The Great Cloud of Witnesses

All Saints’ Day is November 1, and our congregation observes this festival on that day or the next Sunday. At our observation of All Saints’ Day, we speak the names of those faithful departed from our family of faith. A verse of Scripture clothes our memory of them. We then toll the bell. This is a time for us to rejoice in the great cloud of witnesses that God has placed in our lives. The faithful departed spoke volumes in their lives by holding dearly onto Jesus Christ.  The way we remember our brothers and sisters in Christ includes remembering the amazing working of God in their lives.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)

The heroes of the past that serve as witnesses to the truth of God’s mercy do so through their vulnerable and honest lives that remained held by the love of Christ on the cross. As I remember the people of the past I do want to revel in the best and the glad. I like to hear the victorious stories filled with moments of valor. I want to rejoice in the good that a person has accomplished.

I hear the desire for the best and the brightest moments when I am preparing to preach at a funeral. I know when I preach at funerals people desire to hear demonstrations of the departed’s virtue. But I also have learned that the faithful departed witness to the truth of God’s grace is found even more forcefully when I recall their weaknesses. I know that it is not appropriate to reveal a person’s dirty laundry. I don’t enter the pulpit at a funeral seeking for the opportunity to bring shame to a family. I try to navigate the space between celebrating their lives but even more emphasizing the necessary grace of Jesus Christ. I want to be honest with the people gathered in grief because the medicine for a hurting soul does not include placing a person on a false edifice of our own goodness. We are saints, holy ones, through the the work of the holy one.  My identity has been secured through the power, pardon, and presence of God. How we remember all the saints in our past is best shaped by how they were witnesses to the truth of Jesus Christ as our savior.

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When I think about the work of God in our saints of the past, I see the creative power of God. I want you to take a moment and think about how God made His creation out of nothing, and He declared it good. I rejoice in the power of God as my creator. I trust that out of nothing He declared light to be present in His creation. I look into my own life, and I know the darkness and nothingness of my own hands.

I have no lasting confidence in my own labors because I know my ability to turn all towards my own pride and selfishness. I am remarkably adept at viewing the world through a lens of my own making. I lie to myself about my certainty about myself and others. I get sure that there is some sliver of me that has accomplished and earned my position. People are either with me or against me. When people enter my life, I find that I quickly size them up. I figure out if I can take them. Intellectually or physically I am always taking measure. Of course in my own system of score keeping I usually am better than you. I don’t like this truth about my personality. I wish I was beyond this, but I have my Jason Bourne moments when I look around a room and figure out where I stand.

In the great cloud witnesses that surround us I discover my measurement system is broken. In the mirror of God’s holy and sacred will for me, my arrogance is shattered. I find my fault, my own grievous and miserable fault is I have claimed the privilege of power in my relationships with people. I view people, and I trust others view me, based on our accomplishments. I earn or lose relationships and so I gain or exhaust my power and position. But from this false and empty and shallow heart God produces in me a new creation. Our Heavenly Father clothes us with the righteousness of his dear son Jesus. From a child of arrogance God’s grace calls me into something new and different. The word of God made flesh in Jesus writes onto my body and soul a new truth. My old self is drowned and a new creation emerges. We are saints because what God has written onto our lives. I give thanks for the great cloud of witnesses that point me to Jesus as my hope and confidence.

So as I look at the story of God at work in the lives of the saints, I find the creating power of God at work in His pardon. I am beloved. I am sacred. I am a child of God because the power of God has brought me pardon. My position and power in relationships is found secure as I trust in God. I can now be vulnerable and weak. I can serve others without a contract of returned favor. I can empty myself for others because I am filled by the endless mercy of God. He will remain my refuge and strength.

When you remember the cloud of witnesses, do you hear their testimony to the power, pardon, and presence of God? I think it will be easier to hear their testimony if you are open to listening to their weaknesses as well as their strength in Christ. Our lives are a living confession of faith in both our sin and our savior.

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Mixed bag of Victory and Struggle

Thoughts from my readings in For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church…

Today I read Judges 8:22-35. Gideon received gold, a lot of gold. Every man placed his gold earrings onto a garment laid out before them, equalling 1700 shekels of gold. Also placed on this garment were other items taken in the spoils of war between Israel and Midian. Gideon then made an ephod from this gold. An ephod was worn by a priest in worship. Gideon placed this ephod in the city Ophrah. All of Israel betrayed their marriage of faith to the Lord God and played themselves the adulteress with this piece of false worship. Gideon and his family also became ensnared by this piece of split worship. The very moment of Gideon’s victory also included the seeds of his very defeat.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this moment of victory and struggle…

Gideon is victorious, the church is victorious, because faith alone is victorious. But Gideon does not overcome, the church does not overcome, we do not overcome, but God shall overcome. And the victory of God means our defeat; it means our humiliation; it means the scorn and wrath of God on all human pride, on trying to be something. It means bringing the silence of the world world and all of its shrieks. It means the crossing up all of our thoughts and plans; it means the Cross, the Cross above the world.

I have been thinking this week about the shape of Christian victory amidst ongoing struggles against sin and disaster. We never stop needing the cross because our victory is by faith alone. We don’t overcome. We don’t become self-righteous through our own deeds. We receive the victory of Jesus, and God alone will overcome. To cross I must go with my sin.

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Reformation/Revolution 

What does revolution look like?

Baptism. Forgiveness. Mealtime. I trust in the revolution that God works in my body and soul. I know the danger of my sin and shame. The power of darkness against me is real. It is so difficult to imagine the glory of God being revealed in the midst of my loss and shame. Jesus Christ overthrows the powers of this age and the evil that lurks around. Through His love revealed for the world in His suffering on the cross, the glory of God shows up in our suffering and humiliation. The revolution of God’s love transforms my present so that I live now inside of promise. Death and the Devil seek to take away my view of Jesus’ love. Satan is working overtime to convince me I am weak and nothing. The shouts of accusations and images of weakness shout at me loss. In Jesus I see the love of God. This light of love shines as a gate when I know myself stuck in disappointment. 

Revolution of Baptism

The spirit of God has called me to have faith in this revolution of hope by pointing me to Jesus. I cannot come to know or believe in this hope but through the work of the Spirit of God I believe. My heart beats. My mind spins. My eyes open. Hope is possible because Jesus is present. The old Adam which brings me death has been drowned in my Baptism. Daily I emerge from the waters a new creation. God is going to work through me. So much risk is underway in God. He will work through me. Revolution from death to life is the promise of my Baptism. I have been called into this world as a child of God. I have something to share with the world. The love of God calls me to speak. 

Revolution of Forgiveness

I take steps forward in my Baptism. My vocation as a child of God compels me forward. I stumble and fall. I say and do the very things I do not want to do. Should I become quiet again? These bones have come to life but I doubt. I know the poison of hypocrisy. I feel I must go back into the shadows again because I do not have the authority to speak. I speak words of this shame to another in my whispers. I hear from him the very words of God, “I forgive you.” I’m called again out of darkness, and I speak again. I can do no other but speak the revolution of being called out of darkness into His marvelous light. Sin and shame try to silence my witness, but I no longer stand on my own righteousness. I stand on Christ. He is my heart beat. 

Revolution of Mealtime

I come weak and weary in my soul to the table of the Lord. My host greets me with welcome. There is room for me at this table. My savior Jesus has set the table with the choicest feast. I do not deserve a place at this meal. I come at the invitation of my savior. He feeds me forgiveness and resurrection in the sacrifice of His body and blood. The revolution of the table greets not only me but all others. By faith in the words “given and shed for you,” I’m worthy to feast at this meal. My place at this table does not come reserved by my own works. From the first to the last we all arrive at this meal with faith in Jesus as our reservation.

Reformation On the Street

What does this revolution rooted in baptism, forgiveness, and mealtime look like in our world outside the walls of our churches? On October 9, 1989, Germans in Leipzig gathered for prayer and song at St. Nicholas Church. They had gathered for prayer on Monday nights since 1982. They participated in a revolution rooted in peaceful hope when they marched around the city. The secret police knew how to respond to violence. They had not been given orders for how to handle a protest that brought revolution through peace. The people, young and old, lived on the streets the revolution of their Baptism. They people answered the voice of death and oppression with the voice of hope and life.

Today the resurrection of Jesus still calls us out of darkness and shame to live in the light of His life. Silence and fear do not order my days. There is a revolution in my body and soul. I now march from death to life.

A monument in Leipzig to those who walked in hope.

Navigating through dark spaces

I listened, while running this morning, to Lawson Inada read his poem, “Concentration Constellation.” I finished my run thinking about the moments of darkness in the lives of people that I have moved past. I know that the light of God shines and scatters the darkness, but do I notice how much the darkness of a person’s life can form an identifying constellation.

The constellations in the sky can help a person navigate. The bright moments of life will be milestones that we can build upon. The dark moments of life also form a foundation. When I look up to the sky at night, I see both the bright points of light and the massive spaces of darkness. In the lives of people I care about, I know there are massive spaces of darkness that remain unknown to me. As we navigate our lives together, the spaces of light and darkness both work upon our relationships. Am I fair to the thunder and lightning that people have experienced, or do I only notice the spring sunshine?

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Full panoramic view of the constellations near the Milky Way by Matt Dieterich

I encourage you to read the poem by Lawson Inada. Lawson Inada is a third generation Japanese American. In 2006, Inada was named Oregon’s fifth poet laureate. When he was a child, Inada and his family were relocated to Jerome Camp in Arkansas. Jerome Camp was one of the internment camps that America established during World War Two for Japanese-Americans.

Concentration Constellation – Lawson Fusao Inada

In this early configuration,
we have, not points of light,
but prominent barbs of dark.

It’s all right there on the map.
It’s all right there in the mind.
Find it. If you care to look.

Begin between the Golden State’s
highest and lowest elevations
and name that location

Manzanar. Rattlesnake a line
southward to the zone
of Arizona, to the home
of natives on the reservation,
and call those Gila, Poston.

Then just take your time
winding your way across
the Southwest expanse, the Lone
Star State of Texas, gathering
up a mess of blues as you
meander around the banks
of the humid Mississippi; yes,
just make yourself at home
in the swamps of Arkansas,
for this is Rohwer and Jerome.

By now, you weary of the way,
It’s a big country, you say.
It’s a big history, hardly
Halfway through – with Amache
Looming in the Colorado desert,
Heart Mountain high in wide

Wyoming, Minidoka on the moon
of Idaho, then down to Utah’s
jewel of Topaz before finding
yourself at northern California’s
frozen shore of Tule Lake

Now regard what sort of shape
this constellation takes.
It sits there like a jagged scar,
massive, on the massive landscape.
It lies there like the rested wire
of a twisted and remembered fence.

Lawson Fusao Inada, “Concentration Constellation” in Legends from Camp (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993).

Serial vs Self-Encapsulated Story

I enjoy binge watching shows through Amazon or Netflix. I bounce between liking shows that have a long story arc that the screenwriters spread across  several episodes and shows that self-encaspsulate a story into each episode. Recently I started watching a show that started as a spy show with each episode being self-contained. Slowly this show introduced a story line that ended up taking them four seasons of episodes to complete. I did not want to pay attention that long to figure out what sinister conspiracy was behind everything. I gave up watching the show. I read the episode recaps on wikipedia to find my desire for resolution satisfied.

I want television shows to find a way to wrap up their storylines after a couple of episodes or one season. Stretching across several seasons to solve the purpose for the show wears me down. I think the television show “Lost” is a great example of a show that started off with a good balance between long story arcs and individual storylines that could be finished up each episode. Unfortunately the show “Lost” became lost in its own story after a while and ended up being a self-indulgent mess.

So I have been thinking about my disappointment in shows that can’t figure out how to tell a story with conclusions and then reflecting on what this means for my preaching. I know as a person in the pew listening to another preacher that I am not very patient with the preacher that has several false endings. I watched a person preach online, and behind the preacher I saw the band shuffling towards their instruments. The band thought the sermon was wrapping up. They knew the cadence of the preacher, or at least they thought they did. The preacher went on for several more minutes. I wonder if that preacher went on with his sermon as punishment to the band that assumed they knew where the sermon was headed.

Humbly, I notice that when I preach I have had this problem. I look at the people shuffling and moving in the pew. I want to tell them, “Oh no, you think my sermon is almost over but I have two more pages of notes. Buckle up and get ready.”

In my own life, I wish each day had a neat conclusion. Days blend into months. Years slide into decades. I still have not found too many neat conclusions in my life. Some stories just seem to disappear because sadly friendships slide away. I wish I was better at nurturing friendships. Other stories in my life keep showing up, even though I want to move on. Satan is amazingly adept at repeatedly turning up in my life.

Some days do develop as self-encapsulated plots. I am glad my marriage has been a long arc in my life that has no end in view. I think my marriage will not become like a show that has gotten lost in its own story because we have made a commitment to each other to remain faithful to the covenant of love. Each story in our marriage has its roots in our promises of love. The stages in our love to each other remain fresh and exciting because we are also connected to the great story that is developing between us.

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I trust that the long story arc of my relationship with God will remain fresh and exciting. I know the end. God is my eternal salvation. I know some days I don’t see the plot, and I get worried that my life is going nowhere special. But during these aimless wandering moments, I have found tremendous strength in rooting myself to God’s promises. The Spirit of God strengthens my soul in dark moments by keeping in my view the light of God’s love. I live in the light of the resurrection, but some days the shadows of betrayal on Holy Thursday seem to hang heavy.

My story with God is different than the television shows I binge. I don’t know how the shows will end, and when I do anticipate the ending the show loses my interest. I know how my story with God will end, but amazingly my interest in God does not get exhausted. I love God revealing the adventure of every day. I think God has figured out how to balance revealing the long story arc and the self-encapsulated story.

Do you see the story that God writes in your days? I hope you see that God fills the story of your days with His love.

Remembering 9/11 – Lost and Found

The fifteen year anniversary of 9/11 causes me to remember how I was a young pastor that struggled to find words to place this attack into any sort of narrative that made sense to me. I was in the third month of being the new pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Niagara Falls, New York. On that day and the days afterwards, I found that Western New York felt both very far away and very near to New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

I was driving north on the 190 towards Niagara Falls. I was about to go over the north bridge off of Grand Island when I heard on the radio that a plane had struck a building in NYC. I was just a few minutes away from my office at Grace. When I entered the church building, I immediately went towards the garage sale donation pile. I remembered that Carl had donated a television for the upcoming garage sale. I plugged the television into the wall. Lisa and I tried to get the antenna positioned to receive the signal from one of the news channels. Lisa returned tried to get some work down, what could we change by staring at the fuzz on the television. I went to my computer to see if I could find out more information. Every page was loading painfully slow. I knew we had slow internet, but every moment I pressed refresh on the browser I waited and waited for any news that this was just an accident. 9/11 was not an accident.

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Randy called and asked me to find a way to join the community in prayer. He wanted his kids to place their trust in God. He understood that trust would be easier to find if we were together. We quickly made calls and arranged for a prayer service. I don’t remember much about the prayer service. I do remember that none of us tried to fill the moments of prayer with cliches, people were honest in silence. Words cold not fill this moment unless there was trust. The trust we had in God did not require that answers would be found. Our trust required that we were not alone.

That same week I was scheduled to host the monthly gathering of local Lutheran pastors. The circuit meeting begins with a worship service. After the service, there is a Bible study and chance to share about our unique contexts. At the service I was expected to preach a sermon. This was the first circuit meeting I had either attended or hosted as a pastor. Remember, I was only three months into the ministry. I expected that pastors who host the circuit meeting would plan to use the sermon from the previous week or test out on the brothers the sermon that would preached on the upcoming Sunday. I knew that last week’s sermon seemed odd to use and I still did not have a bead on the upcoming sermon. Before I left the house, I looked one more time at the upcoming gospel lesson from Luke 15:1-10. Jesus shared with his followers the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin. I did not think I could preach about the celebration after the sheep is found or the coin is discovered. I didn’t see anything in the text besides the celebration. I looked one more time and then I prayed for the Holy Spirit to bring wisdom to my heart and words to my lips. I left the house for the meeting at Grace.

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When the circuit meeting worship service began the words of the liturgy carried us into God’s promises. We confessed our sins, and we received the promise that we are forgiven children of God through the mercy of our savior Jesus. I spoke the the words of Ezekiel 34:11 and following, “For thus says the Lord God: ‘Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.”

I shared the words of St. Paul to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinner, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 15).

It was time for the gospel reading from Luke. I spoke the words of the shepherd searching for the lost sheep, and the woman that searching for the coin. I knew we were not yet in a moment of celebration because the rescuers were still frantically searching the rubble where the planes brought destruction. I knew that there were people around the world feeling lost and disconnected from any narrative of hope. This disconnection did not just come from 9/11. Too many people are living disconnected from hope and are just ghost walking to the next day. How can we bring people back towards seeing tomorrow and the next day as moments kept safe by God?

It was in the words of God I found my story that day, and it remains my story whenever I am feeling disconnected. God is looking for you. I know that this sounds simple. Knowing that God desires to be with me takes away so much anxiousness. We are not alone. The first responders that walked into danger on 9/11 were not alone. The people descending staircases to nowhere where not alone. The people on the plane flying over Pennsylvania were not alone when it was time to act bravely to save lives on the ground. Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, taken upon himself the very loneliness of our suffering, so that we never have to stand alone against Satan and his evil minions.

God is searching. Now you may imagine your story is too small compared to the big stories that others are living. Even if you imagine your story too insignificant, remember the woman searching for the coin. I wonder what her friends thought when she called them all together to have a party after she found the one missing coin. To those friends the coin may have sounded silly. To that woman searching for the coin, the lost coin was worthy of a party. God wants to find you, and you are not insignificant to him. No one has a story too small to be include in the story of God. God is searching for you, and he want to hold a party for you.

Trusting in the Armor of God

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will hear you. You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.” — Jeremiah 29:11-13

The needs are so great in this world it is remarkably easy for us to get frightened and leap directly into danger. A newspaper in Columbia, Missouri had an article in 2013 about why the armadillo can’t cross the road. The nine-banded armadillo over the last 30 years has marched its habitat north into Missouri. I learned that the armadillo often dies on the road for a reason I did not expect. I thought armadillos perish because they bundle into their shells and wait for the trouble to come. In fact, when danger approaches the armadillo will leap 3 to 4 feet into the air. In a nature habitat this leap startles other animals, and it gives the armadillo time to flee. This leap into the air does not frighten the approaching car, so that this defense makes the car even more deadly. The leap puts the animal at the right height to get hit by the bumper or underside of a car. The behavior of the armadillo to leap at danger gives this animal a decided disadvantage in an encounter with a car.

800px-armadillo_at_kennedy_space_center_ksc-07pd-2276The armadillo is a little creature equipped with a number of armored plates that interlock but move independent so that the animal can move about. Unfortunately the armadillo does not always use this armor effectively and instead leaps into danger. God provides armor for us. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). God equips us to move about and stand strong by providing to us truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer. You have been clothed by God to live everyday day in His promises and to share the truth of God’s love with others. Putting on the armor of God means having a deep, ongoing, life-changing relationship with Jesus.

Do you use the armor that God has provided to you to move about and stand against the wiles of the devil, or do you arrogantly act apart from God’s gifts and foolishly leap into danger?

c7f1a8703d59db7fe9ce280a5e28f122I encourage you to consider what God says about the power of His truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and Spirit to protect you from the spiritual darkness of Satan. Satan is a dangerous enemy. I do not want you to leap into the approaching danger of Satan. Gather with other Christians and find the strength of the interlocking pieces of Christian community. It is in the church that you can hear God’s Word and receive the gifts of God. Inside this community we find a safe place to pause and consider some of life’s big questions: Who am I? What is the role of faith and church in my life? How does my faith impact what I say or do every day? These questions are answered together as we hear God’s Word and find nurturing in the promises of Jesus. Together we receive from God His gifts of grace. These gifts of grace are received in Baptism, Confession and Absolution, Holy Communion, and through the Word of God. We participate in this community to not only experience a conversion from death to life but also for life each and every day.

It is impossible for me to imagine life lived without a community of faith. I know that in this world there is pressure to have enough beauty, power, wealth, and stuff. There is pressure to do everything and to do it all perfectly. This quest to be significant and special fails when it depends on our own efforts. As Christians we venture into our callings with humility. We acknowledge that we are not perfect and that we daily need God’s forgiveness for ourselves. We also recognize that the people around us will not be perfect. No doubt the sins, troubles, and despairs of this age could flood us with doubt, but we trust that the Holy Spirit empowers us to refocus our vision and energy to meet the needs of those we encounter each day.

We do face battles here on earth. There is approaching danger on the paths you are walking. You do not need to leap in fright into these dangers. Trust in the armor of God. You are interlocked together with other Christians. You are a part of the body of Christ. You have the ability to drive back darkness and boldly reach out in service to the sick, abused, imprisoned, and others in need. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.

What time is it?

Apple is coming out with a new watch that is intended to make the watch accomplish so much more than just tell us the time. What do you want to know when you look at your watch, a clock, or the sun in the sky? I know I am seeking more than just an understanding of what hour, minute, and second it is at that particular time. When I look at my watch, I am often trying to remember what moment is coming up next. Am I late to pick up the kids? Are the Red Wings about to play? Do I have enough time to leave the office to go for a run around Kensington? What opportunity is next? What have I missed?

The ancient Greeks used two words to understand time. Chronos and Kairos. Chronos refers to the the sequential character of time. Kairos refers to the opportunity of a moment. Kairos is used to describe time 81 times in the New Testament. Time in the New Testament usually does not refer to simply a specific moment of time but rather a season or moment of opportunity when God has entered into our world to show us eternity.

When someone asks me what time the services are at St. Paul Lutheran Church, I quickly answer on Sunday morning at 8:30am and 11am. I also find myself thinking that simply offering a time of day is not enough of an answer. Worship in the Church reveals the promises of God. I do not find our worship services defined only by the time of the service, although are two services do have different styles of music. Sometimes I will think of people as the 8:30 crowd or the 11 o’clock crowd. In the midst of the divisions of services and styles, I hope the time of day does not define our worship service. In the Christian church the worship service is defined by finding ourselves at the appointed moments when God’s promises are delivered to us in the Word and the Sacrament.

On the first day of the week we regularly gather to receive the good news of Jesus. The theme for each week at the congregation I serve is developed by using the Christian calendar. Every year we rehearse and realize the reality of the promises of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Year by year we find our salvation in the work of Jesus Christ confirmed as we celebrated the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost. We anticipate Christ coming to reveal the kingdom of God for us. We rejoice with the angels and the shepherds that the kingdom of God comes to us in the flesh of the infant Jesus born to the Virgin Mary. We marvel at how this good news is a beacon of light for all the nations. We reflect upon our own steps and find when we have faltered the Lord continues to set His face towards Jerusalem and our cross. At Easter I am jolted away from my self-examination and find myself exclaiming, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” Christ is not dead, He is risen just as He promised. Then between Pentecost and Advent we hear Sunday after Sunday that God has equipped us to be His people. Every year we cycle through these promises to set the pace of our Christian life just as a pacemaker supports the rhythm of a tired heart.

This year we enter the season of Lent on Wednesday, February 18. For centuries, Lent has been a time of preparation for the Church. We gather for the special occasions of worship of this time to prepare ourselves to receive the gift of Christ dying on the cross and rising from the dead in victory. We prepare ourselves to receive the gracious gift of Christ at Easter. Ash Wednesday is a meaningful time of devotion with the ashes placed on the foreheads. The ashes call to mind our mortality and dependence on God for our life and salvation. Each following Wednesday night in Lent is a time for short services that have traditionally focused on themes circling around the cross or the catechism.

Each year we make this movement towards the cross and the tomb and the resurrection. Every time I find myself singing praises to the Lord. Thank God He has found me lost and condemned in the ashes and He has made me a new creation.

Unity in the Cross and not the Ceremony

Amos was a prophet who spoke against the vanity of big ceremonies when the lives of the people are filled with injustice and unrighteousness. Amos 5:18-24 was the Old Testament read yesterday in my congregation. I preached on this lesson, and I found myself still circling around this text when I woke up today. I want to figure out how to bring unity to worship and life so that the promises of God are found in more than just the words of worship.

I think it is important to wrestle with the struggle between words and works. Many people struggle to bring unity to worship and life. I do not want to be content with big ceremonies that are matched with lives weak in justice and righteousness. So I think congregations will be stronger when we are united in more than just the externals ceremonies and rites.

Our true unity is found when we are assembled by the rescuing words of Jesus. My connection to God is not found in the beat of the song that I sing, the flowing of my robes, or the particular posture of my hands when I pray. The foundation for my unity with God is not found in my works. I am one with God because of the work of Christ. How does this unity with Christ through His work change the works of my own hands?

Congregations must find unity in the work of Christ. The work of Christ is the lens through which we are called to understand ourselves and also how we are called to see others. I am tired of seeing my enemies in fear and worry, I want to see all people as ones whom Christ loves and seeks to redeem. I think the only way I can change how I see people is to trust in the work of Christ to be the one who brings rescue.

I am not seeking a unity in just externals. I am not seeking a unity built on an empty promise of acceptance. I am seeking unity in the forgiveness of sins found in Christ Jesus. I want to be united in the truth that we are all sinners, and only through the working of the Spirit of God will we repent of our sin and trust in Jesus.

I am confident the culture of a congregation can be transformed when the unifying principle is no longer driven by fear or comfort. The culture of a congregation can be turned towards justice and righteousness when the cross cultures us to see how God is at work among the weak, broken, and struggling.

Justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a stream in our lives when we find ourselves united to the work of Christ on the cross.

Building with the love of Christ for the weak and struggling

WelcomeI want the congregation I serve to be a community in which young children are encouraged to be present in worship. I understand that this summer two different young families left a worship service after others made them feel decidedly not welcome with their children. I understand the frustration of trying to focus during the Divine Service while distractions swirl in the noise scape. I think though that if a young mother is approached about her child being too noisy, the effort should be aimed towards help and aid. If a young mother leaves the worship service in tears and anger then something has decidedly gone wrong.

So this Sunday I used the occasion of the gospel text being Matthew 18 to preach about how our community of believers must be built on the foundation of the love of Christ. The sermon was heavy on the law. I do not think I brought the healing and strengthening and transforming gospel well enough forward in the sermon.

I began the sermon talking about how we have been created for community in the very ordering of creation. We have been made male and female; we have been made to be in relationship with others. Relationships become broken because of sin. When we attempt to rebuild relationships to have them center around ourselves, these sorts of relationships cannot stand for long. The tower of Babel in Genesis 11 is an example of people failing to build community because they sought to make a name for themselves instead of seeking to honor God. Relationships that are built on selfish pursuits instead of seeking the strength of the other are scattered by God.

God, in His mercy, seeks to bring healing to our broken relationships. Jesus Christ has come so that we might be reconciled to God and so that we might be reconciled to one other. While we ruin our relationship with God and with one another through our vain selfishness, God restores us to a right relationship through the self-sacrifice love of our savior Jesus.

In 1 Corinthians 3:10-14 I am reminded of the danger of starting to build our community on Christ but then setting aside His love to finish the task of building using our own vanity. St. Paul points out that anyone who builds on Christ with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw will be found to be a fraud on the day of judgment. We are called to build on Christ and continue to daily build our lives on the forgiving love of Christ. When we use the love of Christ for the weak and struggling among us we will find that the big bad wolf can huff and puff but he cannot blow our house down. We must build and continually seek to build our community of faith through the love of Christ. When another among us is weak or hurting our aim is to restore him or her.

Thinking of how a community of people building on the love of Christ should respond to a mother struggling with her young children in the worship service, I ask that we consider how our response could help to build that mother up or tear her down. I hope we can build up young families by building them up in the love of Christ.

Sermon September 7, 2014 from St. Paul Lutheran Church on Vimeo.