Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon for July 15

The reading

1 John 4

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.       Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.  By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  We love because he first loved us.

Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

The message

This is our last week with first John. This letter was written as a follow up to John’s Gospel.  Once people read, heard and experienced the community of faith rooted in John’s Gospel, they came to believe in Jesus Christ the savior. Well sort of, maybe.  People came to some form of the faith taught by Jesus and his followers, but there were other teachers infiltrating the church communities who taught other things.  People were being taught that Jesus was not really human, that Christmas was not really what it seemed, that the word of God was never really made flesh and dwelling amongst us, Jesus was seen as a sort of spiritual being that just gave the illusion of being like us.  

First John was written to correct this and help protect the faithful from other teachings.  Last week, we heard the author of 1st John give some tools to the community to judge what teachers and preachers were saying.  They had to ask “do they preach Jesus was the word made flesh”.  That was the way to measure and figure out if someone was from God. Recognizing the word of God becoming flesh is not just a sentence of doctrine on a list of 100s of other beliefs.  The word of God becoming flesh is a way of life. It is seeing and knowing God is in the world, in suffering, in storms, in the valley of the shadow of death, with the ignored and unlistened to, with separated families on our borders, with the struggling poor, with the mistreated, addicted and okay.  It is the assurance of God’s salvation, reassurance we can trust God’s promises and a sign of God’s great love for us. 

This week, we see the next tool given to the community to judge teachers and verify their words are from God.  We just heard 1st John’s famous verses on love.  We are used to them as readings for weddings or engagements, kind words directing us to care for each other, the kind of bible verses we see printed on coffee cups, t-shirts and church banners.  Really, these bold proclamations of God’s love, verses like “we love because he first loved us”,  “God is love” and the growing in popularity “Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars” have two purposes. They are expressions of Christianity’s main point, not that we loved God, not that we earned our salvation by decisions or good works,  but  rather that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, that Jesus did what we could not. These verses are also tools given to the church to judge and evaluate the words of teachers. Like we ask “do they point to the word of God made flesh and dwelling amongst us, we also ask “does what teachers of God say point to love, create love, push God’s love above everything else, inspire love of neighbor”, We ask does what they say and do point to God’s active, saving love for all people. If the answer to any of those questions is no, or I’m not sure, the speaker should be shut up before they hurt more people, prayed for and taught. If that fails they should be chased away, shut down and dismissed. Others need to be warned as well.

These decisions and judgments are not made lightly. Not everything perspective I or you disagree with, decision I or you dislike or statement I or you are bothered by can be dismissed by these tools.  I'm not comfortable with this, im not used to this, is not the same as this is leading people away from God's love.  They are made in trusted community.  Wednesday, I had 2 very different church experiences, both were new or strange to me.  One  was in a community I knew and one with a group I did not.  In the morning I had the Elmhurst clergy prayer meeting. This is a the group of about 8 to 12 pastors in the neighborhood that meet for prayer, advice and discussion of our ministries.  We are from different traditions, worship styles and ministries.  This Wednesday, we had a very different morning, our normally quiet group turned into a full on contemporary praise and worship service. There were songs some people knew by heart (which I never heard before) and the leaders expressed their gifts and comfort with this spontaneous service.  It started with someone (obviously not me) saying “hey there’s a guitar in the corner, why don’t we sing a song”.  This was all really strange and awkward to me, it was not what I signed up for and not my thing if you will.  At the same time, I knew the pastors there, we had been meeting monthly for almost 2 years, we had prayed together, listened to each other’s struggles, celebrated each others joys and I understood they might not always love the way we normally did things. 

On the train in the afternoon, there was also an unexpected church service, Now, I’m used to one person giving out pamphlets and doing a little sermon, calling people to faith in Jesus.  This was different, this was 15 – 20 people doing a full on church service, singing hymns, saying prayers, doing sermons. This was strange, awkward, I had no connection to them and it just felt terrible.  This service ended with what I can only call a Jesus cheer, give me a J, give me an E, give me S,  whats that spell.  (thankfully at that point, I was at union turnpike and got off the train),  It  was loud, sloppy, weird, long and clearly unwanted, driving people away (Christians and non-Christians alike were fleeing the train car). The singing was horrible  (as a horrible singer, I know, recognize my own)    With respect for putting faith out there and publically expressing it, I just felt embarrassed for them, I couldn’t think of anything nice to say (generally, ill share a word or two of encouragement with people preaching on the subways).  Perhaps I was a bit jealous of their ability to openly share their faith in the best ways they could, saw fit, but having no relationship with them, I couldn’t bring myself to understand or follow.  

Relationship is the key to using these questions about the word made flesh and love to protect the faithful.  In Greek, there are 4 words for love.   Agape, One’s children and spouse, charity, active love, God and us, Eros (erotic or sexual love), Phila (brotherly love, equals hence Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love), storge (love of country, team, family relationships, accepting love).   

I thought about these different types of love as Jennifer and I had our wedding anniversary on the 10th.  We decided to not do gifts this year, just have a nice little trip, dinner, etc. The day before I was out looking for an anniversary card.  Now choosing a card is not easy. There are so many to pick from, so many images, themes, poems and sayings:  I also consider price, expressive quality of message and any card gets extra points for having a cat or sheep on it.  I’m willing to spend more than $1.99 but it better be an amazing card.   Obviously anniversary cards focus on love, commitment, years together, mutual support and all the things we celebrate in marriages and other relationships.  There was one with a rabbit hugging a shrimp with the words “your shrimply the best” written underneath.  Cute but jen does not like shrimp and it was a little weird so I didn’t get that one. It also did not really express our relationship or what I wanted to say (and I wasn’t sure which one of us was the shrimp and which one was the bunny).  I settled on a relatively normal card instead.

First John ends with the same point as the Gospel of John, it’s an invitation to faith, to relationship with God and each other. Standing out among all the other ideas, teachings, and desires, the greeting card in the pile of all the others that you see and go, that’s it. It is God’s invitation to relationship with God and with each other.  Since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another. Our faith is a response to what God has done. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sermon for July 8

The reading

1John 4 1- 6

 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. 4 Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

The message

As we start our third week with 1st John, I want to review a little. 1st John  was written as a sort of follow up to John’s Gospel.  It was necessary to address the ideas scattered around the new churches. People were coming to believe in Jesus as the savior but that Jesus was not the word of God made flesh, that he was not really human, that he was some sort of spiritual being only that just appeared human. (That’s why we have been singing a few Christmas carols each week as we go through 1st John, that’s the time we celebrate the word of God made flesh)  1st John was also written to teach people that what we believe and what we do are connected, that faith in Jesus Christ makes us different and demands change.  

Today, we get to chapter 4 of 1st John, we see where the ideas that Jesus was a spiritual being or that we could do whatever we want came from.  These things were taught. Wandering preachers went from place to place, new church to new church and started to instruct people, pretending that they were sharing visions or revelations from God. They did this for selfish reasons, deceitful reasons, wealth or power seeking, because they just plain misunderstood the Gospel of John or thought they had a real vision but never submitted to have it tested.  These are the people who John calls antichrists.  This is not the same figure as the book of revelation. In Revelation the antichrist  is part of the cosmic, end times battle between good and evil, a place where God’s ultimate victory is described in frightening visions of what could be and secret codes understandable virtually only to the Christian community. In 1st John the word antichrist means anyone is against Christ or trying to be a substitute for Jesus and his teaching, pretending to have some other revelation or new, better news from God,   

We are not quite sure who exactly this letter was written to or who, in particular, this passage was about. From this letter and Paul’s writings, we know these antichrists operated in a few different ways. Some pretended to be from the apostles, others claimed secret revelations made to them, exploited the practice of speaking in tongues, some did magic tricks or faked healing powers. They told people what they wanted to hear and made great promises not supported by the word of God.  Today, we would call what was happening fake news.

This temptation to false teachings has always been around, lurking and deceiving people. A few months ago, I went to see the Book of Mormon on Broadway.  This show focuses on the work of 2 Mormon missionaries sent to convert the people of some bizarre version of Uganda. Before moving on I wanted to share a quick detour into reality, This show was put together by a group of rich people who, as far as I know, have never done a single thing to help the people of Uganda, despite the huge profits they are making off exploiting the very real issues in that place. The Mormons they make fun of, like many churches are actually there trying to help, trying to undo past wrongs and investing resources in making things better.   

In the show one of these missionaries is a super Mormon, well raised, trained and studied, awesome at all things mormon and expecting to do great things. The other is not so awesome. Awkward, uneducated, annoying and socially struggling. They both struggle to make any progress with converting people in this community of extreme poverty, danger from warlords and Aids, other diseases.  The not so awesome Mormon soon discovers if he just makes things up, he can get people interested. He starts to teach that the Book of Mormon speaks about ways to cure AIDS, get rich, come to America and overthrow warlords.  The show ends with the disgraced Mormons and their first converts just starting their own religion ringing door bells and teaching the nonsense they just made up.

The people in Uganda are presented as backwards, ignorant and willing to believe anything. Of course, the reality is they are people desperate for Good News, for recognition and for opportunity. That, if anything, is why they listen.   The truth is this happens.  People in the communities 1 John was written to were told lies as revelation, today, there are churches that tell lies as revelation, who tell people what they want to hear, who twist around scripture, misquote things and come up with ridiculous stuff.   This is not about politics, opinions and ideas for public good.  This is about the central beliefs of our faith. That is when we need to speak.

Live and let live or To each their own are not biblical values, especially when their own beliefs suck, point away from God, deceive or allow the justification of horrible things. 1 John gives the community the tools to fight back.  This week, it is the question “do they teach Jesus has come in the flesh, did the word of God become flesh and dwell amongst us” ,  Why is this so important, Recognizing the word of God becoming flesh is not just a sentence of doctrine on a list of 100s of other beliefs.  The word of God becoming flesh is a way of life. It is seeing and knowing God is in the world, in suffering, in storms, in the valley of the shadow of death, with the ignored and unlistened to, with separated families on our borders, with the struggling poor, with the mistreated, addicted and okay.

This is what Jesus teaches the crowds in Matthew 25  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Next week we will hear 1st John’s famous verses on love.  We are used to them as readings for weddings or engagements, kind words about caring for each other.  Really, they too are tools given to the church to judge and evaluate the words of teachers “does what they say point to love, create love, push God’s love above everything else, inspire love of neighbor”. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Sermon for July 1

July 1 

The reading

John 1:5 This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7 but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

The message

(Due to heat, we changed around worship spaces.  My congregation held worship in one of our school classrooms). 

I have never been in this space for our Sunday Service.  I have been to church here in this place a lot.  Over the years, we have had 2 children’s church services every Friday. I have also been leading the English worship and fellowship for the Church of Grace to the Fujianese every few weeks in Classroom A, 

As I prepared for worship today, I had to think about what we needed to move, what we had to have for church,  We needed bread and wine for communion, music for our hymns, books and bulletins for our worship and a cross to remind us that we gather around the news of Jesus death and resurrection.  Most importantly to be church we need people.  If we gave heaven points or bonuses, you all should get a bunch for showing up today (we don’t, just the same good news and God’s gift of grace for everyone)

 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That is also something we always have at worship.  These words have been part of Lutheran church service as long as I can remember, I say them each week as part of the confession at the beginning of our worship.  

Part of if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. is good psychology,  Virtually all addiction specialists and members of 12 step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, cocaine anonymous, gamblers anonymous or overeaters anonymous (which covers a wide range of food related addictions including eating disorders like bulimia or anexoria ) tell me the same thing.  Before someone can seek help, they must recognize or admit there is a problem.  This usually involves hitting bottom, finding yourself in a situation so bad, you realize something has to change.  This has high limits, sometimes even homelessness, imprisonment, hospitalization or the loss of a family or job is not enough.   Now, waiting for that step is incredibly scary and frustrating. This leaves family, friends and loved ones helpless and worried. People find themselves wondering how can someone not notice and respond to what is happening.     

Of course, the Bible is not a psychology textbook, the bible is not a self-help guide to successful living and the bible is not the key to getting rich.  The bible is a book, given to us so that we can know Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.   Knowing this, the universality, depth and power of God’s love, will help, will lead to real comfort and real peace. Knowing the love of God will lead to real community, friendship or fellowship (whatever you call knowing you and your neighbors are connected as children of God saved by the same Grace)

To be honest, I never knew “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” was from 1 John,  As I looked at the reading for today, I was surprised, oh that’s where those words come from, as though it was some secret church authorities had hidden from even me for all these years.  1st John was written as a follow up to the Gospel of John.  As the first audiences read John, they came to faith in Jesus, who died and rose again for the forgiveness of our sins.  Some people started to think of Jesus as a spiritual being who was never really human, that sin was gone and this new faith was a spiritual practice with no impact on us here and now. 1st John is written to show us Jesus was truly God and truly human. It was also written to show us that sin was real and what we believe and what we do are connected.   

This morning, we hear the writer of 1st John start those arguments with the declaration that sin is real. This is a major part of any Intro to confirmation or Christianity that I teach. The first part of someone’s request for me to explain what we believe in a minute or two.  There is sin in the world, something that separates us from God, some pull towards ourselves or towards sin we cannot overcome alone. This is a foundation for us.  Last week I said goodbye to the kids at Rainbow for the Summer.  During our last children’s church service I shared Jesus parable of the 2 people who built houses, one on sand and one on rock.  (Think of the hymn On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand). I wanted the children to remember the foundations they learned at Rainbow, how to count numbers, name the days of the week or months of the year, their abcs, new math, how to share, that the bible is an important and special book, that God loves everyone.  We are all little children in faith.

The idea that hidden things can harm us is nothing new. The devil in the Screwtape letters or sin in 1st John can be like carbon monoxide, odorless, colorless, invisible. If you know carbon monixide is there, you can turn off the heat, clean out the chimmey, open a window to get fresh air (or you are not cheap and stubborn like me, you could get a professional to fix it). If you don’t know it’s there, it can seriously hurt or kill you.  We hear news of this sort of tragedy every year.  

If you remember our series on the 10 commandments a few weeks ago, Martin Luther uses the law as a sin detector, a loud annoying beep or alarm that drives us to safety, to the cross of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Some people who read John almost 2000 years ago and some people here might think their sins are not forgiven, that they do not sin or they cannot sin because of Jesus,  Sin is real, it really separates us from God, all those distractions.  There are demons, evil in the world, forces that draw us from God toward ourselves, toward temporary and useless things,

The ideas in today’s reading, that sin is real and that Jesus really saves us from it is best explained by a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I cannot say it better so I share Ephesians 2 1-5  You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.  But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sermon for June 24

The reading

1 John 1:1-5  
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us  we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

The message

As we start our time with John’s first letter, I am going to share these opening verses as though they were written for us today, here in Woodside. For those of you have heard the Gospel of John (we just spent about 4 months on it). For those who read this book and it changed you, brought you to faith in our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, revealed to you the power of God in our world, welcome to fellowship and unity in mind and spirit with us. Some of you have heard John’s Gospel with its focus on Jesus 7 signs of power and 7 “I am” statements and started to think that Jesus was a spiritual being, that Jesus was not really quite human, not exactly the word made flesh and dwelling amongst us. For you, we are sharing these things, the full story so that our joy may be complete, we want you to know the truth as revealed to us. Words matter. What we believe and what we do are connected.

Each and every Sunday, we declare to you the good news shared by God with us since creation. We know these things from what we have heard in scripture and life, what we have seen in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in what we have experienced. All of this is concerning the word of life, the good news of God’s redeeming love revealed through the birth, life, death, resurrection and the everlasting promises of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the word of God made flesh and dwelling amongst us.
I know it is almost always just me up here and I keep saying we.  That’s because this is God’s word and there are the teachers and other faithful people who have shaped what I say.  There were Sunday School teachers as a child, people like Mr. Anthony in 4th grade who asked the class, what did Jesus say to the thieves crucified with him and I won a full sized candy bar (the top prize) for saying “I forgive you”. There were the priests I listened to as child, my mother who taught me my prayers and made sure my brother and I went to church. There were professors in a secular college and religious seminary who introduced me to different ideas and traditions. There were other pastors who gave me advice when I was starting out (and do now too). There are colleagues I meet with, people I call in times of trouble. 

There are people I talk with here in this community, whose faith and dedication can inspire another generation. There are the people of St James and St Matthews, as they face a long, complicated transition with faith hope and trust.  There are other places, outside of churches that I work for, where people’s personal faith, life and response to bad things teach me.  There are the commentaries and research I read, people faithfully working in this building, teaching in our school, inviting others in to play, to learn about Jesus.  
There is a whole group of people who faithfully built this place and generously maintain it. Some of them are our family ancestors. One of the amazing moments of the 150th anniversary here was meeting  the family of the guy who made this plaster Lord’s supper that has sat in the center of this church for over a century, that is remembered by people from years ago.  They are part of we as well.  This building is here so that God’s word can be declared to those who know it well and those who have never heard it.  We are here to tell the story of God’s redeeming love.

We are all here to share these things with you. We are sharing them in many ways.  The giving of food in Elmhurst and Jamicia, the Thursday nights at the Pan am shelter, neighborhood clean ups, the support of the ELCA and Metro NY Syond through our giving and my work as dean, offering early education to our community, gathering for worship, walking with people through life passages and difficult times, saying you are in our prayers and doing it. 

Do not be complacent, be changed. This story is one of love, of welcome, of forgiveness, of God here with us and waiting for us.  It can be easily twisted for personal gain, misunderstood by good intentioned people, abused by power hungry sinners, used as a tool to deceive the faithful or combined with other things in faithless ways. The most recent example is the way our attorney general used Romans 13 to justify the policy of separating families on the border. These verses on obeying government, when taken alone would allow any free and fairly or unfairly elected government to justify anything.  This was written by Paul to throw the authorities off the scent of just how subversive and inclusive Christianity was (it was never meant to be taken at face value, how could Paul who explains and expresses the ultimate power of God in so many innovative and thoughtful ways give unchecked power to human government).  When taken in the larger context of Romans 13, the letter to the Romans and the whole story of God’s love, they mean something else. They are a call for us to hold leaders accountable to God’s law of love, to speak for the voiceless and participate lawfully in the world (as best we faithfully can). The word Government is only found in one or two translations (most other bibles say “powers of the world or something like that”  Of course Jeff Sessions is not the only person doing this with scripture, pastors do it, priests do it, I do it, people on the left and right, liberal and conservative all do it. (this just happens to be the big event this week)

 We must always check our work and ideas, asking does this point to God’s power and beautiful vision.  Are what we believe and what we do really connected.  We care about you, not just your comfort or material needs, we care that you know with certainty that God walks with you, that eternal life is yours with the father, that your sins are forgiven, that you are saved by grace through the faith given by our Lord Jesus Christ. . 

This is not a meeting of people who want to make our communities better, this is not a gym, This is a place of fellowship, We mentioned this word, fellowship at confirmation class and no one knew what it meant.  The students got a definition from their phones (which is like cheating) fellowship is something you experience, everyone here is loved by God.  Everyone here is with us in God’s care.  Everyone is deserving, saved by that same grace through the faith given by our Lord Jesus Christ.
In about 30 minutes I am going to run downstairs to lead the English worship for the church of grace to the Fujianese. This means a 45 minute plus sermon, no or few notes, with about 50 people from 5th grade through college. The only thing we have in common is Jesus and that is enough