Jan 4, 2015
Little Invitations
Series: (All)
January 4, 2015. All of us, everyone, wants to know their lives have a meaning apart from the day-to-day, that they have a purpose in their lives. Pastor Penny preaches on the first chapter of John, how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and how we are given the power to become children of God. In this season of Epiphany, what we do is share that gift by sprinkling little invitations around our lives, inviting people to know that God is with us, through this life and into the next.
 
*** Transcript ***
 
We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 
As Becky was gathering up the last of her Christmas cards, she felt a familiar pang in her heart realizing that once again, neither of her brothers had sent her a Christmas card. She and her brothers had become kind of estranged. They had become distant. Her older brother, who was always very outgoing and popular, had gone into sales -- and he'd gone right to the top and he was moving in social circles that were different from Becky's. He had several houses in different cities, and she kind of figured he was spending the holidays abroad. She hadn't heard from him in years. Her younger brother was a different story altogether. He had started drinking, and the drinking had taken over his life and his personality. And Becky had pleaded with him. She had warned him. She had loaned him money. When nothing seemed to help she just cut it off, and he kind of drifted away, and she had not heard from her younger brother for years. But as she was cleaning up and putting her decorations away, it just kept bothering her. She remembered old Christmases where they all had such fun, she and her brothers. And she wanted so badly to reconnect, so she decided to do something different. She decided she would call them. She had phone numbers and she thought they might still work.
 
When her older brother received the call, he was on his sailboat. He saw on his caller ID, to his surprise, it was his sister. "Becky? What does she want?" He thought about it. He was so hesitant to pick up. "What do we have in common?" he thought. "What could I say to her? This would be very uncomfortable. I'll just let it go to voice message and maybe I'll text her later." And he went back to his book and to his martini. When Becky's younger brother got the call, he was in his trailer house. And he too saw on caller ID that it was his sister, and immediately he felt guilty. The last words she had said to him were very harsh, and he had let her down so many times. He hesitated to pick up. All he could feel was shame. But then he knew that what she had said to him was what saved him, because he finally heard it, and he finally gave up drinking and had been clean for a year. And so he reached over, hoping that she would forgive him, and he picked up.
 
Like Becky's brothers, when God calls us -- and God does, through our conscience, through other people, through the scriptures -- when God calls us, we too are often hesitant to pick up. We know the voice at the other end might tell us something about ourselves we don't want to hear: that we drink too much, or that we should quit smoking, or that we should never talk to our spouse the way we do, or that success has gone to our heads -- whether it's at school or in the office or in sports -- it's become everything, or that we haven't become very generous in our lives. We are hesitant to pick up when God calls.
 
And we hear in the scripture today that God knew that would happen from the very beginning. And so God created a plan to rescue us from this disconnection with God that we insist upon. And it is in the Book of John that we hear this plan most vividly described. You know, Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- those gospels tell the story of Jesus. But John tells it and tells what it means. John gives us the plan that God had for rescuing us. John, the Gospel, is the one that we read part of together back and forth this morning. It starts out in a very poetic manner: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." And then a little later: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
 
Well, we can tell now where it's going. The "Word" obviously is Jesus. In Jesus, God became flesh. But why call Jesus "the Word?" That is very strange -- until you think of the fact that words are our best way of communicating. I can imagine that most of you who have been parents have looked into the face of a screaming infant and thought, "Oh, if she could only tell me what she needs." You know, words. They are the most effective way that we can share something from our heart to someone else's heart. And of course then what better thing to call Jesus, who is God's way of communicating with us? But as John goes on to describe the Word, we find out that the Word became flesh and dwelt here on the earth. But some people didn't accept the Word, while others did. And then comes, I think, one of the most beautiful passages in scripture, where John says, "But those who accepted him, who believed in his name, were given the power to become children of God."
 
There is not a person in this world who does not want to be connected to something bigger than themselves. They may think of it as God. They may think of it as fame or posterity. All of us, everyone, wants to know their lives have a meaning apart from the day-to-day, that they have a purpose in their lives. All of us want to know or be comforted by the thought that when we take our last breath, that's not the end of us. And here is that promise: those who accept him are given the power to become the children of God, the family of God, flesh and blood with God. That means that God promises to be with us and protect us and to be bonded to us, past the time we take our last breath in this life. So that's the plan that John reveals.
 
But then we go to the gospel and suddenly we come out of the cosmic realm, and we land firmly on the ground. In fact, our feet are in the dusty town of Bethlehem. And it's two years or so after Jesus is born, and he's a toddler. And Mary and Joseph are probably living in a modest home. And they have visitors, strange people. Now, of course, we always want to tidy things up in the church so we've glamorized these strange people, we've called them kings. But the Bible doesn't say that. They are called in the Greek "Magi" -- magicians, sorcerers, astrologers. And they were on the fringe of society. They were not highly regarded people. In the book of Acts, Paul encounters a Magi and calls him son of the devil. And yet these fringe people were guided by something that they were familiar with, a star, to the very place where Jesus was born.
 
Now, they had gone to look for him in a palace where you would look for a king. But they had come to a little dusty town, and there through the eyes of faith that were given to them, they could see in this little toddler a king. And they fell down on their knees in front of him and worshiped him, and gave him gifts. That event, of course, is called the Epiphany. It's celebrated in the church year on January 6th every year, which is Tuesday. Today we're kind of celebrating it in advance. And the time in the church year, after Epiphany to the beginning of Lent, is called the season of Epiphany. We remember that event for lots of reasons. But I think today it teaches us two things: it reminds us, as we have been reminded so many times, that God builds God's kingdom with people on the fringe, probably because they're the ones that will answer the call, they will pick up. The other thing it tells us is that God uses things that are familiar to people. The stars were familiar to the Magi. That's what they studied. And so it was a star that drew them to Jesus. In the Bible, God uses ordinary people: David, Abraham, the disciples. I firmly believe that what God wants us to hear from this account, this story today, is that we are the familiar people that draw others to Christ, that we are the stars that make that call.
 
Now it's not easy to make a cold call. So what we do is we sprinkle "little invitations" around in our lives. Maybe a mug that says "Christ Lutheran Church" that's on your office desk. Or maybe in your home there's a plaque, a religious plaque, that kind of describes your faith. Or maybe when someone has revealed a deep problem to you, you conclude the conversation with something like "I'll pray for you." We set out these little invitations because there is not a person in our offices, in our home rooms, in our book clubs, or on our soccer teams, who does not want to be connected to something beyond themselves, who does not want to know that their lives have meaning and purpose, who does not want to be assured that their lives will have meaning past the time they take a breath. And so we leave these invitations knowing that sooner or later, someone will come up to us having seen these little hints and say something like, "My wife and I are kind of having a hard time, and we've been thinking about finding a church." Or, "We are looking for a place to baptize our child." Or maybe just, "You know, I've been feeling that there must be more to life. I've been feeling that I'm missing something. You go to church. Why do you do that?"
 
And then that's when we need to have a very short statement about what it means, what our faith means. And we've heard some beautiful ones over this last year, as some of you have done the welcome at the beginning of worship. We've heard people say that "I come to church because this is my anchor" or "I come to church because I want to be in this community" or "I come to church because this is where I know I'm forgiven" or "I come to church because I need to be here." It's not easy to talk about our faith. And I'm as shy as any one of you to talk about it outside of these walls. But we are not being asked to sell people something, to promote something, to push an idea on someone, or to disrespect their spirituality. God works in mysterious ways. God worked through sorcerers today. What we are simply doing is inviting people to experience what we experience, to be in the family, to be flesh and blood with God, to know that God is with us through this life and into the next. All we're doing is inviting people to be what God, by God's grace, has allowed us to be: children of God.
 
Amen.
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2015, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, John 1:1-18, Acts 13:8-12
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  • Jan 4, 2015Little Invitations
    Jan 4, 2015
    Little Invitations
    Series: (All)
    January 4, 2015. All of us, everyone, wants to know their lives have a meaning apart from the day-to-day, that they have a purpose in their lives. Pastor Penny preaches on the first chapter of John, how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and how we are given the power to become children of God. In this season of Epiphany, what we do is share that gift by sprinkling little invitations around our lives, inviting people to know that God is with us, through this life and into the next.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    As Becky was gathering up the last of her Christmas cards, she felt a familiar pang in her heart realizing that once again, neither of her brothers had sent her a Christmas card. She and her brothers had become kind of estranged. They had become distant. Her older brother, who was always very outgoing and popular, had gone into sales -- and he'd gone right to the top and he was moving in social circles that were different from Becky's. He had several houses in different cities, and she kind of figured he was spending the holidays abroad. She hadn't heard from him in years. Her younger brother was a different story altogether. He had started drinking, and the drinking had taken over his life and his personality. And Becky had pleaded with him. She had warned him. She had loaned him money. When nothing seemed to help she just cut it off, and he kind of drifted away, and she had not heard from her younger brother for years. But as she was cleaning up and putting her decorations away, it just kept bothering her. She remembered old Christmases where they all had such fun, she and her brothers. And she wanted so badly to reconnect, so she decided to do something different. She decided she would call them. She had phone numbers and she thought they might still work.
     
    When her older brother received the call, he was on his sailboat. He saw on his caller ID, to his surprise, it was his sister. "Becky? What does she want?" He thought about it. He was so hesitant to pick up. "What do we have in common?" he thought. "What could I say to her? This would be very uncomfortable. I'll just let it go to voice message and maybe I'll text her later." And he went back to his book and to his martini. When Becky's younger brother got the call, he was in his trailer house. And he too saw on caller ID that it was his sister, and immediately he felt guilty. The last words she had said to him were very harsh, and he had let her down so many times. He hesitated to pick up. All he could feel was shame. But then he knew that what she had said to him was what saved him, because he finally heard it, and he finally gave up drinking and had been clean for a year. And so he reached over, hoping that she would forgive him, and he picked up.
     
    Like Becky's brothers, when God calls us -- and God does, through our conscience, through other people, through the scriptures -- when God calls us, we too are often hesitant to pick up. We know the voice at the other end might tell us something about ourselves we don't want to hear: that we drink too much, or that we should quit smoking, or that we should never talk to our spouse the way we do, or that success has gone to our heads -- whether it's at school or in the office or in sports -- it's become everything, or that we haven't become very generous in our lives. We are hesitant to pick up when God calls.
     
    And we hear in the scripture today that God knew that would happen from the very beginning. And so God created a plan to rescue us from this disconnection with God that we insist upon. And it is in the Book of John that we hear this plan most vividly described. You know, Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- those gospels tell the story of Jesus. But John tells it and tells what it means. John gives us the plan that God had for rescuing us. John, the Gospel, is the one that we read part of together back and forth this morning. It starts out in a very poetic manner: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." And then a little later: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
     
    Well, we can tell now where it's going. The "Word" obviously is Jesus. In Jesus, God became flesh. But why call Jesus "the Word?" That is very strange -- until you think of the fact that words are our best way of communicating. I can imagine that most of you who have been parents have looked into the face of a screaming infant and thought, "Oh, if she could only tell me what she needs." You know, words. They are the most effective way that we can share something from our heart to someone else's heart. And of course then what better thing to call Jesus, who is God's way of communicating with us? But as John goes on to describe the Word, we find out that the Word became flesh and dwelt here on the earth. But some people didn't accept the Word, while others did. And then comes, I think, one of the most beautiful passages in scripture, where John says, "But those who accepted him, who believed in his name, were given the power to become children of God."
     
    There is not a person in this world who does not want to be connected to something bigger than themselves. They may think of it as God. They may think of it as fame or posterity. All of us, everyone, wants to know their lives have a meaning apart from the day-to-day, that they have a purpose in their lives. All of us want to know or be comforted by the thought that when we take our last breath, that's not the end of us. And here is that promise: those who accept him are given the power to become the children of God, the family of God, flesh and blood with God. That means that God promises to be with us and protect us and to be bonded to us, past the time we take our last breath in this life. So that's the plan that John reveals.
     
    But then we go to the gospel and suddenly we come out of the cosmic realm, and we land firmly on the ground. In fact, our feet are in the dusty town of Bethlehem. And it's two years or so after Jesus is born, and he's a toddler. And Mary and Joseph are probably living in a modest home. And they have visitors, strange people. Now, of course, we always want to tidy things up in the church so we've glamorized these strange people, we've called them kings. But the Bible doesn't say that. They are called in the Greek "Magi" -- magicians, sorcerers, astrologers. And they were on the fringe of society. They were not highly regarded people. In the book of Acts, Paul encounters a Magi and calls him son of the devil. And yet these fringe people were guided by something that they were familiar with, a star, to the very place where Jesus was born.
     
    Now, they had gone to look for him in a palace where you would look for a king. But they had come to a little dusty town, and there through the eyes of faith that were given to them, they could see in this little toddler a king. And they fell down on their knees in front of him and worshiped him, and gave him gifts. That event, of course, is called the Epiphany. It's celebrated in the church year on January 6th every year, which is Tuesday. Today we're kind of celebrating it in advance. And the time in the church year, after Epiphany to the beginning of Lent, is called the season of Epiphany. We remember that event for lots of reasons. But I think today it teaches us two things: it reminds us, as we have been reminded so many times, that God builds God's kingdom with people on the fringe, probably because they're the ones that will answer the call, they will pick up. The other thing it tells us is that God uses things that are familiar to people. The stars were familiar to the Magi. That's what they studied. And so it was a star that drew them to Jesus. In the Bible, God uses ordinary people: David, Abraham, the disciples. I firmly believe that what God wants us to hear from this account, this story today, is that we are the familiar people that draw others to Christ, that we are the stars that make that call.
     
    Now it's not easy to make a cold call. So what we do is we sprinkle "little invitations" around in our lives. Maybe a mug that says "Christ Lutheran Church" that's on your office desk. Or maybe in your home there's a plaque, a religious plaque, that kind of describes your faith. Or maybe when someone has revealed a deep problem to you, you conclude the conversation with something like "I'll pray for you." We set out these little invitations because there is not a person in our offices, in our home rooms, in our book clubs, or on our soccer teams, who does not want to be connected to something beyond themselves, who does not want to know that their lives have meaning and purpose, who does not want to be assured that their lives will have meaning past the time they take a breath. And so we leave these invitations knowing that sooner or later, someone will come up to us having seen these little hints and say something like, "My wife and I are kind of having a hard time, and we've been thinking about finding a church." Or, "We are looking for a place to baptize our child." Or maybe just, "You know, I've been feeling that there must be more to life. I've been feeling that I'm missing something. You go to church. Why do you do that?"
     
    And then that's when we need to have a very short statement about what it means, what our faith means. And we've heard some beautiful ones over this last year, as some of you have done the welcome at the beginning of worship. We've heard people say that "I come to church because this is my anchor" or "I come to church because I want to be in this community" or "I come to church because this is where I know I'm forgiven" or "I come to church because I need to be here." It's not easy to talk about our faith. And I'm as shy as any one of you to talk about it outside of these walls. But we are not being asked to sell people something, to promote something, to push an idea on someone, or to disrespect their spirituality. God works in mysterious ways. God worked through sorcerers today. What we are simply doing is inviting people to experience what we experience, to be in the family, to be flesh and blood with God, to know that God is with us through this life and into the next. All we're doing is inviting people to be what God, by God's grace, has allowed us to be: children of God.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2015, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, John 1:1-18, Acts 13:8-12
  • Aug 17, 2014Ferguson
    Aug 17, 2014
    Ferguson
    Series: (All)
    August 17, 2014. In this sermon, Pastor Penny compares the story of Jesus healing the Canaanite woman's daughter with the situation in Ferguson, MO following the shooting there of Michael Brown, and suggests ways we might overcome the violence by individually reaching out and getting to know people.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
     
    The woman shouldn't have come out of the shadows. She shouldn't have tried to cross that invisible line of prejudice. She was a Canaanite woman. Canaanites had been cursed by the Jews from the time of Noah. She had the wrong culture, the wrong gods, and she was a woman. Women should not begin a conversation with a man they don't know -- certainly not with a Jew if she was a Canaanite. But you see, this woman had a daughter, a daughter she loved, who some time in her life had been imprisoned by a demon who made her violent toward herself and toward others so people feared her and hated this daughter, and who gave her horrible fits. And in the middle of one of these convulsions she often locked eyes with her mother, and her mother could see the fear in her daughter's eyes and could see that question, "Mommy, why can't you help me?"
     
    And so when this Canaanite woman heard about this healer Jesus coming, she could not stop herself. She stepped out of the shadows and she began shouting again and again, "Have mercy on me Lord, son of David, because my daughter is being tormented." And then Jesus did nothing. But his disciples said, send her away, she's not one of us. She's not our problem. Jesus didn't do that, but he refused to help her. He said, it's not in my job description. I've been sent here to help the the Israelites. Not people like you. But this woman had such a love for her daughter, such a desire to have a healing touch for her daughter, that she further humbled herself by getting down on her knees in front of Jesus and said, "Lord, help me." And then Jesus so uncharacteristically insults her. He said, it is not fair. It is not just. It is not morally right for me to take the bread from the children of Israel and throw it to dogs. Now in Jesus' day, to call someone a dog was a terrible insult. In Greek you can see he softens it a little -- he calls her a puppy. But nevertheless, here's this woman needing help at the feet of Jesus, and it seems that because of this separation between Jews and Canaanites she is not being helped. Did Jesus' compassion end with that ethnic group? Now there have been many things written about why Jesus acted the way he did. Some say well, he was testing her faith or testing the disciples' faith. Some say no, he really thought that God only wanted him to give help at this time apparently to the Jews. But whatever the reason, here is a woman who, because of this ethnic difference, is refused help.
     
    I don't think it's too hard to compare the situation of the Canaanite woman with what has been going on in Ferguson. Because I believe that the shooting of Michael Brown, and the violence that followed, is a result of the fact that we are separated from each other. And some of us have separated ourselves from those who look different or have a different socioeconomic background. "White flight" has left areas of St. Louis City and County without a tax base, without good schools, without jobs. It's not surprising that those areas have crime. And of course the media is very happy to show us that crime again and again. But I believe that what's happening, the crime and the violence that we see, is because we don't have a knowledge of people who look different or have a different background than we. We go on those stereotypes that we are given in the media -- on both sides, I think, of the color line. And those stereotypes do nothing but incite fear. And fear incites violence.
     
    We don't know each other. There's an area in Chicago that apparently has so much crime they call it Chiraq: "Chicago" and "Iraq." So many murders. There was an editorial by some fifth graders from Chiraq in the Chicago Tribune a few weeks ago, and they were taking the media to task for swooping in every time there's a murder, covering it, and swooping out and never getting to know the people. And so their essay is called "You Don't Really Know Us," and I'll read a few excerpts. "We want you to know us. We know that man on the corner. He works at the store and gives us free Lemonheads. The people in the suits are not people going to funerals. They're going to church. If you listen, you'll hear the laughter and chattering coming from the group of girls on the corner who are best friends, and who really care about each other. Do you see the smile on the cashier's face as kids walk in the store? Why? Because this neighborhood is filled with love. This isn't Chiraq. This is home. This is us."
     
    If we don't know each other, I think it spawns fear. And that spawns violence. By the grace of God, in the story that we heard about Jesus, this Canaanite woman is able to bridge the gap between the Canaanites and the Jews by her humility. She does it as she's kneeling before Jesus. And she catches that insult he throws, but she uses it. She says yeah, I am a dog. I'm not powerful. I'm not that important. I make lots of mistakes. But even dogs get the crumbs that fall from the children's table. By the grace of God, she had so much faith -- even this non-believer -- that she believed God's compassion extended to her. By the grace of God she believed that Jesus not only had enough power to help her, but wanted to. And of course from that point on everything changes in the story. We see the Jesus we knew we would see. He is overwhelmed by her faith. And in the Greek (you can read it in the Greek, it's even clearer) he says, "Oh woman, your faith is so strong, may it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
     
    I think the only way we are going to overcome the violence that we have seen in Ferguson, that can pop up anywhere and that does everywhere across the country, is if we get to know people who are different from us. I think our congregation is on the right track. The mission trip that the youth took was intended to help them see a way of life that they are not used to. The mission trip to the Native American reservation is intended to do the very same. But other things that have happened here: the working with the Epworth youth a week ago or so, going to Gateway 180 homeless shelter for VBS, helping with childcare at with Humanitree, clients who have been homeless. All these things that we do together are ways that we can bridge that gap, get to know people -- really know them, not just what is said about them.
     
    But I think when it finally comes down to it, the only way things are going to change is if we individually reach out. I mean, it might be as simple a thing as talking to someone at the store you don't usually talk to, or befriending someone at school or at the office that you aren't usually a friend with. One of you told about last week being on the Metrolink train that was stalled for an hour. And this was after the shooting of Michael Brown, and there were both African Americans and white people on that train and there was, as she said, a real obvious effort for people to be a little more polite to each other, a little kinder to each other.
     
    I don't really know what the answer to the violence is or how it's going to be changed. But I know from today, and we know from Jesus' life, he wouldn't have walked by that woman. He was always going to help her some way or another, and he did. And I know why our hearts tell us to do the same, because we are like that Canaanite woman. Maybe more like her daughter. We daily turn to our Heavenly Father, sometimes with fear in our eyes, saying please help. Please help me through this. Please give me guidance. Please protect my family. Please help me with my finances, with my health. And Jesus, like the loving Canaanite mother, looks at us and has so much love for us, that he also humbled himself but to the point of death in order to heal us, and be able to tell us yes, God will always be with you.
     
    I don't think the killing of Michael Brown was an incident between one police officer and one young man. I think it is the result of years and years of injustice and hatred and misunderstanding. It's part of a system. And we're part of that. All of us. And now our great healer, our greatest friend, reaches to us and says, "I need your help." Hold out a hand of healing. And I believe by the grace of God we are, and we will reach out that healing hand.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Matthew 15:21-28, Mike Brown, Darren Wilson
  • Feb 2, 2014Papua New Guinea
    Feb 2, 2014
    Papua New Guinea
    Series: (All)
    February 2, 2014. Pastors Penny and Keith talk about their recent trip to Papua New Guinea.
     
    [In this sermon, Pastor Penny and Pastor Keith refer to photos that were being displayed by projectors in the church at the time.]
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    [Pastor Keith]
     
    Well we've heard about Simeon in our reading this morning as one who held this Christ child and said he is the light of the nations. And this gospel that comes through Jesus then is the light to all nations, and we're going to focus this morning on it being the light to a place in the world called Papua New Guinea. It's just north of Australia. And the part that you see in orange there is the part that's Papua New Guinea. The island is divided in half. It's the second largest island in the world. But the part that's in orange, and then New Britain and some of the other islands around it, make this country that's in partnership with our Central States Synod, ELCA. We've been in partnership for many years now. Different people in our synod, including a former bishop, have lived in Papua New Guinea during part of their lives. So we have a partnership with Papua New Guinea, as well as with Eastern Russia, the Urals, and Siberia. People from there were with us this summer, and we hosted a dinner for them back in June. But today's focus is on Papua New Guinea.
     
    This is a picture of our delegation. See Penny there, and the mission developer in our synod office, and pastor Gary Teske, who most recently was pastor at Lawrence, Kansas. Now he's retired, but still working with our companion synod committee. The two other men you see there are Walter and Phillip, two men who were the ones who took us around and took care of us on this trip. I want to talk about the last Sunday morning we were there. We went to this church at a place called Sattelburg. It's kind of in a German style; you can see it looks like a cathedral. The mission was started by Germans about 1886, late 1800s, when Germans had come to put in plantations and to take trees for wood. There was a pastor who came first to be minister to the workers, but then noticed all the people who were doing the low-level work, the natives, and began to change his idea from being a chaplain to the German workers, to being a missionary to the workers who were doing the hard work. And so he started that in this area. It took a long time, maybe 25 years or so, to get conversions to happen.
     
    But this church is on a very high mountain, one of the highest places in that area. And as you probably recall, important things happen in the spiritual world on mountains. In the Old Testament we have several things that happen on mountains. And the normal lesson for today, if we weren't doing the Presentation of Our Lord, would include the words of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus was on a mountain to speak. So, high places like mountains, in both more native religions as well as Christianity, can be important parts. And so it was a symbol to have a Christian church on this mountain that had been the premier spot for the native religion of Papua New Guinea. For the people it was their high, holy place. And so their religion went away, and Christianity came to take that place. And so this is at this place called Sattelburg.
     
    Well for once on the trip, we were early for something. We were early for church. And so we'd ridden in this pickup up there. And so we were talking, waiting for the worship to happen. And the man you see on the right had been in our conferences all week. Even though he was an older man, he was always concerned that the stewardship plans that we were talking about were not modern enough, that they would not appeal to the young people. And so we heard from him in other ways, both in the pigeon, that normal language, and he could speak English also. But here we begin with a new theme, and he talked to us with a big thank you. He said, "I want to thank you for being here." First I thought he meant like other people we've run into, people on the reservation or people in El Salvador, or others who say, "Thank you for being here because it just helps us keep up hope." But that was just his start. He did thank us for coming, but he said, "I mean 'you,' as all of your people who have brought the gospel to us. We would not be the same. We would be back in slavery to death," like we heard in our Hebrews lesson today, "If it weren't for the gospel having come here. It's completely changed us as a people, both in ways that make for good institutions, but especially in our faith. It changes how we think." And so he was one who thanked us as representing all those who have come before, as ones who brought the gospel to him and to those people.
     
    We talked to Pastor Gary Teske, who was with us on this trip. He had been a missionary in the western highlands for about nine years. In our conversations we asked Gary, how did you come into villages that have never heard a word about Jesus or the gospel, and make any change with them? He said well, we'd arrange a meeting with either the tribal elders, and other people would come, and we'd say you live under this "slavery to death." That is you live under, in your former religion, the fear always of what the spirits of the ancestors are going to do to you today. Are you going to make the right move? Are you going to do the right thing? Or will your ancestor haunt you in some way? You never have a moment of joy because you're always worried about what the spirit of the ancestors are going to do. I have news to you, Gary would say, of a different god, a god who cares about you, a god who doesn't want you to live in fear, a god who wants you to live knowing care and love. And it wasn't always at the first meeting that they would convert, but hearing a word of a god who loves them rather than gods who are always after them converted the people. And that's, I think, what he really was trying to say to us that day.
     
    About 15 miles away is another church, and it's the scene where another conversion happened for the people in about 1909 (we'll see on a chart in a minute) when a pastor got all the tribes together on this spot and said: this is the day I ask you to choose. I ask you to choose to live for the Lord Jesus and to lay down your weapons. And he had the persuasive power -- we'll call it the power of the Holy Spirit, would be better explanation. They laid down their weapons and they all that day said yes, said -- as many tribes -- that they would now become Christian. And so, we begin to get a hint of what a difference this has made in the last hundred, hundred twenty-five years in this country and change of life. Someone said, we used to fight all the time, we would eat each other, you know. There were cannibals. It was awful. But everything is different now with the news of Jesus.
     
    Pastor Teske used the example when he was in the highlands that, as for Paul and others, congregations don't always get along very well. One of the congregations under his charge had split. He was disappointed and had a meeting with them, and said we've been talking about love and loving one another in the Lord. Isn't there a way to work this out? And they said no, there's no way to work it out. And a man came to him afterwards and said Pastor Gary, just remember that in former times we would have killed each other. Now we're just splitting into two different churches. So it's a depth of change that the gospel has made in this place, and we came to appreciate it. Part of our guide's thanks was for the institutions that came with the church. They didn't have organized schools. They didn't have organized hospitals. But because of God's care now, through the faith, they have. This is the sign for a hospital begun by Lutherans from Germany -- the Brown Hospital, still operating. They have hospital care, ways to heal one another, ways to heal a person. And now they have things like a school system and regular daily primary public schools. They also have a government. He was proud that Lutherans are in high places in the government, that they are a part of things. People from their district are high up in the government. And so this wouldn't have happened in the days before PNG became independent in 1975. So he went on and on to talk to us about big changes. The gospel has made this light of Christ to the nations, has changed them just thoroughly, as individuals and as a people, because it's come to them.
     
    Now Pastor Penny will pick it up.
     
     
    [Pastor Penny]
     
    As Pastor Keith mentioned, it's probably been a hundred twenty-five years since the light of the gospel came to people in Papua New Guinea. As an aside, the children were looking at a picture of a child fascinated by wheels. It's been said that in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, in the isolated valleys, the first time they ever saw wheels was in the second world war, because they were that isolated. So this was a country that was very isolated and certainly didn't know the gospel until a hundred twenty-five years ago. And like Anna and Simeon, they live now the gospel. You can see it in big ways, where they've come to be peaceable and they've organized a government. But we saw it in three ways that I think are very distinctive in Papua New Guinea.
     
    In the first way, we saw how the gospel changed them, that they love to get together. And it's nothing for them to travel by foot, on hot and humid days, carrying things on their heads and on their backs for a half hour or more to get to a meeting or to get to church. They routinely walk, and they're just so eager to be together. They had a farewell dinner at one place for us, and it was a potluck. And I sat next to a lady and I said what did you bring? And she pointed to a big tray of things. Turns out she'd walked for a half hour or more carrying that tray. And by the time that potluck was over it was pitch dark, and she was going to just turn right around and walk -- no electricity or anything, no flashlights -- home again, carrying her tray. She was happy to do that. They love being together. They love community.
     
    Another thing that I noticed was (and this is not new for anybody who's ever been to a third world country) they have a different sense of time. And of course it's a challenge to people from the Western world, but I came to really get a better sense of why they have a different sense of time. They took time to greet people. We went to a nature preserve, and the men that were guiding us went up and they were talking with the the guards and shaking hands and laughing. I thought they must know these men. No, that's just the way you are in Papua New Guinea: you take time for one another. They didn't mind just watching each other. We saw three men who were volunteering to repaint the student union at a seminary in Lae. And there were four or more watching them, just spending time with them. They took the time to be together, to encourage each other, to be friendly. When we were staying in the rural area, we stayed in a guest house, which is the house on the left. And it was right next to the district office, right across the lawn from us. And I was amazed that late into the night there would be guys in there laughing and talking. It was a place of socialization, not just business. They did get business done, but they did it on their own time, which allowed for a lot of talk and care of one another.
     
    We took a number of different hikes. And I was hiking with this man who's a minister named Robert. And before he became a minister, for 18 or 19 years he was a commercial fisherman, or sailor I should say. And he told me one time they sailed to Florida and they docked in Miami and spent a month there. And I said, what did you think of United States? And he said, I've told my friends if you want to live in the United States, it's all about time, time, time. We have a different sense of time. We have our own agendas. Therefore our meetings start on time. Their's don't. Their worship may not start on time and may not end on time. But the reason, I came to realize, is because they set aside their personal agendas for other people, and they're just very willing to let interruptions become their business. So it was frustrating and refreshing at the same time.
     
    The third way that the light of the gospel really shows through in their way of life is their hospitality. We were fed three times a day by a woman who insisted on bringing these lavish meals for us. We told her we still have some left over, we can eat this for two meals. No, she would take what was left over and give us something brand-new out of her garden, which was quite a distance away. She had to hike to it. Or she would go to the local market and use the fruits and vegetables from the area. But she would also have canned meat and ramen noodles. They have their own brand of ramen noodles, many flavors -- and she used it so creatively. Every meal was different, very tasty and beautiful. This is how she liked to serve the fruit. So we really knew the hospitality of food and being well cared for. Often when we'd go places there would be a ceremony to greet us. They call them "sing sings," where they'd have native garb and they'd sing native songs. The second time we encountered it was when we came from traveling by ferry to this rural area. And of course being PNG, they didn't have the battery for the ferries. The ferry was three or four hours late. So what they had intended to be a ceremony in the afternoon leading up to dinner, was now in the evening and it's pitch-dark there. But they waited for us. And then they met us and they had erected kind of a gate out of foliage and it would fall down -- they would push it down -- to show that we were welcomed, and then we would walk over that gate. They had prepared the passage to the meeting house where we were going to have the meeting, decorated it with petals. And they led us by this procession wearing their native garb and singing their native songs all the way up to the house where we would be having the meeting.
     
    There were often gifts. You can see we all got PNG hats. I mean they have so little. Beautiful bags, you saw the men wearing them around their heads. Everyone used them as a way to transport papers, books, groceries, babies, whatever you had. You put that around your head to transport your baby. You can see we're trying out our caps. Necklaces too. They liked to give gifts, and it was a beautiful thing they did. But I think the person who embodied hospitality the most for us was Walter. He's an official with their district -- or their synod, it would be like our synod. But he was our guide. And he was always hovering, so to each other we called him our mother hen. He was a beautiful man. And the last time he showed it, we were about to leave to return to Lae for a four-hour ride in a motorboat. I'm going to move ahead so you can see what they are like. They're not that big, and they pack them full of people and things, and they sit really low on the water and go very fast and they're way out in the sea. And nobody, nobody has life jackets. Well Walter couldn't stand that. Here he was in charge of the four of us, and he wanted to make sure we got there without drowning. So Walter borrowed life jackets, four of them -- and there were fifteen of us in there, so I'm not sure what would happen. And here he is, like a good flight attendant showing us how to put on the lifejacket to make sure we were protected. He was a beautiful person and his hospitality was amazing.
     
    At one service, which is so typical of them, they just turned to the four of us and said, you sing a song. And we looked at each other thinking okay, what do we know the words to that kind of fits in? And someone said how about "They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love." We thought okay, we probably all know that one, so we started singing it. And of course they knew it and they joined right in -- and they knew all the words. And it was really a kind of a theme song, I think for me anyway, because as we flew out it was a very sad time. I figured, being logical, I would never see these people again. And they were so gracious and so passionate about their faith. But they reminded me of all the ways that we who have the light of Christ live that light out -- in the way we treat other people, in the way we treat time, in the little things as well as the big things. They were a good reminder to me of the wonderful responsibility and gift that we have in knowing the light of Christ, and that whatever we do we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to let the world see that we are Christians by our love.
     
    So they taught us a lot. And we have a lot to be grateful for. And hopefully we will keep in contact with them and continue to support them.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Pastor Keith Holste, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40
  • Jan 12, 2014Rules vs Relationships
    Jan 12, 2014
    Rules vs Relationships
    Series: (All)
    January 12, 2014. Sometimes people think that being Christian is all about the Ten Commandments. But while they are not featured front and center in many churches, baptismal fonts are. Pastor Penny preaches on the role of baptism in our lives, and with the help of Mark Twain illustrates the difference between two ways of looking at life: through rules or through relationships.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    I wonder how you would feel if this display were always front and center in our churches. And for those of you in the back, it's the Ten Commandments that we're illustrating here. I think those who don't understand Christianity might think that that is who we are as Christians. And sometimes we are tempted to believe that too. People will say that Christians are people who do the right things, who do good things. It's about the Ten Commandments. But you know, these things aren't front and center here, and I don't know of any church where they are. What is front and center is our baptismal font. And that's front and center in a lot of Christian churches. I've been in one church (and probably more than that, but one that I know of) where the baptismal font is always there. It's installed there; it never moves. And that way everyone has to pass by it. On the way to communion in this church, because the railing is up here, everyone passes by the font. If there's a wedding, the bride and groom separate and pass by the font. When there's a funeral, the casket and the mourners pass by the font. And the reason, I believe, that the baptismal font is so visible in our churches, is to remind us that everything that happens in our lives is touched by our baptisms.
     
    Now I know that sounds like an amazing claim. And you say well, really how does baptism make a difference in my daily life? Let's look at what Jesus said at his baptism. You probably remember that John the Baptist went about baptizing people with a kind of ritual washing away of their sins. But he promised that someone who would come after him would be more powerful. And when that person came, the baptism that that person would give to people would give them the Holy Spirit. Well, then one day John sees the very man that he's been predicting, kneeling before him, asking John to baptize him. And John says no. I mean, it should be the other way around. And then Jesus says no, it's proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. And I think that's the word that trips us up: righteousness. Because we go back to this. We think of doing good things, that's what makes us righteous. But you see, that's the Greek understanding of that word. You know, that there are certain values and certain deeds that, if you do them, you are a righteous person. But that wasn't Jesus' understanding. That wasn't the Hebrew understanding. That wasn't the understanding of that word all through the Old Testament. What righteousness is in Jesus' eyes and in the Old Testament is: being faithful to a promise.
     
    God, the Old Testament writers said, was righteous because God was faithful to the promise that God made to Abraham and Abraham's descendants: to be their God, to guide them, to forgive them, to protect them. So God was righteous. God was faithful. And the children of Israel were on and off: faithful, righteous -- because they were intermittently faithful to their part of the promise -- that in response they would trust this guy, God, who claimed them. Now, of course the Ten Commandments had something to do with their faithfulness, but it wasn't integral. What was center to their faithfulness was trusting the relationship. And then, out of joy and out of thanksgiving, they would try very hard to keep the Ten Commandments. And there's quite a difference then, when we think of these two ways of looking at life: through the Commandments -- through rules, or through relationships.
     
    Maybe a good illustration of this comes from a favorite story, a classic story of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. If you know the story of Huck Finn, you know that he was a poor boy. I don't know whether his mother died (she wasn't really in the story as far as I can remember) but his father was a drunkard. And so poor Huck, he had a rough, tough life. But he was very free. But two older ladies, sisters -- one a widow, one never married I think -- took pity on Huck, and they took him under their wing. They took him into their home to civilize him. So they bought him new clothes. They tried to teach him to read. They brought him to church. They tried to teach him manners. But poor Huck, he just couldn't stand that confinement that they gave him. He appreciated what they were trying to do, but he ran away because he couldn't handle it. Well while he was running away and hiding out on an island, he bumped into another man who had run away, who was none other than Miss Watson's (one of these two ladies) slave, Jim.
     
    Now as soon as he saw Jim, he started having conscience pangs. Huck started to think, I should turn him in. He's a runaway slave. Because the rules that they were teaching, even the church in those days, were that Jim was a possession of Miss Watson. And so Huck felt he was stealing not to make Jim go back or to turn him in. But Huck pushed away those feelings and those conscience pangs, and he and Jim became quite a duo. For day after day, they floated down the river (as we're speaking of rivers) toward Cairo, where Jim believed he would be free. And they had lots of adventures. But as they got close to Cairo, these conscience pangs returned to Huck and he started feeling that God was so angry with him. He used the word many times "wicked" -- that he was a wicked person for not turning Jim in, and so he said the way to do it, the way to get out of this feeling is, I've got to write and tell Miss Watson: "Here's where Jim is. Come and get him." So he sat down. He wrote the letter. But just when he was about to send it, he started thinking of his relationship with Jim. All the nights they had travelled together that. They had sung together. They had eaten together. Jim's kindness to Huck. They had taken shifts in staying awake to make sure people didn't find them. And sometimes Jim would take Huck's shift just to let Huck sleep a little longer. And Huck remembered how he told Jim, I won't turn you in, don't worry. And Jim said, you are my best friend.
     
    So here's this poor boy. He is just torn with agony. On the one hand, he feels God is so angry with him for stealing against a lady who just tried to help him. And on the other hand, he cares for Jim. What he finally does is he says, I think I am going to burn in hell for this, but he rips up the letter and he refuses to turn Jim in. He's a good illustration of the difference between living by rules -- which can be wrong or can be misapplied -- and living by a relationship and a commitment to a promise.
     
    And when Jesus was righteous in his baptism, what he did was the Holy Spirit came to him to share with others. So that when we are baptized we are initiated into this same kind of a relationship. And it is so freeing to know that we are not the rules of life. That's not our identity. We are not the good things we do. We're not the bad things. We're not the things we're proud of, the achievements. We're not the failures or the things that we are ashamed of. The rules are there and they can be helpful. But our identity is here. It is: sons and daughters of God. And this is where it begins. Just like with the children of Israel, we're going to break these rules, these Ten Commandments. We are going to forget. We are going to avoid being faithful to God. But God is always faithful to us and takes us back and forgives us, again and again.
     
    So that's the first way that baptism touches our everyday lives. We have a whole different relationship with God. But as you know, we are not baptized privately. We have a baptism in the middle of a church service with a whole congregation, because we're baptized into a congregation. And that's the second amazing blessing from baptism: we learn to treat people differently. No longer are we bound to be judgmental, to nitpicking, to criticizing, to remembering and keeping score, and feeling superior to people and putting them down. We don't have to do that, because we have been made in this community, brothers and sisters. We set aside all those worries and we concentrate on our relationships. And this is really where we learn to to treat people outside of this congregation. This is our laboratory. I mean, you think of the differences of the people within this congregation. There are people who are Republicans. There are people who are Democrats. There are people who love classical music. There are people who love hard rock. There are people who want to sing songs written by dead white men only (and I've been told that). And there are people who would just as soon hear Negro spirituals every Sunday. And we tolerate each other. We accept one another. We don't nitpick. We say: but we are one. We are brothers and sisters. So it's here that we learn how to treat people outside of these walls.
     
    So that's the second blessing. We have a whole new way of looking at people. But there's one more blessing to baptism. You probably know that we have another baptismal font. We own a second one as a congregation, but it's not in this building. It's outside, in the columbarium. And there's another congregation around that baptismal font. They are the faithful departed. They are our loved ones who are represented there with ashes and sometimes with a memorial stone only. But they are waiting for the third blessing of baptism, which we are too because we've had already two births, haven't we? We've been born as human beings. We've been reborn as children of God. And because of the righteousness of God, because of the faithfulness of God, because of the faithfulness of Christ unto death, we are invited -- we expect, we celebrate -- a third birth, when Christ returns. And these will be here. And it will be our great joy to be utterly faithful to God and to one another for eternity.
     
    Thanks be to God. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain
  • May 19, 2013Reaching Out to the Unchurched
    May 19, 2013
    Reaching Out to the Unchurched
    Series: (All)
    May 19, 2013. There are big changes ahead for the church. Today, 20% of people in the United States say they have no affiliation with any religious group. They are the "unchurched." How can we reach them? Pastor Penny draws a parallel between this challenge and the day of Pentecost. She suggests that Pentecost was not a one-time event but that it goes on, and that we need it.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    When we had this lesson on the day of Pentecost in Bible class on Wednesday, one of the women said, "You know, we never hear what it was like from the disciples' point of view." We don't, really. So if you will imagine with me and permit me, I'd like to imagine what the day of Pentecost might have been like from the point of view of one of the disciples: Peter.
     
    When Jesus told us, the disciples, that we would receive this power, we had no idea what he meant. I thought the power would come gently, gradually. But when Pentecost day came, I discovered it was anything but gentle. I was almost in pain with the light and the sound and the sense that a spirit was filling me and moving me. We were literally drawn out of the door of that room and into the crowd waiting around the outside of the building. And I, walked up to a group of people I would never have approached before -- Peter, just a country bumpkin from Galilee -- and I walked right up to sophisticated Romans. And I began to speak to them. And I discovered that I can speak Greek, even though I was never taught that language. And they could understand me, and I could understand them. And so of course I began to say: I need to tell you what this is all about, what my friends and I have experienced, about how God is changing everything through this man called Jesus.
     
    But I had no longer begun to tell them, when I was compelled by the Spirit to climb up on a wall and begin to preach -- me, a fisherman, who just days earlier had been too afraid to tell a group of servants that I was Jesus' friend. I was preaching to hundreds of strangers. And here is the most amazing thing: they listened. And thousands of people joined our group that day because of what we said. And the marvels kept coming, because we did things entirely differently. We were used to worshiping in the synagogue, but we began to meet in homes. We were used to staying with our own, you know the poor and the rich. We were all together. We pooled our money. We ate a common meal. And I have to say, I didn't always like the people I was eating with. But I grew to love them because of one man: my friend, my savior, the one who took me -- a sinful fisherman -- and cleaned me up, forgave my sins, and gave me a reason to live. That's how that first Pentecost felt to me.
     
    I'd like to suggest this morning that Pentecost was not a one-time event -- that it goes on, and that we need it. Because there are big changes ahead for the church. The church has been changing over the last fifty years. Fifty years ago, half of the people in our country went to churches like this -- mainline Protestant: Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal. And now maybe 8% to 16% do. Fifty years ago Christians filled the Muny for an Easter sunrise service. They filled Kiel Auditorium for reformation services. Not anymore. Today, 70% of our youth fall away from the church, and only a third come back when they're older. Across the board, congregations -- and not just in Protestant churches, across the board -- are reporting that Sunday morning attendance is down, collections are down. And it trickles up to their church bodies, to their publishing houses, to their seminaries. The Seminary I graduated from just let 8 of their 44 professors go for financial reasons. While the Protestant, the Christian, the organized church like this is diminishing, something else is growing in our country -- and maybe you've seen the statistics. It is the "unchurched." Today, 20% of people in the United States say they have no affiliation with any religious group.
     
    Now here at Christ Lutheran, we are truly blessed. Our membership is stable and grows a little bit. We have a nice cross-section of ages. We have vital lay leadership. We meet our budget -- not always easily, but we do. But even here our Sunday morning attendance diminishes. We're okay right now. But we have to be prepared. And I don't mean to cast guilt; I think we're all doing the best we know how. But what I'm saying is across this nation, people are meeting in churches, they're baptizing, they're marrying, they're burying, they're communing, they're praying, they're talking about doctrine, they're singing songs, and they're shrinking. So clearly, we need to be open and thinking about how we can share the gospel in a new way.
     
    Now I think we get some guidance, and we definitely get some hope, from the story of Pentecost and from the gospel. The story of Pentecost shows us that if people, the unchurched, are not coming to us, it is very important that we go to them. And you do that because you work with unchurched people, you live next door to them, you go to school with them. They may be in your families. And the second thing we learned from the Pentecost story, besides the fact that we need to go out, is that communication is essential. Now, I don't suggest that you get on a wall and preach to your friends. That wouldn't be effective. That's not how we do it. But as you engage people that you know, or don't know so well, but are unchurched, you listen. You learn from them. You learn to care. You model in your life the hope that is within you. And you are ready and may be given the opportunity to answer the questions "So why do you go to church?" and "What is this all about to you?"
     
    The individual, the one-on-one, is going to be the new thing of the future. It's the old thing of the past, but it's certainly going to be part of our future. But beyond that, how the church will organize itself, how it will worship, how it will share the message and pass it on -- we bring this challenge to the Holy Spirit. We bring it to the Holy Spirit the way the disciples did: they waited and they prayed.
     
    Because we learn two things about the Holy Spirit that give us the confidence and the hope that that's the place to go. The first is we learn the Spirit is powerful. The spirit of Jesus -- and that's what we're really talking about when we say the Holy Spirit, that Jesus lives on in our lives -- the spirit of Jesus can do new things in the most unusual places and ways. Jesus turned death into life by rising from the dead on Easter and brought us back to God. So the Spirit is powerful. But this is maybe even more important: the Spirit is forever. Jesus said that: I send you an advocate who will be with you, not for a time, not for a generation, not for a millennium. But forever. This Spirit as believers lives within us. We make that a formal event here at the baptismal font, but the spirit of Christ lives within us and uses us as it used the first disciples, to move out and to wait for change.
     
    So we have a challenge before us. But we don't bury our heads in the sand like the ostrich, and we don't look at it fearfully. What we do is what we heard the disciples doing in the story today. They prayed and waited for the Spirit. So we pray, and we wait to see how the Spirit will bless us and use us to bless the world. We pray and we wait to see what new thing the Spirit will do among us.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2013, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Acts 2
  • Feb 3, 2013Tear Down the Walls
    Feb 3, 2013
    Tear Down the Walls
    Series: (All)
    February 3, 2013. Does God love poor people more than others? We build up walls around ourselves, to separate our in-group from outsiders. But what if our mission were hospitality to those outside our walls? Pastor Penny's sermon today is on outgrowing the groups that divide us and tearing down the walls.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    I know some of you are in high school, and many of us have been to high school. When I think back about my high school years -- they might be different from yours -- but my high school years were years of cliques and groups. There were in-groups. There were outsiders. There were lots of groups. There were athletes. There were popular kids. There were students. There were probably the geeks. There were ones who were quiet. There were the ones who always got in trouble. And of course it was nice to be in a group. That way you knew you had someone to sit with at basketball games, and you knew that you always had a chair there saved for you at the cafeteria. But there was a downside to some of these groups too. Our group felt like we were put down by another group, and we felt superior to another group as well. You didn't move around between groups very easily; it was very hard to do it. And there were people I never talked to in my class. I never thought though, at the time, that my group had held me captive, that there were these walls. I never really thought of it at the time.
     
    But that's exactly what Jesus was thinking about in today's gospel. He was talking about the in-groups and the outsiders, and it really got him into trouble. As you remember from last week, Jesus was the "hometown boy made good" and he came back to his hometown of Nazareth, and he was invited to read the scripture. And he read the words of the prophet Isaiah, who said that he had come to bring good news to the poor and to bring release to the captive. He said that he had come to give sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free. And after he read those words that the prophet Isaiah spoke, Jesus said in so many words: and that's what I'm going to do, too.
     
    And at first his hometown friends or probably relatives and people thought, wow that's beautiful. That's wonderful. And then they began to think, what is he saying? Who does he think he is to say that this is what he's going to do, and he can speak for God? He's not a religious ruler. He's just Joseph's son. He wasn't born into the family of the high priest. He's not a Pharisee or a scribe. He's an outsider. And they began to get angry. And then, just to prove that Jesus was more of an outsider, he brought up something they did not want to hear. He said: do you remember how in the Old Testament there are two prophets of Israel, prophets sent by God to Israel who didn't help the Israelites? Instead they went outside of the country. They went to Sidon and helped a widow who was starving. They went to Syria and help Naaman, who had this skin disease that we heard about in the children's sermon. He said there were plenty of people they could have helped in their own country, but they didn't. And suddenly they realized that what he was doing was challenging their idea that they were in the in-group, that they were God's chosen people. Therefore that God loved them more than anyone, and that God would bless them. And he was challenging that, and they became furious and tried to kill him.
     
    Well, why did God pass over all those people that needed help in Israel and send prophets to help people in other countries who are heathen? Does it really mean that God loves poor people more than others? You know, it's interesting because Jesus himself said, "I came for the poor, I came for the oppressed." And his mother, in a few chapters before this, has that beautiful Magnificat where she praises God for lifting up the poor and putting down the rich. And when Jesus preaches he will preach, in the Beatitudes, woe to the rich and blessed are the poor. Now, "poor" can mean a lot of things. You can be poor financially. You can be poor in the way people look at you and your prestige or your honor. You can be poor because you don't have good health. But is Jesus really trying to say that God loves the poor more than anyone else?
     
    I can think of two reasons why God comes to the aid of the poor. They have no one else; they're powerless. But also because their voice needs to be heard. Because they have a unique perspective that we need to hear. Because you know, one characteristic of being in the in-group is a sense of entitlement. Yep, I've got power and that's the way it should be. A friend from the Midwest told me that the first time that he was out in California and heard everyone speaking Spanish, his heart kind of sank and he thought oh, they're taking my country away from me. So it's our country because we speak English? Or should it maybe be the Native Americans' because they were here first? We so easily feel that if we're in a position of power, that's the way it should be. And you know, what we see is that people who are on the margins, people who have less power, have an insight to share with us. Ask someone who's poor what the gaps are in our public transportation system. They will know. Someone who does not have a car will know what the gaps are, what the problems are in our society. Ask someone who is poor and doesn't have health insurance, or the money to pay doctors' fees, what the gaps are in our healthcare system, and they will know. Whereas those of us who may be blessed enough to have health insurance or be able to pay for those fees feel like the plan's working fine. But we don't see it from their point of view.
     
    Children often are the ones who can speak the truth when we don't see it, because in a sense they also are powerless. Or often they're standing on the fringe, watching us. A woman told me how she spent all morning getting her house ready for a Bible class that was going to meet there that afternoon. She was scrubbing and cramming things into closets, and her little boy was watching her. And when she was all done he said Mom, isn't this kind of like lying, because aren't you being dishonest to let your friends think this is the way our house always looks? He was onto something, you know, that we do tend to put up a false front. We need to hear the voices of those on the fringe, of those who could stand back and see what we're really doing.
     
    I wonder what it would be like if our congregation would have the same mission that Jesus did: to listen to those voices of the people not within our walls, the people outside of us. You know, we are kind of at a plateau here as a congregation. Through the generosity of individuals and the congregation as a whole, we bought the Mead Center and it's paid for. We've addressed the concerns of our youth. We do things in house. And then we also have hired a joint youth worker to provide additional activities. We feel like we've kind of taken care of two things, and so we're kind of looking for a mission. What if our mission were hospitality to those outside our walls? What if (and okay, I'm dreaming now) we would hire someone who would be the face of this congregation for the community, who would go out and look for more groups than the ones that are currently using the Mead Center? Because we have nonprofits using the Mead Center and we give them a fair and good rate so that they can use it. What if there was someone out there looking for more people and bringing them in, and managing that facility? And then (and this is the key) what if we as congregation members volunteered to be the face of this congregation for the groups that meet there? What if we were the ones who would open up the building and say hi to them, and then just listen, stick around a little bit, find out what's going on and what their needs are and what they see happening, people on the outside? What kind of connections could we make? What could the Holy Spirit do with those connections to help us see new and better ways to bring release to the captives and good news to the poor, and raise up those who are oppressed?
     
    I think that God does not love poor people more than anyone else. I think Jesus came for all of us, really to release all of us -- surely to release those who are suffering from health problems or financial problems. But also to release those who feel a sense of entitlement, from their fear and from their blindness. Jesus came so that there would be no walls. And you know, when I went back for my 10th year reunion of my high school class, that's what I found. We had all outgrown those cliques and those groups and those walls. I talked to people at length that I had never talked to for more than a few minutes when I was sitting next to them in class, and I came to value people that sadly I had not valued when we were students together. That's really why Jesus came. He lived, he died, and rose again so that we would be free to be all part of the in-group, all part of a group with no walls: the family of God. We have been released and freed from fear, from sin. We've been freed and now we are sent out to fling wide the doors of other people's prisons, so that with the power of the Holy Spirit we might tear down the walls that divide us.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2013, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Luke 4:16-20, Luke 4:21-30, Isaiah 61:1-2
  • Jan 6, 2013The Spirit at Work in Non-Believers
    Jan 6, 2013
    The Spirit at Work in Non-Believers
    Series: (All)
    January 6, 2013. Epiphany is the day we celebrate when the Gentiles came to learn of Jesus. Gentiles like us. Pastor Penny's sermon today is about the story of the Magi: why the writer of Matthew would include it in his gospel, and how God uses people with different faiths to reveal the truth even today.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
     
    Well it is Epiphany, January 6th, a day when we remember that Jesus was shown to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles, to the wise men. And there are lots of traditions connected with this story, and we know them. Like if I said how many wise men were there, you would say three. Of course, it's not in the Bible. There were three gifts. No mention of three wise men. But you know, that's part of our tradition. Or if I asked you did they have names, you would probably say yes. Can anybody name one of the wise men? Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar? Wow, you guys are good! Again, that's tradition. That's not in the Bible. But you know, we have a lot of traditions. Well, here's something that might surprise you: were they kings? No. No, I just gave the kids crowns, but they really weren't kings. They were Magi. Now, long before Jesus the Magi were given maybe a royal significance in Persia. But in Jesus' day they were not. Our word "magician" or "magic" comes from the same root as Magi. They were not very highly regarded. They were stargazers. Some would would say they were horoscope fanatics. I think today maybe eyebrows would go up, like maybe they do when people say they're a Scientologist or that they thought the end of the world was coming because of the Mayan calendar. These were not people of the faith of Judaism, and they were magicians. When Paul bumped into a Magi in the book of Acts he said, "You child of the devil, you are the enemy of every good thing." That's what he said. So we have to wonder, how did the Magi get into the Christmas story? Why would they be included at all? Why would God have guided them to find Jesus, and why would the writer of Matthew include this incident in the story of Jesus' birth?
     
    Well, I think the first reason they're included is because the kingdom of God is for all people. So of course it is for them, too. But I think that the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writers to keep this account in the story for people like us, because we are surrounded by people who do not believe exactly the way we do, people with different faiths from ours and sometimes no faith at all. They are our relatives, our neighbors, our fellow students. They are our coworkers. We are surrounded by people who don't share our faith. And I think that this account of the Magi is very helpful in avoiding two pitfalls. One pitfall is to resent people who have a different faith, to kind of be guarded about it, to maybe not want our children (if we're parents) to learn about the other faiths -- and that's not at all what we see God doing here. God used these men, who probably worship Zoroaster, to give a truth to the world. They were these pagans. They would have been called pagans in those days. These non-believers were the first people to realize that Jesus was a king, and the first people to fall down on their knees and pay him homage. We kind of like to think the shepherds did that, but there's no recorded event like that. These were the people who could look at this little baby and believe that he had the authority and power of a king. So God used people with a different faith to reveal the truth.
     
    And I think that God continues to do that through all faiths today. I remember when I was a student chaplain in a hospital when I was in the seminary, and I was assigned to the oncology, the cancer ward, and I felt a great burden on my shoulders. I was visiting people who were struggling with life and death issues, and I had this word of joy and hope. But how would one person convey it? And of course they had to be open to it. And then one afternoon, I was having lunch with a friend who was also a student chaplain. And she said, "I just went into the room of a woman who said she wasn't Christian, but I've never heard such words of grace. I didn't have to say a thing." And I thought, that's it. The Holy Spirit is already out there in that hospital, working with the people through different faiths. It's not all up to me.
     
    And I think when we can set aside the political uses of some of the faiths in our world, we can see that God is using them to reveal truth. We think of the example of the Muslims, their commitment to their faith. They pray five times a day. They memorize the Quran from little on. We think of Native Americans, and how they are good models for us in how to take care of the environment, how to believe that it is God-given and not for us to abuse. We think about the great example of philanthropy in the Jewish Community, as can be seen by lots of Jewish names on different institutions and buildings in St. Louis. God continues to use people of other faiths to reveal the truth to all of us.
     
    But then that can lead us to yet another pitfall, and that is to say then it doesn't matter. Don't we all worship the same God? Aren't we all trying to go to the same place? It really doesn't matter. But do we all look at God in the same way? Do we all understand God the same way? Because if you look into Islam, you see that Muslims view God very differently than we do. They see God as merciful as we do, but as a master, not a father. They have no understanding of God as a loving father, and they certainly don't understand that God would allow God's self to suffer and to die for us. And the way that they feel they have a connection to God is through their knowledge. And so they're never really sure how strong that connection is, because it really depends on how well they understand the will of God. And we, on the other hand, know that we can never connect ourselves to God because we are just basically in rebellion. So we rest entirely on the life and death and resurrection of Christ. And so we don't worry about our connection. We don't worry that we are not saved.
     
    I assume that you, because you're here today -- and certainly I can say this for myself -- while we can revere and respect other religions, we feel that Christ has given us the best understanding, the best picture of God. And that's why we're here. And if that is true for us, and if we find in our lives that we are supported and comforted and allowed to be loving and kind people because of Jesus, then is it really right to just let other people who have never heard about him, or have fallen away from him, be on their own? I mean, should we really just say "to each his own" and "this isn't my business?"
     
    Now, I'm not trying to say we should be knocking on doors with a Bible under our hand. What I am suggesting is that we look at what God did in the story of the Magi. God drew them to Christ using the thing they were already looking for. They were looking for knowledge through the stars. Well what are the people looking for that are surrounding us, that maybe haven't found the grace of God? Well we know, what we're all looking for. And if you come to church when it gets a little warmer, you'll drive by lots of people who are jogging and lots of people who are riding their bikes, because one thing we all look for is a healthy, balanced life. Another value of our society is certainly to be part of a community. We see how popular social media is. Because we want to be known. We want to have people know us and know them. And the last thing that I think is a value of our culture is that we want to have control. You know, we have lots of self-help books to get our lives in order. We have a lot of tools to organize our lives because we want control. And I think what we want is to know that the future is safe.
     
    Now, all of those things -- a safe future, a need for community, a sense that there is a focus in our lives -- are given to us by Jesus Christ. So what happens is that our lives, the lives of all of us in this room, are the stars that draw people to Christ, whether we realize it or not. Now I'm not trying to say that's because they're so perfect, but it's because as we live out what we've been given, people notice. People sense, for instance, that when you're under pressure at school or at work, that you handle it in a different way. You don't throw everything to the winds. You don't only concentrate on your work. You're still able to give your time to your family and to your faith and to your community. They see that, because God is working through us. They understand that we have a connection that maybe not everyone has. We certainly know that we're connected as a family of faith. But we also create community where we live and work and go to school, by the way we treat people, by the way we respect them. And people see that. And people also sense if we have confidence and hope for the future. In all of these things, it is God working through our lives to draw people to Christ. The only thing we really need to do besides living the way we live is to have, in our back pocket, a few sentences we might offer if someone asks us, "Why do you seem so calm? I wish I had the kind of optimism you do." And then we can explain.
     
    The end of the story of the Magi says that they went home using a different route. They didn't go to Jerusalem because again the Spirit was working through these non-believers, and they knew that if they went back and told Herod where the baby Jesus was, he would not come to worship Jesus. He would kill him. So they went home a different way. I think that has a double meaning there. They went home with a different outlook on life. They came looking for a king and they went to the palace first, you remember. They came thinking there would be this child surrounded by riches and comfort, and they found instead a king willing to be a fragile, vulnerable baby in a poor family. And they must have realized this is the kind of king he would be all his life. He would always be one willing to give of himself. And of course he did. He gave up all those things that are near and dear to us: a balanced, calm life, the community, and even life itself, he gave up so that we would have it. And above all, so that we would know his love for all eternity.
     
    Epiphany. It's the day we celebrate when the non-Jews, when the Gentiles came to learn of Jesus -- Gentiles, non-Jews like us. It is a day to celebrate.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2013, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Penny Holste, Matthew 2:1-12
  • Sep 16, 2012A Change in Abraham’s Perspective
    Sep 16, 2012
    A Change in Abraham’s Perspective
    Series: (All)
    September 16, 2012. Pastor Keith preaches on the story of Abraham and Sarah from Genesis. When Abraham lamented that he had no child, God told him to change his perspective. "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be." God kept his promise to Abraham, and he keeps his promises to us.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We continue to reflect upon these verses from the Old Testament today. We begin in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy spirit. Amen.
     
    Abraham, whom we are hearing about today, had quite a life. He was first mentioned in scripture when he was 75 years old. That's when the story picks him up. He was living in Ur at the time with his family. His father was still alive. His father was like 205, and his father decided they were going to move. Ur is probably in southern Iraq, and they moved to what would be Eastern Turkey today. Haran is the name of that area. And Abraham was there in Haran for a while with his wife, and then God spoke to him and said, "Abraham, I have something in mind for you. I'll lead the way, but you're going to leave from here and go to someplace that I will show you." He just tells him to pick up and go. So Abraham, with his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot, take all their cattle, all their possessions and start traveling. He starts going to where he doesn't know he's going to go. And we don't know how God led him; there's no word there about a pillar of fire and anything like that. He just goes. He comes to Canaan, which was probably in what we would call Northern Israel today. And the Bible is clear that he comes to this land and it's already inhabited by the well-known Canaanites. And so there's a problem for him right away, and that problem persists down to our own day, of two peoples wanting to inhabit that same land with different religions. There were the Canaanites, and there was Abraham and the people that look to the one God from his family. So two peoples in the same territory. Abraham was pretty clever in dealing with his neighbors and did pretty well there, but it was always challenging keeping peace with the neighbors.
     
    And then there was a time when there was a famine and there was nothing to eat there. But there was food down in Egypt. So he picked up all that he had and went to Egypt, took his family and everybody with him. But that was tricky too. He did get food, but he had to get food without being killed, because he knew the way of the Egyptians and that they would want to kill him so that they could claim his wife to be their wife as well. So he had to get out of that. When he got back to Canaan and reestablished himself after the famine, it became apparent that both he and his nephew Lot were doing quite well, and their herds were growing, but they were growing so much they were competing for the same land. And their shepherds were not getting along so well, so Lot came to Abraham and said what are we gonna do about this? And Abraham said I guess we're gonna have to part, just going to have to go to separate areas. You go where you want to go, you pick. And so Lot chose the Jordan Valley, which has the town of Sodom at the end of it. Well that put him in Sodom and that became part of an alliance. There was an alliance of cities that were politically gathered, militarily gathered, and there was another group. And then those groups had a little war, and Lot's side lost. And so Uncle Abraham, though, can't just let his nephew lose. They were carting him off, him and his family, to Damascus, to Syria to where the victors were. And Abraham couldn't let that happen to his nephew. So he fashions an army of his own and goes and attacks, so that he can get Lot freed again and bring Lot back to Canaan safely.
     
    All this time, as Abraham is looking out for his nephew, he and Sarah have no children of their own. He does a lot for Lot, but they really would have preferred to have their own child. They struggle with the problem of infertility. They're pushing being a hundred years old, and no child. There was no one to love, no one to liven up their home. And there was no one to carry on the name. Why would God lead them to this land with all these foreigners, make them deal with the problems of living with these easily-offended, often warlike neighbors? Why would they have to continue to look out for their wayward nephew and suffer famines and natural disasters? Why should God lead them to this place where they have all these problems and have no children? What was God up to? Why did God do this to them? Why couldn't they have stayed back with the rest of the family, they must have thought, where life was more comfortable? Why all this moving? But most of all, why no children?
     
    Sort of seemed, I think to them, like it was more like being led out to a slow death in the wilderness rather than being a place of promise as it was supposed to be. Abraham did have plenty of wealth, especially after defeating the king who had taken Lot off into captivity. But when Abraham overtook him, he got all that king's wealth, he had plenty, and then the prophet Melchizedek blessed him. He had lots going for him. But even as he's blessed Abraham is interested in more. He needs a meaning for life. The riches and the spoils of the war that he had captured really don't mean much to him. He says I don't care about them. Somebody else can take them if they want them. He's troubled in his soul.
     
    At this point is where our text is today: chapter 15 of Genesis. He receives a vision from God, and the voice of God says to him, "Don't be afraid Abraham. I will shield you from danger and give you a great reward." But Abraham has the courage to argue with God. He says, "God, I don't really need more reward. What are all the blessings good for if I have no one to pass them on to? I need someone to share them with, to pass them to. I need a child." As it stood, everything he had would go to his servant Eliezer, because that's the way the court worked in those days. And so he was okay with that. He would do that, but there's not much meaning in that. He'd much rather have his things go to his own child, especially in a religious culture where one's meaning after death came from your family and how your name continued on with your family. His life was without meaning. He was a man wandering around, following God, growing older all the time, but with no apparent purpose. What was God up to?
     
    Well God isn't finished with the conversation here yet. There is more to this vision God has with him. The Lord says a slave will not inherit your property. Your son will. So this means that God is promising him a son. There's another step here. And he says step outside the tent, I have something to show you. And so he steps outside and God says look up. He wasn't saying look up to watch the comet crash into Jupiter, don't look up to see if the man in the moon is smiling at you, or something like that. He says look up and look at the stars. Count the stars. As impossible as it is to count the stars, that's how many descendants will come from you. You don't have a son now, but you will have a son. And the descendants will be more than the stars. That was the promise of God, and Abraham trusted the promise. Abraham trusted the promise, and God said, "Because you've trusted me in this way it will indeed happen." God accepted Abraham, even knowing all of his faults, his sin, his lies, his doubt, his hopelessness. Because Abraham trusted and followed God, God accepted him. And what God promised came true.
     
    When Abraham had trouble a little later seeing this as God's plan, God took him to a new place. That is, God had taken him to a place to get a new perspective. When Abraham is in all that trouble God said, "Come out of the tent, look up, and when you look up you'll see the important things." And Abraham was able to hear and to believe the promise. Before this point of this vision, life had been pretty worldly for Abraham. He'd had faith to follow, but he was caught up with battles, trying to get Lot out of trouble. He was always doing things with Lot and his predicaments. He was trying to keep peace with the neighbors, trying to keep food on the table. He was caught up in this day-to-day situation and the promise of God was hard to see, and all these things just making daily life work.
     
    But when God took him outside, instead of looking around him and kind of down like where everything is, he had him look up and changed his perspective completely. He was able to get out of himself and look to a new direction, to look up to the heavens. To know that the promise of the descendants as numerous as the stars gave him a new lease on life. He believed it and good things happened, though we know they didn't happen very easily.
     
    Well I remember times when our family would go camping, we'd go into the Rockies of Colorado -- high up, seven or eight thousand feet, and camp. And we'd be looking at the sky at night, and the numbers of stars were just unbelievable. It was like there was a haze almost, the stars were so, so many. But you don't really have to go that far to be impressed by the number of stars. Just leaving the bright lights of the city, you can go not that far from here and see many more stars than you do in town. I'm sure many of you have been on a vacation of some kind this summer, and you've gotten away. And maybe you've been able to see some natural things and wonder, maybe been able to see some nice stars on your trips. But more important than maybe the perspective you got from looking at all these stars was what happened when you looked back home from where you got to. When you were away you were able to get away from your daily things. You were able to look back and think about what life was like back when you were at home. Psychologists say that getting only an hour or two away from where you normally are changes your perspective. A person is able to be more objective about what's going on with life at home, life it work, and other things, when you get some distance from it. Just being away from it you can look back and say, these are the things that are going on. Maybe some changes need to be made. Maybe everything is really good. But just getting away gives a new perspective on what you're doing. God had given Abraham a new perspective. We get new perspectives in different ways.
     
    And the same things that bothered Abraham often bother us. We have issues with people around us. Whether we're at home or at work, we get in each other's space. Or we wonder where God is leading us as the days of our lives tick by. We need to be concerned about the provisions we have for ourselves and for the people we might be responsible for. We need food, and yet we like he know that material things really have no value in the end. There's more meaning to life than in the stuff that we have. And we have family issues. Whether immediate or extended family, there's always some anxiety there that comes with the families we're involved with. And any number of us have had to deal with the issue of infertility. It's a very difficult issue, and leaves us with strong disappointment, sometimes disappointment with God, when the sign of new life that we so desperately want doesn't come.
     
    For all these things, changing the point of view can help. A new perspective can help us be more objective. Sometimes the objective distance can be achieved just by talking with someone about it. If you can't get away from it and look at it, maybe that doesn't necessarily fix it anyway. Talking with someone helps us say, this is the stuff I'm dealing with. What are some solutions? What are some ways I can move forward with it? Particularly if we do that with someone who's trained to do it, as a counselor, or maybe a trusted friend or trusted relative. Sometimes just talking about what we're doing, what's bothering us perhaps, gives a new perspective and leads us to look at it in a new way.
     
    And if we can't see it ourselves, sometimes it takes another person, whoever it might be, to remind us that there are promises out there. There are stars out there and they represent the plan and promise of God. When we hear the promise of God that is indeed a plan out there, and God leads us in that way, it's like looking at the stars and remembering that the promise of God is far more than we can count or know about. It's greater than we can know.
     
    But having the promise doesn't make all the difficulty go away. We know the rest of the story with Abraham. Later on, he and Sarah doubted God's promise. And they came up with a plan of their own to have a child, when it seemed like they were getting too old for God's promise to come true for them. But their plan just complicated things further, and in the end they did have a child named Isaac, who was theirs. It was a hard way to go and they were severely tested by God's promise, that even they were flawed and sinful people who doubted the promise of God. But God came through on the plan and kept the promise.
     
    Well, thankfully we have something even more reliable than the stars for our promise. We have a very accessible way to take on life and a new perspective. That word comes to us often through different people. Sometimes through scripture. Someone says, "God loves you." That's a promise from God. That word comes to us. And if we're feeling forgotten or feeling left out, or if we're feeling abused, that word comes to us and says, "I have a new perspective. God loves me, even if I feel all alone right now." Someone says to us the promise of God, "You are forgiven." Our life has changed. It has a new perspective. We don't take our guilt around with us anymore. We are free from it. Someone says to us, "God's promise is true. God is leading you. Follow God no matter how unlikely the path seems."
     
    Bigger than the sky. Bigger than the stars. We have the king of heaven making promises to us and looking for us to trust those promises. The king of the heavens leads us as we are on earth and never lets us go. The word that Abraham uses to respond to God's promise is the same as the root for the word when we end prayer and say "amen." That, in effect, is what Abraham said to God when God gave him these promises: amen. That is, "Yes, I believe. I believe it." As we trust God's promises, God regards us well, as he did Abraham. And God keeps the promises to us. Amen.
     
    Now may the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2012, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Keith Holste, Genesis 11:27-30, Genesis 12, Genesis 13, Genesis 14, Genesis 15, Genesis 16, Genesis 17
  • Jan 15, 2012Words and Actions Together
    Jan 15, 2012
    Words and Actions Together
    Series: (All)
    January 15, 2012. Pastor Keith preaches on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last speech, his "I have been to the mountaintop" speech, and compares King's words and actions together with Jesus' own words and actions that lift us all up.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin in the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    The other evening I listened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s last speech given, as it was recorded. It was a speech that he was reluctant to give, because he was very, very busy at that time. There were threats upon his life at that time. And he was in the eastern part of the country and had to make a trip to Memphis. But he had committed himself to the cause of the workers -- the sanitation workers, particularly -- in Memphis, and upheld his commitment and went. That's an interesting speech to listen to, and I encourage you to do it if you have time this afternoon, or tomorrow on the holiday. Just dial it up on YouTube. And it's not that hard to find. It was a very moving speech, with references about practical matters in the strike that was at hand in Memphis. But it also contained a lot of biblical imagery and included the famous, "I have been to the mountaintop" and "I have this vision of everyone together." He had this hope for a triumphant people and a gathered people altogether. He had that vision. Of course, as kids pointed out, he was a preacher first. He was the son of a preacher himself, and very well trained in Christianity, as a graduate of a seminary. He had great oratorical skills as we all know, but having read a number of his sermons, you may not know that he was very skilled at composing sermons. And they are a delight to read, how he put the thoughts together no matter what part of the Bible it was. He was a great speech writer.
     
    But being so familiar with scripture, it's probably no accident that his speech in Memphis contains many of the same kind of approaches, I think, that we see from Mark's writing about Jesus in Capernaum today, and some other things that Jesus said along the way. Martin Luther King, Jr. learned a lot from the way Jesus did things. Mark was writing to a downtrodden people as he wrote down the gospel of Jesus. They were a struggling people, trying to survive the threats of the Romans and the Jewish authorities around them. They were looking for a way to build up their hope, and to give them some sense that they could continue on. So Mark tells them the story of Jesus in such a way that it would build up their encouragement and their hope that indeed they can live as Christians. And so he conveys to them the life and the teachings of Jesus in such a way that it gives them life and gives them hope for their struggles.
     
    Well, we're at today's lesson -- only 21 verses into the chapter of Mark -- and we hear Jesus already perform his first act of ministry. We heard last week about how he was baptized and how he was led into the wilderness and tempted there. He chose four disciples. And all that's the first 20 verses only. Now in verse 21 he's in Capernaum, which was a commercial center, an agricultural center, a fishing town and kind of a trade center, as caravans moving from east to west through the known world would come by Capernaum, there at the picturesque place at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. Well, Sabbath comes and Jesus goes to the local synagogue, and he preaches there. Mark doesn't say what the content of Jesus' sermon was, but we know the reaction he got. Mark says all the people were astounded. He preached like no one they had ever heard before. The scribes they were used to hearing usually would quote the rabbis from the past, and kind of mine the books and the scriptures for what so-and-so had said about this and that text, and they weren't so inspiring. But Jesus was different. He didn't remind them of what other people had said before. He spoke himself of what he knew to be true. He preached with authority. He didn't have to get words from the scholars who had gone before him. This was something very different for them to listen to: someone who spoke out of his own authority.
     
    Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a great gift too. And you can tell, listening to the people's responses as he gave his speeches, that they believed he was a prophet in his time. They saw him communicating the truth to them, and they followed him. There were others in his entourage who had great oratorical skills: Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, people like that. They all could hold their own, but none of them moved the movement the way that Martin Luther King, Jr. did. The response to him was such that great change did come above. He elicited the kind of response that did bring people to action. He couldn't do it by himself; it was because people responded to what he said that change happened.
     
    Well Jesus did two things in Capernaum that day. He preached in an astounding way, and he dealt with a man who, it says, suddenly rose up from the midst of the congregation, who had a demon or unclean spirit. The man didn't possess himself. He wasn't, you might say, in control of himself. This demon spirit controlled him. He was a prisoner in his own body. And this unclean spirit that came out of this man taunted Jesus and said, what are you here for? Have you come to destroy us, spirit? We know who you are, the Holy One of God. And he also said, what are you doing here from Nazareth? We're here in Capernaum. It says that, maybe as though someone in Memphis would have said, why do you come from Atlanta, Martin Luther King, to bother us? And so he held his geography against him too. But Jesus rebuked, it says, this unclean spirit and it came out of this man with a convulsion and with a crying out. And when the people witnessed this they were amazed, it says. They said, a new teaching with authority. The action of Jesus exorcising the demon from this man, backed up the astounding words of Jesus. And so words and actions go together to be the most convincing. The people said, we behold something completely new here. Not only were the words he said astounding, but the actions he said are heaven come to earth. This is new too. This man is a prophet to behold.
     
    Well that coming together, words and actions, was something that Martin Luther King, Jr. did very well also. He didn't just speak from podiums and pulpits. He was also the one leading the marches, giving the instructions and the tactics, and being arrested himself and going to jail. And as we know, word spread about him. And when he was speaking in Washington D.C. at the Lincoln Memorial, some 200,000 were thought to have been in that crowd to hear him speak. His actions and his words together made him have great impact.
     
    Well in his sermon at Capernaum, Jesus took on an evil spirit. Jesus knew it as it showed itself to him, and he brought the power to bear to exorcise this demon from the man. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not afraid to name the ills of the society that not only affected him and those of his race, but all those ills that affected all of society, whether it be issues of hunger, housing, the way finances work, and war that was going on at the time -- all these things that were of concern to all people were of concern to him. And he named them. Just as Jesus named the demons in that man, Martin Luther King, Jr. would name the demons' expression in the society of the day. The powers that profited from and enjoyed the status quo, as always happens, began to marshal forces so that his protest would be quelled. The resistance to King was predictable, and he was feeling it by way of threats, even on the day that he gave the speech.
     
    As Jesus would name himself, more and more authorities, especially those in the religious institutions as the ministry of Jesus went on, and he would point his finger and show how the church was acting in evil ways in his day -- those evils that he named would push back to him too, as we would say these days. He would say that the religion of his day was full of evil. It was full of corruption and needed to be corrected. And this cleansing of the devil from this man was the first step that he took. But we know how the institutions of his day pushed back against Jesus and finally took his life, because they couldn't stand to hear the naming of them amongst the evil of the world.
     
    For this man with the spirit to have been in a synagogue was a transgression of boundaries. The pharisaic Jewish system was all based on cleanliness, was about keeping a system of ritual cleanness. We heard something about that in our second lesson today, as Christians later on who had been Jews weren't sure how to handle certain meats. Were they clean or not clean? Were they under those rules or not? But for the Jews of that day, it was all about keeping this ritual cleanness: not touching certain things, not eating certain things, not touching certain people. But here was an unclean man right in the midst of their worship gathering. What could be worse than that? But Jesus lives in an unclean and messy world, in Mark. He's bumping into unclean people who have various ailments and bad spirits throughout his ministry. But what he does is that he rids them of their demons, he rids them of their diseases, so that instead of being outcast they become the welcome ones. Instead of being the ones shunned from the community, they become healed. To other people he'll say go show yourself to the priest, you are clean, you can join the community. He'll say that to some lepers he heals later on. Jesus was about rubbing shoulders with the outcast, so that they might be cleansed and then be welcomed into the community.
     
    Well that vision of Jesus is what Martin Luther King, Jr. was about too, in that which he brought to the work. He talks about it in that Memphis speech. He knows it will be messy. He and all African Americans were seen as unclean ones in the country: not welcome to eat in many places, not welcome to drink in many places, to share motels, schools, many other institutions with whites. They were the same as unclean. His dream was to name the ill, to come up with strategies that will confront that evil and make a new world. But again, the vision wasn't just for people of his race. It was for all people. He wanted there to be equality for all. That's why he worked, that's what he worked on and spoke and lived, and what he finally died for himself, as the pushbacks came in such a way that they took his life. He wanted everyone to be included. He named the outcast. He wanted there to be a cleansing so that everyone could be together.
     
    When Penny and I were in El Salvador a few months ago, the Lutheran Bishop there, Bishop Gomez, spoke of his dream for the ELCA church in El Salvador. In his country where machismo reigns and where women have little on their own and children are fortunate to go to school, his hope was for the ELCA church and his congregations, that they would become places of welcome and openness to all. He wanted them to be models of openness in a repressive society, and to be that way in the name of Jesus. That made me think that that's what our church is about here in the United States as well. Not that our society is all like that in El Salvador, but we still have plenty of problems to go around, plenty of people feeling outcast, plenty of people feeling not wanted, not important, or too ill or too different to be included in. The reign of God breaks in when our congregation and any congregation is an open and welcoming place, where all are welcome and know they are welcome. All are to be received in the name of Jesus.
     
    Last week we heard how the heavens opened up at the baptism of Jesus, and that's no accident as God comes down. But it is a kind of a compressing of heaven and earth together. That was a way of saying God's power was being unleashed in the world. It would be there with Jesus, and wherever he went heaven would come down to earth through him. The boundary of heaven and earth is blurred and collapsed as God's power comes to earth in Jesus. God is active and God is alive in Jesus, and the people of Jesus. That power of God unleashed comes out in the words of Jesus, as he speaks to that man and says, "Devil be out. Be cleansed." And he was. It comes out in the cleansing of that man. Heaven on earth. Heaven involved in the work of earth. In following weeks we'll see now in the first seven chapters or so of Mark how the various powers of God are unleashed on earth to do different things that show that God's power is active.
     
    Martin Luther King, Jr. was sensitive to this collapsing together of heaven and earth. He knows that any talk of heaven is empty unless it touches the earth. What use does it have, he says, of talking about the riches of heaven when people live in poverty? What use does it have, he says, of talking about milk and honey flowing in heaven when people don't have anything to eat and they are starving? He believed with Jesus that it doesn't have to be that way. God breaks in. God is active. God gives his power to be with his people to bring about change. With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. it was all about getting and putting people together. Let them get together. By uniting and working together, they could accomplish good and great things. God could use them to bring about change for a more perfect earth. We hear the words of Jesus. We see the actions of Jesus. He lifts us up so that together we may be a force for good in the world around us, forming an accepting community of faith as we go. Amen.
     
    And now, may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2012, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Keith Holste, Mark 1:21-28, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
  • Jan 8, 2012Fishers of People, Catchers in the Rye
    Jan 8, 2012
    Fishers of People, Catchers in the Rye
    Series: (All)
    January 8, 2012. To repent is to acknowledge that there is pain in the world, and admit that we are partly responsible for it. Pastor Penny preaches on the story of Jesus' baptism, and how Jesus' message to the world was not gentle. It was about both promise and repentance. But it's when we repent that we can really hear the grace of God in our baptism.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    In the movie "My Week with Marilyn" we get a glimpse of the life of Marilyn Monroe, the glamorous movie star from the 1950s who shot into fame. She was a nobody, Norma Jean. And then she was found. Her life -- even though she was known throughout the world and people followed her around everywhere -- her life was not very joyful. She was married and divorced three times, and at the age of 36 she took her own life apparently, taking sleeping pills. I am sure that most people look to her early childhood for some explanation of the sadness in her adult life, because her early childhood was not very happy. She never knew her father, and her mother had a mental illness and had to be institutionalized. So Norma Jean, or Marilyn Monroe, grew up in an orphanage and in many different foster homes. And there's a very touching point in the movie, where she says she thinks that every little girl should be able to hear her mother say that she loves her. And you can only imagine that she never heard that, or heard it very seldom.
     
    What a contrast between her childhood and her life and her relationship with her parents, and the voice that Jesus heard in his baptism, the voice of his Heavenly Father saying, "You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased." You know, with words of love and support from a parent like that, what couldn't a child accomplish? Now Jesus knew that he had his Father's love and support. But his Father did not coddle him by any means. Along with this love and support was a plan, were expectations. And the way that the Father lent his support -- just as we were talking about up here in our baptisms -- the way the Father lent his support to the Son was through the Holy Spirit. And the description of the Holy Spirit in our text this morning is not a gentle force. It says that the Spirit "tore open" the heavens to come down in the form of a dove. This Spirit drove Jesus. It didn't compel Jesus or lead Jesus. It drove Jesus, into the wilderness where there were wild beasts. And there he was tempted for 40 days and 40 nights, or in other words a long time, by Satan. Now, the Father was there in the form of angels who ministered to him. But that time must have been like boot camp for Jesus. You know, his natural inclination to love was being refined and strengthened and focused. And when he was done, he began his ministry and began calling his disciples.
     
    And the Holy Spirit was not gentle with Jesus' disciples either. It was more like an eagle than a dove. Jesus walked up to Peter and Andrew, and it was as though they couldn't say no. It was as though the Holy Spirit wouldn't allow them to say no, because they dropped everything and followed Jesus. Or Jesus went up to James and John, and they left their father, they left the hired help. No handshakes to Dad or kiss Mom on the cheek or pack the bag. They were gone. And Jesus was not gentle with them either. When they came, he said, "I will make you fishers of people." He didn't say: I will teach you how to do this, I will encourage you, I will lead you. He said, "I will make you fishers of people."
     
    I always think that expression "fishers of men" or "fishers of people" is kind of interesting. And I always think of the book The Catcher in the Rye, and this little teenager Holden Caulfield is trying to find himself, trying to become an adult. He runs away from home. He tries to get street savvy. But the vision that he has for what he really wants to be in life is a catcher in the rye. He has this picture of a big field of rye, and all these children playing. But at the edge of the field there is a cliff. And he wants to be the catcher, the one to stand there and protect those kids and keep them from falling off the cliff. And maybe that's a good way to think of what Jesus is making his disciples into, and making us into: people who catch people and keep them from falling off the cliffs, spiritually and emotionally and physically.
     
    Well, Jesus' message to the world was not gentle either. He had two parts to it. The one was a promise. It was: believe in the good news. But the first part was a hard part: repent. That was the twofold message: repent and believe in the good news. And they go together. You really can't believe without repenting. Now "repenting" is a word we only use here and in these walls, and it goes with confession and sin. And we might feel that that word doesn't have much place in our ordinary lives. But repent is really quite a practical thing. It is simply acknowledging that there is pain in the world, and admitting that we are partly responsible for it. Acknowledging the pain and admitting that we are responsible. That's what it means to repent. And it's not easy to do even the first part, to acknowledge the pain in the world.
     
    In his latest book, the travel writer Rick Steves says that for most of his adult life he willingly chose to ignore the pain that he knew was going on in some places. Central America was one he mentioned. He knew there was a civil war in the 80s, and that the left was fighting the right, and that our government was supporting the right. But he didn't know where the truth lay. He didn't understand it. It was too complicated, took too much energy. He just said I didn't need that. And then he went there. He went actually to El Salvador, and that changed everything. When he got there he realized that he did have the power to begin to discern the truth, by talking to people and observing. And not only could he, but he believed he should start to understand what was happening there. It was important to him. And it became the beginning of his whole new way of looking at travel, which is Travel as a Political Act. That's his most recent book.
     
    And I think it's really easy for us living in this country to be like Rick Steves, and just sort of isolate and insulate ourselves from the pain in other parts of the world. We really don't want to think about it. But it's not just the other parts of the world that we like to ignore. It's pretty easy to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to when people are being mistreated at work or in school. It's just hard to know what to do. It's just easier not to do anything. And sometimes it's true that we even try to ignore the pain that is right within our own families.
     
    The author of Almost Christian, a book that does a study of teenagers and faith, has a lot of critical remarks to make towards adults in mainline Christian churches. She says that we even make God into the kind of being who is removed from the pain of the world. She sees that so many churches teach about a God who is removed, who's distant, who's glad to see when things go well, wants us to be happy, wants us to feel good about ourselves, but doesn't really get involved. And there's no sin or responsibility involved with this God. And she says if you teach that kind of God, don't be surprised if your teenagers don't feel that that God is a part of their lives.
     
    So it's easy for us to fail to see the hurt in the world. But some people live in a world of hurt and they can't ignore it. Their temptation is to just say, "Well that's not my fault. I'm not responsible. You know, it's a dog-eat-dog world. Do it to them before they do it to you. It's not my fault that things are happening." So that idea of repenting, seeing the hurt, taking responsibility, is really hard for us. And yet it is so essential.
     
    And it was true, I think, at any stage in our lives that it's a hard thing to do. But the first time that we have an opportunity to do that publicly, to repent publicly, is in our baptisms. And it is so amazing, if we understand what's happening there, to see the blessing in it. I remember when our daughter was baptized. She screamed the entire time. And someone kindly afterwards said, "Well, it was just the devil coming out of her." I thought, it's not exactly comforting. On the other hand, it maybe is a good explanation. Maybe when there's a baptism, there's like a little fight going on, and God is finally booting the devil out and getting the upper hand. It's when we repent that we can really hear the grace of God in baptism.
     
    Because God is saying I know that there's a world of hurt, and I know you're responsible for it in your selfishness, you just are. But I am about to drastically change your status. The stink of your sin is going to be removed. The stain of your sin is going to be replaced. I am going to give you a new identity, that of a perfect person. I will see you the way I see my Son, pure and innocent. And so what happens in baptism for each of us is that God is saying the very same words to us that God said at Jesus' baptism: "You are my son, you are my daughter, the beloved. With you I am well pleased. For you I have a plan. I will make you to be fishers of people, to be catchers in the rye."
     
    With words of love and encouragement like that from our Heavenly Father, how could we not accomplish great things? Thanks be to God.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2012, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Acts 19:1-8, Mark 1:4-20, My Week With Marilyn, The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger, Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, Travel as a Political Act, Rick Steves