Monthly Archives: October 2014

The meaning of hope…

From the Miriam-Webster Dictionary:

1hope

 verb \ˈhōp\

: to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true

This is the English definition of hope. And yet, if we look at the Greek word for hope (elpis) we see a much stronger meaning.  The Greek word conveys expectation and eagerness.  One commentator wrote that, “Hope is expectation expressed in faith, confidence, patience, endurance and eagerness.”[1]  As Christians we not only want something to happen or think it could be true- we are certain in our faith.  Maybe the English word trust conveys more of this meaning.

In the Greek:

Hope (Elpis)

: to eagerly and joyfully expect in faith that something will happen

In the scriptures the source of our hope is God, and the fulfillment of our hope is in Jesus.  There is no question about this.  We do not live like those who have no hope.[2]  Our hope in God shows in the fruits of our lives.  When we are tempted to give in to cynicism, depression, or hatred- we remember that we are people of hope.  When the news seems to be all bad news- we trust God is with us.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. (Romans 12:2)

[1] The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press.

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4:13

Sermon for Sunday, October 12th: Invitation to the Feast

Sermon for October 12th

Scriptures: Matthew 22: 1-14, Philippians 4:1-9

The Parable of the Wedding Feast

Imagine for a moment that you just received an invitation- an invitation to a royal wedding.  Originally, you were not invited, although you wished you had been.  And at the last minute as you sat imagining what it would be like, one of the king’s servants comes to extend an invitation to you.  You rush to the wedding, after all the feast is ready and the king is waiting.  You join the mass of people entering the banquet hall, smelling the delicious aroma of roasting meat.  Everyone is seated and the king arrives.  The king looks out at the banquet hall and scans the guests, and then his eyes seem to land on you.  He comes toward you and says, “Friend, how did you get in here without wearing a wedding robe?”

And you are speechless.

We have all been there.  It’s that moment when you realize everyone is wearing stilettos while you are rockin’ kicks, guess you didn’t get the memo.  Those nightmares come true when you are naked at the party, on the spot at school, unprepared for work…. at the wedding without a wedding robe.  And your deepest fear has been realized- everyone has found you out.  They have seen the real you and they have rejected you.

Here at church we all come like this.  We all come, insecure- wanted to hide our sin and shame- afraid of being exposed.  Yet it is this very place where our true nature is revealed.  We are in bondage to our sin and we cannot free ourselves.  And although it is terrifying to be truly vulnerable and revealed, after we admit this, we can breathe a sigh of relief.  No more posing as a good church person- as the perfect mother, brother, councilperson, Sunday school teacher.  We can be honest with our faults and failings.  And for the first time in a long while, we can show our true selves.  We do not have to hide, pretend, or pose any longer.

When we enter this sanctuary, often, the very first thing we do is our liturgy of Confession & Forgiveness.  It is as if we say- wait!  Before we worship God, before I stand next to you as my brother or sister in Christ, before we do one more churchy thing- let’s be real, let’s be honest.  Let’s do what we need to do and confess our sins to God and one another.  Let’s be honest about our true need for God.

This scripture today, exposes that true need.  We may ask- why does there have to be judgment like we see in our scriptures?  Why does God judge people, including us?  Without giving an honest judgment about ourselves, we will never find the truth of who we really are.  A world without judgment does not takes seriously the sins and suffering, and war that we see all around us every day.  Without judgment, there can be no justice.

On our own, we all stand before God and each other without our wedding robes on.  On our own, we are thrown into the outer darkness.  On our own, we are left to weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Yet in this crazy, beautiful thing of our faith, we believe something miraculous happens.  We believe that in our baptism God clothes us in Christ.  Although our sinful nature never disappears, we also have a new identity in Christ.  We are sinners and saints at the same time.  During baptism we wear white or receive a white cloth to symbolize this new identity.  And this white robe stays with us throughout our faith journey as a symbol that we are baptized in Christ.  We wear it again as we are confirmed, as our ninth graders will do in just two weeks.  Our leaders wear it in worship.  And in death as the white funeral pall is placed on the casket or urn- our baptismal robe again surrounds us as we are commended to God.

Clothed in Christ, we can be in true community with others.

Our parable today is another violent, dramatic, and unsettling teaching of Jesus from Matthew.  It is the third parable of judgment Jesus tells to the Pharisees and chief priests.  Here Jesus uses this ‘once upon a time (hyperbolic) story’ to shock his audience.  He is trying to prove a point to the religious leaders.  Yes, you are invited to the feast of God- but you also have a responsibility to care for the people in your flock.  You are called to justice and love.  You are not beyond God’s judgment simply because you are in charge.

There is clearly judgment and law in this parable.  But there is also gospel.  There is a wild and disruptive theme of inclusivity.  The king invites all to the banquet.  He has his servants scour the city for the good and the bad.  This gives us a vision of the kingdom of God.  God is out to invite all to the feast.  God searches our cities for the homeless, unemployed, mentally ill, outcast, imprisoned, strangers, the last of all the last- and extends an invitation to them. Wow! It is such good news, it is almost impossible to believe.

As I was traveling in my car this week, I was listening to WPR on the radio when I heard a story that people had a hard time believing.  It was the story of a Roman Catholic nun who secretly ministered to transgender people.  Somehow this nun, Sister Monica, had showed compassion to one person, and found her calling.  People would call her or email her out of the blue and say, “Do you really minister to trans people?  Are you really a nun?”  No one could believe that this nun would help people that seemed so far out of norm of the ministry of the church, especially the Catholic Church.  But she did.  Sister Monica felt that ‘loving God makes us more human’ rather than our spirituality separating us from people.  She shared that what touched her most was that the transgender people she worked with loved God just like she did.  She provided pastoral support and spiritual direction to people as they faced the many difficulties that comes with being a transgender person.  The show reported that 40% of transgender people in one study had attempted suicide.  What a staggering and saddening statistic!  Sister Monica continues this ministry she believes is central to the gospel, even though it could get her into trouble.

‘When we try to live by the gospel we sometimes get in trouble,’ one of the nuns who worked with Sister Monica said.  Maybe we get that today at Hope Lutheran Church.  This gospel is a dangerous thing.  It is not politically correct.  It shines light on ourselves as sinners.  It calls the world into judgment.  And it reaches out to those not usually invited to society’s table.  It is radical and at times impossible to believe.  But we come to church asking, “Is it true?”  Can God love me as I am?  Can I be forgiven?  Can I be accepted by a Christian community?  And we find in our baptism, a resounding “Yes!” and a beautiful robe to wear to the banquet.

The Mystery of our Faith

This week I was happy to hear a good word of hope at Luther Seminary Celebration of Biblical Preaching.  It was such a treat to listen to great preachers bring God’s word and to learn more about how to bring this word to our community.  Frank Thomas (not the baseball player, but a preaching professor at Christian Theological Seminary) preached at chapel on Monday and he shared a message from Psalm 13.

Here is the reading from Psalm 13:

1How long, O LORD?  WIll you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

2How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

3Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,

4and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;

my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

5But I trusted in your steadfast love;

my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

6I will sing to the LORD,

because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Thomas (with the help of biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman) pointed out that there is a stark change from verse 4 to verse 5.  There is a gap, a space that lingers between the verses.  What is this change, this empty space?

In the space, the psalm changes from lament to hope and praise.  What happened in this space?  In that space lies the mystery of our faith.  Here is the mystery of our faith- that in suffering we can find hope in God.  We can say, “I will trust in the Lord.”  We can sing to God in the hope of the goodness that will come.  Even in difficult times, even in times of suffering in our lives- we can trust in the Lord.

“It is the mystery of our faith that hope comes.”

Sermon for Sunday, October 5

Another Parable about a Vineyard from Matthew 21

I wear glasses when I drive or when I go see a movie. And if I haven’t worn my glasses for a while I get used to seeing things a little blurry. So when I put my glasses on- it’s a little disorienting. I get a little dizzy. Seeing things clearly takes some getting used to. But wearing my glasses helps me see the reality of the world around me. I can see the leaves on the trees and read the road signs at night. Even though it takes some time and effort to adjust- it is worth the process to see clearly.

Maybe we could say that the Bible and the stories of Jesus are like a pair of glasses. I like that metaphor better than a rulebook or a manual. The Bible does have some rules of course- like the Ten Commandments, as well as poetry, sayings, letters and other things- but mostly stories. The stories of God’s people, stories of Jesus and his teachings, and the stories of the early church. And these stories become our faith lens. They help us to see the world a little clearer. They help us to see the truth of God in the world. But it does take some getting used to- because we are used to seeing things only through our own eyes and our own point of view.

Today’s parable is a little disorienting- and maybe even a little painful. But it was meant to open the eyes of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. And maybe it can help us open our own eyes as well. I’d like to share the Parable of the Vineyard from the Spark Bible:

The Pharisees (and chief priests) were a group of people who didn’t like what Jesus said and treated Jesus badly. Jesus told them a story to help them understand that what they were doing was wrong.

Jesus said, “A man built a vineyard and planted grapes. He hired workers to care for the grapes. When the grapes were ripe, the man sent his servants one by one to get the grapes. But each time, the workers watching the vineyard hurt the servants! The man tried sending his own son, but they hurt him too!

The Pharisees realized that Jesus was talking about them. Every time God sent someone to help them learn more about God, they were mean to that person instead of listening to what that person had to say. Jesus was there to save them, but they weren’t even listening! 

Jesus was trying to get the attention of the religious leaders. He was trying to show them that God’s message had been sent to them through the prophets and the Torah and finally had arrived in the flesh through Jesus himself. But still they chose religion and power. Jesus was saying- “It is not about the rules- it’s about me! It’s about a relationship with God and caring for God’s people.”

And maybe Jesus is trying to get our attention with this story too. How are we paying attention to God in our lives, in our families, in our churches? Are we listening? Are we seeing the world through God’s eyes and bearing fruit for the kingdom of God

When I was doing my internship as a chaplain at a hospital (CPE- for you pastor folks!)- I met a woman, whose story really touched my heart. I’ll call her Amanda. Now Amanda was around the age of 27- I remember this clearly because she was close to my age at the time, and she was very sick. She had a terminal disease and was only given a few months.

And because of this harsh reality- she was seeking God in her life. She wanted to be baptized and join a faith community and have some peace with her spiritual life. So she went to a church- it could have been any mainline denominational church (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, you get the picture). She had met with the pastor once and this pastor had told a few people about her to welcome her, and then she walked in worship by herself. She worshipped with the community and was just starting to feel comfortable with church when a few people who knew her story talked with her afterwards. One of the people after church said to her, “It’s good to meet you- and I have a question to ask you… “Would you be willing to teach Sunday School?” Amanda walked out of that church and she never returned. In fact she didn’t return to any church as far as I know. She received her spiritual support from another chaplain and later found out from her mother that she was baptized as an infant.

The point is- this church had a moment in time to minister to Amanda and lost that opportunity. It makes you wonder- are our mainline churches listening to God and bearing fruit for the kingdom? What would Jesus have us see a little clearer? Now teaching Sunday school is of course a beautiful vocation for those called to it. But clearly it wasn’t the right time for this. It seems our churches often get so caught up in our programs, finances, committees (you name it) that we forget the main point! And pastors and church leaders are the worst! Maybe Jesus would say to us, “Its not about the programs- it’s about me! It’s about a relationship with God and with God’s people.”

Now that person who approached Amanda was really trying to help… But maybe if that had said something more like this…. “We’re really glad to have you here. We heard your story and we are praying for you. We would love to help you in any way possible.” There are no right words to say- but there are some wrong words, it seems. We have to be more willing to open up and share our faith with others- to take a chance and be vulnerable with our stories- so that we can continue to grow in our faith and so that we can help mentor others in their faith- especially those new to the faith or struggling in their lives. This may be through formal opportunities like the testimonies shared at Thirsty Thursday services this summer, or simply in our interactions with people here in church and out in our daily lives.

 Are we listening to Jesus? Are we bearing fruit in our churches?

In Jesus’ parable he ends with some harsh words including these, “This is the way it is with you. God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life.” (The Message).

God’s kingdom work will be done- and if we do not do it- God will find other people to do it- other people who will bear fruit. God gives us an incredibly gracious invitation to be in relationship with God- to have Jesus alive in our families and in our communities and to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world. God comes to us time after time- sending us messages and messengers and finally sending the Son, himself. God does all of this to show us how loved and cherished and forgiven we truly are! Are we listening? Are we living like we believe this? Are we bearing fruit?

The lens of our faith helps us see this reality clearly. When we use our faith lens, we do not simply see an ordinary world. We see an extraordinary world that was created by God and is deeply loved- not perfect but good- and someday will be completely healed by God. And we are a part of this creation- each of us extraordinary children of God. We have a purpose; we are a part of something larger then ourselves. We have the opportunity to do God’s kingdom work and to bear fruit. We are blessed beyond measure as God’s extravagant grace comes for us time after time finally bringing Jesus to us, to help us see the truth of God’s love.