Sunday, May 19, 2019

That's the Power of Love - Sermon on Luke 13:31-35

Listen to the sermon here. 

John 13:31-35
31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, "Where I am going, you cannot come.'34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." 

SEMRON 
Love one another.  Amen? Easy enough.  Amen! 

Did you know that the longest sermon ever preached is 53 hours and 11 minutes.  Yes, you heard me, 53 hours 18 minutes. 3 days of preaching. Now I couldn’t verify it as a certified Guinness World Record, but that’s the claim.  In fact, several reputable news outlets reported the even. 53 hours. 

These are the kind of things you find when Google sucks you in and your mind wanders.  And so I kid you not, it was widely reported that in November of 2014, a 31 year old pastor named Zach, preached a sermon...never stopping for more than 30 seconds...to a rotating crowd of people in, get this, Mount Dora, FL.  Practically in our backyard.

53 hours and 18 minutes.  Now, to be fair, in an interview, Zach clarifies that his motivation was not only to proclaim the word of God, but it was to raise awareness and money for a local organization.  

So my friends, sit back, and relax, order some pizza, I think today is a good day to chase the record.  53 hours and 19 minutes. Joking, sort of. 

So, like you, I found myself wondering, “What does someone even talk about for 53 hours?”  Thankfully the interviewer asked this question. Pastor Zach said, “I chose to speak on the Bible and kind of cover the entirety of the story from Genesis to Revelation.  My goal of the whole sermon was to talk about God's ridiculous commitment to God’s people, even though we give up on God that God never gave up on us.” 

53 hours on the theme of God’s ridiculous commitment to God’s people despite our failure.   Now I didn’t read the transcript, but if I interpret the theme correctly and paraphrase just a bit, it seems to me that the entire preaching event was about God’s love for God’s people.  It was about the love of God. A love we are desperate for. A love we are not worthy of. And a love we would do well to learn, receive, and imitate. Love!

There’s the classic tale of a preacher giving the shorte sermon on record.  Obviously, there is no exact record holder, but I’m sure you’ve heard the tale.  Preacher steps into the pulpit. Looks intently across the congregation. Takes a breath and says one word.  Love. Then sits down.

The world’s longest sermon and the world’s shortest.  And when you parse it all out, it seems the theme is the same.  Love. I mean no disrespect to my brother preacher, but you gotta wonder, why in the world use 53 hours of words when one will do?  On average, a person speaks 125 words a minute. That’s 400,000 words, amplifying a theme of love. And here’s the crazy thing, neither had a more powerful message than the other.  Neither was more right. Neither is more theologically brilliant or insightful. Love is love is love. Be loved. Now love one another. Love. Amen?

Beyond raising money for a good organization, why the exhaustive lesson on God’s love?  The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize, because there are times in our lives when we need to hear again and again,  and I mean, 400,000 times, how loved we are. How loved you are. How powerful love can be. Love of a God for God’s people. A passionate, dedicated, ridiculously committed God...who would even take on death...gruesome, humiliating, painful, and tragic death...for the sake of those whom God loves.  You and me.

And sometimes we are so broken.  So beaten. So jaded, torn, distraught, misguided, abused, and neglected. That it takes some repeating.  Maybe even 400,000 reminders that you are loved. 

“I give you a new commandment, Jesus says, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Anybody hear the old Nat King Cole classic from 1948?  Nature Boy. It’s been covered so many times, but in the final line, Nat so smoothly sings, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”  

This new commandment to love one another happens on Christ’s final night with his disciples.  Our small excerpt occurs within a larger story, a story we typically hear on Maundy Thursday. Christ gathers for a meal with his closest friends.  He removes his outer robe, takes on the role of a servant and washes their feet. Then he dines with them. He offers bread and wine, as body and blood of a new covenant.  He even shares the cup with Judas who will soon betray him. And just as Judas leaves, we hear today's text. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” 

Here’s an honest, vulnerable question.  Is there anyone among us who would argue with Christ’s command to love?  Anyone stand in opposition to Christ’s command, that perhaps love...love for each other and our neighbor is not the way of Christ and the root of our Christian calling?  Any objections?

No of course not.  And why would there be.  Why oppose love? I believe each and everyone of us understand that our call as Christians, as people of God, as believers and witnesses is to love.  As Christ loved us, we should love one another. That makes sense, doesn’t it? 
Seems like an easy and common sense concept right?  Seems like a quality characteristic we might aspire too.  Surely we want to be known and remembered for our love. After all, if God is love, and we are created in God’s image...if Christ teaches and commands us to love...if love is the foundation of our faith and the theme of our Christian narrative...

Then why is it so gosh darn hard for us to love one another as Christ loved us?  Now hear me out. I am not suggesting that anyone among us is void of love. Or lacks the ability to love.  Each and everyone of us is loving, and I’m sure we each have a list of people to attest to that fact. But, let’s be honest….we all at times, whether we mean to or not, show partiality in our love.  

I think we’re all guilty of cherry picking who we love.  Choosing to go against our being and Christ’s command by withholding love when it comes to loving as Christ loved us.

And to be clear, we’re not talking about familial love or brother love.  Love between friends, neighbors, colleagues, and families. There are specific words for that type of love in the original greek.  The love that Jesus commands is agape love. Selfless, sacrificial love. 

Agape is to have love for someone, based on sincere appreciation and high regard...it’s not a love rooted in emotion or feeling.  It’s a love rooted in the preservation and dignity of life. A willingness to humble yourself to lift up another. An intentional and imbedded sacrifice for the sake of the other.   To empty yourself, pouring out for another, with absolutely no reason, motivation, or incentive other than that is who you are created to be.

We might say that such a level of love.  Agape love, seems to be the exception in our society and culture.  Selfless, sacrificial, non-incentivized love is the exception. And Christ calls us to not only receive such love, but to reflect back to the world as well.

So why is it so hard?  Why do we struggle? What within us causes us to put conditions or incentives on love?  It’s easy for me to say that I love everyone, but the truth is it is just as easy for me to justify and convince myself into withholding love.  And the true confession, friends, is that love seems easiest when the other person either looks just like me, or I know that I have something to gain from offering love.

Why is it so hard to love as Christ loves us and as Christ commands.  Are we afraid to be vulnerable? Are we scared we won’t be loved in return.  Maybe we prefer not to be so selfless? Maybe we fear there isn’t enough love to go around.  How can I be so selfless to so many?

I think it ultimately comes down to power, and a fear of giving up our power.  You see, to love as Christ loved is to relinquish power. To humble yourself in order to raise up another.  To remove any power you may hold. Because when we withhold agape love, we deem someone unworthy or unfit of love.  That’s a power move. An abuse of power, even. To have something to give or offer, and to say, I’d rather not offer it for you is a power play.  And God knows, it’s hard to give up power.

This is what makes Christ example of love so radical.  Christ never withheld love. In fact, on the night of our text, Christ removed his outer robe, put on a towel and took on the role of a servant.  Humbled himself before his followers and friends, even those whom we may argue you were unworthy. And Christ washed their feet. He had nothing to gain.  

This what makes Christ’s sacrifice on the cross so radical.  He gave up everything, including his own life, with nothing to gain, for the sake of the world.  Even in his final breaths, Christ prayed for forgiveness for those whom we may argue were unworthy.  

This is Christ’s example of agape love, and holy smokes, we’re called to do the same?  It’s no wonder we struggle with such love. 

There is no weakness if relinquishing power.  In fact, there is power is weakness. Power in vulnerability.  Power in sacrificial, unconditional, Christ-commanded love.

There is power in such love, because loving one another as Christ love us means restoring, preserving, and celebrating the life and dignity of all God’s children.  
It means equality and equity are the norm, not the exception.  
It means acts of generosity and mercy are the norm not the exception.  
It means that siblings take precedent.  
It means we are no longer motivated by fear of the unknown or the other. 
It means health, wholeness, and justice upstage profit and self-interest.  It means empowering the hungry, homeless, last, least, and lost, challenging the systems of oppressive power and preferential love. 
It means washing the foot of unworthy, affirming the unfit, forgiving the unforgivable, and becoming one of the least of these.

In the power of such love, everyone will know that we are Christ’s disciples.  In the power of such love the first heaven and the first earth pass away, as John reveals, and God will dwell among us in the kingdom of God.  Every tear will be wiped away. Death will be no more. Mourning and crying and pain will ease. All things will be made new. 

So, it may seem fair to ask, how do we love as Christ loved?  
First, you dip your fingers in the water of the font, you taste the bread and wine, and you remember that you are loved.  And even more so, you are worthy of Christ’s love. Now and Always. 

Second, we confess that we have not loved with our whole hearts and not loved our neighbors as ourselves.   

Third, you hear the words of forgiveness and acknowledge that you do not have to love perfectly in order to love powerfully.  

Lastly, remember and affirm that love and the power of love are gifts from our grace-filled God.   There is no and will never be any shortage of love. 

As much as you pour our love, God fills you again and again.  And so you love, love, and love some more until the Kingdom of God is fully at hand and Christ’s glorious name is proclaimed by all.

Amen. 

© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached May 19, 2019 @ St. Mark's Lutheran Jacksonville, FL

Sunday, March 31, 2019

We Know This Story, Don't We? - Sermon on Luke 15:1-3; 11-32b

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."So he told them this parable:11 "There was a man who had two sons.12 The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them.13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17 But when he came to himself he said, "How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.21 Then the son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son."22 But the father said to his slaves, "Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate.25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.27 He replied, "Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.'28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.29 But he answered his father, "Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!'31 Then the father said to him, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.' " 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before...There was a man who had two sons...The younger of them said to his father, "Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.'  So the Father does. The son leaves his family and squanders his fortune. With nothing left..not even his pride...he returns home. And the whole way home he’s rehearsing his apology speech.  And as he arrives the Father welcomes him with open arms as though he were lost and is now found. And that bugs us...and the older brother, because this kid shamed his family, blew his fortune, and dragged himself home to grovel...and he’s welcomed with a party of all things.

That’s a familiar story isn’t?  Second to The Good Samaritan, this is probably Jesus’ most popular, or at least well known parable.   And any time I start to read this parable publically, like I did a moment ago, I get nervous right around the first line.  I worry that as soon as I say “There was a father who had two sons…”, most people check out. Oh I know that story...the prodigal kid and the loving father.  I know that story. We’re the kid and the father is Jesus. Got it, preacher. I’ll meet you at the end when you tell us we can sit down.

Now I’m being a bit facetious, but that’s my worry primarily because that is also my typical reaction.  It’s a problem. I’ll admit that. But how often do we hear the old familiar stories of our faith...whether prodigal son, good samaritan, Jesus being born, The passion narrative… how often do we hear them thinking, “oh I know that story” and then check-out because the story hasn’t changed in several thousand years, doubt it’ll change this time.  

Well that’s the beauty of faith and the power of scripture as the living word of God.  It’s always moving and breathing. The words may not change,...it may all sound the same...but when the Spirit is afoot, we may interpret it differently every single time we read or hear the story.  The stories of our faith speak differently to every person in every context. Scripture is alive. The Word of God is speaking and breathing. It’s prying and pushing, nagging and convicting, affirming and rewarding.  Scripture always speaks. 

That’s why we embody the seasons of the church year.  From Advent through Christmas and Epiphany...From Lent through Holy Week, Easter and Pentecost.  We enter into the seasons of the church and follow the accompanying passages of scripture not because it’s redundant and known.  We don’t journey through the texts of Lent and the narrative of Holy week because we know them. If we checked-out of church and worship because we know the old stories of our faith then we deny the power of the Spirit.  

We engage in the texts of our faith again and again because the Spirit is always swirling.  We read and hear well beyond the parts we know best, always listening to what the Spirit might be telling us, here and now.   It’s why we commit to extra services on Wednesday night during Lent. And if you haven’t come yet, it’s not too late to join us.  We are using worship stations, and while that may sound intimidating, I promise it’s not. You and the Spirit worship at your own pace, picking and choosing where to spend your time. 

It’s why we have extra services during Holy Week.  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.  We don’t have worship those evenings just because that’s what we’ve always done.   We gather those nights for worship, not just to learn the stories of our faith because most of us know them like the back of our hand.  Those services are important because they are they honor, remember, and celebrate the foundation of our faith. That Christ became incarnate, died on the cross, and rose again so that all may have life and life abundant.   We knowthe story of Jesus’ passion and Holy week. We know the stories of wandering in the wilderness and the temptation.  Weknowthe parable of the prodigal son and the good samaritan.  But we never stop telling them. And we never stop hearing them.  Because the Spirit never stops speaking to us.

And today is no different.  There was a man who had two sons.  Now the younger son was arguably selfish and naive, and he makes a bold choice to ask his father for his share of the property.  This decision ultimately brings shame upon the family because it’s the same as wishing his father dead. Nevertheless, the father agrees and the son abandons his family, turning away from all that he has and has known to explore the lures of the world.

The son made some poor choices and squandered his property away.  He soon found himself broke and unemployed, with a great need. He lucks upon a minimum wage job slopping for the pigs and sinks to rock bottom.  At this low point, he has a revelation, actually it’s more of a memory or realization that back home, even his Father’s hired hands lived better than him.

So, he swallows his pride, and makes the journey home.  The whole way home he’s practicing his apology speech, seeking the exact words necessary for his father to forgive him and welcome him home.  Can you imagine how guilty and ashamed...how scared and vulnerable he must have felt walking up to his home.

And what does the Father do?  He does what Jesus always does, he embraces the son with open arms.  Adorns him with robe, sandals, and ring. Calls for the fatted calf to be cooked for a great celebration, because what was lost has been found.  The son has come home.

This parable sits so well within the season of Lent, doesn’t it?   The themes of the parable seem so relevant and appropriate. 

The younger son betrays his family.  Claims inheritance, turns his back, and abuses the gift.  He squanders the goodness he was given. Almost as though he didn’t even know or appreciate what he really had.

He wanders the world, literally to another country, and journeys through his own personal wilderness.  A wilderness wrought with the lures of the world. A wilderness that eats his material possession, leaving him for dead and despair.

He experiences a sense of revelation or remembrance.  A moment of self-discernment and assessment. It’s such a moment that he turns around to head home...a home with an uncertain welcome.

The younger son arrives home, ready to confess and repent, but before he even has a chance to say he’s sorry, the father is already rejoicing.  The sin isn’t given power in the story...rather forgiveness takes top billing. 

And how about the father.  It was not the custom of the day for older men to run.  But this father, whom I imagine had waited weeks or more for his son to return.  Despite the shame upon his family and the judgement of neighbors...once he glimpse the dust of his son’s feet on the horizon, he grasps the edge of his robe and runs.  Runs to his son. Embraces him with love and forgiveness and showers him with grace. The father doesn’t even give the son a chance to confess...not because confession isn’t important, but because forgiveness is so much powerful.   Grace prevails.

We know the story like the back of our hand don’t we?   Its characters and parallels? 

So often the story bates us into relating to the younger son..  Perhaps we too have been short-sighted, naive, and lost? ...wandering on our own, squandering the gracious gifts we have been given to pursue the lure of worldly temptations?  Most of all the parable then reminds us of a Father so loving and forgiving, that grace is freely and abundantly given. Without condition? That maybe confession isn’t a prerequisite for God’s grace, but rather an expression of it?

The story then calls us to our own experience of self-assessment and discernment.  Have you wandered and squandered? Are you ripe for repentance? Scared to return to the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, body, and mind?   It’s an easy and honest parallel for us to make. Us as the younger son.

But I think it does us well to remember why Jesus told us this parable in the first place.   In verse 1, he says, Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  They were grumbling that Jesus welcomes all to the banquet table. Not only welcomes, but seeks out. Pulls up the edge of his robe and runs after.  Welcoming them home with an embrace of forgiveness before that have a chance to fully confess their sin. They were appalled and disgusted that Jesus would conduct himself in such a way.
Remember now, there was a man who had two sons.  And the older son offers a more convicting reality for us.  Perhaps we find ourselves with the older son? Hard-working, patient, and obedient.  Going the extra mile in our faith. Taking the extra steps to ensure that the gifts promised to us are rightly accepted?  Maybe you relate to the older son, annoyed by God’s ability to forgive again and again, people who you may think don’t deserve it. Angry at the father’s unconditional forgiveness?  Frustrated at how delighted God can be to find the squandering sinners and welcome them home? Are you ever weary that perhaps the repentant sinner isn’t worthy of celebration just yet?  Good for them for repenting, but are they really worthy of such an extravagant party?
Both sons have something to teach us.
The father leaves his house for both sons.  Pursues them both. Invites them both to the banquet.  And most of all, ensures them both that his love is endless and abounding, steadfast and abundant.  It never wavers. And it never judges.n
We know this story, don’t we?  The story of a God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  A God who waits in the most abiding way as we wander restlessly in our faith?  A God who pours out the most abundant and gracious gifts of grace and forgiveness...again and again despite our squandering.  A God so loving and caring. A God that dines with sinners and offers the most outlandish celebration for each and every sinner.  A God who always, always, always welcomes us home. And it’s not so much THAT God welcomes us home again and again, but the way God welcomes us home.  With open arms and persistent forgiveness. Running to us. Again and Again. Pursuing us with love and mercy.
We know this story, don’t we?  
This is why we participate in the season of Lent and the Great Three days of Holy Week.  Not simply to hear again the stories we know...but to know that we are apart of God’s story.  To experience the radical love of a Father for his son. For his children. 
Amen.
© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached 03.31.2019 at St. Mark's JAX

Monday, March 25, 2019

Repent or Perish - Sermon on Luke 13:1-9

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.
Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.He asked them, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.So he said to the gardener, "See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'He replied, "Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.' "

It seems no matter how often I read this text, I get caught up on Jesus saying, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  Perhaps it’s because he says it twice...or maybe it’s because it’s a bit of a terrifying, out-of-the-ordinary statement from Jesus. Repent or Perish.  And to drive his point home he uses the image of a perfectly innocent fig tree, which has a rather fruitless history. And because there is no fruit, which is a metaphor for repentance and a life in God’s will, the master is prepared to cut it down.  But the gardner intercedes and advocates for patience. Give it just one more year. Allow the tree to be tended and cultivated..to be properly nourished and nurtured. Surely then we will see fruit. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”  So the Master yields. 

Repent or perish.  These are powerful words with dangerous implications.  There are whole ideologies in our world, especially in this country who take these words out of the context of the gospel and use them not only to condemn anyone they consider to be unworthy of God’s grace, but they also celebrate tragedies as signs of God’s divine judgment upon sinners.  These folks, whom I refuse to give any power to their name, they prey upon victims of serious natural or national tragedies. And I don’t mean prayer as conversation with God. I mean they prey upon them like a lion in the wild, ready to pounce on people’s pain and suffering to amplify their misconstrued theology that bad things happen to you because you are sinful.  Repent or perish is there motto. It’s a powerful and scary interpretation of Jesus’ words this day. It’s a dangerous destructive theology. And it’s all the more reason to give these words the time and attention they deserve. 

In today’s text Jesus is still en route to Jerusalem.  He knowingly continues to the city that will be less than welcoming.  In fact they will be hostile and abusive. And all throughout his journey to Jerusalem he never relinquishes from teaching and healing.  He never tires in his work for the Kingdom. 

Today he encounters some folks who share a tragic story and then ask a very understandable and difficult theological question.  They tell Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” And the question that arises is if these Galileans were sinners, and even more so, were they murdered for their sins.  Why did these people die? Jesus references another tragic event, in which some 18 people were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Again the question is raised, why did these people die? Were they sinful?  Did they die as a result of their sinfulness. Is God issuing some form of divine judgment? And if so, should we be nervous? 

These are common ponderings aren’t they?  Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do earthquakes debilitate 3rd world countries for a generation?  Why do hurricanes regularly level coastlines and why do wildfires continue to decimate communities? Why do our children continue to die at gunpoint?  Why do soldiers face the destruction of war? Why do buildings fall and bridges break? Why do accidents happen to innocent people? Why are women and children sexually assaulted, and whole populations of people abused and neglected for their uniqueness.  Why is cancer so ravenous and destructive? Why do bad things happen to good people? What did they do to deserve this? How did God allow this to happen? 

These are the vulnerable pleas of our faith.  And today that crowd approaches Jesus on our behalf and raises the question of divine judgment or worse, punishment.  

And honestly, these are all truly unfortunate occurrences.  The Galileans killed by Pilate and the 18 killed by the tower of Siloam falling.  They are sad. But the truth is they are completely independent of anyone’s sin or innocence.  

Natural disaster and national tragedies are awful.  Truly unfortunate. Things break. Bridges fail. Towers collapse.  The earth shakes and the mountains tremble. Oceans rage and fires spread.  All terribly sad. But I refuse to believe that any of these tragedies are the result of a victims’ own sins or sinfulness.

Certainly such acts or disaster or tragedy are the result of a sinful person making a sinful decision.   We see this all the time, especially with gun violence now-a-days. Pilate killed the Galileans...a sinful act resulting in unfortunate tragedy.  But I refuse to believe that God is casting divine judgement as punishment for a victim’s individual or corporate sin. 

Being the victim of a tragedy is not punishment for one’s own sin.  Nor is it an indication for sinfulness. Despite what the picketers may say.   And thank God for that, because if it were so, then we would live our lives in constant fear of divine judgment.  We’d constantly be looking over our shoulder. Such tragedies do not teach us about God’s divine judgment or God’s grace.  If anything, such tragedies...like Pilate murdering the Galileans or the tower falling on 18 innocent bystanders..the teach us of the frailty of life.  

And tragedies make life short.  Eighteen people died when a tower fell on them.  These folks were no worse than anyone else. It was a random occurrence, and honestly any of us can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and become the victim of an accident or tragedy.  This is the kind of fear the crowds laid before Jesus in this morning’s text.

So what do we make of Jesus saying “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” 

At first glance, it seems that Jesus is placing repentance at odds with perishing as divine judgement.  Suggesting that these are your only two choices, and we must decide now. And to not repent means perishing for sinful behaviour.  So choose wisely. No, I suspect Jesus is being a bit more rich than that, in light of the crowds concern with recent tragedy and accident.  

Perapas, rather than interpret Jesus as offering an ultimatum, Jesus is acknowledging that life is short.  Tragedy and accidents can make life short. Too short and too unpredictable in fact, to live an unrepentant life.  And for us to think that human suffering is a result of divine punishment for sinfulness...that’s too easy. Too simple.  So, Repent, Jesus says, because life is too short, and it’d be truly unfortunate to die or perish unrepentant. Seems like a relevant message for the season of Lent, doesn’t it?
This is why we begin Lent with Ash Wed….a humble and vulnerable proclamation that life can be short.  That we will all die one day. And from dust and dust, we proclaim and worship a God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  God is patient and persistent. Like a patient, passionate gardner...abiding to the fig tree as long as needed.

And the good news is that repentance is less about finding ourselves or working to become a better person as it is about being found by God.  Acknowledging God’s gift of a life and grace. Accepting God’s relentless pursuit of God’s children...regardless of sin or innocence. Repentance isn’t a measure of human ability or achievement.  Repentance is a the full acceptance of God’s abundance. God’s patient and love-filled pursuit. 

And the truth is, we run.  We love to run and resist the abundant love of a patient and passionate God.   And so repentance is to be found. To be found by a persistent God who never relinquished love.  To be found and loved. To be forgiven by grace. Repentance is to acknowledge God finding us, and turn around...with our whole hearts in worship and praise.

This is the power of a more abundant theology.   Repent or perish isn’t an explanation for tragedy or accident as divine judgement or punishment.  Rather, repent or perish is to acknowledge that frailty of life….A life rich with God’s love, and to perish is to deny, ignore, abandon, dismiss, or take for granted that love.  To perish is to live in absence or ignorance of God’s love. And Jesus deeply desires and longs that no one perish.

This brings us back to Lent.  A season dedicated to self assessment and discernment.  For a mere 40 days we identify, name, and turn away from the parts of our life that cause us to perish...to disrupt, dismiss, or destroy our relationship of God.  Our time in Lent is an intentional commitment to being found. 

And when are found, again and again, God, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, offers us nourishment and nutrient.  God empowers us with love, and waters us with grace. So that we may grow to bear good fruit. Fruit of a God’s gracious love. Fruit of repentance.  Fruit that boasts to the world of a God who creates, nourishes, and nurtures...not punishes and destroys. A God who is compassionate and forgiving, not vengeful and vindictive.  A who God who is empowering and affirming. Abiding and abundant. A God who allows no one to perish. 

Amen. 

© Pastor Daniel Locke, Preached March 24, 2019 @ St. Mark's Lutheran, Jacksonville, FL

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Warm Embrace of the Kingdom - Sermon on Luke 13:31-35

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.

Luke 13:31-35
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."32 He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, "Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.'34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.' "  

Well friends, We’re 10 days into the season of Lent now, and since I asked last week, I figure I’ll ask again, How is your Lenten experience going thus far?  Have you encountered, resisted, or given in to any temptations? Have you confronted any demons or experienced any release in your self-assessment and discernment?

Lent is such a unique gift for us as Christians.  We intentionally enter into a 40 day journey of exploring our faith with the grace to weed out all the noise and false hope in our lives.  I was talking with a friend the other day who has Lutheran tradition in her past, but now attends a non-denominational church. And she was lamenting that while deep in her liturgical soul she knew it was lent, but she was now in a community of faith that didn’t recognize or celebrate the liturgical calendar.

And my heart was heavy for her because even though she could certainly take on the season of Lent on her own, I could tell that she was deeply longing for a community to journey with.  A community that was willing to be vulnerable with her and intentionally take on a season of penitence and reflection. Introspection and contemplation. 

That’s what Lent is, and the beauty of it all is that it is something we choose to do.  It’s an opportunity we take on, Perhaps begrudgingly at times, but as a community of faith, rooted in our liturgical tradition, we spend a mere 40 days looking within ourselves and our lives to discern the aspects that disrupt our relationship with God.   And we do so among our siblings in Christ. A community committed to the humble and vulnerable practice of Lent, which helps us to be mutually accountable. 

Ya know, God is fully invested in us.  God abundantly and endlessly pours out grace upon grace, naming and claiming us as children of God, brining is in to the one body of Christ. 
And so it is together, as a community, as a whole that we spend time confessing and repenting that we have fallen short.  Naming the temptations that fester, disturb, and destroy our God-given relationships. 

This is why we Lent.   Starting with Ash Wednesday- a service of extended confession and an imposition of ashes.  Reminding one another that we were created by God from dust and to dust we shall return. And God does remarkable things even with dust.  And on our dusty foreheads we bear the overwhelming yet freeing witness that we are utterly and wholly dependent upon God. Everything else fades away, but God and God alone creates, empowers, sustains, and saves.  This is why take on Lent. This is why we journey through Lent together.

So, as I asked last week and will likely ask again, how is your Lenten journey going?  10 days, are you weary or even renewed? 

In our gospel text today we meet Jesus already in the midst of his own journey.  Last week we read about Jesus’ own battle with temptation in the wilderness, as the crafty and luring devil makes several valiant attempts to lead Jesus into false power and false hope.   Since then Jesus’ has been busy with the work of the kingdom, teaching and healing, restoring lives, extending grace, and ushering in hope. 

In chapter nine, there is a definitive moment when Jesus turns and set his sights on Jerusalem.  He gathered his disciples and said, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law.”  And so in the 13th chapter of Luke today, Jesus is working his way to the great threes days.  He’s journeying to a final destination, a city that will reject, ignore, beat, and ultimately kill him.  

Our text today begins with a word of warning from the Pharisees.  They advise Jesus that if he stay on his current trajectory, Herod lays in wait.  And even the Pharisees, for whatever reason, advise Jesus to turn around. To go the other way, lest he risk being killed. 

Last weekend I had the privilege of meeting with a 7 year old girl and her family to talk about baptism.   And during our conversation of talking about Jesus, I mentioned that they killed him. And she looked at me stunned and said why?  Why would they want to kill Jesus? All he wanted to do was love people and be nice. Why would they kill him. And all I could think to say was, “That’s a brilliant question.”

But that’s what we do with prophets.  Those who speak with prophetic voices...Whether a message that convicts or confronts our comfortable way of life, or a message that rocks our core because deep down we know it to be true, but don’t want to face the weight of truth.  We like to rejected because the message they carry is not one we want to hear. Or at the very least ignore. Maybes it’s simply fear or ignorance, but we, and I mean our history of saints as well, tend to have an aversion to prophets and those who speak prophetically.  So Jerusalem, and us still today, like to suppress the prophet. In Jesus’ case they kill him.

But Jesus is not provoked nor is he deterred.  His journey to Jerusalem and ultimately his death is unwavered because Jesus knows something that we have yet to full learn.   That is the work of the Kingdom of God...the work of healing and justice, of releasing demons and ushering hope...the kingdom work is not conditioned or dictated by Worldly structures, political leaders, or human influence.  The work of God in Jesus Christ and the work of the Kingdom will continue and it will come to fullness on God’s time. On the third day.

So rather than turn around, Jesus looks ahead to this broken city and laments.  
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  Jesus uses such powerful imagery. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing.

Beautiful.  Jesus has such a gift for using incredible imagery to help the disciples and others understand what he is teaching.  This is one of the things that makes him such a great teacher. 

Just prior to today’s story, Jesus taught the disciples about the kingdom of God using images like a mustard seeds, yeast in dough, and a narrow door.  Later, in chapter 14, he describes the persistence nature of God with parables sheep, coins, and children.  Jesus has such an eloquent way of using the aspects of common day life to teach about God’s abundant grace and love and the impending kingdom of God.  And Jesus always spoke this way to help people understand what he was teaching. So as he laments over Jerusalem this morning, he does it again….How often have I desired to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wing. 
                        
The image of Jesus as a mother hen is such a beautiful image.  It’s delicate, much like the image of Jesus as a lamb, but it carries a sense of  strength, authority, and protection, like the image of Jesus as a shepherd. 

We know that feeling don’t we?  If not, I’m sure we long for it.  Who among us hasn’t experienced or desired a longing to be brooded like a chick to a hen?   Maybe you recall a time when we were younger, more innocent. Perhaps it came from our own mothers or fathers or a family friend?   An experience with someone so loving that they offer both sense of authority and security while also offering an embrace of warmth and comfort?  

I remember so fondly as a kid, I would climb on my dad’s bed and provoke him into a wrestling match that I knew I would lose.  He would bear hug me...I would struggle to break free. After only a few min, I would be so tired and body would go limp...and I would lie in the protection and comfort of my dad’s arms. 

Perhaps you know that feeling?  Or have experienced that embrace?

Story about losing my passport in Germany.  Listen to audio above.

This image of a hen is so powerful. Jesus wants an intimate connection with the people of Jerusalem.   Like a hen with her chicks - and if you’ve ever seen a picture of this or actually seen a hen covering her chicks with her wings, it’s something very special.  The hen puffs out her feathers and ushers them all in and the chicks almost disappear completely beneath her wings. The chicks are so absorbed in the hen that it’s hard to see where the hen ends and the chicks begin.  So what Jesus is saying with this image is that he wants the children of Jerusalem to come and be protected and intimately connected to him - absorbed into him and his ministry. He wants to offer them protection through salvation. He wants them to see and encounter the kingdom of God that he is proclaiming. 

And maybe it would seem a bit ironic that this is how he wants the people of Jerusalem to feel.  Ironic that Jesus wants to gather these people up and protect them.  Jerusalem, this supposed holy city, that continues to turn against God and against the prophets and messengers that God sends to them - this city that Jesus grieves over.  Jerusalem is the city that will, in just a few weeks, turn Jesus over to the authorities and cry out for his crucifixion.   This is the city that, even after Jesus’ death, refuses to turn toward God and follow Jesus’ disciples.  

Jerusalem, the city that is unwelcoming and unkind to prophets, the very city that will reject, deny, punish, and kill Jesus...these are the people Jesus longingly desires to pull in, comfort, protect, and envelop in his love.

And maybe that’s not simply ironic...But rather the epitome of the gospel.  God’s unwavering and unconditioned love for the world. The the gospel in one image.

This kind of unity, this kind of brooding is what Jesus calls us to when he calls us under his wings. He desires for Jerusalem to come under his wings and participate in his work with him, going along as he goes, healing as he heals.  Jesus wants to pull people into himself so intimately that they are a part of him, participating in the work that God has called him to do. He longs for all people to be brought into the kingdom of God. As we say now, becoming the body of Christ. 

Jesus wants us - you and me - to be caught up in this kind of work too. Like a mother hen endless offering embrace, Jesus is constantly coming after us.  Relentless pursuing us for participation with the kingdom work he is doing in the world. Like the children of Jerusalem, Jesus longs for us to witness and participate in the kingdom of God today. It is in our baptism that we are first called into the body of Christ and every time we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are renewed and sustained in the body of Christ. It is these two practices that keep us in synch, that keep us nestled under the protective wings of Christ. 

In this season of Lent, when we are called to examine ourselves and examine our lives, we hear something calming, reassuring, warm - as if we are being nestled under the wings of our savior.  We hear of Jesus’ relentless love. We hear of a God so loving that God would send God’s son to heal the sick, bind up the broken, give sight to the blind, and raise the dead to new life. We hear of a savior that wishes to save and comfort the very people who have denied him and so many prophets before him. We hear of a savior so heartbroken for his children that even as they put him on the cross, he asks his father in heaven to forgive them. We hear of Christ’s relentless love that never fails, even when it is crucified. 

So despite all of our fears and failures...despite how your lenten journey may or may not be going...despite that we too often deny the voice of the prophet, just like Jerusalem, Jesus still desires to gather us in, like chicks under his motherly wings, so that we might come to know, to taste, and see the power of relentless love.  So that we might participate and join others to nestle within the kingdom of God. Amen.

© Pastor Daniel Locke, preached March 17, 2019 @ St. Mark's Lutheran, Jacksonville, FL.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Confronting Temptation - Sermon on Luke 4:1-16

Listen to the gospel lesson and sermon here.
Luke 4:1-13
1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread."Jesus answered him, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone.' "Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours."Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.' "Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,10 for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,'11 and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' "12 Jesus answered him, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 


Welcome, everyone, again to the season of Lent.  If this is your first time experiencing Lent within the context of the Christian or even the protestant church, welcome.  We’re glad you’re joining us. I deeply enjoy the season of Lent, and I often envy folks who get to experience it all for the first time.  From Ash Wednesday, through the next 40 days. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil. Oh man, I don’t recall my first ever experience with Lent, outside of giving up soda as a kid….but could you imagine if you were new to Christianity and experiencing the Protestant season of Lent for the first time.    

Well, if that’s you, welcome.  I pray that the next forty days of Lent is meaningful, pleasantly penintial, contemplative, enlightening, and above all full of personal and spiritual growth. 

I think too often we take not just Lent, but the whole Christian liturgical calendar for granted.  For those of us who have been in the Protestant or Lutheran church for our entire lives, we know it’s coming.  We know what to expect...and we know the routine. I think that is both good...and unfortunate. Good because we embody the seasons.  Our lives ...hearts, bodies, minds, and souls sync to an internal liturgical pattern that empowers and sustains. A Liturgical pattern that never disappoints.  It’s stable and reliable.

But it’s a bit unfortunate because embodying the ebbs and flows of the liturgical calendar shares a fine boundary with complacency and apathy.  We risk taking it for granted. 

Our lectionary calendar technically has six seasons - Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  These season have a natural flow to them - 1st, a season of reflection and contemplation, then a day or season of celebration, and then a season of Growth.   So, in the winter we have Advent, Christmas, and Epipany. A pattern of Waiting and reflection, a season of celebration at Christmas, and then a season of growth - Epiphany.  This is why the color of the Epiphany season is green.

Today we start the pattern over again.  Reflection and contemplation, celebration, and growth.  Lent, Easter, and the time after Pentecost, which is also green.

Lent is a season of penitence and reflection.  Introspect and contemplation. For 40 days we look within ourselves and our lives discern the aspects that disrupt our relationship with God.  God is fully invested in us. God named and claimed us. God abundantly and endlessly pours out grace upon grace. And for these short 40 days we acknowledge and confess that we have fallen short of God’s gift for us.  We identify all the temptations of our life that fester, disturb, and destroy God’s relationship with us. 

This is why we start Lent with Ash Wednesday.  A service of extended confession and an imposition of ashes.  Reminding one another that we were created by God from dust and to dust we shall return.  And God does incredible things through the dust. Ash Wednesday ushers us into the season of Lent with a humble and powerful reminder that we are utterly dependent upon God.  Everything else fades away, but God and God alone creates, empowers, sustains, and saves. 
We’re 4 days into Lent now, and I’m curious, how is your Lenten experience going thus far?  I suspect for some of us, we might be thinking...Oh shoot, did I miss ash wed. I completely forgot it was even Lent.  I forgot to give something up...or take something on...oh well too late. 

Let me say, not true!  Lent is not like new years.  You know...how you promise yourself that you’ll join a gym on Jan 1 and before you know it it’s March and you think...eh, next year.  No, Lent is an intentional 40 day journey, with each and everyday to self-assess, confront the temptations in your life, repent, and try again.  If you completely missed the Lent train, jump on today.

Plus, you’re likely in good company.  How many of us have every “given something up for lent or promised ourselves we’d commit to some new spiritual practice or exercise of self care..and then once we miss or forget a day we say, oh well?!?!   I promised myself I would read 30 min everyday for Lent. May I confess, I haven’t made it past the title. 

But for those of you who did make a personal decision to improve, correct, or challenge yourself for 40 days….we’re on day 4, and this is probably about the moment you’re starting to get jittery.  Jonesing for that chocolate bar or adult beverage. Craving that diet coke or cigarette. Maybe you're tired of passing up your fiction vampire novel for the Bible. This is probably about the moment that you’re famished and starting to gasp for air.  Reaching for a way out or an excuse to have a cheat day. You’re about ready to say oh well, next year. Anybody reach that point?! 

You’re fighting temptation.  And every time we fight temptation we grow.  It’s like committing to running on the treadmill for 20 min only to look up and see that you’re 2 min away from the next mile marker.  Gasping for air you could be done and walk away. Or you could you push forward, finish that mile and know you had every reason to quit but didn’t.

Life is an endless cycle of fighting temptations.  Temptations that lure you into believing you’re not capable or powerful.  Taunting you to believe that you’re important, strong, smart, or beautiful.  Temptation mocks, laughs, teases, taunts, and destroys our sense of self-worth and self value.  Of who and whose we are. Temptation promises to fill and fulfill us in all sorts of empty ways.  And Lent...Lent is 40 days of intentionally acknowledging and fighting the temptations. Even if it is a mountain dew or Milkshake...red meat or netflix.  For forty days we choose to acknowledge and fight the lure of temptation itself, to confront our own personal temptations, and they’re different for each of us….but we fight them and we grow...and as we grow we are reminded that we are not dependent upon the things...the stuff...the power or status...the false ideals and temptations…we are reminded that we are only truly and wholly dependent upon God. 

And when we’re committed to the season of lent and the beauty of repentance, we can hear the voice of our tempters...dismiss them...and turn to God.  Lent can be a rough but rewarding 40 days of spiritual growth. And admittedly, it’s not something that we would typically bring upon ourselves. 
It seems appropriate then that our Lenten journey today starts not only within scripture, but with the familiar story of Jesus own experience of temptation in the wilderness. 

In today’s story, Jesus who is full of the Spirit and likely still dripping wet from his baptism is led into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.  He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

And it’s then, famished, tired, and alone that the devil mocks Jesus and makes three final attempts at temptation.

First, the devil asks Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  It should be noted that the devil isn’t question if Jesus is the son of God.  In the original language the answer is implied within the question. So, the devil says, if you really are the son of God, and I know that you are….command this stone to become bread.”  The devil preys on Jesus being famished and tempts Jesus to convert stone into food. But Jesus fires back without hesitation that One does not live by alone. That is to say that while bread would be delicious for a famished stomach...it would only provide simple, temporary satisfaction.  Rather it is trust in God and God alone that nourishes and sustains life.

Next the devil tempts Jesus with power and authority over all the kingdoms of the world if he but worship the devil.  But again, Jesus is quick to quote scripture and say, “It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”  

The devil offers Jesus the power to impose his control and dominion over all people, and while that sort of power may be tempting, God has a greater kingdom in mind.  A kingdom that reaches far beyond the earthly, political realm. The kingdom of God is one that is equitable and fair...one that empowers its people rather than reward status.

Finally, the devil tries a new tactic by quoting scripture himself.  He says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here,10 for it is written, "He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,'11 and "On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”  But Jesus, truly knowing scripture as opposed to memorizing it says, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Jesus faces significant temptation.  Temptation that looks nice. Sounds wonderful.  Even tastes good. But these temptations, while shiny and luring, are empty promises.  Promises that only leave the fleeting feeling of power, satisfaction, or fullness. But Jesus, famished, tired, and alone denies the devil’s lure...and resists with an utter and complete dependence upon God.  

Now to be clear, it is not my intention to suggest that our own experience with temptation is anything close to Jesus’.  After all, Jesus definitively resist all temptation, whereas we fall short endlessly. I think Jesus is a model and witness by which we all strive to match, but continuously fail to achieve.  This is what sets Jesus apart, and he’ll ultimately go so far as to defeat the devil through the cross in the resurrection.

In fact, it’s the resurrection of Christ that even empowers us to choose the discipline of Lent in the first place.  It’s the power of Christ and the promise of God to abide beyond sin death and the devil, the we approach lent with penitence and intentional self-reflection. 

I think today’s story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, which is perfectly placed at the start of Lent is not simply a lesson or tutorial for fending off satan’s lure, but I think Jesus’ experience in the wilderness is a lesson about just how tempting the devil can be.  And it’s different for each of us. Everyone experiences and confronts their own breadth of temptations. 

And Lent invites us, if only for 40 days to recognize and acknowledge temptation.  Knowing full and well that we will not always be faithful or successful in dismissing the lure.  And that’s what we call a wilderness journey. A time of wandering and wondering. Of self-assessment and discernment.   Of mirage and false hope. These 40 days are a voluntary trip into the wilderness to face the devils in our life, the very things that destroy or disrupt our relationship with God.   And and as we journey, we grow. We confront the all the things that cannot save us, losing our appetite for fleeting power, false wealth, and temporary worth. 

And most of all, we grown in our faith, learning and re-learning to trust the Holy Spirit.  Trusting that it is God and God alone who saves. Because at the end of our 40 days, at the end of our introspection and repentance, Christ rises from the dead.  Amen.