his family’s home.

Give to everyone who begs from you; Do to others as you would have them do to you.

We were even more humbled by her generosity and hospitality.

When we did arrive at Phillip’s grandmother’s house, she had been grinding by hand a delicious stew of squash and peanuts which we at for dinner.

Life for Phillip, for his family, for the woman in the hut, and for most of the people we met on our trip, was not about acquiring ownership, and anxiously hanging on to it –it all was a gift from God to be shared. Life was about using whatever resources they had at their disposal to bring benefit and blessing to the most people possible.

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

On Sunday when we drove back to Harare guess what we did on the way home? We invited people to get in the car! We had a resource to share—and we found out on that trip, that it was not a car for 4, it was a car for 8! It was a beautiful way to learn that I do not own anything, only God does. And when I share what God has given me generously, it gives God a chance to give me more to share.

One of our members with whom I have spoken a lot about giving and this campaign said to me that whenever he gives generously God, God always gives back what he gave, and more! He looks at his accounts and the money has grown again to more than it was before! I call that a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap, for the measure you give, will be the measure you get back.

That’s what we celebrate today as we bring forward our pledges and prayers for our Moving Forward in Faith Campaign—that God is generous to us and through us, and because Jesus’ Spirit dwells in us, we can share generously with God’s mission as we look to the future. We all have something to offer the mission of Jesus Christ at St. Luke’s.

On a dusty African road, I learned that all that we have is a gift from God to be shared to bring benefit and blessing to the most people possible. And that’s what we do in this church where Spirits Come alive! So let’s join together in believing the foundation of Jesus Christ, belonging in unity for mission and growth, building God’s vision for our future! 

Image Attribution: JESUS MAFA, Cameroon. The Sermon on the Mount, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48284 [retrieved February 21, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

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Join the Party!

youth hands largeMessage for Epiphany 6 on Luke 6:17-26 on February 13, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

We want a Jesus who is calm and soothing, a Jesus who only welcomes and never challenges, but that is rarely the Jesus we encounter in scripture. In the sermon we hear this morning, Jesus’s blessings and woes sound shocking, even judgmental and divisive. His words unsettle us, but they are not surprising if we have been paying attention.

Take his mother, for example. She has been singing lullabies about scattering the proud in the thoughts of their heart, bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly since Jesus was in the womb. Mary spoke of filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. Mary, an unwed peasant girl, experiences the newness of God in her life and she sees a vision of life turned upside-down from the way things work.

Take the start of Jesus’s ministry: it does not begin at the Temple with the approval of religious leaders—it is at the river with a baptism by a wilderness prophet calling for repentance. The sky breaks open, the Spirit descends, and then – instead of a seminary education, Jesus is tested, hungry, lonely, and bereft. From the outset, Jesus’s ministry is all about the world being turned upside-down.

Take Jesus’ inaugural sermon in his hometown of Nazareth—he quotes Isaiah’s vision of good news to the poor, sight to the blind, the oppressed going free, and the year of jubilee. This vision celebrates all property being returned to its original owners and all debts forgiven! Everyone would be released from crushing poverty and properties and finances would be set back to a level starting place. Again, the world is turned upside-down.

The sermon we hear today is not so surprising then, although the setting tells us something new is happening. “Jesus came down to a level place.” How odd! Usually Jesus went up – he went up to pray, he went up to commune with God, he went up to preach. But in this sermon he came down to a level place in order to put everyone on a level playing field together. In the Kingdom of God the social world is flat—no hierarchy, no status, no gradations of power or privilege.

By coming down to a level place, Jesus also made himself accessible—so that people from all over—Jews and Gentiles, neighbors and foreigners, friends and enemies might approach him to be healed. Even those who engaged in exploitative economic policies toward Israel from up in Tyre and Sidon came down to see and hear and be healed by Jesus. Rich and poor, hungry and well-fed, laughing and weeping. Everyone wanted to be in Jesus’s presence. Everyone wanted to hear what he had to say. Everyone was ailing in one way or another, and all wanted to be healed.

Those who are especially needy—poor, hungry, sick, blind, crippled, leprous, feverish, and demon-possessed are starving for the upside-down world that Jesus embodies. Their need for God is clear—there are no illusions they can make it on their own. For them, life has never been a do-it-yourself project. They live with little pride, no false self-image, and no distractions about who they really are. Their life is a mess, they need healing. Without God’s help, they will not make it. Of this, they are clear!

Those aware of their needs press in to touch Jesus and receive the healing that emanates from his being in dynamic waves of power. For those at the bottom of life’s rung, Jesus’s healing, Jesus’s touch changes their status and their life almost instantly. Their lives flip like a mattress airing out in the sun. They go from cripple to dancer, from beggar to worker, from burden to provider, from outcast to in-crowd, from rejected to included, from weeping to laughing, from crushing isolation to beloved community.

For them, the floor has literally been raised and the field has been leveled.

• Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
• Good for you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
• How respectable are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
• How enviable are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, on account of the Son of Man.
• Rejoice because you get it!
• Rejoice because you see it!
• Rejoice because you know that you need God…every second of your life.
• Before, the world battered and abused you, but now you live in the upside-down kingdom!
• Now you exist on a level playing field where everyone’s needs, and everyone’s status is equal before God.

These are the ones to whom Jesus’s blessings are spoken. But Jesus did not come simply for the poor and downtrodden, for God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that WHOSOVER believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Jesus offers healing and ministers to all. The poor and the rich. While standing on the level place, Jesus also sees many who are rich and well-fed, those who are laughing and well-respected, who do not get it. They have come to rely on their own status, distracted by their worldly comforts, their pride, and what they can provide for themselves. While they may feel uncomfortable entering the shared spiritual experience on the level plain with those of lower means, a different class, race, status, and income, they also know that they, too, need Jesus.

Jesus’ word to the wealthy is not easy for them to hear, but his challenging words are healing for them as well. In his book, a Spirituality of Fundraising, Henri Nouwen writes, rich people are poor in other ways…many rich people are very lonely…they struggle with a sense of being used and suffer from feelings of rejection or depression.” Jesus sees their need and their reluctance to step out of the comfort and safeguards of their status, and he challenges them to consider the upside-down healing of the kingdom:

• But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation (don’t you get it that food doesn’t satisfy –that you cannot live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord?)
• Be careful you who are full now, for you will be hungry—your emptiness will remain if you stay distracted by wealth!
• This is a warning to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep when your loneliness is not satisfied by stuff!
• Watch out when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets—admiration is not the same as true community and love—come join the party of healing and wholeness –you’ll find joy and belovedness, and dancing in the Jesus’ community of the redeemed.
• Everyone over here is filled with love and new life!

A healing Jubilee is taking place where so many are being restored to wholeness and those who are well-off and well-fed are welcomed to have their souls made whole, their fears calmed, their relationships restored, their anxieties quelled, and their loneliness assuaged.

Jesus is both warning and inviting them to release their grip on the fleeting security of their social status and step forward to receive Jesus’ dynamic healing balm with the rainbow of humanity around them. Like the older brother of the prodigal son—they are invited to come and join the party where all are welcome, all is forgiven, and all can enter in! Don’t miss out! Join the Blessing party!

And some of them do! They are like Levi the tax collector turned disciple, and like Zacchaeus, who upon encountering Jesus, returned four times as much back to anyone he cheated. They see their resources as blessings from God and use them in service of God’s mission in the world. They encounter the newly healed from their own town and begin to network with who needs work, who needs to get in touch with the matchmaker, who needs a new stall at the market, and who needs help to see the priest to be declared clean.

Because that’s what happens when all these diverse people--Jews and Gentiles, neighbors and foreigners, friends and enemies, rich and poor, hungry and well-fed, laughing and weeping, come together for healing—for a shared experience of God’s presence in Jesus. Real community. Real healing. Differences do not divide, they energize for learning, sharing, building up, and growing together.

This is what it means to be the church—to live in the upside-down level playing field of God’s kingdom, coming together as a diverse a community, for shared experiences of God’s presence in Jesus, for that is where our healing takes place.

And in the shared experiences of Jesus’ presence in our lives, the barriers that might divide us be they status, culture, gender, race, politics or whatever—diminish until we can clearly see Jesus’ upside-down vision of the kingdom. The plain is flat, and we are all on the same level. From our shared experience of God’s love, the Spirit energizes us to share and grow and learn to be God’s people together and to invite more and more people in to share an experience of God’s presence with us in Jesus.

This is why we engage in a campaign to repair our building—not just so it looks nice, but so that we have a place to gather diverse people for shared experiences of God’s presence in Jesus. And when we experience healing here, we are equipped to carry it with us in our daily lives—treating everyone on this level plain and seeking ways to share an experience of God regardless of our differences.

So, who can you invite to the party this week? (we are literally having a party next Sunday for our 65th Anniversary, so invite som friends and neighbors!) For this is where healing takes place, this is where we are made whole. Join the party where all are welcome, all is forgiven, and all can enter in! Don’t miss out! Join the Blessing party!

Image SourceThanks to Avondale Pattillo UMC, Atlanta, GA

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Letting Go of Being Right

Yet If You Say SoMessage for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany on Luke 5:1-11 on Februray 6, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

If Simon Peter was an expert at anything, it was fishing. He had done it is whole life. He was raised fishing, and now it was how he fed his family. Simon Peter knew how to watch the skies for the weather, and how to judge the waters for the best place to drop the nets. He knew how to tie, clean, and repair the nets. He could look at a freshly caught batch of fish and tell you how many were there, for how much they would sell, and whether they had enough to call it a night. Simon Peter also knew when it was time to cut his losses, stop wasting time, and get some rest. This was the life of a fisherman, and he knew it down in the cells of his body. He could do it in his sleep.

No one knew fishing better than Simon Peter, not even Jesus. He knewl by looking at his hands that Jesus had been a laborer who worked with wood or stone. Yes, he could do miraculous things—Jesus even healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law when she had a high fever, and all the others who came flocking to him. They were exorcised of demons and freed of other diseases. And Jesus taught them about loving their enemy and caring for the outcast and the lost.

One day Jesus offered these teachings from Simon Peter’s boat after a night of failed fishing. It was the ebb and flow of the catch. It was time to call it off and try again tomorrow. Simon Peter knew he was right—he felt it in his bones—he had done this his whole life. He was the fisherman; Jesus was the carpenter and healer.

But when Jesus had finished his teaching, he said to Simon Peter, “take your boat out into the deep water and let down your nets for catch.”

He was exhausted and disappointed that this was a night they came up empty, with nothing to sell at the market. As a seasoned fisherman, he knew—if they hadn’t gotten any fish the last 12 hours, they weren’t going to get any now, in the morning light.

Exasperated, Simon Peter says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing.”

The subtext is, “don’t you know that I am the fishing expert, I know what I am doing, and I am right? No fish all night means no fish now. It never has, it never will. It’s the way it goes. And did I mention, I am right?”

And Peter is right. But here’s the thing, it’s so hard to let go of being right. Even when we are convinced of the righteousness of our rightness, and we want others to know it and see it. There are fewer more delicious four words to the human ego than “I told you so.” We love the recognition, the satisfaction. We will think it even if we do not say it.

And many times, it is true. Many of us are wise experts through education and experience about a lot of things. The issue is though, how important is it to be right, and at what cost? When I was young, I lost a friendship in part, over my need to be right. And if we do not lose relationships, how much do we damage them over our need to be right, or to have the last word? To one up or shame the other person?

The struggle over who is right is real in our life together as the church. Some think we did not need professional consultants for our capital campaign—maybe you are right. Others think we could never reach our goal without help—perhaps you are right. Some do not think we need $500,000—maybe you are right; Others think that will not be enough to accomplish our big, long-term goals—perhaps you are right.

Is being right what really matters in your family, in your relationships? Is being right what really matters to us as a Christian community?

Simon Peter knew he was right, given all his experience and expertise, but instead of digging in, he set it aside, he let it go. He decided the relationship he was forming with Jesus, his new teacher, healer and master, was more important than standing his ground on his expert opinions. And so, he responds to Jesus,

“Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Jesus had not yet asked Simon to follow him; Jesus had not yet changed Simon’s name to Peter, Jesus had not yet made him the rock on which the church would be built, yet in this very early encounter, Simon Peter senses that it is more important to be in a relationship with Jesus and be obedient to him, than it is to be right.

“Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”

Yet, if you say so, I will do something that seems pointless. Yet if you say so, I will be obedient to your Word. Yet if you say so, I will follow you. Yet if you say so, I will do what you ask of me. Yet, if you say so, I will give up my need to be right.

What happened? They caught so many fish, the nets began to break, they needed James and John to come help them, and the boats began to sink. Absurd abundance. Radical bounty. Ridiculous overflowing amounts of fish.

What would have happened if Simon Peter hung onto being right? Absolutely nothing. He would have caught 0 fish. And, worst of all, he would not have a life-transforming relationship with Jesus! And that is what really matters, after all!

When Simon Peter realizes Jesus’ power and knowledge, even with fishing, and therefore all of life is so much greater than his own, he is overcome by his own smallness and brokenness and pushes Jesus away, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

But Jesus pulls him in all the more closely and says, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will catching people.” I am sticking with you Simon Peter, just as you are sticking with me. Because what matters is our relationships in the kingdom where God provides an abundance of fish, a radical bounty of love and a ridiculous overflowing of forgiveness and hope for you and for everyone is right and wrong and everywhere in between.

Because Jesus’ vision is for us to catch people and bring them into a life-transforming relationship with him. That is the vision for our lives and for our church. It does not matter who is right about methods, or amounts, or even how long it takes. Those are tools, processes, vehicles—we trust our leadership to pick one and we move forward together. Every single member of the Council (our Board) has had to give up being right in order to come together and make decisions about leading in a pandemic, about an unsolicited offer to buy our building, and now about a capital campaign. Did we make all the right decisions? I do not know, and that is not important.

Because what matters is what we do with what we have been given—are we using our building, our time together, our relationships and our ministries so that each of us has a deepening life-transforming relationship with Jesus? And together are we reaching out to catch more people and to help them have a life-transforming relationship with Jesus, too?

A relationship with Jesus that says,
Do not be afraid I am with you.
• Do not be afraid, I can heal the pain of your past.
• Do not be afraid, I can guide you through the troubles of today..
• Do not be afraid, I can calm your fear of the future.

People need to hear these words of promise and Jesus sends us to share them. We may think we are right in believing that no one wants to hear about Jesus, that people will reject our message before we even share it. But Jesus instructs us to go out to deep water and drop our nets.

And with Peter, we respond, Yet, if you say so, I will do what you ask, Jesus.

The truth is, almost everyone, when you ask, will let you pray with them. Because they are hurting and need someone to care about them.
All you need is 3 sentences:

“Dear God, please help __________ with _______. (For example, please help Joe with his marriage, please help Mary find a job, please help John with his illness...)
Help them to know you love them, and give them peace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

This does 3 things for them: it lets them know you care about them, that you listened to them, and that you are a Christian who follows Jesus. No door-knocking, no awkward questions, no hitting anyone over the head with the Bible--caring, listening, praying in Jesus' name--a simple, powerful way to share your faith and 3 sentences to give someone an opening to a life-transforming relationship with Jesus.

Jesus asks us to fish for people, to pray with them, to feed them, to invite them into Christian community, to build relationships where we can share our own life-transforming relationship with Jesus and what that means to us.

As we celebrate the last year and look forward this year at our Annual meeting today, we can do what Jesus’ asks and we will pull in an overflowing abundance, a radical bounty of love and joy as commit ourselves to moving forward in faith together.

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Headlines of Hope

hope 22680cWe had guest preachers yesterday for our Capital Campaign, so I am posting a reflection from Midweek Advent.

Some days it is difficult to hope. We are all tired of Omicron, the on-going pandemic, and other news headlines, like severe storms, floods, global conflicts, and rumors of war.

I came across something Rev. Andy Stanley, a pastor in Atlanta wrote in 2020 about finding hope:

Sometimes I just want it to stop. Talk of COVID, looting, brutality. I lose my way. I become convinced that this “new normal” is real life. Then I meet an 87-year old man who talks of living through polio, diphtheria, Vietnam, protests and yet is still enchanted with life.

He seemed surprised when I said that 2020 must be especially challenging for him. “No,” he said, slowly, looking me straight in the eyes. “I learned a long time ago to not see the world through the printed headlines, I see the world through the people that surround me. I see the world with the realization that we love big. Therefore, I just choose to write my own headlines:
“Husband loves wife today.”
“Family drops everything to come to Grandma’s bedside.”
He patted my hand.
“Old man makes new friend.”

His words collide with my worries, freeing them from the tether I had been holding tight. They float away. I am left with a renewed spirit and a new way to write my own headlines.

Here are some of my headlines of hope this week:

Husband makes wife’s favorite food!
Children succeed in college and graduate studies!
Church grows in mission and membership even in a pandemic!
God loves us enough to become like us—Jesus gets us!

What are the headlines of hope you will write for yourself this week? God’s love is being incarnated all around us—in every season.

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

 

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