Getting the Good Stuff

BlessedA sermon preached for the 6th Sunday of Epiphany on Luke 6:17-26, Jeremiah 17:5-10 on February 17, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Have you ever imagined what God really wants for you? I mean really desires for your soul, your life, your well-being?

It’s hard question to ask, because culturally, I think our immediate response is “oh no, God will judge me, rehearse my sins, make me feel guilty, or God will give me a list of to-dos’ that I should be accomplishing, but I’m not.” Our culture offers a God who is distant or angry at us, leaving us feeling like we are supposed to do better than we are.These fears can hold us back from spending time with God in quiet meditation and asking what God desires for us. But I’ve found that judgment, guilt, anger, or a list of “shoulds” is not what happens when I ask God what he really desires for me.

I invite you to practice asking God this question. I want you to close your eyes and drop your attention down into the core of your being, breathe in and out from the center of your soul and just listen for a moment, listen with the ears of your heart, what does God really desire for you?

Maybe a word floated into your mind, or a feeling of well-being, or a sensation in your body. Or maybe it was just a relaxed moment of calming silence surrounded by people of love and faith. God wants to give us the good stuff—God wants to give you and me the deep spiritual truth we really need, that will give us wholeness and peace. God wants to bless us through a deep and abiding spiritual relationship that feeds us body and soul and defines us according to God’s identity and love for us—a blessing that comes when we spend time sinking our roots deep into the water table of God’s love.

That’s what “blessed” means in the Sermon on the Plain from Luke—"Blessed are you –how satisfied, how unburdened, how peaceful are you because you have received the good stuff you need from God.”

Those who are in need, have an easier time receiving the good stuff from God, because there’s nothing that blinds them of their need for God. Jesus is not lifting up poverty as a preferred state of being—the person is blessed, not the condition they are in, so we must continue doing everything in our power to end poverty and hunger. But those who are poor, hungry, grieving, hated or excluded, have no illusion about their need for God. Their need is so great, their soul is so bare, their heart is so open, nothing gets in the way of them receiving Jesus, or his healing, his grace, his love, his freedom. The crowds around Jesus have no delusion they can save themselves. They live in the kingdom because they are so aware of their need of it. Jesus says,

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
• How satisfied are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled with the good stuff God provides.
• How unburdened are you who weep now, for you will laugh and are open to God’s love embracing you.
• How peaceful are you when people hate you…because you are so grounded in receiving the love you need from me.
• Blessed are you who know the really good stuff of life comes only from God, and you are open to receiving all that God has for you.

What is God’s deep desire for your life? What do you need from God that would enable you to feel "satisfied, unburdened, peaceful, blessed?" I did this meditation when I was preparing for today. When I closed my eyes and meditated on this question, of what God really desires for me, the word that floated into my mind was “freedom.” I wondered, “freedom from what?” The answer was as clear as bell:

Freedom from perfectionism, freedom from having to get everything right, freedom from the burden that if I get everything right, I can prove to my family, to you, the world that I am good. What would it be like to be free of the running commentary in my head that points out everything flaw, all the things that I could and should do better? What would it be like to be freed from the fear that I am not worthy or good enough, and someone will find out?

What does God desire for me? Freedom—freedom from this trap of fearing I am not worthy, and trying so hard to prove that I am. That’s good stuff! That’s what I really need from God!

You will notice that the answer to the question of what God desires for us, also reveals what can get in the way—what blinds us or blocks us from receiving the really good stuff God wants to give us. It was so clear what blinds me and blocks me, but it didn’t come as judgement, anger or guilt—it came as a knowing—that God knows me fully and loves me as I am, and love me enough to not want to leave me there. God is ready to give the good stuff—a message that unburdens me and gives me satisfaction, and peace.

What God desires to give me is the polar opposite of my own auto-pilot, life-management plan—running around the like a chicken with my headache cut off with a list of things to do as long as my arm, while a prosecutor, judge and jury in my head, are busy telling me all the ways I have failed or should have done better. When I am stuck in that pattern, Jesus looks at me and says, “woe to you, who are so caught up in yourself, and what you can do, because you’re not available for me to fill you up with the good spiritual stuff that unburdens you and gives you peace.”

“Woe” means, “how sad for you, what a shame for you.” Jesus says,

Woe to you who are rich—you have so much stuff, you’re not even aware of your desire for God’s goodness.
• How sad that you are full now—you are so full, you cannot get in touch with what you need from God.
• What a shame for you who are laughing now—you cannot even sense your spiritual poverty.
• Woe to you when all speak well of you—your great reputation blocks you from seeing the holes in your soul that only God can fill.

Jesus speaks woe over all of us when our beliefs or circumstances make us blind to God’s deep and loving desire for us and our life. Notice that it is what we aspire to and work for in our culture that can block us from being aware of our need for God. What a true sadness that the very things our culture wants us to pursue are what hinder us from a deeper relationship with God.

This experience of being blessed by God, of getting in touch with what we really need from God, has been an important part of the conversation for those of us using Rooted small group curriculum. We are getting in touch with the good stuff God wants to give all of us, and we are honest about what hinders us from seeing and receiving the peace, and unburdened satisfaction that comes from a deepened relationship with God. We pray for each other, for God to release our burdens and what holds us back, so Jesus’ Spirit can fill us with the abundant blessings God desires to give all of us. Last week the Rooted Group prayed for me to be released from perfectionism and it changed my behavior today. Instead of checking and double-checking everything to make sure everything was perfectly ready for worship, I went to Sunday School—not just for ten minutes, but for a whole half an hour!

So what does God really desire to give to you? What gift from God can unburden you, bring you peace, help you live with a deep sense of satisfaction—not the stuff of the world, but the good stuff in here, that makes us like a tree planted by streams of water, with deep roots that sink into the water table of blessing that sustains us.

I encourage you to ask God this question, throughout the week. Take five minutes—a pause over coffee, or a break after lunch, or a few minutes before going to sleep at night, and ask God what he really desires for you. Practice quieting the mind and listening inward for the Spirit to move, giving you a feeling, a bodily sensation, a new thought, a word, or a picture of this blessing. God has good stuff to give you that will bring you peace, and an unburdened feeling of satisfaction. Then you can write your own beatitude as a reminder. Here’s mine:

“Blessed are you, Linda, when you focus on ‘being,’ instead of ‘doing’ and allow God’s freedom from perfectionism to ground your heart and your day.” 

 I have printed it out and taped it to my bathroom mirror. What is your beatitude? What’s the good stuff God wants to give you? Listen this week for your Beatitude, for Jesus says to all of us, “Blessed are you…”

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What's Yours?

Whats YoursA sermon preached for the 4th Sunday of Epiphany on Luke 5:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 on February 10, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

We all have one, don’t we? I know I did. Isaiah does in our first reading. Paul does in 1 Corinthians. And Simon Peter certainly does, in our Gospel reading.

What’s yours? What’s your excuse why you cannot follow Jesus? What’s your reason why you cannot possibly do what God calls you to do?

We all have one—and we are in good company because most people in the Bible have some sort of argument with God about why they cannot do what God calls them to do.

We all know Sarah’s excuse why she couldn’t possibly become the mother of nations with Abraham. She was too old to become pregnant and start a new family line. Moses also had an excuse ready. He said to God, “I can’t speak well—I am slow of speech and of tongue—how am I supposed to go tell the Pharaoh in Egypt to free the Israelites from slavery?" When God called Jeremiah to be prophet, he said he was too young. 

We know almost nothing about Isaiah in our first reading, other than his father’s name was Amoz, and that Isaiah had some kind of a potty mouth. Maybe he loved saying all the bad words, or he was a bar-room brawler—we do not know. But about 700 years before Jesus was born, God called him to be a prophet. Like other Biblical characters, Isaiah had his excuse ready—"I am a man of unclean lips.”

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded them that he too, was unworthy of participating in God’s work of sharing Jesus’ love throughout the Mediterranean world, because he had been a Pharisee and persecuted the church. His excuse was that his past made him unfit to be an apostle at all.

And then there’s Simon Peter in our Gospel reading. He and Andrews, James and John, have had a long night of unsuccessful fishing, and were ready to go home and sleep, when this new rabbi commandeered their boat for a teaching stage. Perhaps as a gesture to thank them, to feed the crowd, or to persuade them to join him in his traveling ministry, Jesus instructed the fishermen to cast their net in the deep water. When Peter saw how much fish they pulled in—enough sink two boats, and how holy and powerful Jesus was—the first thing out of his mouth, was an excuse—an excuse why Peter could not even be near Jesus much less follow him: "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

We all have one. Maybe your excuse is different today than it was last week or last year or the last century, but we usually have one ready for God. When I first experienced a call to ministry, I had never seen a woman pastor until I arrived at seminary. Even bigger than that, my excuse was, “I don’t have the right personality”—I liked big earrings, I loved to dance, wear bright colors, I’m too extroverted and ‘out there.’” Most “religious” people I knew, especially women, were more like nuns—not like me AT ALL—they were quiet, demure, unassertive. Oh yes, I definitely had the wrong personality.

I bet if I picked up this microphone and walked around the congregation like a talk show, we would hear a lot of reasons why we think God cannot really use us to catch people, to witness to God’s love, to show compassion, to participate in God’s work in the world out there, not just in here. Maybe like Sarah or Jeremiah or Paul or Peter, you think you are too old or too young, or have too much of a past, or have been too much of a sinner. Or maybe you think you are not smart enough, do not know the bible well enough, do not know how to talk about faith, do not have time, struggle with mental health issues, feel you do not matter or are not important enough. We all have an excuse why God cannot possibly use us. We all have days where we wonder if God can use us at all. 

In the late 80’s my internship supervisor actually agreed that I was too “out there” and while I officially passed internship, he cut me to the quick and said some hurtful things to me at the end of my internship. But God reassured me through other people, that there would be some in the church who needed someone like me, and to persevere. I learned we cannot let others’ rejection of us or our own rejection of ourselves, nullify God’s claim on our lives.

God’s story shows us over and over again, that our limitations and excuses are only a barrier for us, but not for God. God looks at you and you and you, and says, “oh yes, I can work with that!”

• I can touch people through you,
• I can bring new possibilities through you,
• I can show love through you,
• I can offer forgiveness through you,
• I can bring justice through you;
• I can feed the hungry and do so much good through this human being, through this limited, beautiful vessel that I made.

God sees so much value, dignity, and kingdom-possibilities in you! God has an answer for every excuse you can think up.

Sarah thought she was too old? Well she laughed all the way to the delivery tent, because her descendants have become more numerous than the stars.  Moses couldn’t speak? Well, God gave him Aaron—he was his spokesperson, and God promised to be with them both—they did not have to fulfill their calling alone. Jeremiah thought he was too young? Think again! God said, “I will be with you and tell you where to go and what to say.” Isaiah was such a potty-mouth! But God said, “Your guilt has departed and your sin blotted out.” A vision of burning coal cleaned his mouth right up (which makes me grateful I just had to have my mouth washed out with soap when I was young!) The Bible doesn’t tell us, but do you not wonder how many other potty-mouthed people opened themselves up to God, because if God could work through Isaiah, why not them, too?

The Apostle Paul did have a terrible past—one where he had Christians murdered, but Paul’s past was not a hindrance for God either. God completely transformed his heart and his story. Without Paul’s missionary journey’s and all his letters to the churches, we would hardly have the Christian New Testament today. That’s pretty amazing work through a sinner with a past. And Peter? He was too afraid to follow Jesus and catch people because he was a sinner. But he became the rock on which the church was built. Not because he was perfect. Not because he got it all right. But because God in Jesus Christ used him, even when he fumbled and got it wrong, to be a vehicle of God’s love, healing and hope in the world.

In Ephesians, Paul says, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” Our excuses are no hindrance to God. God gives us what we need, so they are no hindrance to us either. God looks at each one of us and says, “Yes! You are very good. You matter. You are loved. I can work with you no matter who you are or what you think your limitations are. I am a limitless God and I call you to join me in doing justice, loving kindness, and bringing healing and grace to this world. Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"

And with no excuses, we say, "Here am I; send me!"


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Special Treatment

Special TreatmentA sermon preached for the 4th Sunday of Epiphany on Luke 4:21-30 on Sunday, February 3, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer eleven years ago, a few friends gathered with me in the sanctuary of the church I served, and they laid hands on me and we prayed for healing. I did not receive a miraculous healing and went through surgery, chemo and radiation. When the full effects of chemo hit, I had to stop working, I was bed-ridden, and felt worse than I could have ever imagined, and I became pretty angry at God. In the tradition of the psalmists, I wrote a lament just so I could let it out and let God know how angry I was and how much pain I was in. Here are a few words I wrote:

Don’t you care, God? Does it mean nothing to you that I have served you, given blood, sweat and tears for your church, for your children? Can you ease the pain, the discomfort, the difficulty just a little bit for me? Can you not see the blood-thinning, weak, aching, lost misery of your servant? The psalmist cries with me ‘in Sheol who can give you praise?’ (Psalm 6:5b) Indeed, in chemo hell, who can give you praise?

I was miserable, but it is still a little embarrassing now to admit that I thought I deserved “special treatment” from God—or a relief from some suffering because I was pastor.

I think its human nature to hope, wish for or believe we deserve special treatment. Jesus runs into this problem when he preaches in his own home town of Nazareth in Galilee. At first, they were amazed that this hometown boy became such a learned rabbi and prophet, speaking so eloquently at the synagogue, and hearing healing stories about him from the surrounding area. You can just hear their pride—

Isn’t that Joseph’s boy? So nice to see one of ours do so well! He’s going to put Nazareth on the map! I heard he has the gift of the healing! Just imagine! One of Israel’s newest prophets from up here in Galilee! I have already sent word to my sister Phoebe and her family to get on over here. We are going to feed Jesus a good meal and have him fix us up—Rueben’s back, my knees, and maybe he can straighten out that boy Jethro. I hope Jesus stays in town a good long while because there’s a lot of good that can be done right here at home.

Special treatment. Don’t the people from this prophet’s home town get special treatment, extra healing, more relief from suffering since Jesus is one of their own? Didn’t they all help his family when Joseph couldn’t work for a spell? Doesn’t Jesus owe this town? Aren’t they going to get their due, what they deserve, their fair share of the new religious goodies God has chosen to dispense from Nazareth?

Jesus immediately disabused his family’s closest community friends of the idea that they were going to get special treatment from him. He reminded them that in Israel’s history, Elijah and Elisha carried out their ministry and healings among foreigners--Syrians—people who were traditional enemies of Israel. In other words, Jesus’ mission in the kingdom of God cannot be limited by time, location, geography, political conflict, family lineage or where he grew up. The mission of God’s kingdom reaches out to everyone across boundaries and borders, beyond expectations and projections, outpacing imagined limits and logic. Jesus quite frankly and clearly said, “I am not who you think I am, and not who you want me to be.”

That is the trouble when we do not get the special treatment we want from God—or anyone else. We discover what his hometown community found—a Jesus we do not want. A Jesus who does not fit into our box. A Jesus who does not behave the way the we wanted. When I was in chemo, I had to face the Jesus I did not want, the Jesus who did not miraculously heal me nor relieve my suffering regardless of how many sermons I preached or prayers I offered.

The people of Nazareth got so angry they were ready to throw Jesus off a cliff! Writing God an angry note doesn’t seem so bad next to that! But the real question is, what did the crowd do after Jesus left? Did they just stay angry? Luke does not tell us, so we can formulate our own response when we discover a Jesus we do not want. This moment gives us an opportunity to deal with ourselves and our own expectations, where those expectations come from, and why they have become important to us. That is our soul-work.

If God swooped in and gave us every kind of special treatment we wanted, we would not do our soul-work; we would not turn to God and say, “I am really stuck here, because I wanted something and I am not getting it, and I need help to get over my wrong-headed expectations, and I need help to deal with this really awful situation you are not magically changing for me.”

And that’s what happened to me. I got my anger and frustration and disappointment out, which opened me up to receiving God’s help. Over time, I stopped asking, “Why me and when will God relieve my suffering?” and started thinking, “Why not, me? The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike and so it is, living in a fallen world. I will suffer just as everyone does. What does God want to do with me in this suffering?”

I began to pray for others, to notice all the ways people were helping my family, and I started to pay attention to what I was learning, and what I needed to learn from that experience. I do not think I would have the spirituality I have today or that I would have become a spiritual director if I had not had cancer. I spent hundreds of hours in alone in bed while Dan was at work and the kids were at school because I had no choice, and it taught me how to be still. That was huge learning for a compulsive, perfectionistic, over-functioning “do-er” like me. Now, I don not believe God gave me cancer to help get me there, but God used my situation to mold and shape me. I never would have become the person I am today if God had given me the miraculous healing or the “special treatment” I wanted at first.

I am grateful for the special treatment I did receive—a much deeper and abiding relationship with God which is and continues to be so much better than a one-time zap that would not have taught me anything. That is the real irony of this passage and the spiritual journey for all of us. Jesus tells the people of Nazareth that God’s mission and plan is much bigger than they are, but they miss the message that it includes them! That’s why he went back to Nazareth in the first place! Jesus was saying to them,

You’re in! God’s fulfilling the kingdom and mission right hear among you! You do receive God’s love, you are set free, you are released, God does want a deep and abiding relationship with you—you are just not the only ones. You may not get it in exactly the way want it—but what you receive from God will be even better than your narrowly-imagined box of God’s kingdom anyway!

The point is not that Nazareth gets no special treatment, but rather, that everyone gets special treatment—a deep and abiding personal relationship with a God who wants to be our everything! Your relationship with God can go as deep as you desire, as powerful you ask, as life-giving as you make time for, as meaningful as you pursue! God wants to make sure we understand that what really matters is that we have a loving relationship with him—that’s why God came as a human person in Jesus—so we can have a relationship that gives us the ability to become someone we cannot be on our own, and receive grace we cannot create on our own—we all receive grace upon grace (John 1:16).

Talk about special treatment! Jesus himself is our special treatment—everyone’s special treatment—offering us forgiveness, a special place at the table, and a community where we are valued and loved. We all receive the special treatment of being part of this great work to bring about God’s kingdom—to help others feel God’s special treatment in their suffering—not that they are the only ones that get it—but that they are included in God’s saving love for the world.

So many people believe they are outside of God’s love, that they have to live exactly right, or that the building will fall down if they came in the door of the church. What I love about being Lutheran is that we are called to say, “you’re in! God loves you and forgives you and wants a relationship with you—it’s not just special treatment for us, God has special treatment for you, too, and his name is Jesus.”



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Dwelling in the Word

Dwelling in the WordA participatory sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, January 27, 2018 on Luke 4:14-21 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas with thanks to Pr. Cindy Carroll at Emanuel Lutheran in Dallas, Texas for sharing how she did this in her congregation!

As you listen to the Gospel reading, pay attention to what word or phrase catches your attention and why. I will leave a few minutes of silence after the reading for you to reflect and circle a word or phrase that stands out.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

We are trying something different today called, Dwelling in the Word, an ancient way of reading the Scriptures that involves everyone, rather than one person sharing an interpretation. It’s an important way to hear Scripture because God speaks through the Bible to everyone differently based on our own lives, experiences, and personalities. We need to hear the wisdom God shares through each one of us in order to move into the future. It is also a very Lutheran way to read Scripture because Luther taught that the living Spirit of Christ is present every time we read the Bible, helping us understand God’s message for us today. The Spirit’s presence is not limited to pastors, Bible teachers, and seminary professors, but the Holy Spirit is a gift given to all of us, the priesthood of all believers.

Dwelling in the Word is a practice we’re encouraged to do with the Leadership for Faithful Innovation process we’re in with the Synod and Luther seminary. You’ll be glad to know that Council has done this twice, and they found it pretty fun! I am going to read the passage one more time. As you hear the story, notice how God is speaking to you. This time, I would like you to listen for what God is saying to you or to us as a community in this passage. We will pause again for a moment of silence. After the silence, you will be invited to share with another person.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

We will have a moment of silence. You are invited to listen to what God is saying to you and us as a community in this passage.

You are now invited to share with one other person. Please look behind you and make sure everyone has a partner—make a three-some if necessary. Each person takes one minute to share the word or phrase that caught your attention and why, and then what you hear God saying in this passage. Listening is an important spiritual practice—so try listening really well—well enough that you could repeat what partner shared.

Raise your hand if
• you and your partner circle the same word?
• you and your partner circled different words?
• you and your partner had the same insight about what God is saying to us?
• you and your partner had a different insight about what God is saying to us?
• you learned something new from your partner you had not previously thought?
• you were surprised by something in this process?

This passage is the basis for our new tag-line at St. Luke’s: “where spirits come alive!” We are named for this Gospel, St. Luke’s. This passage from chapter four is Jesus’ inaugural sermon for his ministry, which he begins, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.” As followers of Jesus in the tradition of St. Luke, we also do ministry only because “the spirit of the Lord is upon us” as a congregation and in our individual lives throughout the week.

So, God calls us to be a community where “spirits come alive”—the spirit of Christ among us, and the gifts of Christ within each of us. Part of “spirits coming alive” is listening to the spiritual insights each of us brings, and part of “spirits coming alive” is activating the different gifts God has given each of us.

After worship today, we will hold our Annual Meeting, and this is what’s important as we come together—not that we’re an official member of an organization—but, rather, that we are baptized members of the priesthood of all believers, and followers of Jesus Christ who has given all of you the gift of the Holy Spirit and asks you to allow that gift to come alive! Jesus asks you to listen for and share your insights the Spirit is giving you as you read the Bible. Jesus asks you to share the gifts of the Spirit given to you to share the Gospel, bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. Our way forward as a community becomes possible when everyone’s Spirit-gifts are activated for the good of all, and that work together begins as we listen to God in Scripture, and to each other in the Spirit. Then in expanding circles, we listen to our neighbors, our community, and its leaders as we discern specifically how God wants us to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

None of us are outside of God’s ability to use us. Every single one of you is important and a vehicle through whom the Holy Spirit works. Your presence matters to God and to me and to St. Luke’s. You are wanted, you are loved for who you are, you are good enough for Jesus and for us. So, share yourself and your gifts in this new year, as we all make St. Luke’s a place where “spirits come alive!”

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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.