“Leave Your Light On For Me”
Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
February 9, 2014
First Christian Church
This past December, a party was thrown in my honor.
A few weeks earlier, I left my job as Communications Specialist for the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. My job had been eliminated due to budget cuts. It was hard to leave that job, but at least I knew there was another job waiting for me at a big Methodist church down the street.
About a few weeks before I left, I got an email from a retired Presbyterian pastor. She is the head of the Presbytery’s Taskforce concerning persons with disabilities. I had done some work for the over the years and the whole group felt I needed a proper send-off.
Now, here’s something you need to know about me: I don’t care much for being the center of attention and I really don’t like surprise parties. I’d rather not be the man of honor if I can help it. Being a somewhat private person, I don’t like to be the focus of the event. But I knew that the people who planned wanted to say thank you to me, so gritted my teeth and moved on.
I found out that the event wasn’t so bad. I had a good time, they even sang me a song. The good words I heard from people reminded me that I had made a difference at the Presbytery over the years.
Our text today continues in Matthew and in the Sermon on the Mount. In this passage Jesus talks about light and salt. Now, Jesus never says, “do this and you will become salt and light in the world. Instead, Jesus says “you are the salt of the earth.” “You are the light of the world.” Like last week’s passage, the temptation is to look at these as rules. “Does doing x mean I can be salt?” “How can I be light?” No, Jesus just says it to those around him; “You are the light of the world.” “You are the salt of the earth.”
How do you feel when you hear that? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it bothers you. We look at ourselves and remind ourselves of all the things we can’t do. We can’t be the light of the world. At least not without some training. But those words remain: we are the light of the world.
I’ve been doing some thinking of what it means to be a church. I know the church isn’t a building, but a people. But what is the importance of a church? Why do they matter? I’m still doing some thinking and reading about this, but I’m starting to think that local churches matter because they are small examples of God’s coming kingdom. They should be examples to the rest of the world of what God’s way is like. In short, they are to be light and salt to their local communities.
First Christian-Mahtomedi is called to be salt and light to the communities around us. Actually we are salt and light to the surrounding community. The only question is if we are willing to live into being salt and light.
Here in the suburbs of St. Paul, there are people living in darkness. There are people dealing with abuse or addiction. There are others dealing with depression or another mental illness. There are others looking for a home or for their next meal. There are young mothers trying to figure out how to take of their children and kids who have been kicked out of their homes because they are gay. There are the elderly who feel that no one cares about them. There are refugees from a distant land who don’t know the language and have to face a different culture alone. We, the gathered church are called to go out and be light to these people and many others. They need to know that they are also the light of the world, that they are loved by God.
During my time at seminary, I remember taking my first worship class and having to watch a video on the importance of baptism. Since this was a Lutheran seminary it was talking about an infant baptism. The video, which was full of people wearing really bad 80s clothing went through the steps of baptism, including the part where the newly baptized child is given a baptismal candle. One of the child’s adult sponsors gives the candle to their parents and uses these words: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Does that sound familiar? It comes from verse 16 of our text. The parents are called to help raise this little one in the understanding that they are light and should share the light with others, giving glory to God. Baptism reminds us that we are a light to the nations, called to be light to others and glorify God.
This community called First Christian has been light in welcoming immigrants from Vietnam and other lands. We have been light in feeding the poor, in teaching Sunday School and serving as deacons and elders, in helping the homeless to find a home and in welcoming others in the fellowship of our monthly potluck.
You are the light of the world. You are the light of the world. You are the light of the world. Do you believe that? Do you believe that in Christ we carry God’s light?
“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Let it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“I’ve Been A Mess”
Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
February 2, 2014
First Christian Church
It was a Friday afternoon. I was working at a major law firm in the Twin Cities as an assistant. It was not my favorite job and things weren’t going well for me. I didn’t enjoy the job and I wasn’t doing a good enough job for folks. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though.
Anyways, I was busy at work trying to get somethings done before Daniel arrived in town for the weekend. I got a call from one of the lawyers to come into his office. I got up and went to his office not expecting anything. I came in and saw the lawyer along with another lawyer seated in the office. I was being fired. I had made a mistake on an assignment and this was one too many. I was escorted back to my office to gather a few things and then brought downstairs to the lobby. In contrast to the cold nature of the attorneys, the secretary who escorted me did so with tenderness and care. She said her goodbyes, leaving me alone in the lobby.
Losing a job is not fun. Being fired is even worse. You know you made a mistake that can’t be undone and you live with a sense of shame.
It’s been almost a decade since that happened, but I still can feel the sting.
As I was preparing this sermon, I came across and article about the rising number of pastors who leave the ministry. The joy of their ordination is long gone. Many of the pastors feel used up and spit out, dealing with long hours and little pay, depression and lonliness. The website expastors.com shared this horrible statistic: “50% of the ministers starting out will not last 5 years. 1 out of every 10 ministers will actually retire as a minister in some form.”
I don’t think this is an overexaggeration. I’ve seen with my own eyes how friends trained as pastors end up leaving and trying something else. I’ve felt that temptation to hang it all up.
I share these stories because we all live with a sense of failure. Maybe it was a failed marriage, or having to deal with depression or come to terms with some issue of addiction. Whatever it is, we don’t feel up to snuff.
The gospel text today is a well-known passage. The Beatitudes are the preface to the Sermon on the Mount, but they stand on their own. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blest are those that mourn. Blessed are the peacemakers and so on. When we read these familiar words, we tend to see this as an instruction. So we work on trying to be meek or being a peacemaker and so on. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant by those words. What Jesus was talking about is that those who are poor in spirit or who mourn are the ones that are blessed by God. No one needed someone to tell folks how to be better people, what was need was something that spoke to the present condition.
What Jesus was offering to the crowd that day was a word of hope. For those who feel like they are losers or left out and excluded, these are the ones that God blesses.
But what does it feel to blessed? We know shame and sadness, but what does it mean to see blessing as a feeling? Theologian David Lose explained it this way:
To be blessed feels like you have someone’s unconditional regard. It feels like you are not and will not be alone, like you will be accompanied wherever you go. Being blessed feels like you have the capacity to rise above present circumstances, like you are more than the sum of your parts or past experiences. Being blessed feels like you have worth — not because of something you did or might do, but simply because of who you are, simply because you deserve it.
What I needed on that November day years ago, was to feel blessed. It’s what so many burned out pastors need to feel. It was what every one of us needs to feel : that we are loved and cared for not because of what we have done, but because of who we are. Being blessed means that we don’t have to put up a front and pretend that everything is okay. Because God accept us, we don’t have to hide. That’s something I wish my fellow pastors would hear more, because we are so good at pretending that everything is okay with us.
I want to end with one more story. It’s been over 20 years now since my grandmother died. My mother took her death pretty hard. She saw her mother die as she suffered a stroke while in the hospital. In the months that followed, Mom went through a very involved mourning process. I learned from this experience how everyone mourns in their own way. That lesson was lost on the pastor of my parent’s church. Mom recounted how he told her to stop mourning her mother. After all she was 90 years old, so death was inevitable.
Needless to say, Mom was upset. The pastor didn’t understand that in God’s economy, those that mourn are welcomed into the kingdom. What would have happened if the pastor blessed my Mom? What if he told her she was blessed and that God loved her? What if he honored her brokeness and told her God remembers her?
The good news is that God’s kingdom welcomes those who are poor, those who mourn, thost who try work for a just society and world, the lowly, the least and the forgotten, which is basically all of us.
I leave you this morning with this. You are blessed. You are blessed, even if your life is imperfect. As the hymn we sang earlier says, “rejoice and be glad! Blessed are you, holy are you, rejoice and be glad, yours is the kingdom of God.”
Let it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
For those who look at my blog to get ideas for preaching (all two of you), I have a link to a sermon I preached for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany in 2005. It even sounds timely because it focuses on same sex marriage. Click on the link below to learn more.
“The Gospel of Bilbo Baggins”
Third Sunday of Epiphany
First Christian Church
They didn’t turn out the way that I wanted.
I’ve said that in one form or another over the years when it comes to baking. Now, I love baking breads or cakes or cookies, and most of the time things turn out fine. But every so often I end up with some kind of baked goods that are terrible.
A few weeks ago, I decided to make some chocolate chip cookies. I followed the instructions as usual, but with a few changes. One change was that I used whole wheat flour. I wanted to be healthy while I ate something delicious.
So I make the cookies. I allowed them to cool and then I started putting them into some tin cans to eat later. I decided to eat one to see how good it was. That’s when I realized something wasn’t right. It was soft, which I liked, but it was too bready and just tasted awful. I thought maybe it need a few more minutes in the oven, so I placed them in a bit more. No change, the cookies were horrible. I couldn’t understand why. I had made chocolate chip cookies many times and they never turned up like this!
After a while I learned what the culprit was: the whole wheat flour. After much reading and sharing by friends on Facebook, I learned that you have a mixture of regular white flour and whole wheat flour to avoid the catastrophe that I witnessed. The experience reminded me that cooking at least for me is adventure. To borrow a line from Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get.
In today’s scripture, we find Jesus calling the first disciples. He has begun his public ministry starting in the small town of Capernaeum. His message is simple: “repent for the kingdom of heaven draws near.”
He walks and sees Peter and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea. He tells them to follow along he will make them fishers of people. Peter and Andrew leave their nets behind and follow Jesus.
Jesus then sees three men working on the fishing nets; brothers James and John and their father, Zebedee. Jesus calls them and the brothers leave their nets and their father behind.
In our lectionary study this past Wednesday, we talked about how the disciples just dropped everything and everyone to follow Jesus. A number of us found that whole concept as odd. Did James and John really leave their father hanging? In the culture of that day, having children was a person’s social security. Did James and John have other brothers to take over or was Zebedee left to fend for himself?
Most of us couldn’t just do that. We have commitments to a job and family. So, we see this action as troubling. Why would Jesus allow this? What was it about Jesus that made Peter and Andrew and James and John to do something so radical and dangerous?
As we were talking about this Wednesday evening, my thoughts went to the beginning of The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien. The beginning starts with Biblbo Baggins, our Hobbit who is quite satisfied living in his nice living house in the shire. He wasn’t not interested in adventure, no he liked his life to be predictable and orderly.
All that changed when he meets Gandolf the Wizard as well as a number of unruly dwarves who make a mess of his house. It wasn’t long before Bilbo was on a journey with Gandolf and the drwarves, leaving the safety of the shire behind.
Most of us have what I would call pedestrian dreams. We want a nice job that pays well, a nice home and a nice car. None of this wrong per se, but notice that what we are all looking for is safety, predictibility.
But the life of faith in Jesus is not safe or predictable. Jesus calls us to leave our own shires to follow him; to tell people of the good news of Christ, and to participate in ministries of healing to help show all of creation that the kingdom of heaven in near.
Most of us feel uncomfortable about what the disciples do because it is so foreign to us. We don’t think we could ever do something like that. The thing is, God might not call us to just drop everything to become a disciple. But that doesn’t mean that we are not called by God. We will be called to leave something behind, it just won’t be leaving your parents behind.
And that’s what this story is all about: our calling. That word might sound familiar to you because it’s the word we use when a pastor is chosen to pastor a certain church or when someone decides to become a pastor. I wish we would expand the meaning of that word, because in early 21st century America, we think only pastors can be called. The reality is that anyone can be called and we are always being called. The only difference between my call to be a pastor and your call, is that I get a new title and a fancy new robe. We are all called to work with Jesus telling people that the kingdom of heaven is near.
God may not be telling you to leave your job and go to seminary, but God might be calling you to work with the poor or educating children, or healing those with diseases as a doctor. We are all called by Jesus to let go of our nets. The trick is to learn what that net is and to be able to trust God and let go.
In the last few months in my ministry with you, I’ve seen how you have let go of one way of being church and follow God in various ways. The early disciples never knew where they were headed, but they trusted God and so has First Christian-Mahtomedi. Our “shire” could have been to end the ministry here, but instead you all took a risk. It is exciting to see all of you living out your communal call as a community.
Jesus calls us to join in God’s mission just as he did to Peter, Andrew, James and John so long ago. What do we need to give up to follow?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
I have to write a piece for the Christian Century on a lectionary passage. I decided on writing something on Revelation 7:-9-17. It’s kind of a fitting text, because it deals with the afterlife (or could be interpreted that way). Right now I’m a little frustrated on the subject of heaven. My views of heaven have changed over the years, but I’ve mostly believed that there was something beyond this life, this plane of existence.
The problem I have with heaven is not as much the concept, but the people around me who don’t put much stock in it.
One of the things I’ve noticed happening in liberal/progressive Christianity is a de-emphasis on the afterlife. Very few folk actually say that thinking about heaven is a waste of time, but I think deep down there are a number of people who really do think that there is nothing beyond the grave.
The reasons for this de-emphasizing of heaven are quite understandble. Sometimes heaven has been used as a way to minimize what ever injustice is taking place in the present, here on earth. Heaven sometimes can become escapist, focused on some unknown future instead of the known present.
While I understand this, I wonder if a heavenless Christianity is what we really want. For a lot of progressives, a faith without an afterlife is logical. Instead of placing trust in something that is nothing more than superstition, we are focusing on taking care of the poor and oppressed and creating “heaven on earth” now. In the wake of demythologizing Christianity; doing away with things like the virgin birth or the ressurection, it makes sense to jettison the afterlife as well.
I think heaven does still matter, but I think it means something very different than what I used to think when I was a kid. I still think there is someplace beyond this reality. But how that happens and what is it for has changed for me over the years. In someways the same Progressive Christianity that has played down heaven, also gave me a way to see heaven differently without having to give it up.
As usual, it’s been the Lutherans that have helped me immensely.
I remember my senior worship class at Luther Seminary. Mons Teig, the professor of worship, lead through the funeral liturgy. What I remember from that experience is that a funeral has to preach hope in the future ressurrection. The service is NOT about preaching someone into heaven or hell, but to keep people focused on the future hope, when we will arise whole and healed.
This is something I’ve held on to. It helped me when I had to conduct my first funeral service which was a suicide.
This take on the afterlife was less about harps and streets of gold than it was about being ressurected like Jesus. The afterlife was less a place, than it was a state of being.
A few years ago, theologian N.T. Wright shared a view of the afterlife that was different than most people tend to think. In some ways, this is approximate version of “heaven” that I have. Wright has this to say about the traditional view of heaven:
The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God’s ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed, if we leave it out altogether, as some have done quite explicitly, we don’t just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the central engine, which drives it and gives every other component its reason for working.
When Paul speaks in Philippians 3 of being “citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t mean that we shall retire there when we have finished our work here. He says in the next line that Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform the present humble body into a glorious body like his own. Jesus will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself. This little statement contains in a nutshell more or less all Paul’s thought on the subject. The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes.
Similarly, in Colossians 3:1–4, Paul says that when the Messiah (the one “who is your life”) appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. Paul does not say “one day you will go to be with him.” No, you already possess life in him. This new life, which the Christian possesses secretly, invisible to the world, will burst forth into full bodily reality and visibility.
The clearest and strongest passage is Romans 8:9–11. If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah, dwells in you, says Paul, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you. God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit, not to what many people have thought of as a spiritual body in the sense of a nonphysical one, but “to your mortal bodies also.”
Other New Testament writers support this view. The first letter of John declares that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The resurrection body of Jesus, which at the moment is almost unimaginable to us in its glory and power, will be the model for our own. And of course within John’s gospel, despite the puzzlement of those who want to read the book in a very different way, we have some of the clearest statements of future bodily resurrection. Jesus reaffirms the widespread Jewish expectation of resurrection in the last day, and announces that the hour for this has already arrived. It is quite explicit: “The hour is coming,” he says, “indeed, it is already here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and those who hear will live; when all in the graves will come out, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
The result of this view of the next stage has implications for mission:
The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.
If that is so, mission must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are made, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the “now, already” of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the “not yet.” The world of space, time, and matter is where parliaments, city councils, neighborhood watch groups, and everything in between are set up and run for the benefit of the wider community, the community where anarchy means that bullies (economic and social as well as physical) will always win, where the weak and vulnerable will always need protecting, and where the social and political structures of society are part of the Creator’s design.
And the church that is renewed by the message of Jesus’ resurrection must be the church that goes to work precisely in that space, time, and matter. The church claims this world in advance as the place of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’ lordship, and of the Spirit’s power. Councils and parliaments can and often do act wisely, though they will always need scrutiny and accountability, because they in turn may become agents of bullying and corruption.
Now, I don’t know if Wright has this all down to a science. What I do know is that something will happen to us and to all of creation in the future. As Christians we do mission and work for justice to point to that future hope.
And I think that at the end of the day, that’s why we need some concept of heaven. Not as a reward for good people, but as a place where God rules. We work because we know one day heaven and earth will come together. Our work points to that future hope. In this way, heaven isn’t an escape, but a reminder to be at work for God’s kingdom is on the way.
I think not focusing on this view of heaven or the afterlife weakens the Christian faith. That future hope is the reason we work for justice and learn to love those around us. We do all of this because we are heralds of the new kingdom. We work to bring a taste of the future now. We preach hope because we know that evil will never have the last word.
Heaven is a hard concept for anyone to grasp. I don’t know what is immediately beyond death. What I do know is that God will be there with us and that in the end God will win. If heaven is anything, it’s this: God wins.
Now that’s something to hope for.
A while back I had a discussion with a fellow pastor who is an evangelical. I shared some of my own frustrations within mainline denominations and he suggested that I am still an evangelical in many ways.
This has me wondering at times what best describes my theology. In many ways I do exhibit more evangelical tenets, but the general stance on homosexuality means I couldn’t be a pastor in that context. However, I really don’t fit liberal Christianity either. I agree that social justice is important, but at times I feel that God gets pushed aside for what ever issue taking center stage.
So, I’m a gay guy that doesn’t see being a gay a sin, but who has a very traditional theology when it comes to the nature of God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?
This makes me a rainbow colored unicorn.
There are some adjectives that come close. Maybe post-evangelical. I did have a keen interest in reading some of the post-liberal and neoorthodox theologians while in seminary. Over those three, neo-orthodoxy tends to be the term that best describes me because it seems to be a mediating theology between evangelicalism and liberal theology. The downside, is I don’t know if anyone is considered neo-orthodox anymore.
As usual, I tend to not fit the perceived definitions. Maybe that’s okay.