Following Jesus with a Light Hand

Following Jesus with a Light HandCandidating Sermon for Lent 2, Sunday, February 25, 2018 on Mark 8:31-38 to become the Pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson Texas

Nothing like a light and fluffy gospel reading to get us started, together, huh? I was looking for a healing… maybe Jesus’ playing with children…perhaps a miraculous feeding….you know, the Bible’s version of “have a coke and a smile!” But oh no—we’ve got self-denial and suffering, crosses and death, and losing your life in order to save it! And If Peter’s Satan, well, then, I don’t have a prayer. But it is Lent, so, here we go!

Have you noticed that Peter is so right and so wrong at the same time? Two verses before our passage, Jesus asks the disciples, “who do YOU say that I am, and Peter makes his famous confession—"You are the Messiah, the Christ—You’re the savior we’ve been waiting for!” Peter got it right! But then in the next breath, he’s so wrong about what that means. Jesus says he must undergo great suffering, and be killed. Peter says, “no way, Lord. This can’t be the plan of salvation!”

“Get behind me Satan!” Jesus says. “You’ve got the right guy, but the wrong mission.” Peter thinks that Messiah will usher in a new age of political freedom and power for Israel. We understand Peter’s desire for a Messiah who will set things straight, for we spend our lives striving for the same things. We too, want peace and security, success and stability, family and faith —it’s our human nature to pursue a life that is prosperous and successful.

What can be wrong about that? If Peter is both right and wrong about Jesus, maybe we are, too. Jesus clearly says that we must deny ourselves, and take up our crosses in order to follow him—I’m kind of with Peter on this one--it doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? So what does Jesus really mean?

Perhaps it’s easier to start with what self-denial and suffering are not. To deny ourselves is not to demean ourselves, nor to be treated with humiliation, violence or abuse. In the church’s history women were told that staying with an abusive family member was their cross to bear, and this is an incorrect interpretation of the text. Jesus is not asking us to suffer just for the sake of suffering; Jesus asks us to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.

There are places in the world, like North Korea, Somalia, and Afghanistan, where it is a crime to attend Christian worship and believers can suffer violence for the sake of their faith. We need to support and pray for those fellow believers, but that does not mean that we get off scot-free. So, how do we apply this passage to our life when we’re not being persecuted for our faith?

To deny oneself is to dis-own oneself, accepting that all of who we are and all of what we have belong to God. God is the Creator, and we are the creature. It’s a posture of humility, not humiliation. As much as we love the American narrative of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and rugged individualism, self-denial is living in the truth that we are not our own—God is the author and head of our life. This means that all that we have accomplished and accumulated have come to us by God’s grace—yes, we work hard and participate in it, but without God, we are and have nothing.

And we are intimately connected to one another and the whole creation. None of us got here this morning on our own—someone, somewhere, sewed my clothes, built my home and car, made roads so I could drive here. I do not stand before you as a self-made woman—I’m here because family loved me and raised me, teachers educated me, and congregations trained me. Self-denial is keeping our life and therefore all that we accomplish and own, in the proper perspective.

When we accept that all of who we are and all of what have belong to God, we freely give it away to save a life or to help another to know God’s love. We hold ourselves and all of the markers of our success—possessions, job, finances, time, traditions, church—with a light hand, so that it can be used by God for the life of the world. We hold what God has given us with the gratitude of an open heart, so that all the stuff of life does not displace God as the source of our identity, and the center of our life and meaning. This is what the Apostle Paul pointed to when he wrote to the Philippians:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Any time we become freed from our attachments, whether it’s a house, or money, or control—we become more available for God to use us and our gifts to help others. We can give sacrificially and be willing to do without for the sake of another.

Martin Luther described this kind of humility toward our life and possessions this way: I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess. It’s the paradox, the irony of the kingdom of God.

• We have everything we need when we claim nothing as our own.
• We receive blessings, when we release possessiveness.
• We experience more life and love not by hoarding, but by sharing.
• We receive peace and security not by grasping in fear, but by opening our life to God.
• We receive success and stability, not by pushing harder, but by letting go and letting God’s power work through us.
• We are strongest when we are weak.
• We save our life, by losing it.

It sounds backwards to our rational mind, but we know from our own experience it’s true. How many of you have gone on a mission trip, built a habitat for humanity house, worked in a food pantry, helped someone in need —any kind of service at all—and in the process of giving away yourself—your time, your possessions or your energy, you felt that you received more than you gave?

Denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus means using that principle, that experience in every area of our life. In taking up our cross, we choose to allow everything we have, to become an instrument for God’s purpose of reaching the most people with love.

The same is true for us as a congregation as it is for us as individuals. I read a study about Lutheran churches that were growing—they studied different contexts, styles and sizes of congregations. Every growing church held a common attitude: The church exists for those who are not its members.  Every congregation that was growing was invested in giving themselves to those who had not yet come in the door. Those who save their life will lose it and those who lose it for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.

What does it mean for St. Luke’s to give away its life for the sake of the Gospel? How do we hold what God has given us with a light hand, so that we can be used as a vehicle for life and salvation for others? That’s a question I hope that we will wrestle with together in the coming months and years. Let me highlight three things that will be important as we seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.

First, we each need to deepen our own spirituality and relationship with God. This is partly why I was interested in St. Luke’s—because you are interested in spiritual growth and depth. I have been training to be a spiritual director, so I can develop skills at helping people deepen their daily walk with God. Peter in our Gospel lesson was engaged in his spiritual life—he was with Jesus, he was listening, wrestling, asking questions and trying to get it. Sometimes he was right, and sometimes he was wrong, and the same will be true for us. What mattered was not that he made mistakes, but that he was in the relationship with Jesus.

A second thing we need to focus on is listening. It’s easy to assume we know what people need when we want to get them involved in church and what we’re doing before we really learn about them. While living in St. Louis, my husband, Dan and I worked in mission development and we went door to door excited to share about God’s love and this new opportunity. But we found it was important to listen to people first, so instead we asked people how we could pray for them and support them. We learned about a lot of pain and difficulty that people were in, including stories from people who had been judged, hurt or excluded from congregations—congregations across all denominations. It really is true that, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. People are hungry to tell their story and to have someone to really listen to them with love. Through your statement of welcome, that’s a gift St. Luke’s offers people.

A third thing we will do as we follow Jesus, we will depend on and watch for the Holy Spirit. God will keep surprising us! If you would have told me a year ago that I would be living in Texas I would have laughed in your face. I was happy in St. Louis and I spent the last two years telling God I wasn’t moving! I wasn’t holding my blessings with a light hand, and you can see how well that worked out! But now I live closer to some of my family and then, there’s this inclusive, spiritual church in Richardson, Texas! I’m not saying that it hasn’t been without pain and loss. We’re not going to pretend that change isn’t painful. I still don’t like being this far away from our two younger children who still live in Missouri. But God can always imagine something greater for us, our family and our church than we can imagine for ourselves! When we hold our life and possessions, our worship and traditions with a light hand, we open up avenues for God to use us in ways we couldn’t have imagined!

Jesus words this morning do not end with suffering, rejection and death! He promises that he will rise again! And Jesus made good on that promise! God is always moving toward, life—and not just eternal life—but abundant life here and now as we open ourselves, our lives, our church, and all that we have, for God’s mission.

For as we hold these blessings, all of God’s blessings with a light hand, we know that God firmly holds us, and this congregation, and this community, and indeed the whole world, in his hands.


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O God, Make Haste!

O God Make HasteMy sister, Pam and I are visiting our brother, Doug in San Jose, California for a week. We’ve had fun sharing dinner with some of his friends, helping him out around the house, and just hanging out together. Sadly, I got a head cold/flu over the weekend and spent last night on the couch downstairs, trying not to wake everyone with my coughing.

While here, I’ve been keeping up with my homework for my History of Spirituality class as I work toward a Certificate in Spiritual Direction through Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. One of my readings came to my aid last night as I tried to warm up against the chills and wait for morning to dawn. John Cassian (c. 360-433), church theologian and mystic who wrote Conference X on Prayer, shares a formula from Scripture that he admonishes, “each of us, whatever his [sic] condition of spiritual life needs to use this verse. The man [sic] who wants to be helped in all circumstances and at all times, shows that he needs God to help him in prosperity and happiness as much as in suffering and sorrow.” This prayer, rooted in the Psalms, has been used in the liturgies and prayers of the church for centuries.

The formula is: “O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me” (Psalms 31:238:2240:17, and 70:1). Cassian insists that, “it fits every mood and temper of human nature, every temptation, every circumstance.” I prayed it over and over through the night and found comfort in a repeated mantra that reminded me I was not alone, and that time and illness would pass.

I encourage you to try it today in whatever situation you find yourself. It seems an apt prayer mantra for the season of Lent, especially as we begin it with another school shooting, and more children tragically killed while the country plays politics with their lives. “O, God, make speed to save us; O Lord, make haste to help us.” 

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Headaches, Hawks, and the Holy Spirit

Headaches Hawks and the Holy SpiritLast Friday, I woke up with a bad headache, so going to the fitness center with my 80’s mix soundtrack blaring in my headphones while pounding the elliptical machine or the treadmill just wasn’t going to cut it. But I do find that exercise really helps my headaches, especially when I wake up with one and it's not a true migraine. Movement to get the blood pumping a little bit, deep breathing, and the subsequent endorphin-release can ease the pain or eliminate a headache altogether. In fact, I often use exercise as the first treatment for a headache, which means I can often avoid taking any pain-killers. 

I was in enough pain that day, however, that I wondered if exercise would help at all. But fresh air almost always makes a difference. There is a walking path that goes by a small lake in our subdivision; I had been wanting to try it, so I decided it was a good day to check it out. They sky was clear and sunny, and I had the trail to myself.

As I took in the view with slow, deep breaths, I asked God what I needed to learn, to know, or to hear today. What message or blessing was contained in this pain, so I could receive it and let it go? A hawk, with wings spread wide, floated on the air above me. I imagined her view from up high and wondered if I needed to take a wider look at the whole of my life with more distance and detachment. What does the hawk see that I do not?

As I pondered this, I noticed how relaxed the bird’s wings and body were—she simply floated on the air and let it push her up and down and around with a sense of ease and abandon—like there was no other reason for her to exist except to be held up, carried, and content. I thought about my own tangled and anxious efforts to cross things off my to-do lists, the constant mental criticism in my head about what I’m not accomplishing and should be, often forcing myself forward when my body and mind ask for rest. What would it feel like for me to just float on the breath of the Spirit? Could I allow myself to be held, supported, and gently moved forward without all my anxious toiling? What would it feel like to open my heart, spirit, and body with wings stretched wide, trusting that I can stop flapping and instead, glide, relying on God’s presence and energy beneath and through me?

As I walked, I tried relaxing my whole body with my breath, releasing tension and tightness. I turned around and headed back to toward the car. The hawk came into view again and I watched her glide across the sky, the wind taking her in a new direction. Just then, a second hawk came into view and flew across the path of the first hawk. If they were planes with sky-writing smoke billowing out behind them, their flight paths would have formed a cross.

Oh, yeah: the essential work of salvation is already done. I’m simply called to open myself and lean on the presence and power of Christ’s Spirit, bearing witness to the grace that lifts me up.

Photograph: Maureen Sullivan

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Female Spirituality: The Tension Between Desires & Self-Sacrifice

Female Spirituality The TensionIf you are a woman like me, you probably heard subtle and not-so-subtle messages growing up that your desires and interests were unimportant at best, and bad and wrong at worst. On the contrary, helping and serving others while you denied yourself, was not only expected as a female in this culture, it was faithful. We learned that God wants us to sacrifice ourself, our needs, and our desires in order to follow Jesus. If we ever did let our desires and wants slip out, we might have been told that we are selfish, pushy, bossy, or God-forbid, a “bitch.” At the Enneagram conference I attended two weeks ago, we learned that girls today as young as second grade are being labeled a “bitch” when they express their desires and demonstrate leadership skills so often admired in boys the same age (they are probably just an 8 on the Enneagram with a particular set of strengths, skills and weaknesses, like the rest of us).

I had been a pastor for over twenty years when a therapist said to me, “God works through your desires.” I was both surprised and comforted since for so much of my adult life, I have had an on-going internal battle with feeling selfish for having desires and aspirations. I don’t believe anyone intended to give me this message, but I received it, loud and clear. In the book, Holy Listening; The Art of Spiritual Direction, the late Episcopal priest, Margaret Guenther wrote, “women’s distinctive sin is self-contempt, a self-hatred often centered on the body. A lack of healthy self-love means that women can neglect their own inner growth because they are so busy serving others—as culture, society, and religion demand” (128-129). Does that strike a chord in your soul? It sure did in mine. Author Susan Rakoczy, writing in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, adds, “Self-sacrifice freely chosen leads to self-transcendence; serving others because of cultural and religious norms leads to self-naughting” (Vol. 20.2, June 2014, 50).

How much time and energy have we, as women put into “self-naughting”—shutting down our inner aspirations and hopes because others’ needs (whoever that ‘other’ might include) are more important than ours? I would agree that mature spirituality leads us to self-denial and transcendence of the ego-self as we deepen our life and identity in God. But many of our spiritual and religious traditions have encouraged our self-denial before we have achieved “self-possession” (Rokoczy, 50) or ego-strength and identity. Fr. Richard Rohr identifies building this ego-self as the task of the first half of life (see his book, Falling Upward).

Despite it feeling selfish or myopic, our first spiritual task is to achieve self-possession. We might ask, “How is God working through our desires, our passions, our aspirations, and our hopes? What kind of contribution to the world do our skills and strengths lead us to offer? How is God calling us through our desires and skills?” We need to walk through this conscious self-development before we have anything to sacrifice or transcend in service of the reign of God.

I have felt this tension in the process of writing and publishing, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life. I felt a deep desire to write and communicate about God’s daily presence; yet it felt selfish to seek a publisher, and it still feels self-serving and “braggy” to tell others about it. But, if I don’t share it, how can it be used to help others see God in their daily lives--the whole purpose of the book? Even using this as an example feels uncomfortable! Aaaargh!

I don’t think this internal battle is what God hopes for in any of us! Today, I live in the tension while praying for how God desires me to resolve it, and trying to practice healthy self-love in the mean time.


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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.