Join the Party!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image SourceThanks to Avondale Pattillo UMC, Atlanta, GA

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Letting Go of Being Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Headlines of Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of my headlines of hope this week:

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

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

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Letting God Show Through

12 17 17 0070 isaiah 61 origMessage for Epiphany 3 on Luke 4:14-21 on January 23, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

I bet the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus—they were waiting for a real sermon, some interpretation, a piece of wisdom! They got one sentence. One sentence after all that waiting.

Do you know how long it takes to unroll the whole scroll of Isaiah to get to chapter 61? The scroll of Isaiah was about 24 feet long! He was unscrolling and unscrolling and unscrolling….

• Ch 2 Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore..
• Ch 6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne...
• Ch 9 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…
• Ch. 11 A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…
• Ch 17 An Oracle concerning Damascus
• Ch 18 An Oracle concerning Ethiopia
• Ch 19 An Oracle concerning Egypt

And unscrolling some more….

• Ch 26 Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace because they trust in you…
• Ch 35 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
• Ch. 40 Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength…
• Ch 43 Fear not for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine…
• Ch 53 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities…
• Ch 55 For your thoughts are not my thoughts, your ways are not my ways…
• Ch 58 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free…

And finally getting closer…

• Ch 60 Arise shine for your light has come..

Ah yes, here it is:

Isaiah 61:
   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.

Then he rolled up the 61 chapters of the 24-foot long scroll.

More scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling it back up!

He handed it back to the attendant.

And sat down.

And then he gave them a one sentence sermon. “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” One line. That’s it.

St. Francis of Assisi is credited with saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” Jesus did use words of course, to teach at different times, but in this inaugural sermon in his hometown, he does not use many. Instead, he draws attention to the power Holy Spirit working through him, being anointed by God to be the good news.

Jesus needs no sermon because he, himself is the embodiment of God. He is the Message—his life, his body, his actions, his way of being, his anointing with the Holy Spirit—it’s all God’s message. Jesus embodies God—he is the Epiphany, the revelation—if you want to hear the message, then listen, watch, and absorb the outcomes of Jesus’ actions:

• The poor have all they need, the hungry are fed
• The blind, the sick, and the lame are healed and restored to fullness of life
• The widows and the women are lifted up, raised to discipleship, and sent to share good news
• Those who are held captive to demons, to sin, to injustice, are released into freedom and wholeness and community!
• Those who are reviled and dismissed and rejected, have a place at the table—enemies, tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes—they live on equal footing with everyone else—a level playing field of grace unbounded

Jesus’ embodies God’s vision for the world by valuing life we do not value; Jesus’ embodies God’s vision for the world by loving people we do not love.

Those with power, prestige, education, and influence are welcome as well—but not because we can buy, bully, bargain or earn our way in—the Holy Spirit is an equal opportunity employer and anointer—everyone who signs on to the vision that Jesus embodies can join the party. And we have the joy of knowing that we are welcome and have a place at the table, as all are welcomed—through the unconditional love and grace of our amazing God who sent us Jesus as the embodiment of God’s great vision in the first place.

The Spirit’s anointing falls on everyone who follows Jesus embodying the kingdom of God that welcomes all to the table of love and joy. That’s why St. Luke’s tag line is “where Spirit’s come alive!" If you remember, this tag line is based on this passage from the Gospel of St. Luke and the beginning of Jesus ministry. The Spirit of the Lord is upon all of us who follow Jesus and his ministry to bind up the brokenhearted, to bring good news to the poor, to set free those who are captive and to proclaim God’s favor on all who need to be restored to wholeness and hope. The founders of this church could have chosen St. Mark's or St. James, or St. John's, but they chose St. Luke's. They chose this name revealing this mission at its very core—people anointed with the Spirit who follow Jesus anointed with the Spirit embodying this vision of good news. Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.

Many years ago, when we lived in Kansas City, Dan and I heard Rabbi Zedek at Congregation B’nai Jehudah tell this story. He overheard a family leaving the synagogue after worship, and their young son was asking his parents about what the Rabbi had said in worship. “Didn’t the Rabbi say that God was bigger than us?” Yes, that’s right, said the parents. “And didn’t the Rabbi also say that God was inside of us?” “Yes, that’s also true—the Rabbi did say that.” Then the boy said, “If God is bigger than us, and God is also inside of us, then shouldn’t God show through?”

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus gave a one sentence sermon because he wanted us all to see the God who showed through him. As a community where spirits come alive, as we too, are anointed by the same Holy Spirit, God shows through us to shine in our community that this is place where hearts are mended, the hungry are fed, the lonely are embraced, the sick are prayed for, good news is announced to all, and we are freed from the oppression of sin to love and serve each other and our community with forgiveness and hope.

Our capital campaign helps us commit to a future where God shows through our actions as we embody God’s love in our prayers, our mission, and our outreach into a strong future where people need to see a church that does that what it says—coming alongside them in the challenges of daily life and showing them that Jesus is real!

God is bigger than us. God is inside of us. The Spirit of the Lord is upon you and upon us together to let God show through compelling us to bring good news to everyone who is bound up, pressed down, broken in spirit, pandemic-weary, impoverished, and desperately hungry for good news. We saw this at Congregation Beth Torah yesterday as the Richardson Mayor, and many interfaith members of the Richardson community came together in solidarity with our Jewish friends, including about thirty Muslim neighbors.

How can others see God shining through you by how you lead your daily life, at work, by how you treat people, how you drive, how you watch out for your neighbors, how you treat a stranger of another ethnicity, language or religion? Rabbi Elana is a friend of mine and it breaks my heart when she tells me that she has children in her congregation every year crying in her office because their Christian friends have said they can no longer be friends with them because they are Jewish and not Christian. We have to show up differently as Christians in the world. We have to teach our children to show up as a different kind of Christian in the world. How we behave when we encounter a person of a different religion, ethnicity or language matters.

The Spirit has anointed us in Baptism and fills us again with renewed forgiveness and life through the blessing of Christ’s body and blood, to embody Jesus’ love for world, so that we might join Christ in letting God show through so we can welcome all to the table, so we can show love to all of God's children whether they believe as we do or not. So we can show by our face, our words, our behavior, that we embody a God of love and welcome.

Prayer—God please show us one new person this week where we can let your love shine and show through us. Help us each to be open and on the lookout for your guidance and a new assignment every day for ways to share the good news of your love and hope for all your people. Amen.

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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.