Click HERE to watch a videos of Zion sermons.
Tuesday, January 31 2017
Mitch, a man who lived a very scheduled and structured life normally, loved to sneak away to the racetrack for some excitement.
On occasion he did moderately well, but it was usually a losing proposition. One day he was there, betting on the horses and losing his money as usual, when he noticed a Catholic priest, attired in the traditional garb, step out onto the track and bless the forehead of one of the horses lining up for the 4th race. Lo and behold, this horse -- a very long shot -- won the race.
Mitch was most interested to see what the priest did the next race.
Sure enough, he watched the priest step out onto the track as the horses for the fifth race lined up, and placed a blessing on the forehead of one of the horses. Mitch made a beeline for the window and placed a small bet on the horse. Again, even though it was another long shot, the horse the priest had blessed won the race.
Mitch collected his winnings and anxiously waited to see which horse the priest bestowed his blessing on for the 6th race.
The priest showed up, blessed a horse. Mitch bet on it, and it won! He was elated!
As the day went on, the priest continued blessing one horse in each of the races, and it always came in first. Mitch began to pull in some serious money, and by the last race, he knew his wildest dreams were going to come true. He made a quick stop at the ATM, withdrew all of his money from his savings account and awaited the priest's blessing that would tell him which horse to bet all his money on.
True to his pattern, the priest stepped out onto the track before the last race and blessed the forehead, eyes, ears and hooves of one of the horses.
Mitch bet every last cent he had, from his winnings and his savings account money. He watched the race with an inhuman interest, screaming and yelling, only to see the horse he had bet everything on come in dead last.
Mitch was dumbfounded. He made his way to the track and when he found the priest, he demanded, "Father, what happened? I've watched you all day. All day you blessed horses and they won. That last race, you blessed a horse--and he lost. Now I've lost all my savings, and today's winnings, thanks to you!!"
The priest nodded wisely and said, "Well, my son, that’s because you didn’t see the difference between the two blessings. The blessing I used on all the other horses was a usual blessing. The blessing I used on that last horse—that was the Last Rites."
So always remember—when blessing someone, it’s important to know which blessing you’re using!
Today, our Bible reading from the Gospel of Matthew talks about blessings. In fact, it has a list going, of all different types of people who are blessed.
We call this section of the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. It’s called that, because in these three chapters, Jesus goes up a mountain and has an extended time of teaching his disciples and the crowds of people who have shown up to hear him speak. Jesus talks about many different topics while teaching on the mountain, and some of his teachings really challenge us about how to live our lives the way God wants us to live.
And I’ve always been struck by the fact that this is how Jesus starts his Sermon on the Mount. I mean, this is an EPIC sermon. It’s three chapters long, 110 verses all together. It’s much longer than my sermon today (although, if the Holy Spirit gets me on a roll, who knows!).
And Jesus could have started the sermon with something really impressive, to get peoples’ attention and keep it. He could have talked about how he is the Son of God, how he has the ability to do amazing things like heal people and cast out demons. He could have started the sermon with a dramatic healing or delivering someone from demons—that would have REALLY gotten the crowd to pay attention and stick around! As God in human form, he could have started this sermon in a million other ways that would have been a million times more impressive.
But rather than impressing the crowd, Jesus starts his epic sermon on the mountain—with blessings. And not only blessings, but blessings for people who don’t usually feel very blessed. Those who are poor in spirit. Those who mourn. Those are meek. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Those who work for peace. Those who are persecuted and reviled and falsely accused. Rather than starting with a flashy first act, Jesus says those who are dealing with difficult things in life, those who are down and out and struggling and oppressed—they are blessed. He starts his sermon with blessings for the people who truly need it.
We call these blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount “The Beatitudes.” And that word, beatitude, comes from the Latin “beatus,” which means “blessed.” So Jesus starts his sermon with The Beatitudes, because first and foremost, he wants to tell people that even when life is difficult and they are working hard to live out their faith, maybe even especially when life is difficult and they are working hard to live out their faith—they are blessed. We are blessed.
This is a message of good news from Jesus, for his original hearers on the mountain, and for us. Blessed are you who are poor in spirit—yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who mourn—you will be comforted. And the list keeps going. God specifically blesses you and others when you and other people are dealing with rough stuff and struggling to live as a child of God. Jesus said so!
But some people hear these Beatitudes differently. I have a colleague who one time asked me about the Beatitudes. He asked me if, when I heard this list of people blessed by God, if I heard Law or Gospel.
Law and Gospel is a Lutheran thing—Martin Luther, the guy who founded our denomination by accident, talked about it a lot. If you had to guess, what do you think Law is…? Yeah, it’s the same idea in society. Law is what we should do, the rules we should live by. What happens when we break a law? There’s punishment involved. So the Law are those things that God tells us to do, that we should do. Anyone know an example…? The 10 Commandments is a great example. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. Just to name a few.
And anyone want to take a stab at what Gospel is…? It’s the good news, it’s all the good stuff that comes from God, the stuff God promises to us, no strings attached. I should mention that when we say the Gospel of Matthew, we mean the book of Matthew—but we are literally saying “the Good News according to Matthew” when we say “The Gospel of Matthew” because the word Gospel literally means “good news.” People sometimes use the words grace and Gospel interchangeably. It’s love, forgiveness, mercy, peace, salvation—all given freely by to God to us as a gift.
So here’s the thing. We need both Law and Gospel. If we had only Law and no Gospel, we would feel hopeless, because we would always fall short of the high standards God has for us. If we had only Gospel and no Law, then we wouldn’t even try to live the way God wants us to, because it doesn’t matter. So the Law actually shows us our shortcomings, shows us that we can’t do this ourselves. It actually shows us that we need…Jesus. We need that unconditional love and forgiveness because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross. When you listen to Lutheran sermons, and Lutheran teachings, and how Lutherans read the Bible, you will hear both Law and Gospel, because we need both. All of that make sense? It’s like my brother and me. He’s a lawyer. I’m a pastor. He’s Law. I’m Gospel! You need both of us!
So going back to my colleague’s question. When you hear the Beatitudes, do you hear Jesus saying Law, those things we have to do, or do you hear Gospel, the good news and promises of God?
My colleague asked me that question for a reason. It was because all he heard was Law. When he heard “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, he heard “You need to work to be poor in spirit, in order to get God’s blessing.” When he heard “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” he heard “You need to work for peace, so that you can be blessed as a child of God.” Do you see how that’s Law? He heard all of the things he had to do, to live as a follower of Jesus.
And when he said that, I was completely shocked. Because, before then, all I had heard in The Beatitudes was Gospel, the good news, which I’ve said earlier. I heard: “If you are poor in spirit, don’t worry. You are blessed and the kingdom of heaven is yours.” I heard: “If you are a peacemaker, don’t worry. You are blessed and you are called a child of God.” Where I had heard the good news and promises of God, he had heard mandates and rules. It was really fascinating.
As I read The Beatitudes now, I think the answer is both. The beatitudes are both Law AND Gospel. Jesus is saying, this is how you should live, and he’s saying you are blessed.
Because, in his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is teaching about what it means to be his disciple. And being a disciple, a follower of Jesus, means hungering and thirsting for justice. It means being merciful. It means loving people and mourning when they die. It means working for peace. It means doing things that we know we should do as Christians, even when they are unpopular, and dealing with people hating you and treating you badly because of it.
Those are things we are called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ. Those are the things we should do. But Jesus also says that while we do those things, we are blessed. We are comforted. We will inherit the earth. We are called children of God. We see God. We receive mercy. So we also hear in The Beatitudes the Gospel, God’s grace and love for us, while we live as disciples of Jesus.
Jesus is brilliant with his Beatitudes. That’s not super surprising, since he’s, you know, God. In the Beatitudes, Jesus shows us how to be disciples, what we should be doing as his followers, that’s Law. And Jesus also tells us that he is with us every step of the way, blessing us and showing us his love, that’s Gospel.
Being a disciple of Jesus is not easy. That’s Law. But we know that we are blessed and loved and called children of God as we follow Jesus. That’s Gospel. We need both of those. And we have both Law and Gospel in Jesus’ Beatitudes in the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount.
At age 16, Andor Foldes was already a skilled pianist, but he was experiencing a troubled year. In the midst of the young Hungarian’s personal struggles, one of the most renowned pianists of the day came to Budapest. Emil von Sauer was famous not only for his abilities; he was also the last surviving pupil of the great Franz Liszt. Von Sauer requested that Foldes play for him. Foldes obliged with some of the most difficult works of Bach, Beethoven, and Schumann. When he finished, von Sauer walked over to him and kissed him on the forehead. “My son,” he said, “when I was your age I became a student of Liszt. He kissed me on the forehead after my first lesson, saying, ‘Take good care of this kiss—it comes from Beethoven, who gave it to me after hearing me play. ‘I have waited for years to pass on this sacred heritage, but now I feel you deserve it.”
In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls us to be his disciples and work for justice, work for peace, work for mercy in our world. And as we work for those things, Jesus promises to love us, be with us, help us, and to bless us. Jesus walks over to us, kisses us on the forehead, blesses us, and says “I am passing on this sacred heritage. Live as my followers. Because of what I’ve done for you on the cross, you deserve it.” Amen?
Monday, January 23 2017
I know a guy named Brian. Before I knew him, Brian and his wife Maureen were Christian missionaries living in Africa. They had a thriving ministry that was doing amazing work with the surrounding villages. They were happy, content and cherished doing the Lord’s work by loving and caring for those around them. One day, Brian and Maureen were going about doing their normal business, when they both, at different times in the same day, get the feeling that God is calling them to move from Africa…to Oklahoma.
OKLAHOMA? FROM AFRICA? This wasn’t something they expected…nor was it an idea they understood or were particularly thrilled about. Neither one of them had ever been to Oklahoma before, they had no family there, and had absolutely nothing waiting for them…other than this feeling that they were supposed to be involved with a church called LifeChurch.
Never the less, Brian and Maureen listened to God, gave up their successful ministry and move to Oklahoma, with no friends, no family, and no contact with anybody at LifeChurch. To say that they were being incredibly obedient to God is an understatement. Brian and his wife moved into a house in Oklahoma and were greeted by their next door neighbors, who they later found out had recently moved to the area as well.
In conversation, the neighbors asked Brian why he and his wife moved to Oklahoma, and though they weren’t keen to give the real answer to someone they didn’t know and be labeled as the “crazy neighbors”, they mustered up the courage and told their neighbors that God had put on their hearts that they were supposed to move to Oklahoma and somehow be involved in LifeChurch.
As it turns out, God had been guiding not only the Brian and his wife, but their new neighbors as well …because in a city with a population of over six hundred thousand people, Brian just so happened to move in to the house next to Terry…a Pastor from LifeChurch. Brian started working for LifeChurch shortly thereafter, and is now the leader of the YouVersion Bible App, and my boss.
That kind of immediate obedience to God’s call can be incredibly scary…but a call from God is always worth answering.
Today, we heard about another story of Christians answering God’s call on their lives. In the gospel reading, Matthew tells the story of Jesus calling his first disciples while walking the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Let me read you a bit of the passage from the Message paraphrasing.
“Passing along the beach of Lake Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew net-fishing. Fishing was their regular work. Jesus said to them “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fishermen out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” They didn’t ask questions. They dropped their nets and followed.
A dozen yards or so down the beach, he saw the brothers James and John, Zebedee’s sons. They were in the boat, mending their fishnets. Right off, he made the same offer. Immediately, they left their father Zebedee, the boat, and the hired hands, and followed.”
I remember reading this Gospel passage when I wasn’t a Christian and reading the Bible for the first time, and wondering how on earth it could be true. No where in the Gospel of Matthew did it say that any of these people even knew who Jesus was or had seen or heard of him before. Was Jesus’ draw to people so amazing, that he didn’t have to say much of anything or demonstrate himself in any way, and people were still ready to stop what they were doing and change the direction of their lives to follow someone they didn’t know without even thinking about it for more than a second? I could more easily believe Jesus walking on water and turning water into wine than a bunch of fisherman giving up their livelihood… the only way to make a living that they likely knew, to follow Jesus without knowing a single thing about him.
Other Gospel writers, when talking about this event, give a little bit more detail, such as the disciples that Jesus called were actually disciples of John the Baptist, and that Jesus had conversations with at least one of them beforehand. While the exact details left a lot to be desired for my own reading and understanding of this event, the main point Matthew was trying to make is clear and undeniable. When God calls you, answer the call.
Some of you here may not have ever had an experience like the one my boss Brian had where God was calling you to go to a physical place so weird and so out there that it boggles your mind how God could even be asking that of you.
Maybe you’ve had an experience a little bit more like the one I had a few years ago. Becca and I were in Albany visiting her family. We were driving home from lunch with her grandparents through an economically struggling area, when I saw something that was very unusual to see…a woman sitting on the front steps with a sign, asking for something...food…money…I’m not sure, we drove by too quickly.
Now, I had seen people with signs like that many times in my life, as I grew up near New York City, and it’s pretty much impossible to walk through the streets of the City without seeing a person with a sign asking for help…but something about this woman on this stoop was unshakable, and I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I had this nagging feeling that I was supposed to help her in some way. I told myself that later, I would drive back to the area, find her on the stoop and just see what happens. The problem was…I didn’t do it…life got in the way.
Has something like that ever happened to you? You have that urge or inkling or feeling…and then you drop it or end up ignoring it? It’s easy to do...we live busy lives at an increasingly rapid pace, right? Here’s the thing though: humans have been doing that for thousands of years, and Jesus knew this. Jesus knew we have this temptation to fill our hours with things that aren’t necessarily helpful in advancing the Kingdom of God.
Jesus died on the cross for us…for our sins…for our short comings…for us not responding to God’s call in our lives. Because of his sacrificial death and resurrection, Jesus has redeemed us and claimed us as heirs to the Kingdom of God.
Ephesians 2:8-10 says this “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith…and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
I think about that verse from Ephesians and what happened to me a few years ago and I become sad. I’m not sad because I let God down or that I think God is disappointed in me and won’t forgive me in failing to respond to his call immediately. The Gospel has set us free from that mentality where we think we always have to be good enough for God and earn our way into heaven. We know that God is full of love and grace and compassion.
No, I’m sad about it to this day because I have no idea what amazing thing I missed out on by not heeding God’s call. Maybe I was supposed to be the light of the world to this woman and I didn’t. Maybe I was supposed to see Jesus in her and I missed an amazing opportunity.
Of course, God may not be calling you to go to somewhere unexpected or to do something specific that you hadn’t planned on in this exact moment in time. Even so, God is always calling on us to live out our faith in the ways Jesus taught us. Jesus is always calling on us to be thinking about how He is present in your everyday life. Jesus is always calling on us to share our faith in Him and what impact He has had on our lives. Jesus is always calling on us to be kind and compassionate to widows, to feed the hungry, take care of the sick, to clothe the needy and to visit the people in prisons. Jesus is always calling on us to be the light of the world and the city on a hill that cannot be hidden. Jesus is always calling on us to love God with all our hearts, minds and souls. Jesus is always calling on us to love everybody we come in contact and show them the same love that Jesus has shown you time and time again. Jesus is always calling on us to love and pray for the people for the people who annoy us, for our enemies and even the people who do us harm. Jesus is always calling on us to pick up our crosses and follow him into lives that aren’t always easy, but are infinitely more rewarding than lives lived without the power of the cross behind us with every step we take.
Regardless of where we are or what our circumstances may be, God is calling every single person here today us to something different and something better at this very moment.
Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, when God comes knocking, answer the door. Often times, we sit near the door in our comfy chair waiting, and waiting, and waiting for that knock to come. I’ve found that many times in my life, God knocking on the door hardly ever happens when I am wishing or expecting it to come. In fact, it sometimes comes at a time when I least wanted to hear the knock at all. The knock may not come when we wanted and the other side of the door may not even have WHAT we wanted for ourselves…but because we know that God is love, we do not have to be afraid of what’s on the other side, even when it’s something we want to actively run away from.
Do you hear the knock? If so, the time to answer is right now. It’s perfectly fine if you don’t hear the knocking…what’s great about doors is that both sides can hear a knock from the other side. Nothing is stopping you from knocking on the door yourself. God always loves and welcomes the person who is knocking on His door.
Tuesday, January 17 2017
I saw an old Peanuts cartoon recently. Lucy says to Charlie Brown, "I would have made a great evangelist." Charlie Brown answers, "Is that so?" Lucy says, "Yes, I convinced that boy in front of me in school that my religion is better than his religion." Charlie Brown asked, "Well, how did you do that?" And Lucy answers, "I hit him over the head with my lunch box."
Not quite the best way to tell people about Jesus! Violence is never the answer. But we laugh about Lucy, because honestly, we wish that telling people about Jesus was that easy.
Well, I’m here to tell you that it IS that easy. No, I don’t mean everyone should go buy their own lunch boxes and start beaning people on the head! I mean that we usually think that evangelism, or outreach, or sharing your faith, or telling people about Jesus is really difficult. How many of us think that…?
So because we think that telling people about Jesus is hard, we don’t do it. We are scared to. We think that in order to tell someone else about Jesus, we need an advanced degree in Biblical studies (you don’t), or we need to have a speech all prepared (you don’t), or we need to go knock on peoples’ doors or stand on a street corner with a bullhorn and pamphlets (you REALLY don’t).
Sharing your faith isn’t about any of these things. And yet, we let these thoughts keep us from sharing our faith with people in our lives who need to hear about God’s love. Even when we run into family members and friends and co-workers who aren’t Christians and could really use the love of Jesus in their lives, we let our fear paralyze us.
OK, so how do we share our faith with others? How do we tell people about Jesus? How do we do the thing Jesus calls us to do in Matthew 28 in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” How do we do that??
Well, our Gospel reading from John actually gives us the answer about how to share our faith with others. I’m feeling pretty generous today-- I’ll give you the answer now, and then we will look at the reading and see what John says about the answer. Sound good?
The answer is actually three steps. Here’s a hint—it’s my sermon title for today! The three things you need to remember are: Experience God, Tell Your Story, Invite. Everyone say it together: Experience God, Tell Your Story, Invite. That’s all there is to it.
Now let’s look at what happens in the Gospel story for today, and how the story helps us to know how to do it ourselves. Ready?
First, experience God. John the Baptist starts our reading off. He’s talking about Jesus, but in order to talk about Jesus, he first had to experience God. Before our reading, earlier in the story, John was baptizing Jesus, and the Holy Spirit came down when Jesus came up from the water and hung out on Jesus, looking like a dove. And that’s how he knew Jesus was the Son of God. He had experienced God in a powerful way.
This first part of outreach—experiencing God-- this is really important. If you’ve never experienced God’s love through Jesus, how on God’s green earth are you going to share it with someone else??? Now, the fact that you are sitting here right now bodes well—it means that while you’re here worshipping God, hopefully you’re open to feeling God’s presence. That’s awesome—that’s why we meet to worship. So we can hear about God’s love for us and experience God’s presence.
But it’s also not just about experiencing God in church. I mean, that’s definitely a great place to start, and yay that you’re here. Worshiping with your Christian faith community is very important! But God doesn’t just live in this building. God is everywhere. That means that you can experience God outside of these walls too!
Ever look outside in nature, maybe at the mountains or a snowy landscape or a sunset, and feel God’s presence? How about when someone you haven’t thought of in a while pops into your head randomly? A lot of times, that’s the Holy Spirit urging you to either contact that person or pray for them. Have you ever just felt like God was with you, even when you may have been in a tough situation? Have you ever prayed to God, and felt like God was with you? Maybe you were in a situation that was rough and you needed the words to say, and God gave them to you? How about looking back on your life and seeing how God led and guided you through points in your life? These are all ways you can experience God in your normal, everyday life. God is acting in our lives all the time—we just have to notice it.
Being tuned in to your spiritual life by praying, and looking for how God is speaking and acting in our lives is not only something that Christians are expected to do, it’s something that we WANT to do. We WANT to have that relationship with God, so that we can better listen for God’s voice and see God’s guidance for us in our lives. The more you look for God’s actions and listen for God’s voice, the better at it you’ll get.
OK, so we’ve got the first thing, Experience God. The next thing is Tell Your Story.
Let’s look at how John the Baptist does this in our Gospel reading. He tells his story. It says: “And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
John’s story isn’t complicated, right? It’s only 3 sentences. But the story tells about how God acted in his life, and how Jesus made a difference in his life. That’s it.
In some Christian traditions, you may have heard of something called “Giving a Testimony.” It usually happens in church, and it usually includes someone talking about how they went through a rough time and how Jesus helped them through it.
That in itself is a great way to share your faith, but sometimes people have such dramatic stories that it makes everyone else feel like their story isn’t good enough. Tim Hawkins, a Christian comedian, talks about how he would be sitting in church, listening to people give their testimonies. And these people would talk about how they were homeless, or addicted to drugs, and how God helped them through. And all he could think about while listening to one guy’s personal story was “Man, he has an AWESOME testimony! I have a HORRIBLE one. I wish I was addicted to crack! Thanks, God!”
Luckily, you don’t have to be homeless or addicted to crack to tell your story to someone. Telling your story is just talking about how God has acted in your life, and how Jesus has made a difference for you. Sometimes God acts dramatically, and sometimes God acts more subtly in our lives. You know all the ways we just talked about that we can experience God on a regular basis? Those are your stories for how you’ve experienced God. Those are the stories you can tell others who may be searching for God, or not even know that they need God.
OK, so we’ve got the first two steps for telling people about Jesus: Experience God, Tell Your Story. Our third step is Invite.
Let’s go back to our story from John’s Gospel and see what happens. John the Baptist has just finished telling everyone his story of how he experienced God. He then tells two of his students, when Jesus walks by, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” He’s telling them what he learned during his experience of God, about Jesus.
What do the disciples do after hearing that…? They follow Jesus. Jesus is walking, and they walk behind him. Finally, Jesus turns and asks them “What are you looking for?” They ask him where he is staying, and he says “Come and see.”
“Come and see.” This is how we invite other people to experience God just as we have. We say “come and see.” We invite them. It could be that we invite them to a Sunday worship service here at Zion. It could be that we invite them to a special event here, like a youth group event or a dinner or another type of program. It could be that we invite them to a special worship service, like Holy Week or Easter or Christmas Eve. It could be that we invite them to pray with us. It could be that we simply invite them to talk with another Christian, so that they can know for sure that Christians aren’t scary!
It’s about inviting people, because very rarely do people show up to a church event or worship service without any background in church or a personal invitation. Someone in your life either wants to experience God or could really use God’s love in their life, and inviting them is the first step.
Pastor Andy Stanley actually gives us a good way to notice if there is a good opening for an invitation to church. This isn’t the only time we can invite, but it gives us a good way of hearing something from someone that can make us go, aha! I could invite this person!
He calls them “The Three Nots.” And if you hear someone say one of these “nots,” it could be a good time to invite them. The three “nots” are:
-“We’re not in/going to church”, or “We’re not church people”
-“Things are not going well”
-“I was not prepared for that”
Those “nots” are a good indicator that someone is at a crossroads in their life, and could be open to experiencing Jesus’ love—because they especially need Jesus’ love. Listen for those nots, and it could help you figure out when to invite someone.
Now, it’s important to remember that inviting someone doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will say yes right away. They may not feel ready. And that’s OK. But that also means that you don’t give up. I don’t mean stalking them until they come—that’s creepy. What I mean is every few weeks or months invite them again. Invite them to different types of Christian things. And maybe, just maybe, there will be an event or something you say that piques their interest, and they will give it a try.
So we’ve got how to tell people about Jesus—the three steps: Experience God, Tell Your Story, Invite. Does it work? Will following those three steps help you telling people about Jesus?
Let’s see what happens to those two guys who followed Jesus and Jesus said to them “Come and see.” It says: “They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).”
OK, so the two guys go and spend some time with Jesus—they experience God, because Jesus is God. And then what happens..? Andrew goes and finds his brother. He tells his story in one sentence, and he says…? “We have found the Messiah.” So he’s experienced God, and he’s told his story. And then what does he do…? He brings Simon to Jesus, so that Simon can experience God too.
So you see what’s happening here? It’s a cycle. Once one person Experiences God, Tells Their Story, and Invites, the person to whom they told their story and invited now does the same thing!! Do you see how by sharing our faith with others, then they are able to experience God and share their faith with others too???
This is how faith sharing can change lives. God has changed your life— so you—yes, I’m talking to you— experience God, tell your story, and invite, so that others can have their lives changed by God just as you have. So—experience God, tell your story, and invite. Share the good news!! Amen?
Monday, January 09 2017
There are moments in life that we will always remember. There are personal moments, and there are those moments when history breaks into our lives.
For example, who remembers where they were or what they were doing when they heard about the planes flying into the Twin Towers on Sept 11, 2001? I know I do. If you’re a bit older, you probably remember what you were doing when you heard that John F. Kennedy got shot. Or going back even more, where you were when you heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Or when the stock market crashed in 1929. Or when WWI was declared over. Or when General Lee surrendered to General Grant—I’ll bet none of you remember that from your lifetime! On and on and on, we can easily point out those huge historical moments that we (and the people before us) can tell kids and grandkids and great-grandkids about, because we lived through them.
Peter’s speech in our second reading from Acts was one of those moments where history broke into people’s lives. History was being made.
Why, you may ask. What was so special about this? I’m so glad you asked!
To see what’s actually going on, we need context. We only get to see a small part of the story in our reading today. We only get to see Peter’s speech to Cornelius and Cornelius’ household. But if you’re reading this passage right now, out of context, you’re probably like—who is Cornelius? Why is Peter giving this speech? What the heck is going on??
So in order to see how history was made that day, we have to go back and look at what happened in the story before Peter’s speech, and even what happened afterwards, to really get the full story. Make sense?
So first, what happened before. If want to look at it yourselves, you’re welcome to pick up the Bibles in your pew racks and follow along. Our story begins in the Book of Acts, chapter 10, at the first verse. We won’t read it all word-for-word, but we will talk about the story. Get ready to hear about history being made!
Our story starts with Cornelius, who is a Gentile. Anyone know what that means…? It means that he wasn’t Jewish. Back then, this was a big deal. Jews were God’s chosen people, who followed the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, or as we call them now, the Old Testament. People who weren’t Jewish, the Gentiles, did not interact much with the Jews, and vice versa.
When people started following Jesus, who was Jewish, most (if not all) of the people were Jews themselves. So up until this point, all the people who had been baptized as followers of Jesus were Jews.
So in comes this Gentile, Cornelius. He believes in the God of the Scriptures and gives to the poor and prays frequently, but he isn’t Jewish, nor does he know about Jesus.
Suddenly, an angel, or messenger, from God shows up. The angel tells Cornelius to send for a guy named Peter, and have him come to Cornelius’ house.
Meanwhile, Peter-- who was one of Jesus’ original disciples-- is praying on the roof and has a vision while in prayer. He sees animals that are prohibited from being eaten by Jewish law-- they are considered unclean. A voice tells him to eat the animals, but he says no way. The voice tells him “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Peter is trying to figure out what this vision means when the guys sent by Cornelius come to get Peter. The Holy Spirit tells Peter to go with the men, because they were sent by God. The men tell him that they are going to take him to Cornelius. So Peter goes with them.
OK, everyone got what’s going on? I’m gonna let you in on something big in the story. I mentioned it briefly before, but it comes into play in a big way. Jews and Gentiles were not friends. They didn’t interact. In fact, Jewish law prohibited Jews from interacting with Gentiles or going to their houses.
So the fact that Peter went with the men after hearing that Cornelius, a Gentile, was asking him to come, was a HUGE deal. He could have said no. But he knew that God had sent the men and had given him the vision during prayer, so he knew God was behind it. So he decided to follow the Spirit’s leadings despite the fact that it was against the rules.
Back to the story. Cornelius has gathered everyone in his house, with all his relatives and close friends together so that they would be there when Peter came. And Peter comes, and they welcome him. And Peter says to them (verse 28 if you’re following along):
“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.”
Wait, what??? That vision about the animals, and the Holy Spirit urging Peter to go with the men taking him to Cornelius, taught Peter that God was doing something new, something that went against the current rules. He could have ignored it, ignored God. But he chose instead to follow God’s leading, to see what new thing God was doing.
Then Peter tells those who are assembled in Cornelius’ house about Jesus—that’s the part of the story we read earlier in our worship service. He tells them how he now knows that “God shows no partiality,” how Jesus was baptized and then healed people and taught them about God. He tells them how Jesus died on the cross and rose again three days later. He tells them that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
And then something amazing happens. These Gentiles, these people who were off-limits and considered unclean by the Jews, experienced God in a powerful way. The Holy Spirit falls on those who heard Peter’s speech and they praise God and speak in tongues. And Peter says, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So they all were baptized as new followers of Jesus Christ.
Now, we can already say that history was made! For the first time EVER, Gentiles received the Holy Spirit and were baptized as Jesus followers. God was doing something new and amazing. But that wasn’t the only history that was made. There’s more.
Here’s the thing. When God does something new, something that flies in the face of tradition and rules, people don’t usually handle it well. I mean, how many times have we seen something new happen and went “But that’s not how we do it!” or “We’ve never done it that way before!” You know what I’m talking about!
So, predictably, the leaders of the believers in Jerusalem were none too happy that Peter had gone against the rules. He had visited Gentiles. He had preached to them. He had baptized them! He had broken a million rules, and they were ready to punish him.
But then Peter told them about his vision from God. He told them how the Holy Spirit told him to go with the men Cornelius had sent. He told them how Cornelius had seen God’s angel. He told them how he taught the Gentiles there about Jesus, and how the Holy Spirit came upon them just as the Spirit had come upon the Jewish believers. And he ends with (11:17): “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” In other words, “God gave them the same gift of the Holy Spirit that God gave us--- I decided to let God do what God was going to do, rather than stand in the way.”
And then there is silence. I can’t even imagine what went through those leaders’ minds in that minute. But then, after that silence, they praised God and said “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
So here’s the deal. Here is how history was made that day. Not only were Gentiles becoming believers in Jesus and being baptized— which is awesome!—something just as big happened.
The leaders overturned their previous rules. That’s a HUGE deal.
They were able to see that God was up to something new, something very different than before. Rather than saying “No way, we don’t do it that way,” they did what Peter did—they got on board with what God was doing.
They either had to get on board, or get out of the way. Because even if they had said no, and punished Peter for what he had done, God wasn’t going to stop doing this new thing. God would have continued to make believers out of Gentiles and those who the Jews didn’t like. Eventually, they would have had to get on board with the new things God was doing-- or get out of the way.
God is doing new things now, today. Want an example? I’m standing in front of you, preaching. A former Roman Catholic female, me, is preaching to you, the people gathered at Zion Lutheran Church— a congregation who, before me, had never called a female pastor before. 50 years ago, I would not be in front of you right now. 50 years ago, I would not have been allowed to be a pastor, because I’m a woman. But in 1970, a huge chunk of the Lutheran Church listened to the new thing God was doing, got on board, and ordained their first female pastor.
Just like our story about Cornelius and Peter and the Gentiles and the Jewish-believing leaders, God is showing us new ways to tell people about Jesus. We may not have official rules about who we can talk to like the Jews did back then, but we definitely have unwritten and unofficial rules about who we let ourselves interact with—and we have definite ideas about what we should be doing and how we should do things.
We are being invited by God to be involved in these amazing and new things that the Holy Spirit is doing—new things that fly in the face of tradition and rules, both written and unwritten. And, like Peter and those leaders in Jerusalem, we are given a choice.
Our choice isn’t, should we do these new things God wants us to do… because God will do them anyway. Even if we try to stop them, and stand in the way of God, God is persistent. God will make things happen, even if we put down obstacles or try to slow things down. God will eventually prevail, even if it takes time.
Our choice is whether to get on board with the new things God is doing, or to get out of the way. If you choose to get out of the way of God—that’s your choice-- but then you will miss out on the wonderful things God is doing.
But if you get on board with God, even though new and different things can be scary and unpredictable, I promise you that God will do awesome things in your life that you never knew could happen. Our God is a God of surprises, making history, causing change.
I’m going to ask some questions to end this sermon. And I’d like you to really think about these questions in the next few weeks. And when we have our Annual Meeting January 29th at noon (I hope you’re planning on attending, by the way!) I’m going to ask these questions again. And I’d love it if some of you would be willing to share some of your responses to these questions.
So here are the questions I’d like you to think about. If you want to be able to look at them again before the 29th, we’ll have my sermon posted on the Zion website early this coming week. Ready?
What new things is God doing in your life…at Zion….in our community... in our world? And how can we be a part of them? How can we get on board, like Peter and the Jerusalem leaders, and make history with God??
How can YOU be a part of what God is doing? Amen?
Monday, January 02 2017
To start off, I’d like you to close your eyes. When I say a certain word in a minute, I want you to remember the first thing that pops into your head. Ready? Jesus.
OK, open your eyes. What did you see or think of…? I saw the infant Jesus, probably because we’re still in the Christmas season. There are many, many ways to looks at who Jesus is and what he is doing— [just in our images we shared today we have so many different ones]. There is probably an infinite amount of ways we can see and experience him, because he is God! In the short passage we read this morning from Hebrews alone, in just 8 verses, I could find four images of Jesus! And the images in the passage work together but are also very different.
The first image we read about in Hebrews is Jesus as the “pioneer of salvation.” When I think of pioneers, I think of those trailblazers in America who traveled through unknown territory, not knowing what they would encounter. They had to forge through the wilderness, and start settlements, lots of which grew into the towns and cities of today, probably some towns and cities that we have lived in or visited ourselves.
When I was a kid, I used to play this computer game called Oregon Trail. Anyone else play it, or at least know it exists…? It’s now a card game, too! It was one of those games that was educational, but also happened to be incredibly fun. The person playing was the wagon leader on the Oregon Trail—you bought all the supplies, planned the pace of the wagon, and rationed the food. And it never failed—things would happen that would make the trip difficult.
You’d have to cross a river, and the caulked wagon would tip over and you’d lose the few supplies you had. Robbers would steal things from you. A wagon wheel would break. You’d run out of food and would have to hunt. People in your wagon would get sick, and at least one would die. There would be bad weather, lack of good water, and dwindling resources. Most of the times I played the game, I never made it to Oregon. It was just too hard. And that’s with making the trip through a virtual computer game—imagine being a pioneer and making that trip in real life! I can’t even imagine the difficulties and sufferings the pioneers faced.
Jesus the pioneer also dealt with suffering. The author of Hebrews writes: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, bringing many children into glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” In order to pave the way to salvation for us, Jesus suffered. Like the pioneers who dealt with bad weather, disease, and death, Jesus suffered emotionally and physically, eventually dying on the cross for us. He was the one who, in order to clear the path for us, to open our way to God, loves us so much that he was willing to die. We couldn’t clear the path for ourselves—he did it for us.
Jesus is the ultimate pioneer. He blazed the trail for us to salvation. He is the one who goes where no one has gone before, who navigates the unknown with us as we travel God’s path. We do not know where we are going, or where our paths may take us—but Jesus is our pioneer guide who clears the path and is with us always.
Another image is Jesus as our brother. As some of you may know, I have a little brother. Well, he’s not so little anymore—he’s 28 and he’s much taller than I am. But I will always see him as my little brother.
When we were growing up, I was always kind of embarrassed to have a little brother. If any of you had younger siblings, you probably know what I’m talking about. It’s just not cool to have a younger sibling! Since my brother and I are 5 years apart in age, the only time we were ever in the same school at the same time was when he was in Kindergarten and I was in 5th grade. And 5th graders do NOT associate with tiny little kindergarteners. The minute we left our house to walk to the bus stop, I pretended my brother didn’t exist. I would talk to my friends at the bus stop and ignore him. And when we boarded the bus, my brother would sit in the front with all of his other tiny kindergartener classmates, while I would sit near the back with the mature, older 5th graders. When I was outside my home, for all intents and purposes I had no younger brother, because he just wasn’t as old and as cool as I was. Or, not as old and as cool as I thought I was!
Thank God Jesus doesn’t feel that way about us! It says in Hebrews that “Jesus is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters.” Jesus could easily do what I did to my brother and be ashamed of us. We mess up, we turn from him, we do the things we know we shouldn’t and don’t do the things we know we should. But Jesus doesn’t see us as embarrassing younger siblings despite our shortcomings. Jesus is our brother who welcomes us with open arms and gives thanks for us to his and our Father. He is our family—together with Jesus we are children of God. He is our brother, who will never be ashamed of us, and loves us no matter what.
A third image we see in the Hebrews passage is Jesus as liberator, as one who offers freedom. At first, this sounds completely unnecessary to us. As Americans, we are proud of the fact that we are a “free country.” We are founded on the peoples’ rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We protect freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and the freedom to peaceably assemble, just to name a few. We are people with rights and freedoms that cannot be taken away.
But we are in need of freedom in many other ways. We are held captive by other things. The teenage girl who looks in the mirror and constantly diets because she doesn’t think people will like her. The teenage boy who gets picked on because he’s different and refuses to be a jerk with the cool crowd. The workaholic whose self-worth is based upon his or her work performance and accomplishments. The parent who constantly feels inadequate. The significant other or spouse who finds it difficult to love because of his or her past. The single person who feels alone. The recent college graduate or recently let-go employee who is overwhelmed by fear of the unknown and change. The hospital patient with a recurring medical condition. The addict who, despite working hard, is struggling to stay clean. The person who continues to do the very thing that he or she knows is wrong but can’t seem to stop doing it.
These are just a few examples, and there are so many more. We are in bondage, in slavery. We are people in need of liberation—we need to be freed from ourselves and from the evil forces that wage war around us.
Jesus offers us this freedom. Hebrews says that Jesus became human, like us, so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Jesus is the bringer of freedom, the one who liberates us from the powers of sin and death. He offers to step into our lives and free us from those things that weigh us down, to free us from those things that keep us from being who God wishes us to be. Jesus died so that we might be free, so that we no longer have to fear death. Death is no longer something to fear and dread, but a welcome rest with him. Jesus freed us by dying on the cross and continues to work for liberation in our world today.
The last image in the Hebrews passage is Jesus as the high priest. In the Old Testament, the priest is the one who offers sacrifices at the altar to make amends for peoples’ sins. The priest is the mediator between God and the people, the one who helps to restore the relationship between God and God’s people.
When I hear of sacrifices at an altar and a mediator, I always think of the story in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one of the books (and now a movie) in the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Four children end up in the different world of Narnia, in which the White Witch rules with an iron fist and the lion Aslan wishes to restore the kingdom of Narnia to its correct condition. Edmund, the youngest boy in the group of four children, is tempted by the White Witch; sick of being in the shadow of his siblings, he is seduced by the Witch’s offer that he rule over them and crosses to her side. Time and time again, he feeds the Witch information that can ruin his siblings’ and Aslan’s cause. When Edmund finally realizes his mistake and joins Aslan’s side, there is a catch. The White Witch informs Aslan that, because Edmund was a traitor, his life is now the Witch’s. Aslan makes a bargain with the Witch instead—he will die in Edmund’s place. He is subjected to ridicule and torture by the Witch’s followers, until he is killed on the Stone Table. Later that night, after Aslan’s death, the Stone Table is split in two with a loud noise, and Aslan’s body is gone. Aslan returns from the dead and leads the four children and his army to victory against the White Witch.
In Lewis’ story, Aslan is Jesus. Aslan dies for Edmund’s sin, and splits the Stone Table in two—the altar of sacrifice of no longer needed. Jesus is both the great high priest, the mediator between God and ourselves, and the ultimate sacrifice.
Because of Jesus’ sacrificial love, we no longer have constant animal sacrifices like people had to do in the past. Jesus has mediated and restored our relationship with God by dying on the cross. Jesus paid the price for us once and for all.
Jesus loves you and died for you, just as Aslan died for Edmund, so that you can be free to live for him. And Jesus rose from the dead and continues to be in our midst as we live and work for him. Jesus has won the victory over death—and we are raised to new life with him!
And we are proud followers of Jesus-- Jesus, who is our pioneer of salvation, our brother, our liberator, our high priest who sacrificed himself for all people. We can proudly proclaim that we follow the One who is all in all, who can be all this and more to everyone! Amen?