The Power of Our Thoughts and Beliefs

The Power of Your Thoughts and BeliefsMessage for Epiphany 6 on Matthew 5:21-37 and Deuteronomy 30:15-20 given on February 16, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

A version of this sermon was first posted on this site on Febraury 13, 2017

I stayed home with my children for nine years while they were small and ran a home business with Mary Kay Cosmetics as a sales consultant and later, as a Sales Director. No, I never drove a pink car, but I did drive a free red Grand Am for several years. In addition to training us on the details of good skin care, make up application, a large part of the training involved how to think: how our mindset affects our behavior, how our attitude affects our outcomes. We were encouraged to get rid of “stinkin’ thinkin’,” and to start each day with a “check-up from the neck-up” by repeating positive affirmations.

I have never been one for platitudes because, especially as a person of faith, I find life to be full of paradox, irony, mystery, complex emotions and unexpected experiences, but over time, I began to appreciate some of the wisdom these teachings contained. My favorite phrase of how our mindset affects our behavior is, “you bring about what you think about.” I tried to teach my children that “you bring about what you think about,” but they were skeptical at first as well. That is, until one day, when my parents were visiting us when we lived in St. Louis.

The bushes in the yard really needed to be trimmed, so my dad thought he would get out the hedge trimmer and give us a hand with the yard work. But before he went outside, he regaled us with the humorous tale from several years beforehand when he was out trimming the hedges. He wasn’t paying close enough attention and the power cord got caught in the hedge trimmer and sliced it in two.

We had a good laugh, and out he went to trim the hedge. About fifteen minutes later, he came back in the house—guess what happened?! Yup, he cut the power cord with the hedge trimmer, because “you bring about, what you think about!”

Thoughts and beliefs, like emotions, are a form of energy—energy that produces behavior and outcomes in the physical world.

You bring about what you think about. This is a simplified summary of some of what Jesus is talking about in this part of Sermon on the Mount. What we think about matters. Our inner life is important because it manifests itself in our behavior whether we intend it to or not.

To justify judgmental thoughts and bad behavior, you have probably heard people say, as I have, “well, at least I haven’t killed anybody,” as if this were the standard of decent behavior. Jesus stops this up short by saying that we have completely missed the purpose of the Law, which is not just to restrict a few choice bad behaviors, but rather, to preserve the well-being of the whole community, all of humanity. Such community well-being begins in our mind with our thoughts, attitudes, and our beliefs.

Have you not had the experience when you are mad at someone, and you keep thinking about it and thinking about it, it gets bigger and bigger—and you get more angry, not less. What we focus on, what we pay attention to, what we feed—what we think about gets bigger. That kind of anger affects all our relationships. We feel mad at someone at work but make a sniping remark to our spouse or kid when we get home. It always comes out, somehow, does it not? Because we bring about what we think about.

Jesus’ sermon points us to the intention of the Law which is so clearly described in Deuteronomy: to help us choose life. “Be reconciled to your brother or sister and then bring your offering to the Lord”—that’s what it means to not murder. None of us can say, “well, at least I haven’t killed anybody”—yeah, we have—we have damaged relationships and hurt the well-being of our community when our negative or destructive thoughts come out in our words and our behavior, even when we did not intend it to.

The same depth of understanding applies to the other 10 Commandments. Jesus highlights, thou shall not commit adultery. When we look at another person with lust, we commit adultery. When our thoughts are focused on our own desires, we think of the other person like an object. And when we think of someone like an object, we treat them instrumentally—for our own gain—rather than as one who bears the image of God. Thoughts lead to behavior. Witness the #Metoo movement. We must make a conscious effort at this in our culture because “sex sells”—the objectification of especially women in advertising everything from cars to cowboy boots makes lust a profitable marketing strategy.

It is also because of negative cultural attitudes towards women that Jesus expands his teaching on adultery to include divorce. As you know, in ancient times, women were considered property which was passed from the father to the husband in marriage. Men were within their rights to issue a certificate of divorce for frivolous reasons, including if his wife burned the bread. If there was not a male relative to take in a divorced woman, she would be left destitute. Patriarchal thoughts and beliefs were definitely having unjust, real-world consequences in the lives of women.

By elevating divorce to breaking the sixth Commandment against adultery Jesus dismantles the patriarchal power structure and pushes the male-dominated culture to re-think attitudes toward women in order change male behavior toward them. “Choose life,” says Jesus, life for the whole community, including women.

Does this mean that there’s no such thing as a life-giving divorce? Of course, not. I know many people who are better off for ending an unhealthy relationship. Jesus’ wants our attitude toward our spouse and others, to bring about respect, honor, and well-being for everyone involved.

The same is true in our work against anti-racism. Ask any black or brown-skinned person you know how many times in the last year they have been followed in a store, or someone has moved their purse when they have sat down, or refused to look them in the eye and shake their hand. Beliefs and attitudes come out in behavior—white people may not see it, but we have to learn about this and understand it in our work against racism.

In a poem called, “clothesline,” Marilyn Maciel beautifully describes the importance of our thoughts:

if words could be seen
as they floated out
of our mouths
would we feel no
shame
as they passed beyond
our lips?
if we were to string
our words
on a communal clothesline
would we feel proud
as our thoughts
flapped in the
breeze?

So, does Jesus then, leave us with the tall order of thinking perfect thoughts that lead to flawless behavior? Is he preaching the expectation of not only works-righteousness, but thought-righteousness? An unattainable goal that none of us can meet in this life?

I don’t think so, because he adds this admonition in the middle of our passage:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

It doesn’t sound like grace, but I think it is: grace in the form of hyperbole and exaggeration. If we all poke out our eyes for engaging in impure, damaging thoughts, and if we all cut off our hands for doing something we should not have done, every last one of us would be blind and without hands. In other words, none of us can do this on our own. We will all flunk. Some days, I flunk before I have even gotten out of bed in the morning.

So, while our thoughts and our behaviors do matter to God, Jesus knows we cannot do it alone and we are not going to get it right all the time. Which is he why he came to be like us in human form. Jesus came to be not only the salvation of our souls, but also the source of our strength, the forgiveness for our sins, and the model for how we are to think and behave. The Apostle Paul in Philippians says is this way: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Step 11 of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous says, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.” Through our own prayer and meditation, we can daily open ourselves to conscious contact with God to receive God’s will for us and the ability to behave that way in our daily life.

This is what Paul meant in Romans when he said, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed through the renewing of your minds.” Since what we focus on, what we pay attention to, what we feed—what we think about gets bigger, we want to feed our mind with faith, with prayer, with love, with Scripture. During out Midweek Lenten services, we will practice different types of contemplative prayer to help each of us “increase our conscious contact with God.” Fr. Richard Rohr calls contemplative prayer “divine therapy” when God can changes us from the inside.

Knowledge and ability, thoughts and behaviors. Jesus is our source for both those of things, and our forgiveness when we fall short. But as we are transformed through the renewing of our minds in Christ, we can bring about what God thinks about. That’s what it means for us to be the church together—to be the kingdom of God--to bring about what God thinks about!

 

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Salt and Light

Salt and LightMessage for Epiphany 5 on Matthew 5:13-20 given on February 9, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

At Christmas time our favorite thing to eat after the Christmas Eve worship is Swedish Gravlax. It’s fresh, salt-cured salmon that my husband, Dan makes 48 hours before chow time. He takes 2 slabs of sushi-grade salmon and pours a full ¼ cup of sea salt on it, along with fresh dill and sugar and pepper. Then he presses the slabs together and puts a weight on it and every day he has turn it over, so the salt cures each half of salmon.

After church on Christmas Eve, he fills a plate with thin slices of the salmon. You take a piece rye bread, called Rubeschlager, spread on some mustard dill sauce, add some chopped white onion, put on your slice of gravlax and yum! You can’t believe how good it is. Then you swallow it down with Swedish Absolut Citroen, which is lemon vodka.
My dad raises his glass and says, “skal fer dagen” –“cheers to the day” and wow!—it’s a celebration that Jesus is born, and we are together, and life is very good.

And it’s all possible because of salt.

“You are the salt of the earth,” says Jesus. Does he just mean that his followers are simply the “Mrs. Dash” of creation—adding flavor to the good stuff God has made, but are not really essential to it? Today we think of salt mostly as flavoring—something for our popcorn and our French fries, but as our Gravlax tradition reminds us every year—salt meant so much more to the Swedes who first buried salted salmon in the sand, and also to Jesus’ first hearers.

Salt cures meat. And although we keep our Gravlax in the frig, in the ancient world, salt was the only food preservative they had—without salt, food would rot quickly and could not be saved or stored for leaner times. No one could travel very far without salt, because food would not last.

Historical records show salt was one of the first commodities traded. Salt represented power because explorers couldn’t set off for new lands without provisions of food, and armies could not advance without preserved food supplies. The expression that you must be “worth your salt”—that is, that you need to be deserving of the salary you are paid, comes from ancient Rome where soldiers were paid in salt. In fact, the word for “salary” comes from the Latin word, “salarium” which referred to a soldier’s allowance to purchase salt. The human body cannot function without salt—our muscles will not work, including our heart, without salt; our nerves cannot transmit electricity without salt.

The same is true for light—"you are the light of the light of the world,” says Jesus. Light is also essential for life—for photosynthesis and growth, for providing food and for warming up the planet so it is not an icy rock. Light is essential for living and working, for seeing clearly, for being productive, for us to see the path ahead. Without the sun, without light, life is not possible.

So when Jesus looks at his followers—not just the disciples, but the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, the persecuted, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake—all those Jesus just called “blessed” in the beatitudes—when he calls all of his followers the “salt of the earth” he is saying—you are essential to life, you preserve life, you enhance life, you enable life to grow—you are necessary for the life God desires for all of us.

Do you ever feel that way in your daily life? To your family? To your friends? To the people you encounter on a daily basis—be they work colleagues or neighbors or acquaintances, or the checkout person at the grocery store—do you feel that who you are and how you are and that you are there is necessary and essential to the life God wants for them?

Do you know deep down that for God, you are necessary for life?—Not because you are providing the paycheck or fixing the meals or any of the other dozens of things we do to keep a house and family going—but because of who you are? You are necessary for life because of your identity in Christ, your presence, your love, your forgiveness, your willingness to be forgiven, your help and your willingness to be helped, your existence as a child of God, because you are a dwelling place of God, and a vessel of the light of Christ?

“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.” It’s a statement of fact—it’s not up for debate, it’s not dependent on our feelings, our level of success, whether we deserve it, feel worthy, or say and do everything wrong or everything right today. You are the salt of the earth—it doesn’t matter if you feel more like a parsley flake. You are the light of the world—it doesn’t matter if feel more like a little black raincloud. God has made you to be salt and light. That is who you are. You cannot change that.

Salt itself (sodium chloride) is extremely stable and cannot lose its flavor—we can dilute it and mix it with other stuff or even try to dissolve it—but it does not change how God made us and who God calls us to be. We can hide our light under a bushel basket, but it does not change that we are still the bearers of Jesus’ love and light in the world.
The problem with denying who we are and minimizing our role as kingdom builders, is that we give a pass for negative forces and evil to take over. Jesus hearers knew that no one puts a basket over a lamp with a flame unless they want to burn the house down. No one dilutes the salt with other substances, or the food rots and people starve.

Jesus is saying, “I need you, or ‘a’ll, y’all’ as we say in Texas, to be the salt and the light so that the kingdom values have more power and more presence in the world than evil does. You are the light-bringers, you are the life-preservers, you are the earthly vessels I have made and called to bring love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and faithfulness alive today—I am doing this through you!”

So, be who you are. God is using you in your daily life, so ask God in the morning to remind you of who you are and to help you be an available vehicle to preserve, enhance and enlighten someone else’s life for the kingdom. Accept who God made you to be and who Jesus sees you to be. When we accept that God calls us to be bearers of Christ’s love, bringing life and hope in every situation, every day, we also open ourselves to experiencing how God uses others to be salt and light for us. Kate gave a beautiful description of what she has learned from refugees—how they are salt and light for her teaching kindness, humility, gratitude and generosity.

During the Civil Rights movement, before a new march would start, the people—men and women, young and old—would gather in the churches. They would gather there not to gain strength but to be reminded of who they were. The fire house could not dilute their salt, the vicious dogs could not diminish their light. And even though they were scared, they poured out of those churches and singing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine...”

 

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Deepening Our Close Relationships

Deepening Our Close RelationshipsFor Valentine's Day! Deepening Our Close Relationships! Published in the February, 2020 Reporter newsletter of St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

February offers a good month to talk about how to deepen our relationships with the ones we love. Whether it’s with our intimate partner, our adult children, our best friend, or someone we would like to know better, it’s often hard to know how to talk about things that matter.

When Dan and I made the decision for me to stop working full-time and stay home while our children were small, we knew it would be a big change in our marriage, but we were not sure what would change or how. Daniel was three, Jacob and was one and Leah was just a twinkle in our eye when I resigned from my call in Kansas City. I had been ordained and serving congregations for eight years and we had already been married for seven. 

In order to navigate this big change and talk about the issues as they arose, we decided to seek the help of marriage counselor. After we talked about our life, relationship and family in our first session, the counselor looked at us and said, “Well, you are good work consultants.” It was a kind way of saying that we were lousy at emotional intimacy. Ouch. 

He gave us a question to ask each other regularly to remain more emotionally connected and sharing about things the mattered. He talked about how tempting it is at the end of the day to talk with our spouse or friends about the details of our life—what we did at work, who we talked to, where we went for lunch and what we ate. It seems like we are sharing ourselves, but these details really have nothing to do with who we are on the inside, how we feel or think, or what’s happening in and around us. 

So here it is, the magic question that has changed our marital conversation and the question we still ask each other 22 years later: “What is the impact of _____ on you?” For example: "What is the impact of that meeting on you and your work? What is the effect of our kid’s behavior (or choices, changes, growing up, getting taller than you, looking for colleges) on you? How is your parent’s visit impacting you? What is the impact of your dad’s illness on how you feel about yourself?" 

These kinds of questions help us reflect on our how daily experiences are changing us on the inside, and how those we love are changing and growing as well. Without these conversations, many married couples, best friends, siblings, parents and children arrive at a new stage of life, (like the empty nest or post-college relationships) and no longer know their spouse, child, or best friend like they used to or like they thought they did. 

This month we celebrate love—but what we really want to focus on is emotional intimacy if we want that love to last a lifetime. So try asking about the impact of events, changes, meetings, illnesses, and so on, to experience growth in emotional connection with those you love!

 

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What The Lord Requires

What The Lord RequiresMessage for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany on Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12 given on February 2, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

When I was in late elementary school, I remember going through a time when I cried myself to sleep at night because I could not say the Lord’s Prayer perfectly. I had picture in my mind that went with each phrase of the prayer, and I would try as hard as I could to imagine each image as I said every petition of the prayer with no break in concentration and no distracting thoughts. Every time I got distracted or the pictures in my mind did not flow smoothly from one to the next, I would feel like a failure and start over and try again. I never did pray it perfectly.

It’s so easy to reduce our faith to trying to please a God who seeks perfection, unreasonable devotion, and only offers us a moral code of “Do’s and Don’ts.” God has a case against the people of Israel according to the prophet Micah and they too, assume God is looking for perfection. A perfect sacrifice, just the right kind of worship, the perfect prayers and rituals to appease and please God:

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

How great and perfect does my offering and worship have to be? Micah describes a covenant lawsuit and calls the mountains and the foundation of the earth to witness the testimony. God asks, Why are you making me the bad guy? How have I worn you out with my demands? Let’s review what I have done for you—I liberated you from slavery in Egypt, I sent you brilliant leaders to help you through the wilderness, and I led you to the promised land. You were protected crossing over the Jordan—from Shittim in Moab to Gilgal near Jericho—and when the Moabite king planned to curse you, you were blessed instead. You can hear God saying, “and the problem is…?”

It’s almost like a parent having a rant at a kid who feels put upon: “I put a roof over your head, I feed you, do your laundry, drive you everywhere and pay for all of your activities, so please, put your phone away at the dinner table, and stop texting or playing video games when I am talking with you!”

Just like any other loving parent, God’s not asking for perfection—God asks for a relationship. God asks for conversation, for attention that arises from intention about what matters. What matters is not being perfect, not getting it all right, not worshipping in just the right way, not praying perfectly, not bringing the biggest offering, not being a flawless teen or adult—but rather a relationship with God is what matters most.

God liberated Israel from slavery to have a relationship with them, as individuals and as a nation. And when God’s people put relationship with God first, then all other relationships, and all of life fall into place after that. That’s why the first 3 Commandments of the 10 Commandments have to do with our relationship with God, (You shall have no other Gods before Me, Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy). Because when we give our first relationship with God focus—all other relationships follow, so the next 7 commandments are about our relationships with others: don’t steal, lie, cheat, murder, covet and so on.

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

This isn’t a checklist that we can mark off at the end of the day. God wants a no-holds barred whole-soul, give him everything you’ve got, full-person relationship. God simply wants you—all of you.

To walk humbly with God is to live with an intentional relationship with God every single day—through prayer, through daily conversation—both speaking and quiet time to listen. People ask me how much time they should spend in prayer—but the issue with putting a time frame on it, is then we are back to counting and perfectionism. In order to give your relationship with God greater attention with intention, and you are like the teenager with laptop on and a cell phone in your hand, what do you think you need to do? Think about your best human relationship—how much time do you spend in daily conversation? I have never known a good marriage where someone said, “I talk to my spouse ten minutes a day, give them a gift twice a year, and we’re good!” During our midweek Lenten worship on Wednesdays, we will practice different types of prayer that open us up to grace and deepens our relationship with God.

The prophet then shows us that justice and loving kindness flow from our relationship with God. Micah pushes us away from the bean-counting faith of childhood that attempts perfect prayers and offerings, and opens us into a vision of communal wholeness that arises from receiving God’s liberating love that frees all who are oppressed—whether from systemic injustice or the prison of our own hearts and minds. A life that lives for justice, advocates for the immigrant, the widow and the orphan, and extends kindness to everyone regardless of who they are—comes from a heart that is rooted, connected, allied, and defined by a relationship with God.

Jesus embodies this same theme in his Sermon on the Mount. It’s a very jarring message. He lifts up the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted and the pure in heart as the ones receiving the blessings and fullness of the reign of God. Those who are down and out, suffering at the margins, on the bottom side of the social power balance are not only blessed, they are “enviable!” We are to admire and emulate and want to be like them. Why? Because they are so close in their relationship with God.

All the false notions of self-sufficiency and control and power and winning and being in charge have been stripped away. They cannot pretend any longer that they don’t need God, that a relationship with God doesn’t matter. The meek, the mourning, the persecuted, the poor in spirit know—they know the only way they will make it through today and on to tomorrow is because of their relationship with God. It’s so deep and rich, you can see it on their face even when they are suffering.

There is no illusion about from where their strength comes—it only comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. Their source of strength and peace is something to envy, admire, and seek after, calling us to spend time in whole-soul relationship with God making ourselves available for a relationship that transforms us from the inside out—that’s what it is to walk humbly, with intention, in a relationship with God on a daily basis.

Jesus’s vision for the kingdom echoes Micah’s. For when our life is defined and ordered according to our relationship with God and not according to the world’s values, then it becomes easier for us to live in the alternate vision of communal wholeness that arises from receiving God’s liberating love in Jesus Christ that frees all who are enslaved to sin. Then the Beatitudes become not just about who has a blessed relationship with God, but how Jesus calls us to live as disciples who are defined by the one true God who sent his Son to save and redeem us and the whole creation that witnesses our testimony.

God calls us forth from our deep relationship that defines and sustains us to be the peacemakers, to work for justice and righteousness for those who are oppressed, to comfort those who mourn, to stand with meek, to do the work of anti-racism in ourselves, in our church and in our society, and to be persecuted for the sake of doing right by those who are at the bottom. We do this work by building relationships the way God has done with us!

Rather than a burden or something we fear, living to make God’s kingdom a reality here on earth becomes exciting and energizing and hopeful because we are fed by a constant stream of steadfast love and forgiveness that flows from the cross of Christ to our very soul. And we know that when we are in the most need, the most pressed down, the most challenged, the most meek and poorest in spirit—that’s exactly where God does her best work by making us the most blessed, enviable people who bear God’s love in the world.

What does the Lord require of you? Not perfection, not the best or the biggest offering, just yourself—your whole self. The only perfect way to pray is to show up. God shows up for us every time and blesses us to show up for others so that the kingdom might be realized here and now.

 

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Quotation of the Week

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

 

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