Following Jesus For Life

image0 1Message for Lent 2 on Mark 8:31-38. Video of this service can be found on YouTube.

Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Perhaps Twain was referring to passages like this one today, “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” In a Lenten season when we desire to be filled up by God and nourished by Christ as we recover from a year of crisis and a season of natural disaster, these are not the easy words for which we long. We want to join Peter in his rebuke, and say, “No, Lord, No! Please, no more death—not for you, not for us, not for anyone.”

But Jesus’ response is to call us to “deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him”—reminding us that following him does in fact, include suffering and death. But there is some grace and good news in this passage that we can mine when we dig deeply enough. Let us start with the command to “deny yourself” as we follow Jesus. How can this be? Do we really want to know what this implies? We often take a superficial interpretation of this phrase, especially during Lent—that if I give up something I enjoy like wine or chocolate for 40 days, and then go back to it on Easter, I have done something for God. Well, if you have given the money you would have otherwise spent to the hungry, used that time in prayer, and felt your faith deepened, then I would say, “yes, you have done something for your relationship with God.” But is that the self-denial Jesus is talking about here? If we chuck this new practice out the window when six weeks are up, and we go back to how we lived before, has anything really changed?

I once heard a preacher say, “don’t give up anything for Lent you are not willing to give up for good.” In other words, Jesus is not interested in superficial sacrifices. If there is a substance or a habit that is getting in the way of your devotion to God or in the way your health—and therefore your stewardship and service to God, do not give it up until you are ready to give God your all. That is what it really means to “deny yourself.” This phrase really means to dis-own yourself. To accept that you are not own. You belong to God. All of you—body, mind and spirit, are God’s possession, God’s property, God’s vessel, the reflection of God’s divine image and the vessel of God’s Holy Spirit. Let that sink in for moment. Take a deep breath. When we get past the anxiety that we might have to do without our favorite things, and settle into the truth of being shaped by God, belonging to God, a mirror for God, an instrument used by God—we relax a bit, we begin to feel love and peace, our bucket fills up, our anxiety goes down, and our breathing slows.

When Jesus asks us to deny ourselves, he invites us to attach more and more to this identity and ownership by God, while simultaneously letting go of our attachments to our own agenda, and our earthly identity. Let God’s identity, love and claim on who you are be the strongest, most powerful identity you stand on—that is to be nourished like a watered garden in Lent. The Ash Wednesday reading in our Lenten devotion book talks about shedding down to a state of “wild indifference,” to our own agendas, outcomes, and interests, so in being stripped down, we are infused with God’s love and ready to receive Christ and follow where he leads.

Next Jesus asks us to “take up your cross.” Every time we hear this passage, I am compelled to correct past misinterpretations. Suffering abuse, violence, or trauma at the hands of someone else, is not your cross to bear; it is part of sin, and our job is to help remove people from harmful situations and get everyone help. Many of us suffer from chronic illness, ongoing pain, mental health challenges, or family difficulties, and we may do so with grace, and courage. This is admirable, but it is also not our cross to bear. All of us have suffered from the pandemic, the recent terrible storm, and many challenges others do not even know about. We have soldiered on nobly, but again this is not our cross to bear. Our cross is not our mother-in-law, the loss of a job, financial difficulties or any other trouble life throws at us, however greatly we rise to the challenge.

To pick up your cross is to make a choice—it is suffering that we choose in order to serve someone else. To pick up your cross is to intentionally take up a life lived for others. This is why Jesus lists, “deny yourself” first—because only when we so deeply root ourselves in God’s identity and let go of our agenda, outcomes, and interests, can we choose to intentionally suffer to bring about life for someone else. For this is the essence of Jesus’s mission—to bring about life for us and others. Jesus mission is about life, after all, not death.

• Jesus’ healed people that they might have life.
• Jesus’ fed 5,000 that they might have abundant life
• Jesus’ forgave people that they might have eternal life.

To take up your cross is to be on the mission of life! To take up your cross is to make a choice as Jesus did, at every turn, in every town, in every conversation, to extend himself, to offer himself, to suffer himself to give someone else life.

Finally, Jesus says, “follow me.” Jesus calls us as ones who are rooted in God, and committed to sharing life, to follow him in his mission of making sure everyone experiences the good news of God’s love. Jesus makes clear a special focus of his mission is to reconcile those who are not already a part of the religious fold—the lost, the broken, the outcast, the marginalized, the sinners, the rejected. These are the ones who need life and life abundant brought to them. These are the ones Jesus spends times with and heals—those who are blind, or cannot walk, those who are mentally ill, or have dying children, the foreigners and tax collectors, the poor widows, and the prostitutes—all those who are rejected by the powerful religious, the well-educated, and the wealthy. The village masses flock to Jesus for healing –it is to these people that Jesus asks to follow him. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me”—base your identity so deeply in God that you can disconnect from your own interests, choose to live intentionally to bring life to someone else, and follow me to those who society rejects the most.

Jesus does not make a small ask, but his ask is rooted in life. We see that life as he predicts what will happen to him: "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed!" But that is not the end of his prediction. He concludes his prediction with these six words: "and after three days rise again.” This is no passion prediction! It is a resurrection prediction. Jesus’ mission is about life! Even after death, it is about life. He tells them that even when they kill him, he will rise again, and his mission will still be about life! So, “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus!” It is about life here and now for those who needs us most. It is about life abundant even after death.
The powers that be can never win, because the mission of Jesus is always about life. That is a mission we embrace at St. Luke’s. That is the mission of our Community Breakfast—here are some pictures that Rick Rodriguez took when he and Steve delivered free, hot burritos to some homeless camps last Saturday. They provide a great example of what it looks like to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus so that we and others might have life, and have it more abundantly and eternally in Jesus’ name.

Reflection Questions

Deny Yourself

  • Have you thought of yourself as being "owned" by God before? What impact does this way of thinking have on you?
  • When your identity is rooted in God, how does this shift how you think about priorities? What is the most difficult outcome for you to let go of?
  • What are the behaviors, substances or other things that get in the way of your relationship with God or prevent you from fully trusting God?

Take Up Your  Cross

  • What suffering in the world breaks your heart? This is often an area where God calls us to take up our cross and make a choice to serve.
  • Who do you know who has been example of taking up their cross, making a choice to sacrifice to bring life to others?

Follow Jesus

  • Sometimes we focus so much on Jesus's death, we forget how much his mission was to reconcile, save and bring life to the broken and the lost. He was killed in part because he would not let those in power deter or derail him from the mission of bringing life and salvation to all. As the church, what does it mean to be on the mission of bringing life? to our community? to issues of race? homelessness? hunger?
  • What happens when we bring this question to all our ministry and life challenges: “what does it look like to bring or foster life in this situation?”

 

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Filled & Overflowing

garden with water pumpMessage for Lent 1 on Mark 1:9-15 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas. View Linda's preaching & worship videos since March, 2020 on YouTube. 

"Lent" comes from the Old Engish word for "lengthen," referring to the lengthening of days as we approach spring. As such, Lent is often referred to as the "springtime of the soul." After a year of loss and sacrifice, the Lenten theme is "Filled & Overflowing" - to be nourished by God and replenished in weariness. 

I keep seeing that image of the pile of crashed cars, and semis and twisted metal on I-35 West from last week. It has become a fitting image for me of how this whole year has felt:

• Trying to manage something that is beyond us
• Everything going wrong
• Life suddenly changing and even disappearing
• Way too much death

The image of the tangle of cars on the highway mirrors the twisting of our own souls over the last 12 months, the loss of life, and of control and ease and peace. This is how we come to Lent. We are exhausted and discouraged – we just want to chuck it all out the window. But we need this Lent. We need the ashes, we need the dust, we need the wilderness—if for no other reason than to tell the truth about how awful we feel, how weary we are, how depleted our bodies are, how broken our hearts feel, and how much we need God.

The twisted events of this year have left us wandering in the wilderness, wondering how we can go on. How much longer? How much more difficulty? It is not just the pandemic—it is the protests and the experience of some of our citizens that their lives do not matter, are not valued, can be snuffed out by a knee on a neck, by under-funded schools, by neighborhoods that do not even have equal access to the internet much less to a life-saving vaccine.

It is the deeply divided politics and the feeling that we cannot even listen to someone with a different opinion or perspective, that justice does not matter, and that cancel culture is more important than relationships, than community, than the common good.

If that were not enough, we are recovering from a natural disaster with bitter cold, loss of power, and more loss of life. And while my home got down into the 40’s, at least I have a home when many do not. At least I could heat food on a gas stove and warm up when the heat came on a few hours at a time. Thank goodness for Gary Bowers and Nancy Slaughter where I got a hot shower today and where I will get warm bed tonight.

It has been a wilderness year that has twisted us up with grief and sadness, and depleted us as if we have not taken in sustenance for forty days. Is this how Jesus felt in the wilderness? So depleted and weary, so exhausted and troubled, so tired of death and ashes and dust he was ready to chuck it all out the window or better yet, throw it all back in God’s face?

We do not know in our story from Mark what the temptations were that Jesus faced in the wilderness, but they were bad enough to twist his soul, to tempt him to give up on God, to believe that nothing good was left. It was bad enough to tempt Jesus to trust evil, to think that wrong was right, to imagine that the devil had won. It was bad enough to prod Jesus into fear that the Holy Spirit who entered him at Baptism had now abandoned him in the wilderness. All of these lies are so easy to believe when we are in pain.
As his soul was being twisted to the breaking point, God intervened and brought Jesus relief. The report of that aid is brief – it is just six short words, but it gives us hope as we go through our wilderness time: “and the angels waited on him.”

In Scripture, angels usually reside in the heavenly realm. They only come to earth when God sends them with a specific message to share—like the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and Zechariah, and the angels at the empty tomb. They communicate their message and return to heaven. But as Jesus recovers from his terrible time in the wilderness, God sends multiple angels, not with a message, but with a ministry. The angels minister to Jesus:

• they untwist his soul,
• they nourish him,
• they fill him with springs of living water,
• they soothe him with hope
• and the salve of the Spirit’s healing balm.

Jesus is not alone, he has never been alone, he will never be alone. The angels surround him and fill him with kindness, encouragement, nourishment, affirmation, community, healing, hope, and love. They fulfill the promise in Isaiah:

The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden.

The ministry of God’s angels moves Jesus from a parched wilderness of temptation to watered garden. That is what Lent is for us this year. Rather than focusing on our own efforts of sacrifice, giving up something, trying a new discipline of prayer and fasting, this Lent is a time to pause and cry out that God might send His angels to minister to us.
This season, God invites us to depend on his angels that we might be filled up and overflowing, trusting that we are not alone, have never been alone and never will be alone. We will not be tempted by evil’s empty promises that twist the truth and make us believe we are alone and that death wins.

Jesus comes with his angels to surround us and fill us with kindness, encouragement, nourishment, affirmation, community, healing, hope, and love. Rather than looking to ourselves to do better, this season of Lent, we will look to the Lord to guide us continually, to satisfy our needs in parched places, to make our bones strong, so that we shall be like watered gardens.

In these watered gardens of being strengthened and loved and nourished by God, the springtime of the soul takes root in us: our faith grows deeper, our compassion spreads wider, our service blossoms in new directions, and the fragrance of our generosity blesses others. The spiritual practices of Lent flow easily from a rich soil that renews us to follow Jesus out of the wilderness into a life lived for and ministering to others. 

Reflection Questions

Anger

• At what point(s) this year have you been ready to chuck life right out the window? How have you been able to express your anger and frustration at God?
• Have you ever felt permission to do this? Why or why not?
• If not, are you willing to try this Lent?

Angels

• Have you noticed the angels playing a different role in this passage than in other passages in the Gospels? Why does Mark include this detail, but not the details about the kinds of temptations like Matthew?
• If you had an angel visitation, what would you want from them?

Watered Garden

• What would you need from Jesus this Lent to feel like a watered garden, filled and overflowing?
• Have you ever had a Lenten practice that focused not on sacrifice and sin, but rather on growth and the “springtime of the soul?” How does this emphasis feel to you this year?
• Imagine yourself feeling refreshed and renewed on Easter, April 4. What would need to happen for that to become real?
• Are there realistic actions you can take in that direction to nurture body and soul with God’s help?

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Karios Time

Marcie Pic FaceMessage for January 17, 2021 on Mark 1:14-20 for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

This week we had to put our wonderful, and very old dog, Marcie to sleep and send her across the rainbow bridge. If you have ever had to do this, you know how difficult it is and how much we have all been crying. Over the past few months, Dan and I have wondered how much time Marcie had left as she has been in decline. But when the time came a couple of nights ago, the decision itself was easy. Marcie gave me a look that said, “it’s time.” As I looked at her face, I realized that she was conveying a truth. It was less a physical assessment, and more a spiritual knowing. Enough was enough. She had suffered enough and she given us everything she could. Even though I did not want it, I knew in that look, in that moment, it was the right time. The pain of sorrow did not change the conviction.

We had a shift in our sense of time—from “what’s next,” which in Greek is chronos (or chronological time, to “what is being revealed,” which in Greek is kairos time. The Gospel of Mark reveals such a shift in spiritual time at the onset of Jesus’ ministry. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The first words of Jesus’ ministry are, “The time is fulfilled…” In other words, “the kairos, the moment is here, enough is enough. There has been enough suffering, evil has had its way for too long, now is the moment, this is the time, now is the right place, the moment has come; I see it, I feel it, I know it, God’s time is upon us.”

Kairos time—the shift has happened—God’s moment has broken into our chronos time in the person Jesus. He has been filled to overflowing with God’s Holy Spirit at his Baptism, battled the power of Satan in the wilderness, and witnessed God’s great messenger, John the Baptist arrested by the empire. Filled with a sense of urgency about enacting the power of God’s reign over against the powers of evil NOW, Jesus emerges publicly in Galilee and he announces, “the time is fulfilled” – “enough is enough!” It is time to end the power of evil and enact God’s reign of justice, healing and love. Kairos. Now is the moment. Things must be different. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Jesus is ready to go from conviction to action, from knowing to living, from kairos to kingdom.

We hear Jesus’ call to action—now is the moment to demonstrate God’s power and presence in the lives of real people—to start a new chapter of God’s work against the powers of death and the devil with exorcism, healing, transformation, and a totally new way of living life. “Repent,” says Jesus—"change your perspective and your life—it’s time to have your world upended by the power of love and hope. Enough is enough with the old ways of death, despair, and fear. God’s love and power and might are here for feeding, healing, loving, forgiving, changing, and giving all of us a new direction. God’s Kairos time is upon us.

Propelled by a fierce urgency that God’s time is unfolding in the world, Jesus moves along the Sea of Galilee to enlist followers who will also respond with an urgency that matches his own—with the radical NOW of God’s desire to bring a new freedom to life, and a new power to God’s people.

Peter and Andrew, James and John probably know who Jesus is, they know stories of his preaching or have heard him speak themselves. Galilee is not that big. Perhaps they heard the story of the carpenter’s son who survived 40 days in the wilderness after being baptized by John, the priest’s son, who is also a wilderness-dweller. A renewal movement is afoot, and everyone is hoping to end the reign of terror by Rome--someone has to do something now that John has been arrested.

No doubt they hear the urgency in Jesus’ voice, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” There is something so compelling, so magnetic about him, about his being, his personality, and his message that they share his sense of kairos time, dropping everything in their chronos time to join Jesus’ mission to love and save and do God’s work.
The disciples experience that moment of spiritual truth, that this is the time, this is the moment. The difficulty of leaving family, and the pain of sorrow does not change the conviction of this time: “the moment has come; I see it, I feel it, I know it, God’s time is upon us. I must follow Jesus…”

As followers of Jesus who live in chronos time, we are called to continually pay attention to the inbreaking of God’s kairos time, to follow Jesus Christ with urgency and conviction. We may feel that enough is enough—we have had enough of pandemics and death, loss, disruption, upheaval and change, crises, and battles with evil. God has always had enough of our fear. It feels like this is God’s time—a new year, a vaccine being distributed even if slowly, we have been spiritually preparing for this moment—for God to do something new. It is time to pay close attention.

St. Luke’s knows what it is to pay attention to God’s Kairos time in the midst of chronos time. Sixty-four years ago, the first members of St. Luke’s experienced God’s time bursting forth into their daily live and they knew it was time to found this congregation. Throughout the years, this congregation has continued to trust God’s time as you have called new pastors, and expanded the physical building. In the past three years, we have committed ourselves to paying attention to God’s Kairos time in starting an Endowment and ensuring the mission of the Gospel into the future. We responded to God’s moment of spiritual truth in welcoming the whole rainbow of God’s people including LGBTQ people into full membership and participation of this congregation. We have responded to God’s Kairos time in starting the free breakfast as hunger has increased in our community. Living in kairos time is never easy, but in every moment, we have experienced God’s hand in our decision to worship on-line and outside, and we trust God’s timing for when that decision should change.

With Peter, Andrew, James and John, Jesus calls us to keep living in God’s time. “Repent,” says Jesus—"change your perspective—it’s time to have your world upended by the power of love and hope. God’s power and might are here for feeding, healing, loving, forgiving, changing and giving all of us a new direction. God’s Kairos time is upon us."
To what mission will God call us with a fierce urgency in 2021? Who is it that calls us to be as followers of Jesus who are ready to see that God’s kingdom is near? This week you will receive your congregational Annual Report in the mail and the question that consumes us in this moment is not “what happened last year?” but “what is God’s revealing in this moment?” How is God calling us to move from conviction to action, from knowing to living, from kairos to kingdom?

When we order our lives by God’s Kairos time, we joyfully participate in God’s kingdom with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. This is what I experience every time I join with many of you at the free Community Breakfast. Regardless of how many guests show up for a serving of burritos and love, I always experience that ministry as kingdom work—sharing love and food and building relationships to let people know God’s presence is alive with an urgent message of grace and hope.

In this new year, we will continue to read scripture together, worship together, pray together, learn and serve together so we will hear God’s urgent call to let our neighbors know that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” For Jesus wants everyone to know of the loving, forgiving, abundant God because they encountered this God here at the right time, when they urgently needed good news.

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Confessing Jesus Christ as Lord in the Midst of Political Turmoil

ddp YhIti8JUfkg unsplashPastor's Word of the Week emailed to the congregation today in our weekly newsletter. St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

As I listen to St. Luke’s members, read the news, and spend time in prayer in the aftermath of the violence at the Capitol last week, one thing is abundantly clear: everyone is filled with fear. Regardless of which party you align with, we are all afraid: we fear for the future of our country, the democratic process, the integrity of our elections, the safety of our leaders at all levels, the transfer of power, our standing on the global stage, and our vulnerability to enemies who seek to undermine our nation.

In addition, I believe that all Christians should be deeply troubled over the idolatrous abuse of Christian symbols and language that we saw on display last Wednesday. Some who committed violent insurrection held up crosses and clutched Bibles, making Jesus Christ the mascot for such insidious sins:

• Anti-Semitism and bigotry, depicted in clothes that read “Camp Auschwitz” and “6MWE”—6 Million Was not Enough;
• Racism and white supremacy depicted by a Confederate flag, a symbol of slavery and secessionist tyranny, carried into our nation’s Capitol;
• White Christian Nationalism depicted by Proud Boys kneeling and praying before breaching the Capitol; others with “Jesus Saves” banners and caps, as if Jesus’ “agenda” merged with their political ideology of racial purity and God’s preference for the success and wealth of America enforced by violence and retribution.

This idolatrous use of our Christian faith demands that we reclaim what it means to follow Jesus Christ as Lord of our life. Regardless of our political persuasion, we at St. Luke’s can and must come together and affirm the central tenets of our faith that are above any and all of our political beliefs and partisan leanings. We Lutherans affirm that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save us all from the sin that separates us from God, the world, and all people God made. To confess Christ as Savior is to put him above all else—even above family, politics, fear, power, race, ideology, and election results. Faith in Jesus Christ, who out of pure sacrificial love, conquered the very power of death and the fear it engenders, is not and cannot be made into a champion who promotes any sin, including anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism, white supremacy, Christian Nationalism, nor any other ideology of human origin.

If sedition were the goal of Jesus’ ministry on earth, he would have joined the movement of zealots to overthrow the Roman Empire; he did not. Instead, he invited Simon, the zealot to become his disciple (Luke 6:15) as Jesus broke all boundaries of race, class, and culture to include everyone in God’s plan of healing, forgiveness, transformation, and salvation. I shudder at the similarities between the crowds who shouted, “crucify him!” (Mark 15:13-14) and the one last week, that carried crosses, gallows and yelled, “hang Mike Pence.” We hear Jesus’ words from the cross ever more hauntingly, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24). As a community in Christ, we are called to know what we are doing, which is to put Christ first in our hearts, lives, and Christian community, which determines how we speak and behave as individuals and as a church in the public square.

How do we move forward together as a community with people of varying political viewpoints? We begin by reminding ourselves that sin is an equal opportunity employer infecting all of us, and all leaders on both sides of the political divide. There is no escaping this truth. I know people of good faith who promote the platforms of both political parties and we can find endless examples of sin on both sides of the political aisle. To support one party platform or the other does not mean one agrees with every behavior, idea, public statement, or leader in that party, and this holds true for the events of last week. As a Christian community, God calls us to step out of “cancel culture” into real vulnerable, open conversations about the motivations and fears that shape our views. We commit to suspending judgment and really listening to one another’s heart and viewpoints. As we make this commitment over the long haul of our life together, the Holy Spirit will deepen the bonds of fellowship and love as we seek to be church.

In my prayer time this week, I heard Jesus clearly say, “I did not defeat death for people to be this afraid.” Rooted in our Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, we trust that Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. Empowered by grace to speak against heresy and to stand together for the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we believe that Christ reigns supreme in our hearts, at St. Luke’s, and in the world he came to redeem.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess” that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

 

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Quotation of the Week

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

 

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