Faith UMC Sunday March 27, 2011

Greetings and Peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ our LORD. It is an honor to be with you today.
Pastor Debra has shared with me the joys of working here with you. I have known her for nearly a decade now. We first met when I was an Americorps ViSTA and she was a pastor in the Twin Cities. When I started to think about seminary, she helped to recruit me to come to Luther. And she was there when I started in 2008. She has been with me through the ups and downs of the discernment process, and supported me when I made the choice to no longer pursue ordained ministry.
I grew up just down the road to the west in North Mankato. My father grew up just outside of Madison Lake and his sister still lives in Elysian, and I have other relation in Janesville and even here in Waseca. I am a life long United Methodist in the tradition of my mother’s family. This entire introduction is to say hello, and express my appreciation for being here today.
In looking at the texts for today I am reminded of the entirety of the journey in the wilderness. This story in Exodus happens shortly after the people Israel have escaped Egypt. A quick note on usage here, I utilize the name Israel to include all the children of God who have been freed from hardship and are moving into the Kingdom of God, the people in this story, and us here now who believe in God. Just prior to today’s passage the people were hungry. They were in a new place; they had been taken out of their comfort zone. They were without their homes to sleep in. They didn’t have the food they were used to. Hungry, lost and confused, they needed to rely upon the God. In relying upon God they are led by God. You know this image, a pillar of flame and cloud, visible day and night. God leads them, but where to? We know that they are being led to the Promised Land, but apparently not quick enough for the people. And then we ask today, “quick enough for us?” No!
Like the people coming out of Egypt we understand the Promised Land, except we call it as Jesus did, the Kingdom of God. And we too have been waiting for a long time to get there. And dang if it aint taking us too long to get there.
Israel though, they were in the wilderness for 40 years before they were able to enter the Promised Land. It is important to remember that this is not the wilderness that we are familiar with here in southern Minnesota. This is not a verdant land of trees, grasses, game, rivers and lakes. No this wilderness is dry soil, scrub bushes, no large animals to be seen, and no water.
God had led the people here. God knows why, but the people do not. Nor do we. And this is something that troubles us isn’t it? We profess that God has called us out of bondage, out of Egypt, and God is leading us to the Promised Land, and we want the journey to be over quickly right? God has freed u from our sins and now we want to live life in the kingdom of God before we sin again. This journey though is not quick. We know that the assurance of God is good. Especially present in the Hymn, “Blessed Assurance” And Israel knew this too, for Israel saw God’s activity while they were still in Egypt.
Indeed, the works God preformed in Egypt to work toward Israel’s liberation was something to inspire faith. And it did, and it does. So I ask today, what has God done in your lives to inspire faith? Where has God called you out of places destructive to you such as relationships, depression, addiction and so much more that I cannot begin to name? Your bondage to the above is similar to the people who were slaves in Egypt.
And where is God calling this community out? How is God active here at Faith UMC? In Waseca? In Minnesota? And when we have discerned God’s activity in our lives, we embrace it, recall it over and over again as assurance, proof that God loves us. We rely upon this memory, it informs our understanding of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit in such a way that no amount of “Well Trained” preaching can. This visceral experience of God is powerful, and well known, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, included experience of God in how he discerned the messages of scripture.
Again our experiences of God’s saving work in our lives clarifies for us and allows us to enter into the story of God. Indeed we know what it is to be here where the Israelites are in today’s reading. After all, were we not in that place with them? Living between clear activity of God in our lives and the Promised Land? That memory of God’s activity slowly fading from our minds, fear begins to set in. When this starts to happen we question God.
God, you were there before, where are you now?
Or we ask our leaders to explain this predicament to us. “Where is God now, Tell us!” We need Water!
And we begin to believe that where we were in pain and bondage, we were in a better place than we are now. And we wonder if this journey we are on isn’t just too much, perhaps where we were before God showed up isn’t really that bad. In short, we give up faith in God and want to return to where we were in bondage.
Things are not going right and we begin to test God. “God if you really cared, you wouldn’t be doing this to me.” Your work in my life, it is not what I want.
Yet that is what we have. We are here now, between our understanding of God’s redeeming work in our lives freeing us from bondage, and the full realization of God’s work in the world, that is, the Kingdom of Heaven. So we ask our leaders what is going on, why are we here? We are thirsty; you gave us food, now we need water!
And we demand of God proof of existence. An act to remind us of who God is. We, the lowly, make a demand upon the LORD. If we are going to trust in this God we need water to live. And God gives us that life giving water when we ask for it. It is not Moses or our leaders who does this for us, but God.
So here then is the particularity of this story. The people Israel have gathered in the wilderness, led there by God. The leadership goes off further into the wilderness per God’s request. This is a place of rocks, scrubland at the best. There is no flowing water, no chance of finding flowing water, the substance that gives life.
Now we do not know where exactly the people were in Sinai, this place has never been found. Though we can visit Sinai and see the terrain and see how unlikely it is to find water, especially living water. If you have ever been to the South West USA and see the desert there you too know what this wilderness looks like. If you don’t bring water with you, you will not last very long. The lack of water is well known. And here is the amazing thing, in this lack of water, lack of the life-giving substance, God stands there with us. We have no hope, and there is God. Is your life so hard that you are not sure you can go on? There is God.
And what does God do? Wisk Israel away to safety? No, God tells Moses to strike the rock with his staff. Surely God does not need Moses to do this? Certainly not! God can do what God will when God will. But God wants/desires our participation in this act of bringing life. That is why we were asked to name the animals in the second creation story. And why Jesus asks the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink.
God and Moses, working together, bring forth life giving water from where there had been none. God leads Israel into the wilderness, into the space between liberation and life in the Kingdom of God and in this scary place, this discomforting place God is standing there, waiting for us to call out to God, waiting for us to remember the promise of God. Embrace then being in this space, God is there with you, never forget. Where you see nothing, God is there ready to bring life.


Living the Kingdom

You know, when Pastor Donna called me and asked if I would preach this week she neglected to tell me what passages were up in the lectionary, she just gave me the chapter and verses, no explanation of what going on here.  When I looked at Deuteronomy I though hey, this, this could be rough, God sure is asking a lot here.  How about the Psalm?  Oh yeah, this, I see how this can connect to the Deuteronomy reading, walking in the ways of the LORD, makes it a bit easier to understand the Deuteronomy reading.  We should still be in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, lets see what is up next there, how will I be able to tie that in?  Whoa!  What on earth am I supposed to do with this?  Anger is Murder? Looking at someone lustfully is adultery?  Divorce is adultery? And making an oath appears to be an affront to God?  I have to admit; I almost called Donna back and said, “Oh heck no!  I can’t do this.”

Then I sat back and thought for some time I wrestled with the text, turned it over in my head, looked at it as many ways as I possibly could.  This is a passage that talks about what life looks like with God, not a life that any of us can live alone, but a life lived with God.
Looking at these texts there is a common question to ask, “How can this be done?”  In asking this question we begin a discussion with God.  God has told us how to live.  God told us as we were about to enter the Promised Land in Deuteronomy.  God asked us to choose life as we entered the Promised Land.  God asked us to stay in relationship with God and the question became for the people Israel, whom we are a part of, “how do we do this?”  See, it is not just each of us individually who ask, “How can I do this?”  We all ask this question with God’s support.  God has our back so to speak.  So this is relational, whenever we say “I”, “How can I do this?” we must remember that we are not alone and that God is there with us to.  So it is always, “How do we do this?” Or, “How is this done?”
Looking to the Deuteronomy text, Israel was able to be in this relationship because there was a total trust in the LORD God that stemmed from a time of wandering in the wilderness that lasted famously for 40 years.  To make the journey from Egypt into the Promised Land, they wandered with God for 40 years.  This forty year time period led to this passage of scripture today.  Stay in relationship with God, love God, follow the commandments, and you will prosper in the land that the LORD your God has promised you.  And it took the people Israel 40 years of wandering to understand the implications of this.  They could have crossed the Sinai Wilderness in less than a year, but God held them there, in the wilderness, teaching them constantly to rely upon God instead of themselves.  Teaching the people Israel that indeed God loves them and cherishes them, but God is jealous and if the people Israel bow down to other gods, that the people Israel will perish in the promised land.  Yes, indeed the choice was given, even in the land that is the Reign and Realm of God we have a choice to follow or not follow God, and in not following God, there is a promise of perishing.  And none of us would want to choose death over life now would we?
So, I have to do this, err, we have to do this, God has commanded me, us, the entire people Israel, all those who make the radical proclamation that God is the LORD.  This steps outside of national affiliations, which is why we who are here now in the United States of America in 2011, can claim the LORDship of God.  And when we walk blamelessly in the way of the LORD, that is when we live in the Reign and Realm of God, which is not defined by any human realm, we are walking in pure joy.  Pure happiness.  But as we know from wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, this is hard to do.  What appears to be a short trip from the land of hardship into God’s promised land is in actuality a journey that takes our whole lives.  We beg in the psalm for time to learn all the statues of the LORD God so that we may praise God with an upright heart and in so doing also be among those who are blameless and happily walk in the light of God.  Later in the same Psalm, the longest in the bible, we continue to lament for our lack of understanding and beg for clarity in understanding the precepts of God.  And at the end we ask God, to “seek out your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.”
This Psalm was utilized as a teaching Psalm.  It is broken up into 22 sections, each section correlates to a letter in the Hebrew Aelph-Bet.  And each line in each section starts with the same letter.  It is a very long psalm, but was apparently very often memorized by those learning the ways of God.  That is, a God who was relational and loved them and wanted the best for them.  This God did not want to forget Israel.  This God, the LORD God could not forget God’s chosen people.  They had struggled with God for generations.  And everyone imagined themselves in the land of hardship, that is, Egypt.  And today, we remember, each and every time we come together, the journey we as a people have been on with God from our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to the people as they fled Egypt into the wilderness where God formed them into the people Israel.  God’s chosen and anointed.
In Gospel reading the people of God had been living in the land promised them by God for generations.  The people were living in God’s realm, God’s Kingdom, under God’s reign.  But they thought it was a territorial issue.  They thought that the land they inhabited was the Promised Land.  The land though was not the Promised Land because they inhabited it.  It was the Promised Land, the Reign and Realm of God because God had said it was.  And generations later, in the time of Jesus, the people had ventured far away from this understanding.  They had been corroborating with the Greek and Roman authorities, trying to hold onto temporal power over the land they lived in.
This is the situation Jesus comes into.  Three weeks ago we heard Jesus say, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"  These were the first words of his own in his public ministry.  Jesus reminds us right away that the Kingdom of God, the Reign and Realm of God is here, it is now.  We know this to be the case because we have seen what the Kingdom of God looks like.  We have had the glimpses of what is going on in the Kingdom.  We have seen the response to natural disasters such as the Earthquake in Haiti, we have seen the love of a congressional staffer as he staunched the bleeding of his boss after she had been shot in Tucson, and we have seen what can happen when the people of God work together to throw off oppressive governments such as modern Egypt on Friday.  And here, in this very building, we have seen the Kingdom of God when we join together to take communion, when we hosted Project Home, when the scouts are outside in the parking lot roasting marshmallows on a bitterly cold Monday night in February, and when our gifts leave this building and support those around us who are hurting, who are hungry, who are sick, who are poor, that, brothers and sisters, this is truly the Kingdom of God.  We have seen it, we know its power to change lives, we know its power in our lives, our hopes, and our dreams.
The first time we heard of the Kingdom of God was when the people Israel left Egypt.  The people left the land of hardship, not knowing where they would end up, following some guy Moses, who’s identity was confusing in the least, and set out for the land promised them by God to their fathers Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac.  We see in the Ten Commandments we know what the Kingdom looks like.  I am the LORD your God.  Do not make idols and bow down to them.  Do not take the LORD’s name in vain.  Observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.  Honor your father and mother.  Do not murder.  Do not commit adultery.  Do not steal.  Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.  Do not covet your neighbor’s wife.  Do not covet your neighbor’s property.  These all speak of what life is like in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God that is at hand.  And these are the same things that Jesus is speaking of in the Gospel text today.  Jesus speaks of what the Kingdom of God looks like.  Jesus reminds the people that they live in God’s Kingdom, not their own kingdom, or Rome’s kingdom, or even America’s Kingdom.

Jesus knows that we, as fallen humanity, cannot possibly fulfill all of these rules.  And yet Jesus tells us that these rules need to be fulfilled, and that in living in the Kingdom of God, they will be.  This is the tension of living in this world and in the Kingdom of God at the same time.  On one hand, I know that every person is a beloved child of God.  On the other though, I am human and I will be angry with people, and I will not be able to resolve that anger.  In the Kingdom of God, we love as God loves, we heal as God heals, we live as God lives.  And we are called to live this way every day of our lives.  We have been adopted as children into the family of God.  We are expected to live like it.  Now, go, live your life with God, go forth, you can do it.  This community forms you, God forms you, and you form yourself.  Live into the Kingdom of God; make it a reality upon the Earth, not just something to look forward upon death.


Sermon, The Lakes Lutheran Church Las Vegas NV 1.23.11

Did you hear the story of Jesus?  These past two weeks I have been with you here at the Lakes Church we have heard of the baptism of Jesus and the claim that Jesus is the lamb that takes away the sins of the world.  Today’s Gospel reading looks at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
Just prior to today’s reading we have Jesus in the wilderness being tempted.  Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness and then went off into the desert.  Jesus had been led there by the Spirit, the Breath of God.  This is the same Spirit that led the Jews out of Egypt and into the wilderness.  Jesus now also travels into the wilderness and much like the ancient Israelites he is tempted in the wilderness.  The devil was there, asking Jesus to do things that would prove that Jesus was the Son of God.  These three things included
  • Make bread from a stone
  • Jump from atop the Temple, you will be safe
  • And worship the devil and gain all the kingdoms of the world

Each time he is tempted, he quotes the Hebrew scriptures illustrating understanding of the scripture and relationship with God.  Jesus, as we know survives these temptations and this is where we pick up the story for this week.  John the Baptist has been arrested.  The work that John was doing to further the Kingdom of God was interrupted by the powers that be.
Re-read the scripture
The Message
12-17When Jesus got word that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee. He moved from his hometown, Nazareth, to the lakeside village Capernaum, nestled at the base of the Zebulun and Naphtali hills. This move completed Isaiah's sermon:

   Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
      road to the sea, over Jordan,
         Galilee, crossroads for the nations.
   People sitting out their lives in the dark
         saw a huge light;
   Sitting in that dark, dark country of death,
      they watched the sun come up.

   This Isaiah-prophesied sermon came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: "Change your life. God's kingdom is here."
 18-20Walking along the beach of Lake Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers: Simon (later called Peter) and Andrew. They were fishing, throwing their nets into the lake. It was their regular work. Jesus said to them, "Come with me. I'll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I'll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass." They didn't ask questions, but simply dropped their nets and followed.
 21-22A short distance down the beach they came upon another pair of brothers, James and John, Zebedee's sons. These two were sitting in a boat with their father, Zebedee, mending their fishnets. Jesus made the same offer to them, and they were just as quick to follow, abandoning boat and father.
 23-25From there he went all over Galilee. He used synagogues for meeting places and taught people the truth of God. God's kingdom was his theme—that beginning right now they were under God's government, a good government! He also healed people of their diseases and of the bad effects of their bad lives.
Jesus is tempted again.  He heads to Galilee, thirty miles from Jerusalem.  That distance would be the equivalent to driving in a car to Reno today.  Not a quick trip.  This distance from the seat of power allows for Jesus to hide.  Quite the temptation eh?  But we know that more was meant here.  The prophesies of Isaiah are fulfilled by this movement.
And it is it is declared by Jesus to repent, change your life, for the Reign and Realm of God are at Hand.
The temptations of the world and of the devil no longer have hold over us.  Not that they ever did.  Jesus has called for us to remember the promise of the Exodus.  The promise within the first commandment, have no other gods before God, the laws of God, not desiring the world, but living in relationship with God and one another.  Repent your reliance and desire for the things of the world.  The Reign and Realm of God is at hand.  We can reach out and touch it.  And shortly we will be doing just that.  The passing of the peace during communion is a sign of reconciliation between us and God and between each other.  It is key that we do this so that we come to the table without grievance, for there are no grievances between people within the Reign and Realm of God.
The Kingdom of God is doing what you do and following God.  Simon-Peter, Andrew, James and John all were fishing and Jesus called them to do it for God.  In following Jesus they leave the old world of self reliance behind.  Just after Jesus declares the Reign and Realm of God is at hand, God, in Jesus, calls his first followers into relationship with Him.
A good part of the rest of the Gospel of Matthew is a collection of parables that Jesus uses to illustrate what the Reign and Realm of God looks like.  One of my favorites is the Pearl Merchant in Matthew 13:45:46
 45-46"God's kingdom is like a jewel merchant on the hunt for excellent pearls. Finding one that is flawless, he immediately sells everything and buys it.
These stories teach us what the Reign and Realm of Heaven looks like.  Just hearing the phrase Reign and Realm does not make clear what it is and neither does hearing each parable alone.  We must take the Gospel of Matthew in toto and have the parables interact with the Sermon on the Mount and with the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
The contemporary Irish Theologian Peter Rollins has written a collection of parables called “The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales.”  This collection of stories is great and all of them have begged me to reconsider the Reign and Realm of God.   One of my favorites is his retelling of the Pearl Merchant.
Read Parable here
Did you hear it?  The Reign and Realm of God is this pearl!  If you let go of all worldly desires of, profit, security, power, and embrace the Reign and Realm of God you will know the value of the pearl.  Put your faith entirely into God as God puts God’s faith into you.
In obtaining the pearl the merchant gave up all that is dear to him.  And in finding the Reign and Realm of God you give up all that you hold dear, most importantly the Gods of your own creation.  We all know what these gods are, Pride, money, status, none of that brings us closer to understanding the Reign and Realm of God.  Only when we loose everything and follow Jesus as the disciples do in the reading today do we understand what is meant by the Reign and Realm of God in Matthew.
This is not a life after death type of Kingdom.  This Reign and Realm is hear and now!  You can touch it. It is at Hand!  You can live in this Reign and Realm as you live here in Las Vegas Nevada.  In this place, the cars driving by outside, down on the Strip, we are being asked by Jesus to recognize the Reign and Realm.  Let what you do be an example to others and follow Jesus.  Jesus is asking for you to do what you do, and do it the best that you can for the Reign and Realm of God.  Do not focus on the desires and the goals of this world, but look at what you do as contributing to the building up of the Reign and Realm of God, and do it the best you can.