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Lent: Let Go and Let God

Lent Let Go and Let GodA Sermon preached for Lent 5 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas on John 12:20-33.

It was 1988. My husband, Dan, and I became good friends when we met in seminary because we were otherwise involved in or recovering from other relationships. About a year later, we were both free to date, but still only good friends. I would drop subtle hints to get him to ask me out. Things like, “Dan, we should go on a date” or the even more subtle, “Dan, I think we should get married.” He would laugh and say, “oh, no, we’re too much alike, it would never work.”

Well, he was not picking up what I was putting, so after a while, I thought I’d better accept that I was going to be single for the rest of my life. I was about to become ordained and move to my first church in Detroit, MI. I’d seen the statistics about how a woman’s chance of marrying dropped like a rock after they become a pastor.

So I prayed, “Well, God, it’s just going to be you and me in urban ministry, and it’s going to be ok. I’m going to trust that you’ll be with me and give me what I need to follow this call.” I had a sense of peace.

About 2 weeks later, guess what happened? Dan called and, as if it was his idea, asked me out on a real date. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2008, I sent my book, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life to several publishers. I wanted that sense of accomplishment and recognition; my ego was invested in it because I wanted to “prove” that I was a worthy writer, a good Mom and pastor. All I got were rejection letters, or no response at all.

My Mom died in 2012 and one afternoon a few years ago, I was standing in my kitchen missing her terribly. I got down the cookbook that she put together late in her life, which includes her best recipes, as well as family pictures and poems that she wrote. I hugged the cookbook to my chest and thought, “I’m so grateful she spent the time putting this together, because cooking from it is so comforting to me now that she’s gone.”

It was like scales falling from eyes, when I realized that’s the only reason to try and publish my book, so my kids have these stories when I’m gone. Who cares if anyone else reads or even likes it?

Guess what happened? 8 years after my first attempt, my book was published.

Are you noticing a pattern here? New life comes once we die to our ego, let go of control, and stop trying harder to force the outcomes we want—BUT!—we resist this process mightily.

Our need for control, for programs, projects, plans and preferred outcomes layered with our American flair for rugged individualism makes it hard for us to die to self. We like to hang on to control, fighting for our own goals rather than seeing if perhaps God has another path or different timing for us.

Then we are bombarded with cultural messages like, “winners never quit” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “never, ever, give up” as if we could master all of life alone. What’s worse is that our culture conflates these messages with our Christian faith, thinking that this is what the Bible says—as in, “God helps those who help themselves.” I like to tell people that passage is found in the book of First Hesitations. People are surprised that its not in the Bible; it’s a motto popularized by Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, written in 1733.

Our Gospel lesson makes clear that God’s way of operating is quite different from these popular mottos. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…Jesus adds, Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—'Father, save me from this hour?’ No it if for this reason that I have come to this hour.

With his very life, Jesus models for us what it means to let go, to die to self, to release our preferred outcomes, and submit our self and our life to God’s will and purpose. Jesus let go of his preferred outcome and followed through with his suffering unto death, even death on a cross.

In so doing, Jesus shows us that the only way to handle the troubles in our soul and dying to self is through prayer; he prays, Father, glorify your name. Jesus knows in his very being that he is not facing death or suffering alone—God, the Creator is with him in every breath, in every cell, in every thought, and in every second of his existence, and he confirms this through his on-going conversation of prayer with the Father.

Our second reading from Hebrews, verse 7 says this beautifully, In the days of his flesh—that is when he was human—Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death.

Jesus demonstrates that the troubles of our soul need to usher us into prayer—into conversation with God—so that God can grant us the peace and strength we need to let go, to die to self and to follow Jesus in giving our life to God’s purpose, and bearing the fruit of kingdom. We don’t do this alone as rugged individualists—we do this together—with and for each other in Christian community.

So the question for us today, for this week, for Holy Week, is, where in your life do you need to let go and let God?

Whatever it is you are tightly clinging to, whatever it is you are resisting, that is where God has been nudging you to let go—that is where God is calling you to pray and have a conversation about why it’s hard for you to die to your ego in that situation.

Maybe you are getting up in years, (you’re chronologically gifted!) and your adult children or friends are encouraging you to move to safer, more appropriate residence. Maybe your family life has become so over-scheduled and stressful, and you’re resisting the conversation of what needs to come off the calendar, so you can have more balance and time together. Maybe your body is trying to tell you not to push so hard, but you keep trying to ignore it and muscle through.

We resist because we have to let go before we see what comes next, before we know what will happen, before we see what God is up to. I had to accept being single and trust God to take care of me before I was ready for marriage. I had to tame my ego be okay with just plain old Linda before God could bring me a book (you'll notice it took eight years!), so it could be a tool for God’s love and purpose, not mine.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Letting go of ego needs and expectations, agendas and control, always precedes receiving something new; that is the paschal mystery—death always precedes resurrection and God is in all of it. That’s the hard part for us—to trust that God is with us even in loss and death—the small deaths we have as we grow older, and the big death at the end of our life.

But you’ll notice that God doesn’t leave Jesus hanging out there alone in our Gospel reading. God confirms Jesus’ prayer and their unity with one another in a voice from heaven that everyone around them can hear—I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again. In John’s Gospel, this glory is the LOVE that they share in this intimate relationship, in this close, moment by moment conversation through prayer. We could read, “I have love you and I will love you again”—and not just in name—"name" means the whole being of Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love.

God speaks aloud for OUR sake—so that we know that God is in this with and for Jesus—and not only him; God speaks aloud so that we know that God is in this life with and for US.
Jesus didn’t die into nothingness—he died into God’s love and intimate presence and was raised to new life—a resurrection his followers couldn’t fathom or imagine!

When through prayer, we release control, we fall into God’s love and presence trusting that God will raise us to new life. When we let go, God can bring us something we cannot fathom or imagine. Then we can bear the beautiful fruit of God’s love and intimate presence in our daily lives.

Image: from Fr. Andrew Ricci blog

 

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Seeker-Worthy Worship Welcome

Seeker Worthy Worship WelcomeI have worshipped at seven different congregations since arriving in Texas and it’s been an interesting education on how well we welcome visitors. One congregation did a particularly great job, so I would like to share what worked as a visitor attending church alone.

  • The congregation's website had an “I’m New!” button at the top. In addition to a map with directions, they also listed what to expect, how to dress, programs for children, and so on. They also posted their worship time and address on the first page, so I could easily find it. Congregations that did not design their website for visitors were also not very friendly in person.
  • The most visitor-friendly congregation had clearly marked, visible signs for me to find the sanctuary, the restrooms and the welcome desk once I got inside. Greeters were friendly and seeking me out, rather than chatting with their friends.
  • Worship was about an hour with an engaging sermon. Relevant images on the video screens were used to enhance the sermon; the pastor also used a movie clip in the sermon to help us experience the good news of God’s love rather than just hear it.
  • Brief instructions for Holy Communion were given with visitors in mind, so I knew exactly what to do.
  • Church announcements for "insiders" were kept to a minimum and instead, they relied on two colorful, well-designed announcement pages in the bulletin.
  • Church members sitting near me and in the foyer after worship were friendly and engaging (at over half the congregations, no one spoke to me before or after the service if I did not initiate the conversation).
  • In the parking lot, there was a traffic guide pointing the best way to leave.
  • The week following my visit, I received two emails—one from the pastor and one from the outreach coordinator—thanking me for attending with an offer to receive more information.

Here are the only two suggestions I would make to this most visitor-friendly congregation: designate parking spaces for visitors, and add greeters in the parking lot and at the entrance to the church building so all worshippers are welcomed early and often, including directions for visitors.

How does your congregation fair on these points of a seeker-friendly worship experience: website welcome, signs in the building, easy Communion (or other) worship directions, minimum time spent on insider announcements, friendly members who talk with visitors, engaging sermon with effective use of media, traffic assistance, follow-up emails, visitor parking spaces, and multiple teams of greeters? These practices can help shed the "insider-outsider" vibe we unconsciously emit when we've been a part of a community for a long time. Your congregation could send out your outreach and worship teams in pairs to visit other congregations; encourage them to notice what helps welcome first-time visitors and what does not. This may add new energy and insight on how to become even more seeker-friendly than you are right now!

Image: Calvary United Methodist Church, Ambler, PA (click the link to read their awesome new visitor page on their website!)

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Following Jesus with a Light Hand

Following Jesus with a Light HandCandidating Sermon for Lent 2, Sunday, February 25, 2018 on Mark 8:31-38 to become the Pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson Texas

Nothing like a light and fluffy gospel reading to get us started, together, huh? I was looking for a healing… maybe Jesus’ playing with children…perhaps a miraculous feeding….you know, the Bible’s version of “have a coke and a smile!” But oh no—we’ve got self-denial and suffering, crosses and death, and losing your life in order to save it! And If Peter’s Satan, well, then, I don’t have a prayer. But it is Lent, so, here we go!

Have you noticed that Peter is so right and so wrong at the same time? Two verses before our passage, Jesus asks the disciples, “who do YOU say that I am, and Peter makes his famous confession—"You are the Messiah, the Christ—You’re the savior we’ve been waiting for!” Peter got it right! But then in the next breath, he’s so wrong about what that means. Jesus says he must undergo great suffering, and be killed. Peter says, “no way, Lord. This can’t be the plan of salvation!”

“Get behind me Satan!” Jesus says. “You’ve got the right guy, but the wrong mission.” Peter thinks that Messiah will usher in a new age of political freedom and power for Israel. We understand Peter’s desire for a Messiah who will set things straight, for we spend our lives striving for the same things. We too, want peace and security, success and stability, family and faith —it’s our human nature to pursue a life that is prosperous and successful.

What can be wrong about that? If Peter is both right and wrong about Jesus, maybe we are, too. Jesus clearly says that we must deny ourselves, and take up our crosses in order to follow him—I’m kind of with Peter on this one--it doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? So what does Jesus really mean?

Perhaps it’s easier to start with what self-denial and suffering are not. To deny ourselves is not to demean ourselves, nor to be treated with humiliation, violence or abuse. In the church’s history women were told that staying with an abusive family member was their cross to bear, and this is an incorrect interpretation of the text. Jesus is not asking us to suffer just for the sake of suffering; Jesus asks us to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.

There are places in the world, like North Korea, Somalia, and Afghanistan, where it is a crime to attend Christian worship and believers can suffer violence for the sake of their faith. We need to support and pray for those fellow believers, but that does not mean that we get off scot-free. So, how do we apply this passage to our life when we’re not being persecuted for our faith?

To deny oneself is to dis-own oneself, accepting that all of who we are and all of what we have belong to God. God is the Creator, and we are the creature. It’s a posture of humility, not humiliation. As much as we love the American narrative of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and rugged individualism, self-denial is living in the truth that we are not our own—God is the author and head of our life. This means that all that we have accomplished and accumulated have come to us by God’s grace—yes, we work hard and participate in it, but without God, we are and have nothing.

And we are intimately connected to one another and the whole creation. None of us got here this morning on our own—someone, somewhere, sewed my clothes, built my home and car, made roads so I could drive here. I do not stand before you as a self-made woman—I’m here because family loved me and raised me, teachers educated me, and congregations trained me. Self-denial is keeping our life and therefore all that we accomplish and own, in the proper perspective.

When we accept that all of who we are and all of what have belong to God, we freely give it away to save a life or to help another to know God’s love. We hold ourselves and all of the markers of our success—possessions, job, finances, time, traditions, church—with a light hand, so that it can be used by God for the life of the world. We hold what God has given us with the gratitude of an open heart, so that all the stuff of life does not displace God as the source of our identity, and the center of our life and meaning. This is what the Apostle Paul pointed to when he wrote to the Philippians:

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

Any time we become freed from our attachments, whether it’s a house, or money, or control—we become more available for God to use us and our gifts to help others. We can give sacrificially and be willing to do without for the sake of another.

Martin Luther described this kind of humility toward our life and possessions this way: I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess. It’s the paradox, the irony of the kingdom of God.

• We have everything we need when we claim nothing as our own.
• We receive blessings, when we release possessiveness.
• We experience more life and love not by hoarding, but by sharing.
• We receive peace and security not by grasping in fear, but by opening our life to God.
• We receive success and stability, not by pushing harder, but by letting go and letting God’s power work through us.
• We are strongest when we are weak.
• We save our life, by losing it.

It sounds backwards to our rational mind, but we know from our own experience it’s true. How many of you have gone on a mission trip, built a habitat for humanity house, worked in a food pantry, helped someone in need —any kind of service at all—and in the process of giving away yourself—your time, your possessions or your energy, you felt that you received more than you gave?

Denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus means using that principle, that experience in every area of our life. In taking up our cross, we choose to allow everything we have, to become an instrument for God’s purpose of reaching the most people with love.

The same is true for us as a congregation as it is for us as individuals. I read a study about Lutheran churches that were growing—they studied different contexts, styles and sizes of congregations. Every growing church held a common attitude: The church exists for those who are not its members.  Every congregation that was growing was invested in giving themselves to those who had not yet come in the door. Those who save their life will lose it and those who lose it for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.

What does it mean for St. Luke’s to give away its life for the sake of the Gospel? How do we hold what God has given us with a light hand, so that we can be used as a vehicle for life and salvation for others? That’s a question I hope that we will wrestle with together in the coming months and years. Let me highlight three things that will be important as we seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.

First, we each need to deepen our own spirituality and relationship with God. This is partly why I was interested in St. Luke’s—because you are interested in spiritual growth and depth. I have been training to be a spiritual director, so I can develop skills at helping people deepen their daily walk with God. Peter in our Gospel lesson was engaged in his spiritual life—he was with Jesus, he was listening, wrestling, asking questions and trying to get it. Sometimes he was right, and sometimes he was wrong, and the same will be true for us. What mattered was not that he made mistakes, but that he was in the relationship with Jesus.

A second thing we need to focus on is listening. It’s easy to assume we know what people need when we want to get them involved in church and what we’re doing before we really learn about them. While living in St. Louis, my husband, Dan and I worked in mission development and we went door to door excited to share about God’s love and this new opportunity. But we found it was important to listen to people first, so instead we asked people how we could pray for them and support them. We learned about a lot of pain and difficulty that people were in, including stories from people who had been judged, hurt or excluded from congregations—congregations across all denominations. It really is true that, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. People are hungry to tell their story and to have someone to really listen to them with love. Through your statement of welcome, that’s a gift St. Luke’s offers people.

A third thing we will do as we follow Jesus, we will depend on and watch for the Holy Spirit. God will keep surprising us! If you would have told me a year ago that I would be living in Texas I would have laughed in your face. I was happy in St. Louis and I spent the last two years telling God I wasn’t moving! I wasn’t holding my blessings with a light hand, and you can see how well that worked out! But now I live closer to some of my family and then, there’s this inclusive, spiritual church in Richardson, Texas! I’m not saying that it hasn’t been without pain and loss. We’re not going to pretend that change isn’t painful. I still don’t like being this far away from our two younger children who still live in Missouri. But God can always imagine something greater for us, our family and our church than we can imagine for ourselves! When we hold our life and possessions, our worship and traditions with a light hand, we open up avenues for God to use us in ways we couldn’t have imagined!

Jesus words this morning do not end with suffering, rejection and death! He promises that he will rise again! And Jesus made good on that promise! God is always moving toward, life—and not just eternal life—but abundant life here and now as we open ourselves, our lives, our church, and all that we have, for God’s mission.

For as we hold these blessings, all of God’s blessings with a light hand, we know that God firmly holds us, and this congregation, and this community, and indeed the whole world, in his hands.

Image: Bossfight.co

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O God, Make Haste!

O God Make HasteMy sister, Pam and I are visiting our brother, Doug in San Jose, California for a week. We’ve had fun sharing dinner with some of his friends, helping him out around the house, and just hanging out together. Sadly, I got a head cold/flu over the weekend and spent last night on the couch downstairs, trying not to wake everyone with my coughing.

While here, I’ve been keeping up with my homework for my History of Spirituality class as I work toward a Certificate in Spiritual Direction through Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. One of my readings came to my aid last night as I tried to warm up against the chills and wait for morning to dawn. John Cassian (c. 360-433), church theologian and mystic who wrote Conference X on Prayer, shares a formula from Scripture that he admonishes, “each of us, whatever his [sic] condition of spiritual life needs to use this verse. The man [sic] who wants to be helped in all circumstances and at all times, shows that he needs God to help him in prosperity and happiness as much as in suffering and sorrow.” This prayer, rooted in the Psalms, has been used in the liturgies and prayers of the church for centuries.

The formula is: “O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me” (Psalms 31:238:2240:17, and 70:1). Cassian insists that, “it fits every mood and temper of human nature, every temptation, every circumstance.” I prayed it over and over through the night and found comfort in a repeated mantra that reminded me I was not alone, and that time and illness would pass.

I encourage you to try it today in whatever situation you find yourself. It seems an apt prayer mantra for the season of Lent, especially as we begin it with another school shooting, and more children tragically killed while the country plays politics with their lives. “O, God, make speed to save us; O Lord, make haste to help us.” 

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