Can anything good come out of …? Today’s sermon

Can anything good come out of Oxnard?

I remember an encounter in my first days here at Our Redeemer. It was with Rusty Jackson, a long time (but not his entire life) Oxnard resident and founding member of the church. Upon our introduction, he looked at me, and with a twinkle in his eye said, “You know they say that nothing good comes out of Oxnard.”

Was he referring to this text in John’s gospel? Where Nathanael seems to initially reject Jesus because he was from Nazareth? Philip had invited him to come and meet Jesus, who just might be the promised Messiah. But this promised Messiah was coming from the wrong town, the town with the bad reputation.

We don’t really know why Nathanael scoffed at the idea of something good coming from Nazareth because we don’t know too much about the town except that it was small. And maybe that’s the point… sometimes we scoff at or are afraid of that which we don’t know.

Can anything good come out of Oxnard? Some outside of Oxnard would say “no.”

I remember being in a group of people in Ventura a few years ago. The leader was asking where everyone was from. Most were identifying some neighborhood in Ventura. I said, “Oxnard.” And the leader replied, “I’m sorry.” We’ve since become friends and I’m not sure he would respond in the same way today.

I think that all of us in Oxnard, whether we live elsewhere and worship here, whether we’ve moved here, or whether we were born here and continue to live here… I think that we all can say there is mostly certainly good that comes out of Oxnard. We can be proud here at Our Redeemer that we are known for our excellent preschool…good comes from here!

So maybe we are better prepared than others to not so quickly dismiss a place because we don’t know enough. I’ve told you stories of my once upon a time fear of parts of Los Angeles. In retrospect my fear of LA was a racist fear of others…or people I didn’t know. But then I went there and spent time and learned how ignorant I was.

Today, in our divided nation and even divided world, we may find ourselves asking the question more often…of places, of people, of affiliated groups.

All of my sermon up to this point was written before the news broke of the president using vile language to describe countries south of our borders (Haiti and El Salvador) and all the countries that make up the continent of Africa. What I had written after this point seemed so sadly connected and yet irrelevant…so an update was in order.

Today, with the gospel text in one hand and the news in the other, the question asked by Nathanael, ”Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Becomes the questions:

Can anything good come out of El Salvador?

Can anything good come out of Haiti?

Can anything good come out of Algeria, Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe?

Can anything good come from these countries whose residents have dark skins? Or does all the good stuff come from countries like Norway, whose residents are white?

On this weekend, when we honor the ministry and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are presented with these questions. Our faith gives us the answer.

The answer is not found in the stories of all the good that has been done by immigrants from these countries…and other countries. Certainly their contributions help to make America great, even as we remember that except for Native Americans we are all from someplace else. It’s also important to remember that the majority of our African American brothers and sisters trace their roots to people who were forcibly kidnapped and sold as slaves…and it was their work…unpaid work…that led to much of the prosperity upon which this nation was built. We are still dealing with the legacy of this racism… of this evil.

I digress… the answer to the question of whether anything good can come from these countries is not found in the good things that people from these countries do…as appreciated and honored those good things are. But the problem with uplifting people who’ve done well is that we imply that they must earn the respect that is due to them as human beings.

No the answer to the question of whether anything good can come from these countries…through our faith…is a resounding YES!

Yes…good can come from these places because God is good and God is there just as God is here. When we look at our world we remember that it is good because God created it and then said “it is good.” And on that ultimate day of creation, God made human beings, God said, “it is very good.”

It is very good… our created world and all the inhabitants. Because of sin, no place is perfect, including these United States. Because of sin, no person is perfect, including you and me. And that is why Jesus came… because of love for this big giant imperfect mess of a world. And his primary teaching to his disciples and to us is that the only way that we could make things better and that is to love one another as we love God.

It’s that simple and it’s that difficult.

Did you notice Philip’s response to Nathanael’s question? He didn’t argue. He just said, “come and see.” And with these words took Nathanael to meet Jesus.

Let’s go and see.

I have a friend who organizes a mission trip to El Salvador every August…who wants to go? I’d love to join him, while bringing others along. But maybe we can’t all travel to other countries. We can still make concerted efforts to learn about people of other nationalities, faiths, and political perspectives so that we can see the humanity and even the face of Jesus in those we do not know. Jesus loves them and invites us to love them too.

Quit when it’s hard? No Way!

IMG_3672.JPGMost of us have contemplated quitting something. Sometime our reasons are perfectly valid, but not always. I’ve been thinking about this topic, quitting, after my latest fall while hiking (read about it here: Overdoing It).

I confess that while picking myself up, rinsing off the blood, and brushing all the dirt off my clothing I thought that maybe I should give up trails…running and hiking them. Once we started walking again I voiced this defeatist idea to Scott, who responded, “but one of your falls wasn’t on a trail.” Oh yeah. This is a perfect example of why we need to share our thoughts with others.

I’ve still been thinking about it though. Not because I want to give up trail running but because I wonder if maybe we are too quick sometimes to quit. We face difficulties in all areas of life: work, home, trying to eat healthy, relationships, societal, basically anywhere we want to improve on something we face difficulties. Or maybe a better way of looking at it is that positive change is hard.

Those of us born with a stubborn gene (I’m sure there is one) are probably at a bit of an advantage here, because we don’t like to admit defeat. But still there are times when we’ve contemplated giving up on something.

While I have many stories of persevering, and stubbornly holding on when I shouldn’t, I’ll just share two for you. One when I quit and one when I didn’t. They’re both related  to my Call as a pastor.

First, I wasn’t raised in a church. And as a teenage and young adult I didn’t like Christians. (This is a long story that I’ve shared in my church, and maybe will share in a blog post some day). Anyway, when I was in my late 20s-early 30s I sent my children to a Lutheran preschool and that was the beginning of my slow, slow, slow immersion into the Lutheran church. This mostly happened because I met Lutheran Christians who were very different than the stereotype that I had of Christians.

Eventually I became more involved, participated in Bible studies, participated in ministry training programs, and began to feel a call to serve in some greater way. At the time I was a member (and now staff member) of a Lutheran church in a denomination that does not recognize God’s call on women leaders. I went to seminary (Fuller in Pasadena) “because I wanted to learn more.” While there I began more and more to discover that God was leading me to something far different than I had ever imagined. Unfortunately I was in a church that said, “no you are wrong to think that God would call you in this way.”

Some in this denomination told me “if you don’t like it then leave.” Yeah, saying that to a stubborn person usually insures they’ll stay! Others wanted me to stay and work for change. But I eventually came to the conclusion that God did not call me to “bang my head against the wall” trying to change something, when in reality I had no voice. This denomination needs men to step up!

So I quit. Not because it was hard but because I recognized that I needed to be elsewhere. Maybe it’s the seeing another path that is a good sign for those times we do need to quit whatever it is we are struggling to accomplish.

Fast forward many years… I am now a pastor in a different Lutheran Church (ELCA) and have served for a little over seven years at my congregation in Oxnard CA. I honestly can’t say that I’ve been an awesome pastor, but maybe I can say I’ve been a human pastor. Maybe that’s all we can expect.

It’s interesting to become a pastor at a time the church (not just my congregation) is declining. There are all sorts of reasons for this and many have ideas of what we should be doing…I could go to conferences on this probably every month.

I often say (and believe) that the church will always exist, but not as we know it today. Yet I don’t know what that future church will look like. Some leader!

So, it’s hard.

I never, before becoming a pastor, thought I’d be addressing massacres and racism and terrorism. Naive on my part! I still remember my hands shaking as I got up to preach on the Sunday after Sandy Hook…then again and again.

I’ve tried mightily to explain why Black Lives Matter as a movement is so important…and that I know Black Lives Matter to God.

I helped lead us to become a congregation that welcomes and affirms our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. We are a safe place in this regard.

Then last November’s election happened and I had to question my call. Every day I had to start the day with remembering my gratitude, because what I really wanted to do was to quit trying. I grieved…not so much for myself but for my brothers and sisters who are not white cisgendered middle (or upper) class Americans. I could not understand how those who follow Jesus could support someone who was so hateful towards others.

For most of November I wondered if I really did have a call. I talked. I ran. I prayed. I ran. I read. I prayed. And I ran some more. And I came to the conclusion that I do have a call. To use my voice (even in a small church) to speak of God’s love for the oppressed, the marginalized, the immigrant, the orphan, the widow, the poor.

It’s been hard.

I’ve been reading more about racism lately. I’ll share some discoveries later. After Charlottesville I believe that it is even more important. I also believe that it is not the responsibility of my African American sisters and brothers to convince me (and those like me and in my church) that change is needed. I believe that this is a call from God, not just to me, but to the church. I’ve said this to my congregation. Will we respond to this call? I hope so.

Do I fully know what to do? No. But in every hard thing that I’ve done, I’ve not known fully what to do. I can even think of instance where if I’d known, I may not have started. So I’m ok with discerning with others the next steps. The lives of people who God loves depend on this. The church depends on it as well even if her members don’t realize it.

It’s hard…but I’m not quitting.

And…I’ll keep trail running too, hopefully I’ll be better at picking up my feet.

Tears and Gratitude

A few years ago our church had a series during Lent with the theme of “who are our neighbors?” We invited various people from the community to come and speak. The goal was to help our members begin to understand neighbors that they may not know.

One of these weeks we invited two young women who were recent recipients of work permits (and ease of mind against deportation) through DACA. They were excited to come and share their stories. I was happy to hear their stories.

When it came time to talk, both girls looked out at the faces of our church members and began weeping. This emotional response was more powerful than any words. The rescinding of DACA today was a direct attack on these two young women plus the other 800,000 young people living, working, going to school, and contributing to our country.

I am proud to be an American but I am not proud of my country today.

Today I am personally thankful for: my grandparents and great-grandparents who were immigrants; the great cultural diversity that we have in our country; and the immigrants, with documentation and without, who contribute greatly to our community.

A Difficult Topic – My sermon on Romans 9:1-18

On my first full day in Wittenberg (last March) our group went on a walking tour of the old city. This older area is actually pretty small, so maybe village or town would be a better description. I’m thankful for the guided tour because I would have missed some important history if I had been on my own. Knowledgeable guides are important in any endeavor!

This day, we saw the sights, we heard some wonderful stories of Martin Luther and Katerina Von Bora, we heard stories of the importance of Wittenberg to the Reformation. And we learned an important and difficult history… important and difficult Lutheran history.

Our guide, Pastor Hans, took us to the back of St. Mary’s Church (Roman Catholic pre-reformation, Lutheran now), now the Town Church. Here he pointed out a relief, or sculpture, that is on the outside of the church. It is small, and rather high off the ground, and thus many people probably never notice it. I doubt if I would have noticed it.

IMG_3880The sculpture is of “Jewish swine.” Anti-Semitic, disgusting, and attached to a church. This predates Luther…not to excuse his anti-Semitism, but as our guide commented, shows that the culture was anti-Semitic, the church catholic was anti-Semitic. Some of us wondered why the sculpture was still there. We were told that removing it has been a topic of conversation, even consternation over the years. The church, for now, has decided to leave it as a reminder of an ugly history.

This is our legacy as Christians. And as I read Paul’s letter to the Romans I have a terrible time understanding how anyone can read this letter and believe that anti-Semitism is ok or that hating any group of people is ok. This is an example of a cultural bias, along with a misunderstanding of history, affecting the way they read and understood scripture. It is a lesson to be aware of our own cultural bias when we read and interpret scripture.

So far, on our journey through Romans, we’ve been reminded that:

Jesus was killed under the law…it was legal but there was no justice.
That God’s grace is indeed a free gift that is offered to all people.Compassion – Sermon for 7/9)
That suffering is a condition of our world.
That the Holy Spirit intercedes for us…and that there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from God’s love. (“As we ought” – yesterday’s Sermon)

Paul will now devote a significant portion of this letter to his “own people,” Israelites, Jews. In the section we read today, he wrote of all that came through his own people: “the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”

Paul is telling his readers, new Christians who’ve already been involved in disputes with Jews that if it weren’t for his own people, the Christians would have nothing. He cares immensely and would be willing to give his own life for the sake of his own people. He would have been horrified at the way Christians through the centuries have treated people who were the first recipients of God’s promise of grace.

Later, Paul will address us Gentiles in saying,

“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (11:17-18).

All of this is a reminder to us that we are not the ones who decide for God, who is in and who is out. Today we live in the knowledge that we are the recipients of God’s grace and forgiveness. We also live in the knowledge that many of those who came before us, believed and did some atrocious things to their neighbors…not only to Jews, but to Muslims, to people of other religions, and even to other Christians.

If one were to take a cynical look at history, it would seem as if one certainty that we have is that as human beings, is that we are more capable of hating and fearing our neighbor than we are of loving and living alongside. Demagogues throughout history have been successful in stoking fear and resentment that leads to hate.

But that is not our only history and it need not dictate our future. God’s grace is a powerful force throughout all of history. We’ve experienced the movement towards acceptance… towards inclusion… towards respect for one another. We’ve also experienced the resistance to this. Jesus too experienced resistance to this… to the point of death.

Martin Luther King famously said:

“Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’”
(Note: King has those words in quotes because he was actually citing 19th century clergyman Theodore Parker, who first coined the phrase.)

 

Justice is for all people. This section of Paul’s letter contains another great promise. He was actually repeating words attributed to Moses, who was quoting God.

“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (9:15)

We are all in need of that mercy and of that compassion. We are always invited to offer mercy and compassion to our neighbors.

IMG_3878In 1988 the members of the Town Church, in Wittenberg, added another piece of art, a Holocaust Memorial. This one is on the ground, next to the wall that contains the anti-Semitic sculpture. This artistic expression comes with an explanation:

This memorial was unveiled on November 9th, 1988, fifty years after the start of the Jewish pogrom in the Third Reich. It is the response of the congregation of the town church to the medieval anti-Semitic ‘Judensou’ (Jewish swine).

The monument, which serves to warn against forgetting history, consists of four paving slabs with cracks between them. These slabs are trying to cover up the Cross, which is refusing to be suppressed and is welling up between them as a sign of guilt and atonement.

The surrounding text relates to the old inscription above the sculpture:

The true name of God,
the maligned Chem Ha Mphoras,
which Jews long before Christianity
regarded as almost unutterable holy,
this name died with six million Jews
under the sign of the Cross.

 

Then follows in Hebrew script Psalm 130:1:

Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord.

I wonder what lessons we can learn from this for today.

“As we ought” – yesterday’s Sermon

This sermon is on Romans 8:26-39.

IMG_4465
My dad dancing…he was always the “life of the party”

When I first began reading (and trying to understand) scripture, this particular part of Romans 8 was very significant for me. It was confusing, annoying, and helpful. The confusing part first. Paul writes:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (8:26)

How can we possibly not know how to pray as we ought? Prayer is our communication with…or communing with God. We just do it. Right? I discovered some people develop formulas to that others can pray as they ought! This idea of praying as we ought, turns prayer into an activity that intimidates (lots of books are sold to help us pray as we ought). This intimidation leads many of us to be nervous about praying aloud within the confines of a group. For what if we don’t pray as they ought? I’ve discovered that many of us Lutherans are intimidated here. Although I’ve sneakily got most of you to verbally share your prayer concerns…which I believe is sacred…and thus a part of our prayer. But I digress.

How can we not know how to pray as we ought? Even if our prayer is silent, we know that God hears us. Maybe Paul was referring to a self-centered kind of prayer that focused on me…me…me. I don’t get that sense from this passage. So I struggled to understand just what Paul was getting at. Is there a special kind of prayer that we must do? Or, maybe we are supposed to pray for certain things? This was confusing.

Then my dad had a battle with colon cancer, and another, and another. And each time they thought they got it all, only for the cancer to return more aggressively than before. I watched his body waste away in his last year of life. We continued to pray for healing.

When hospice came and set up a hospital bed in the living room I was thankful that he could be home with family. I have precious memories of those last two weeks of his life…memories that I would not trade for anything. Alongside those precious memories are memories of pain and suffering that was beyond description. One day I was sitting there watching TV with him (probably sports of some type). Together we watched a commercial advocating routine colonoscopy screenings, because “colon cancer is curable when caught early.” My dad’s cancer was caught early… during a routine colonoscopy. It was minor they said. But cruelly it would not stay away.

As my dad’s suffering increased I wanted to pray. But I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. Do I pray for a cure? That seemed unrealistic given conditions. Do I pray for his death? That didn’t seem right either. Do I scream at God for the unfairness of life, and the taking away of Cecil, my stepdad who over the years truly became my dad?

And then I saw these words as if for the first time. And I understood.

“…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (8:26)

The words or the how of my prayer didn’t matter at that point. Not because God didn’t care but because the Spirit was already interceding for me, for Cecil, for my mom, for the rest of the family, for you, for all of us. The Spirit was there, in that suffering.

This entire chapter of Romans is about God’s care for us in our suffering. Unfortunately some passages are used out of context, twisted in their meaning, and thus become annoying. So that verse 28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Becomes distorted to mean that God won’t allow bad things to happen to those who truly love Jesus. But this is not the meaning of a verse that is in the middle of a passage about suffering. In the context of suffering, Paul is telling his audience, including us, that this present suffering…this present difficulty is not the end. But just as Jesus suffered and died and rose again, we too have that promise of new life. Sometimes that promise is most profound and understandable when we are in the presence of death. It is this promise that can free us to truly live for today.

And this takes me to what has always been the most helpful passage in all of scripture…for me. I call this section the “there is no worse thing that can happen clause.”

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? … Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The no worse thing that can happen clause… Paul is convinced, and through his words we too can be convinced, that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. That means that in the midst of struggle… of turmoil… of frustration… of suffering… of not knowing what tomorrow will bring… In all this we are guaranteed the love of God, the love of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not because we deserve this love and presence, but because that very love guarantees it.

Maybe you too struggle in prayer… that’s ok because the Spirit intercedes for you.

Maybe you’ve been hurt by words that imply your present struggle (or our present struggle) is what God wants to have happen. No, our struggles are human made…but mysteriously, in the midst of the struggle we can become stronger… which means something good can come out of that struggle.

Maybe you’ve felt alone or unworthy of God’s love. Maybe someone has told you that you must change something about yourself to receive this love. Know this. God loves you! And there is absolutely no way you will ever be separated from this love.

I think we are living in hard times. We are living in a time where we are told to fear our neighbor and to only take care of ourselves. We see suffering around us. Some of us are suffering now. This is the reality of life. But this is not the only reality.

The other, more powerful reality is that God loves each of us… and there is absolutely nothing that can ever separate us from that love. May that love empower us to boldly live, loving God and loving our neighbor.

IMG_4463
29 years ago…my mom and Cecil at our wedding

Today’s Sermon (Romans 6:1-11)

Lately I haven’t been writing out my sermons…usually just notes. This message was/is difficult for me and so I had to write it all out. I’m not sure how much will change in the preaching, because I never stay exactly with what I’ve written, but I decided to share this one.

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)

“A death like his.” I wonder…what comes to mind when we hear those words? “A death like his.”

A death in which Jesus is sacrificed in order to please an angry God?

A death so that I can have forgiveness?

A death that happened to an innocent man? A murder?

I once thought, had been taught, that Jesus death was solely to pay the price for my own personal sin. This death was to replace the ancient sacrificial system that had been so abused as to become meaningless as well as oppressive to the poor. For who could afford to buy a sacrificial animal but the wealthy? The emphasis was less on the issues of justice and instead on atonement. That idea that Jesus paid for mine, and your, sins. But, and this is a big but… we had to repent of those sins, we had to ask for forgiveness.

The more I’ve learned, of Jesus, of grace, of the life of faith, the more I see the truth of so much more going on than Jesus giving himself so that I personally would get that free ticket to heaven.

But this is a tricky topic…it always is when someone starts messing with cherished beliefs. So maybe I’ll just say here that my intent is not to change beliefs so much as it is to amplify them and to understand Jesus’ work in today’s context.

“A death like his.” Jesus was murdered for political reasons. Specifically he was murdered because he cast judgment on an unjust system. His attaching the moneychangers and animal vendors in the temple was not so that we could later say that we shouldn’t ever hold a fundraiser at the church (while we should still have a very good reason for doing so). No, he attacked the moneychangers and animal vendors in the temple because they were indicative of the oppression that was the daily life of every day people. The wealthy and powerful, or better said, those who were profiting off this system were angry at the disruption. Jesus was dead less than a week later.

Of course cleaning out the temple wasn’t Jesus’ only offense.

  • He…horrors…talked to women, ate with women, allowed women to learn along with the men… and this was unacceptable.
  • He talked to foreigners…although not too much.
  • He touched dead people…he touched sick people, and in doing so gave them back their dignity.
  • He healed on the Sabbath…in essence he was a breaker of the law.

From a purely legal, historical perspective, Jesus was not murdered, but received the death penalty…legally. He was “justifiably” killed for breaking the law. It was not justice. His death on the cross was a form of torture, the purpose of which was to deter others from following in his footsteps… all to support a system of oppression.

“A death like his.” I’m not sure that I want to be united with Jesus in this sort of death. I’m comfortable living my middle class life, in a middle class neighborhood, pastoring a middle class church. None of us has reason to fear the state…however, in our own political climate we see many in our own neighborhoods whose status as “undocumented” has them in fear of arrest and deportation each day. It’s not right, but it is legal. These brothers and sisters of our can probably relate to the words, “a death like his” far better than can I.

This week I’ve pondered the tragic case of Philando Castile. I remember when he was first killed. His girlfriend filming immediately after the shooting, “You shot four bullets into him, sir. He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”

These words speak so much. That she continued to use the word, “sir” as maybe an attempt at de-escalation…to save her own life and that of her daughter. Late last week the officer was acquitted…as most are.

A couple years ago (I think), after the events in Ferguson, when another black man was shot and killed by police, I preached a sermon on the reason for the Black Lives Matter movement and on why we should support it. People said that Mike Brown was a criminal, disrespectful to the police officer…as if he deserved to then be shot. Even if one were to believe this, the opposite was true for Mr. Castile, he was respectful and calmly told the officer he was legally carrying a gun. What is a black person to do?

This past week, there was a call from many within our denomination to get behind the movement for Black Lives Matter…the movement for justice. Why now? First, there is the reminder that 9 members of Mother Emmanual AME church in Charlston were murdered two years ago. Their killer? A member of an ELCA congregation. Second, the killing of Philando Castile took place in the heart of Lutheran land. The shooting was only a few blocks from Luther Seminary.

This is a Lutheran issue…it’s a Christian issue and sadly recent studies show that the majority of white Christians don’t think that racism exists. We can do better.

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Maybe in this context our being united with Jesus is to truly see our black brothers and sisters as precious children of God and in seeing them to advocate for their lives…because they do indeed matter.

In this week’s gospel lesson Jesus is reported to have said,

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven. (Matthew 10:32)

I usually see this verse on Facebook with the challenge to share it…as if that were the acknowledging that Jesus is requesting. I never share it…actually never share anything that comes to me with the instructions, “share this…” to show you’re Christian. Words on Facebook matter little.

How we live matters a lot. Acknowledging Jesus before others is to also in some mysterious way be united with Jesus in his death…they are linked…and they remind us that living as a disciple is not always easy…sometimes we are called to step out of our safe spaces.

As difficult as this is, it is not bad news. Following Jesus includes the promise of resurrection. This is life…glorious, sometimes scary beautiful life. The promise that we read of in Romans is that we receive this wonderful gift of God’s grace…completely free. As I say over and over that we don’t have to do anything to earn it. This free gift of grace comes with an invitation, a call, to live as a disciple…to follow Jesus into the painful places… and in so doing to discover life…resurrected life…life lived for each other.

An Old Sermon on Matthew 28:16-20 and the Trinity

“We begin in the name of Jesus, who came down from heaven, died on the cross, and entered my heart.” This is the invocation for weekly chapel at Good Shepherd Lutheran School. Beginning in preschool, children learn these words, and when I began leading chapel here many years ago, it was the children who taught them to me. But as is the case with all of us at one time or another, when we recite words, we are not always together in what we believe about those words… and some of us may even be a bit confused.

That was the case with little Leah. She was in preschool, and with her mother volunteering often at the school, Leah was on campus, even when she was not in class. She knew these words about Jesus coming, dying, and ultimately taking up residence in her own heart. One day, Leah and her mother helped out in the third grade class. This day, the class was learning about the human body. Leah, because she was smaller than a third grader, became a part of the project as she lay on the floor so that the students could trace an outline of her body. They then drew various organs and body parts within that outline.

After class, Leah became quiet and sad. She wasn’t playful in the afternoon; she picked at her dinner and actually wanted to go to bed early. Concerned, her mother had a talk with Leah. “What’s the matter honey? You seem to be bothered by something.” Leah’s response: “Jesus is supposed to be in my heart, but when they made my heart today, he wasn’t there.” A crisis of faith for a four-year-old! If Jesus were living in her heart then how was it that Jesus wasn’t in the drawing?

Our text for today reminds me of this story; because most of us… at one time or another, usually a time of crisis, wonder “where’s Jesus?” We might look at the promise of Jesus, “I will be with you always” and say, “Really? I don’t see you.”

Where’s Jesus? It was also a question for the early church. How is he present and what does it mean that “all authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to him? Was this Jesus… the man who walked the earth… the man we read about in our bibles… Was this Jesus merely a man? Or is he God?

To confuse the issue even more, how can Jesus be God, if we already know God as, the Father… the creator of the universe? And what about the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit God also? Or, is the Spirit something else? The early Christians had to struggle with these questions, to identify God in the many ways they experienced God. At the same time they had to find a way to hold on to their strong belief in one God. After all, Jesus had affirmed the shema as the greatest commandment. This ancient call of Israel, found first in Dt. 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”

So, how is Jesus God? And how is God one? It took the church hundreds of years to work it out, ultimately developing creedal statements such as the Apostles Creed that we just read together. But statements don’t guarantee full understanding… I personally don’t think that we are capable of fully comprehending God. It’s one of those mysteries that won’t be fully answered for us on this side of our own resurrections. I came to the conclusion a long time ago that when I die and find myself in the presence of God, the first word out of my mouth will be “oh.” One of those long “ohhhs” when we finally get it. An “ohhh… so that’s how it is.”

While we cannot fully comprehend the incomprehensible, we can benefit from the work of all those who have preceded us in faith, as we ourselves seek to comprehend how we believe in one God, while at the same time believing that the one God exists in the three persons we have in today’s text, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, as some criticized, or one God who changed forms depending on the situation… But one God.

Some of the problems though, were similar to little Leah’s problem… where is Jesus? What does it mean when Jesus promises eternal presence? How do we experience that presence? It obviously doesn’t mean that the resurrected Jesus is going to pick up where he left off, before his encounter with the cross. We know that after his few appearances he returned to the Father. But, while Jesus wasn’t physically present with those early believers they did experience something. What?

Remember our study of Acts during Lent? Remember how as the disciples and others were gathered in Jerusalem? They experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit and a new church was born. This Spirit was present then and is present now; this Spirit is the helper that Jesus promised in John 16, the one who will guide, the one who assures that none of us is alone. So the early church experienced the earthly Jesus, they experienced the Father, and they experienced the Holy Spirit.

So how does this work? How are these three persons one? One way to think about it is to think of these three persons, the Trinity, as God in relationship. Within the Trinity, there is a relationship of three who are equal, who are diverse yet have unity, and who are love amongst themselves, and who – thankfully for us – offer love outside themselves. Within the Trinity, we have God… in three persons – Creator, Saviour, Holy Spirit – in loving relationship with one another and in loving relationship with us.

And we need that relationship because there are times in our lives that we feel alone, when we might wonder, just as Leah did, “where’s Jesus?” When illness strikes, or when our relationships are broken, in our families, with our friends, our neighbors and sometimes in our church, we might ask, “Where’s God? Where’s Jesus?” And as a congregation, when the future seems uncertain, when change is happening around us, we might wonder about God’s presence in the midst of it all.

Right now, in the life of St. Mark’s we are facing two huge issues. One, we have been talking about for months, whether to participate in the project with the LA Design Center and the Land Trust to provide affordable housing as well as a community center for the neighborhood. Second, is what many knew was coming, we just didn’t know exactly when, and that is Pastor Brian’s announcement of his retirement. So now we are faced with a huge decision while knowing that we will have a different relationship with Pastor Brian and Ruth.

Last week I heard someone say, “Things are going to change around here.” The person making the statement is indeed correct, but we must recognize that things are always changing. The neighborhood is changing, not for the first time. The pastoral leadership of the congregation is changing, not for the first time. The congregation is always changing as people come and people go. But you know what? There is something that is not changing… and that is God. Jesus promised his presence for all time, and we can depend on that presence… we can depend on that relationship. We can depend on our relationship with Jesus, who came down from heaven, died on the cross and entered our hearts.

Little Leah could not see Jesus in the drawing of her heart that day. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus wasn’t there. Jesus is present for Leah, just as he is present in the waters of baptism… just as he is present in the bread and the wine that we will eat and drink in a few minutes… Jesus is present when times are good and when times are bad. Jesus is present when we gather for worship… when we feed the hungry… when we gather to study the word… Jesus is present when we seek to know and to love those who are different in language, culture, color, economic standing, politics, you name it… Jesus is present when we seek to know those who view God differently… Jesus is present through relationship with us and in our relationships with others (even our difficult relationships)… In all this, our great and glorious God who is a relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is in the heart of all that we do… in the heart of all that we are. God is in the heart of our community… God is in Leah’s heart… God is in our own hearts… and God has promised to remain there, in loving relationship, for all time. Amen