The Wilderness is Now

ronan furuta OPv10mICdJk unsplashMessage for Lent 1 on Luke 4:1-13 given on March 6, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

It's usually like watching a short play isn’t it? We used to hear the temptation story cheering Jesus on from the audience. We wait for the grand finale, the music swells, Jesus defeats the devil, we jump from our seat for the standing ovation, and then we go back to our lives until next week’s drama. This story seemed so far removed from anything in our life—it’s just how Jesus’ ministry begins, it gives us the 40-days of Lent before Easter when we give up chocolate until the Easter bunny comes, yada, yada, yada…

But this year feels different. Two long weary years different. The coronavirus is in retreat for the moment, but who knows how long that will last? Certainly, its effects on the economy, political divisiveness, the increased drug and alcohol use, and the pandemic pounds around our wastes make the temptations of the devil (literally “ho diabolos—the diabolic one) in the wilderness for Jesus to satisfy his own desires with bread, feel close at hand.

The images of war, civilian deaths, hospitals, and neighborhoods being bombed, talk of nuclear threat, and millions, especially children and their mothers, fleeing Ukraine—make the power grab of the diabolic one in the wilderness into thinking he can wield kingdoms and increase Jesus’ power, sound very real.

The amount of stress we each are managing, the mental health struggles, anxiety, depression, and other issues surfacing in ourselves, our family and friends make the distrust and testing of God and the misuse of Scripture by the devil in the wilderness, feel a little too close to home.

Life has catapulted us from the audience of this story onto the glare of the stage. And the truth is, this wilderness is not just the place where Jesus begins his ministry—but rather, this temptation story shows us that all of Jesus’s life and ministry is a wilderness experience; this first wilderness is where he needed to hone his survival skills and learn to completely trust God.

Jesus will be tempted in every way, everyday—to give up his ministry:

• when he is rejected in his hometown,
• when he is challenged and questioned by both religious and political leaders,
• when his own followers do not understand him,
• when his family thinks he is crazy,
• when mobs press in on him and then abandon him,
• when he prays for the cup of crucifixion to passed from him—

Yes! All of Jesus’s life and ministry is a wilderness experience, tempting him not to trust in God’s power and God’s plan.

And yes, it is true for all of us who follow him. Poet Cheryl Lawrie draws us in this way:

i just realized
that in my imagination
the wilderness is always somewhere else;
a foreign landscape i actively have to enter
in the act of being faithful.

truthfully,
the wilderness is always where i am
right now
and faith is the courage to stay with it
when i’d rather pretend i am
anywhere else.

The wilderness is where we are right now with temptations the devil—the diabolic one—uses to thwart God’s ultimate power in our life, and our ability to trust completely in God.

With each temptation, Jesus shows us how to completely trust God, how to keep God center stage, the ultimate power in our life—how to grow our heart, so that it belongs to God alone.

Jesus is famished, having not eaten in 40 days, so the first temptation is for Jesus to use his authority to turn a stone into bread to satiate his own personal cravings and desires. But Jesus is filled with a greater power than physical desire—he is full of the Holy Spirit. He quotes Deuteronomy 8- “One does not live by bread alone.’” Human life is more than our cravings; instead, we live by the provision of God as did the Israelites who received manna in the wilderness. How important for us in this wilderness, coming out of the last phase of pandemic that our most important provision is to be filled with Holy Spirit and the Word of God, to grow our heart and to turn the Lord for our sustenance. Giving in to temporary desires only leads to more and more cravings that never deeply satisfy, as does the love of the Lord your God.

The diabolic one then takes him up and shows him all the kingdoms of the Roman empire, claiming them as his own, if only Jesus will worship him. It’s almost humorous, how deluded the devil is—thinking all of this is really his. But Jesus is full of a different kind of power—the Holy Spirit. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy again and rebuts the devil with the True Eternal Owner of all, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Jesus sees that if attaining fame requires becoming a servant to the diabolic one, the cost is too high. Jesus shows us that for faithful disciples, there can be no price too high for loyalty to Jesus Christ. Full of the Holy Spirit, we are willing to suffer energy and other material costs to save lives and find ways to deescalate the threat of further conflict.

From the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, the devil gives Jesus the third temptation: to test God by throwing himself down for a dramatic rescue. God would have to save him if God’s plan to usher in the kingdom through Jesus were to be fulfilled. Here the devil tries to use Jesus’s tactic against him—by quoting Scripture at him to make it sound like a legitimate request. Scripture can be used to justify anything, right? But testing and putting God on trial is a self-serving, and Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, makes this clear to the diabolic one when he quotes Deuteronomy again, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

How difficult it is to not test and bargain with God when we are weighed down with worries of people we love, when we cannot see how the problems, anxieties, and crises are going to be resolved—and we grasp at some form of control and rescue. Jesus invites us to shift our attention to Scriptures that rekindle our awareness of the Holy Spirit within us and help us trust in God’s power, presence, and provision in the wilderness. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…I will never leave you nor forsake you..” “I have chosen you and not cast you off…Do not fear for I am with you…”

truthfully,
the wilderness is always where i am
right now
and faith is the courage to stay with it

The wilderness is the place where Jesus cements a trusting relationship with God—a deep, abiding relationship that gave him Holy Spirit power to fulfill his purpose, to usher in the kingdom, to break the power of evil and save us from sin, death and the devil. He remained faithful through the cross and onto Easter morning.

The wilderness is here this moment, and it is a place of cheering—not from the audience, but from center stage. For right now is the place where Jesus grows our heart—giving us the Holy Spirit in a faith that sustains us, granting us strength to live with courage, and deep trust in God who is the ultimate and only true power in our life.

Photo by Ronan Furuta on Unsplash

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Christ is All

Ash WednesdayMessage for Ash Wednesday on Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6,16-21 for March 2, 2022 

We do not need to be reminded of death this year—on this Ash Wednesday. It seems like death is all we have had for 2 years—951,000 dead in our own country, almost 6 million deaths worldwide. The news reports more deaths than normal to suicide, drug overdoses, car accidents; there is more anxiety, more teens suffering from depression, eating disorders, and other mental health issues, and if all that was not enough, we now have an unprovoked invasion into Ukraine resulting in more the loss of life. We feel like the Apostle Paul in 2nd Corinthians in his catalog of calamities where he describes what he has gone through as great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, and so on…..haven’t we come close like never before, understanding what Paul meant?
No, we do not need to be reminded of death this year; yet here we are—Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Death. Our mortality.

Paul did not need a reminder either—he suffered every day for his faith, for spreading the good news about Jesus and his power over death, his resurrection from grave, and the light of his forgiveness for Paul—a murderer, and persecutor of the church. What an unfathomable forgiveness Jesus had given him. And here is Paul, after all he had gone through to share Jesus’ love, trying to prove his credentials and credibility as an Apostles to the Corinthians –We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

At the end of the day, Paul concluded he had nothing—nothing to show them, nothing to prove that he should have their respect or attention. He was not worthy of forgiveness, nor to preach Christ any more than anyone else. All he could say was through all the suffering he endured, he continued to believe in Christ’s victory over death, and he continued to share this truth. Being a pharisee, a well-educated, a high-ranking Jew, earned him nothing—it spared him no suffering—–from beatings, storms, shipwrecks or plagues, the only thing he had to show for his faith at the end of it all was Christ.

He was powerless. His community did not even affirm him—having nothing, and yet possessing everything—only Christ. When everything was stripped away—his status, his respect, possessions, his health, and even nearly his relationship with the Corinthian community, all he could do was cling to Christ—that is humility, that is the right place of the creature next to the Creator, the follower behind his Lord, the sinner beside the Savior. Powerless with only the gift of faith. Having nothing, and yet possessing everything. Paul realized all he had was Christ; Paul realized all he needed was Christ.

You are dust and to dust you shall return. We have gone through a great endurance, afflictions, hardships, pandemic, racial strife, inflation, political division, war—we are powerless over so much of it. Does our education, or income or our politics save us? No. When it’s all stripped away—possessions, respect, status, relationships, health, wealth—what do you have? All we have is Christ.

When in suffering, the only thing we can cling to is Christ—that is our humble stance, the right place of a creature next to the Creator, the follower behind her Lord, the sinner beside the Savior. Powerless with only gift of faith. Having nothing, and yet possessing everything. All we have is Christ; All we need is Christ. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

We begin Lent with mortality and death to remember that when all the dressing, degrees, and details of our life are gone, all we have is Christ. And Christ is truly the only thing we need. We discover this only through suffering, when our control and management fail us. It puts in sharp relief what really matters—what is really important and what is not. What is essential to life and what is not.

The suffering of pandemic times and all its attendant crises offer us this gift of clarity that Ash Wednesday and Lent puts again into sharp relief: all we have is Christ. We have all heard the phrase, “you can’t take it with you” when you die, whatever “it” is. The only thing you can take with you from this life is Christ—Christ is all that matters, having nothing, yet possessing everything.   

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. The only thing with you in the ashes and dust through to the other side is Christ. Knowing this, now, therefore, how are you going to live? Not just for Lent, but with Christ as the most important gift and possession you have?

Isaiah invites us to ensure that people around us experience justice and love and the basic needs of life. Matthew tells us that the practices of our faith are never done for show or for accolades or credit—because we are nothing without Christ. So, pray from the heart out of what Christ has done for you. Give from the heart because Christ has given you all you need. Forgive others because Christ embraces and forgives you in all of your flaws and brokenness. Authentic spiritual practices and acts of justice flow from the life and heart of the one who to whom Christ matters most—to the one who has nothing, yet possesses everything in Christ.

Ash Wednesday strips us down to ashes and dust alone, not as a morbid reminder of death, but as a complete washing in love, so we can see the only true need of our life is Christ. His love is the only thing we can take with us beyond the grave. Lent asks us to live with Christ as our most valued possession—having nothing yet possessing everything.

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Transfigured by Prayer

transfiguration4gh120po mediumMessage for the Transfiguration on Luke 9:28-36 on Sunday, February 27, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

We have all heard the saying, “prayer changes things.” If you google “prayer changes things,” you can download posters, and pictures and blogposts about how an active prayer life changes “things.” Because that’s what we want, isn’t it? For our petitions, requests and pleas to God to change things out there--around us—difficult situations, obstinate, misguided people, and certainly war-torn countries like Ukraine; we want God to solve our problems, to give us the answer, and to effect the outcomes we desire.

The issue, if this is our only view of prayer, is that it treats God like a holy vending machine: if we deposit enough requests, adequate petitions, with enough faith and the right attitude, God will dispense the goodies. A colleague of mine who worked on a college campus had a student come into her office crying over the death of her father to cancer. She said she prayed and prayed for God to heal her dad and it did not work. Her Christian friends told her she did not have enough faith. While offering prayer petitions is an important part of our prayer life, we can clearly see the limits of having only a limited vending machine model for prayer.

In the story of the Transfiguration, we see a completely different view of what happens in prayer. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain to pray. Jesus does this repeatedly in his ministry—often going off alone to pray. If prayer for Jesus was simply asking God for outcomes, you would think that at the top of his list would be that his disciples would start to understand his mission and purpose! That they would start to get it! And that they would be able to stay awake during prayer! But if these were part of Jesus’ prayers, God does not seem to pay them any heed, nor answer them in the least.

Instead, Jesus goes to a quiet place on the mountaintop where there are no distractions so he can commune with God, become one with God, experience unity, strength, and divine love in the embrace of God. And “while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

Jesus’ prayers don’t fundamentally change God. Jesus’ prayer changes him. Prayer changes Jesus. Prayer transforms Jesus into his fully resurrected glory. Then Moses and Elijah, in their resurrected glory appear with him, reassuring him, strengthening him, embracing him—giving him all he needs to walk down the mountain and toward the cross. Moses and Elijah’s appearance conveys a message that Jesus can trust God to get him through his departure into death and back into this glorious state because God was faithful to Moses and to Elijah and the entire witness of the Scripture they represent.

Jesus shows us that prayer is not about what we are doing for God, but rather, it is fundamentally about what God is doing for us—God is giving us the divine self in love, in strength, in glory, in whatever it is we need for the present moment. Prayer is much more than simply making petitions to God. Yes, make your requests and needs known to God—ask for the desires of your heart, the changes you seek, your prayers for the sick, and certainly, please pray for a change in Putin’s heart and for the people of Ukraine, for petitions for peace, but just do not stop there. Prayer is also to remain. Remain, in silence, and wait; wait for God to love you, stay for God to change you, and shape for your divine purpose.

For prayer is not designed to change “things” out there—prayer changes us. Prayer is about what God wants to do in us and through us, and making ourselves available for God to do this work.

We all have times or season when we avoid prayer—maybe we are afraid to say the wrong thing, maybe we do not know what to say—now you know that’s it’s not about what you do, so I hope you are relieved of that fear! Or maybe we do not want to face the ways in which God will change us if we give God the chance. Maybe we want to act like Peter and build a dwelling where we are, so we can stay exactly the same, and never have to engage in the parts of ourselves we do not want to look at or give up. Then we do not have to figure out how to bring the glory of the immanently loving God to this messy and violent world.

I get it. I have avoided prayer myself at times. But then I notice again how lousy I am on my own. How anxious. How controlling. How much I want to live by my own agenda.

And I remember, that is the very reason Jesus went frequently to commune with God. Because prayer and communing with God opens him to the Holy Spirit, which enables every powerful act of Jesus in the world –from his Baptism, to healings, to the calling of the 12 disciples, to enduring the temptations, to speaking the truth. Jesus receives the strength and Holy Spirit that takes him through the cross, to conquer death and back to life again. It all comes out of what God does for him prayer—it comes from showing up for God to love him, strengthen him, empower him, fill him with the radiant light of grace.

Carmelite nun Ruth Barrows describes meditative prayer that allows God to change us in this way:

What is the core, the central message of the revelation of Jesus? Surely it is of the unconditional love of God for us, for each one of us: God, the unutterable, incomprehensible Mystery, the Reality of all reality, the Life of all life. And this means that divine Love desires to communicate Its Holy Self to us. Nothing less! This is God’s irrevocable will and purpose; it is the reason why everything that is, is, and why each of us exists. We are here to receive this ineffable, all-transforming, all beatifying Love.Jesus invites us into this kind of all-transforming, all-beautifying Love that he experienced with God in prayer—so we can become vehicles of his radiant light in the world. Filled with the power of his Holy Spirit, the luminous love of God radiates from our hearts so that others might experience the transcendent, loving presence of the reality of God.*

And how much does our world need this love now. Our world needs the message that Jesus has defeated death itself, not just the current death-dealing powers that be. In the face of war, of increasing anxiety, drug use, accidents, burn-out, insomnia, and other symptoms of pandemic trauma, people you encounter on a daily basis—whether friends, family, acquaintances, or strangers at the store—will receive hope and salve to the soul because of your light, your luminous presence when you are transfigured by God’s love in prayer.

Mother Theresa said: “I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us, and we change things.”

So, try five minutes of quiet a day with God this Lent. And if you already do that, expand it to ten minutes. Allow yourselves to be loved by Love, so you can be changed by prayer, transfigured by beautifying love, transformed by God’s glory into a radiant light!

*See Fr. Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation for Feb. 14, 2022 from the Center for Action and Contemplation or Essence of Prayer by Ruth Barrows (Mahwah, NJ: HiddenSpring, 2006).

Image Copyright. Anonymous. Transfiguration, from , a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

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Blessing For the Most People Possible

Mafa015 mediumMessage for Epiphany 7 on Luke 6:27-38 given on Feb. 20, 2022 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I have shared before that in seminary in my twenties, I spent five months studying at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. One weekend, a local student named Phillip invited another seminary student, Todd and I to visit his grandmother in his hometown of Mutoko about 150 kilometers away in the Eastern highlands. Phillip had few resources, so Todd and I rented a little 4-seater car that Phillip drove. The trip was going to take about 2 ½ hours depending on road conditions. We drove out of town and as we chatted away, Phillip saw two people walking on the side of the road. He stopped and talked with them, and they got in the back seat with me.

I had the back seat to myself —a back seat I had paid for—and now I was crowded. We headed off again. A little further down the road, Phillip stopped again, and he picked up two more people. Todd now had a woman on his lap in the front seat, and I had someone half on my lap, half on the person squished next to me. Jammed up against the door handle with the window crank in my ribs, I put my face out the window to get a little air. I was so uncomfortable and started to get mad. Todd and I had paid for this car—it was our money; it was our car, even though Phillip was driving. This was our trip, and essentially, and it was our right to determine how uncomfortable and inconvenienced we were willing to be when spending our money.  And we were being nice! Phillip would never have gotten home if it were not for us.

Fifteen minutes later, Phillip stopped the car again, and picked one more person to make 5 in the back and 3 in the front in a car built for 4 people. I was mad!

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus continues his sermon on the level plain—he came down to a level place so that everyone would know that they are equal in the kingdom of God. Now he gives a little more detail about what living in God’s kingdom is really like if we are still listening!

• Love your enemies,
• bless those who curse you,
• Give to everyone who begs from you;
• Do to others as you would have them do to you.
• lend, expecting nothing in return.
• Be merciful,
• Do not judge or condemn
• Forgive and give

Jesus reveals a society where everyone trusts ultimately and only in God’s goodness as the pinnacle of our life, our relationships, and even our social networks. Jesus wants all people to experience blessing, and for us to be the vehicles of God’s goodness—not based on how other people treat us, but rather based solely on how God treats us—on God’s unlimited love and mercy for us.

It's hard to imagine isn’t it?

• Never letting someone make you mad,
• never giving into vengeance,
• never expecting someone to return a favor,
• never wanting them to give back what they borrowed,
• not hating the person who has done you wrong,
• not resenting being completely squished in the backseat of a car that you’ve paid for without even being asked

Instead, Jesus invites us to be so singularly rooted in God’s over-powering, out-pouring, over-flowing love and mercy and grace, that all of those negative thoughts and feelings fade away; love and forgiveness and generosity come pouring out instead.

Jesus not only did this throughout his whole ministry, but he also behaved this way from the cross:

• seeking mercy for the soldiers who executed him he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
• offering salvation for the criminal who hung next to him, he said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus died blessing people.

Jesus rose again so that we might join him and live out his mission of blessing people. Through his resurrection we are filled with his Holy Spirit, so that through him, we might have moments and ministries when we love as God loves, when we offer mercy as God offers mercy, when we give generously as God gives generously. None of us do it perfectly all the time, but through the gift of Jesus Christ flowing through us, we can offer God’s love and mercy and generosity more often than we know.

When we arrived on that car trip to Mutoko, Zimbabwe, we were like clowns pouring out of a Volkswagen. We all stretched and worked out the kinks. I was so relieved to get out of the car and take a deep breath. I was still trying make sense about what had happened in my car that I had rented. Then I looked at the faces of the 5 people we had picked up. They had such huge smiles on their faces! They were so grateful, and so, so happy. They were shaking hands with Phillip and each other, and laughing—they were so excited and so relieved—they had made it home! They could spend more time with their families whom they had come to visit. We had driven nearly 100 miles—it would have taken them 3 days to walk the whole way.

If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again…. Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It was a humbling lesson.

Before we headed to his home, Phillip took us on a hike through the foothills off the road just to look around. We came upon a hut with a thatched roof, and an elderly woman came out to greet us. She was very thin, wore a white wrap around her head. Her old shirt and skirt were threadbare. She gave us the traditional greeting by clapping her hands in welcome, she bowed down and offered us water. We sat with her outside her home and after bringing water, she knelt before Phillip and asked him if we would be staying for dinner, or if we would need to stay for the night. She had no idea who we were and yet she was ready to offer what little food she had, and her home as shelter from the wild animals at nightfall. Phillip thanked her for her hospitality and let her know we would be moving on to his family’s home.

Give to everyone who begs from you; Do to others as you would have them do to you.

We were even more humbled by her generosity and hospitality.

When we did arrive at Phillip’s grandmother’s house, she had been grinding by hand a delicious stew of squash and peanuts which we at for dinner.

Life for Phillip, for his family, for the woman in the hut, and for most of the people we met on our trip, was not about acquiring ownership, and anxiously hanging on to it –it all was a gift from God to be shared. Life was about using whatever resources they had at their disposal to bring benefit and blessing to the most people possible.

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

On Sunday when we drove back to Harare guess what we did on the way home? We invited people to get in the car! We had a resource to share—and we found out on that trip, that it was not a car for 4, it was a car for 8! It was a beautiful way to learn that I do not own anything, only God does. And when I share what God has given me generously, it gives God a chance to give me more to share.

One of our members with whom I have spoken a lot about giving and this campaign said to me that whenever he gives generously God, God always gives back what he gave, and more! He looks at his accounts and the money has grown again to more than it was before! I call that a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap, for the measure you give, will be the measure you get back.

That’s what we celebrate today as we bring forward our pledges and prayers for our Moving Forward in Faith Campaign—that God is generous to us and through us, and because Jesus’ Spirit dwells in us, we can share generously with God’s mission as we look to the future. We all have something to offer the mission of Jesus Christ at St. Luke’s.

On a dusty African road, I learned that all that we have is a gift from God to be shared to bring benefit and blessing to the most people possible. And that’s what we do in this church where Spirits Come alive! So let’s join together in believing the foundation of Jesus Christ, belonging in unity for mission and growth, building God’s vision for our future! 

Image Attribution: JESUS MAFA, Cameroon. The Sermon on the Mount, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48284 [retrieved February 21, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

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

 

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