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
WatchNotesDownloadDateTitle
  • 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
  • Feb 12, 2012The Value of Traditions
    Feb 12, 2012
    The Value of Traditions
    Series: (All)
    February 12, 2012. Our values and traditions can be a good thing, but they can also take on a life of their own and become destructive. Pastor Penny preaches today that it's important that we hear what Jesus is saying about values and tradition, to trust in him and listen to the word of God with open hearts.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    The story of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" begins as the sorcerer, or the wizard, is finishing his day in the workshop and going home, and leaving his apprentice to clean up. But his apprentice does not like to clean up. Especially he does not like fetching the water from the well outside and bringing it into this big cistern in the workshop. The apprentice doesn't really know magic, but he's watched the wizard, and so he gets this idea that if he takes a broom, maybe he can cast a spell on it. And he does, and it works: the broom grows arms and legs and feet and hands, and he teaches the broom to fetch water. So the apprentice sits back, gleefully watching this broom doing all his work, going back and forth, bucket after bucket of water. But then he begins to realize something: the water is getting close to the top of the cistern and the broom is still gathering water. And he doesn't know enough magic to make it stop. Well, he just watches as it starts overflowing. And finally in desperation he grabs an axe and he chops the broom in half, only to discover that each half then grows arms and legs and begins to fetch water. Well, catastrophe is averted when the wizard, or the sorcerer, unexpectedly comes back and breaks the spell. But the broom, which was a useful tool and meant for good use, took on a life of its own and became a real danger.
     
    In the gospel today, Jesus is saying that is exactly what can happen with tradition or rules or values. They are a good thing, but they can take on a life of their own and become destructive, even weapons. The laws of the Jews were something that were given to them as a gift. They were chosen to be the people of God and given the Ten Commandments. And they tried hard to obey them, because they wanted to stay connected with God. It was their response to God's love. It was a pleasure for them to strive to obey the Commandments. But of course, the Ten Commandments are pretty broad. And they need to be applied to daily life. So for that they looked to the leaders who came up with other laws, which they call the Oral Laws or the Tradition of the Elders. These were laws that would help them apply the Ten Commandments. But this is where the laws began to have a life of their own. And I think what happened is that the religious leaders began to lose their trust in God. They began to fear that if they didn't keep all of the laws perfectly, that God would turn God's back on them and let their nation be destroyed.
     
    And by the time of Jesus there were six hundred and thirteen of these little laws, which the religious leaders taught the people they must keep perfectly. Now, the religious leaders were of the middle class and upper classes, and they had some leisure and they had some money. But the common people, called the people of the land disdainfully by the leaders, couldn't keep all of these. And so the leaders taught them that by failing to keep these, the Tradition of the Elders, they were failing God. They were unholy, they were unclean, and most heartbreakingly that there was no place for them in the Kingdom of God.
     
    Jesus said to the Pharisees, you have rules that are human rules and you've elevated them above God's rules, and they go in opposition to the very heart of what God wants. Now these things happened over years, and they happen subtly, these changes in how they thought about the law. But I don't think we have to look very far back in the history of the Christian church to see how easily that happens. It wasn't even 200 years ago when many Christians believed that slavery was accepted by God. Paul had written that slaves should be diligent workers for their masters. And Jesus had never said anything about slavery being bad, so they assumed that slavery was acceptable. And for years the church taught that, until finally they woke up to see what a horrible and wicked thing slavery was, and how it was tearing apart our black brothers and sisters.
     
    Well, there's another issue that people take sides on in the church today. And that is whether women should be pastors -- women's ordination. And I really understand why the tradition that only men should be pastors is so deeply felt by people, because I felt it very deeply. I grew up without seeing any women ministers, and I felt it was wrong for women to aspire to become a pastor. It took years before I felt differently. And only after I talked to people who had thought through the process, and prayed and studied and had come to the decision that it was destructive, and was a poor tradition that was destroying the church to bar half of the population from using their gifts to the glory of God. But it was a deep-seated feeling, and it still is in the hearts of many people.
     
    Another issue over which I have changed my feelings is when I grew up I was taught that if you weren't a heterosexual, you were wrong and your lifestyle is wrong. I don't think I was taught that so much as society taught it to me. It was just a deeply ingrained tradition and value. My parents, however, taught me that you always are kind to people, even if you don't agree with them. And so when I was at a workshop once, I went to a breakout session where a woman and her partner did the presentation. This woman talked about her love for Christ, and how active she had been in church and how much she loved it. And then she talked about how when she was a little girl, she knew there was something different about her. But she never really understood it. And then when she was an adult and understood the difference, she found that her church no longer wanted her. And that made me start thinking. And I started reading and praying, and reading the scripture, and talking to people. And I slowly changed that value, that tradition that had been so deeply inside of me, to believe that however we are born -- whatever gender, or however we understand ourselves -- that we are in the image of God and that God wants everyone's life to be full of relationships and the ability to share their gifts with the church.
     
    Now, I know not everyone agrees with me on this. Not everyone in our country or our church body, or I'm sure the congregation. But that's why it's so important that we hear what Jesus is saying today about values and tradition. He is saying we are not united because we all agree on how to live out the Christian life; we are united by Christ. We are united by our love of Christ, which bridges the differences that we have. We are called here by the Holy Spirit to be one Christian community, to love and respect one another in spite of differences. If ever we tried to find a way to avoid using our traditions and values as weapons against each other, it would be to look at the model of Jesus. He did not agree with the lifestyle of prostitutes and tax collectors, and yet he was willing to eat with them and talk with them, and he cared about them.
     
    In this highly politicized world, I thought it was interesting to hear a story about two men who considered themselves to be enemies. One, whose name is Gene Gregory, is the president of the United Egg Producers of America. The other is Wayne Pacelle, and he is the president of the Humane Society of America. And they were at opposite ends on the issue of how you handle animals in the process of producing eggs. Pacelle really took on the egg producers, and said you have these chickens in these little tiny cages, and you cram the cages into these little tiny rooms, and it's wrong. Well, between them they were spending millions of their organizations' dollars fighting each other. And last summer they used kind of a go-between to ask each other: could we sit down and talk? And they did. And what they decided was they could spend the next 10 or 15 years throwing millions of dollars of their organizations' money back and forth and get nowhere. And better would be to see if they could devise a compromise they could both live with. And that's exactly what they did, and there will be a bill before Congress, if it passes, that is a compromise for both of them. And most interestingly what the article said is they discovered at the end of their conversations together they had respect for each other. Gregory said of Pacelle: he is a man of his word. He didn't really want to destroy the whole egg producing industry. He just wanted things to be right. And Pacelle said of Gregory: I learned so much from our talks. I learned all the pressures that farmers are under and why we have to move slowly so that we don't destroy their livelihood. Two men who had different values decided to stop using their values as weapons.
     
    It is so very hard as Christians to know how to live out our faith. Culture does not teach us well. There are pitfalls all over. We can't go by the culture. We have to struggle with these things. But one thing, and one thing alone, is what Jesus asks us to do. And that is not to trust our traditions and our values and our laws above God, but to trust in Christ, to listen to the word of God with open hearts, to pray with an open heart, and to believe that the Holy Spirit has been given to us. And that as we trust in Christ there will be changes along the way. We may change our mind about things. We may ask for forgiveness, or we may not. We may find that what we believed was the right thing. But as we rely on Christ, we can be sure that the Spirit walks with us through all those questions and quandaries in life, and will never leave our side, and finally will bring us safely home into the arms of a loving God.
     
    Thanks be to God. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2012, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Talmud, 613 laws, LGBTQ, Matthew 15:1-9, Mark 7:1-23
  • Feb 5, 2012The Call to a Difficult Journey
    Feb 5, 2012
    The Call to a Difficult Journey
    Series: (All)
    February 5, 2012. Pastor Keith's sermon today is on Jesus' rejection in Nazareth, from Mark 6. Jesus did not receive a hero's welcome, because the people didn't want to hear what he had to say. We would probably prefer a more divine kind of messiah too. But we are reminded that the calling of a Christian to faith is a call to a difficult journey.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We look a little further at this long reading from Mark. We begin in the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    I think most people probably think of Jesus as a kind person, a pleasant person, someone to help people, and someone who cares about them a lot in a tender way. Often Jesus is pictured as a good shepherd, someone who cares for people in that way. He knows his flock. He cares for each lamb with untiring devotion and concern, and they maybe think of him as a mild and meek person. "Pleasant" and "attractive" are some of the adjectives that might go with his name. We think of him as the kind of person we may eagerly bring home to meet the family and be around the table with us. But in our lesson today we hear of a day when Jesus came home to his family, to his neighbors. And when he did, he received a mixed reaction. They no doubt heard about his teaching and healing. That reputation had gone before him as he had been out and about, now came back to Nazareth. And we might think he should have gotten a hero's welcome for being this person from a small town. Now he's making such a commotion in the countryside that he's become a hero in a sense, the good things he says and the miracles he does. It says they were astounded at what he said, and there was lots of amazement.
     
    But the point of our reading today is that they actually didn't receive him with the hero's welcome. Maybe they used it as an excuse. Because they didn't really want to hear what he had to say, because it cut them and was a way to call them to repent before God, they said well, he was the carpenter's son. He was a carpenter himself. He wasn't a religious professional. He's Mary's boy. He's got four brothers that are named in the text, and sisters. He's just one of the family kids down the block. We don't need to listen to him. So either because they didn't want to hear his words, or because they just said it didn't fit with who they thought the messiah was to be, they used every reason they could to discount what he said. The first reason was that he was a carpenter. How could a carpenter say such words about God? He wasn't a rabbi. He wasn't theologically trained. He wasn't the son of a priest. He had no credentials of any kind for the kinds of things he was saying and doing, and they were pretty emphatic saying he's just a guy from a regular family -- maybe even one of the poorer families in town at that. It names his four brothers and talk says he has sisters. If he's just a regular guy from a regular family, how could he be a person of God?
     
    The problem seemed to be that he was speaking the word of God with authority, and he was doing the works of God -- healing and teaching. But they didn't believe that God would work through such an ordinary person as this Jesus guy they'd always known. They either seemed to think he was unbalanced in his thinking, or just saying things that would put him in danger. In an earlier lesson in Mark, Jesus is speaking and his family wants to come and kind of rescue him -- take him out of a house -- and he refuses to go with them. He says everybody here's my brother and my sister, so these are my family. So we don't know at that point if the family was trying to prevent him from being ridiculed, or to keep him from being arrested. But his own family was trying to withdraw him from a social scene. It seems like the people knew him as a person, and what they expected was a message. When the messiah came through they thought we could know this message. But when it came through a person who lived in their midst, they found this offensive. How could this person be God? How can this person live out God? This is offensive to us. And they couldn't believe that this was a person of God.
     
    We don't know what his particular message was on that occasion in Nazareth. It doesn't say here. From other gospels we know that at other times when he spoke in Nazareth -- because he blasphemed and said that these words were fulfilled in their hearing and said as much, that he was God -- they wanted to put him to death right away. But for this crowd, he was too much of an ordinary town boy, too much a regular carpenter to be a regular religious teacher and miracle performer. And so they resisted him with all their might.
     
    I think we have to admit in our time there's a resistance that we have to Jesus too. He was awfully ordinary, in a way. He was one who suffered abuse. He was one who died for the cause. When those people come along, can we really say that this person was a person of God? He challenges us. In our day and age we tend to prefer someone more spectacular, someone more successful, someone more extravagant than what God gives us in Jesus: this carpenter guy who goes around has kind of a motley crew following him, and ends up on a cross. We'd probably too, like the people of Nazareth, really prefer a divine kind of messiah that comes with all the signs of a messiah, rather than a human messiah who was fully human. And so we in our minds sometimes try to "upgrade" Jesus. We try to transform this carpenter to kind of a Superman, who relentlessly battles for truth, justice, and the American way -- and of course always prevails as he does it. The Jesus as a Superman looks like a person, but inside this Superman Jesus is more than human. He wouldn't be killed and then rise again -- he'd be smart enough not to be killed in the first place. So as humans, we think we'd rather be taken out of our humanity also and say, "God, rather than save me as a human being so I have to go through more days like this, why don't you be a Superman to me and take me out of where I am as a human being, so that I can live above all this fray that I have every day." So our inclination is to make Jesus someone more divine than human and to wish that God would take us somehow away from this world of all of our troubles. We'd like to rise above it.
     
    The resistance of the town people to Jesus results in a very low number of miracles being performed there. He could do no mighty acts there, it says, except that he healed a few sick people. Sounds big enough by itself. But in other places he'd done much more than that. What Mark says is that there were just a very few miracles done there because there were very few believers. They didn't believe in him, so he could do no actions. It had to be faith that received these miracles for the miracles to happen. When we think about it, in Mark's gospel there's really more authority and power of Jesus shown over things of nature than over people. Jesus heals diseases. He casts out demons. He orders the wind to be calm. But he doesn't control people or dictate what they do. They're on their own for that. He commands people to be quiet about the miracles he's performed on them, and they go do the opposite: they tell everybody they can find. So he didn't have control over people. They feel like they need to tell others, and so even if Jesus tells them to be quiet they don't. He can't tell people what to do. And this all points to the fact that since Jesus doesn't control human beings, it's more the people's attitudes or faith in him that determines what he can do among them. Whether it's in his time or our time, it's a faith that receives what Jesus does. If the faith isn't there, the actions won't be there.
     
    He can't help people who don't desire to be healed. Jesus can't forgive people who don't want to be forgiven. He can't teach people who have closed minds and don't want to be taught. He can't bring new life to people who have no desire for it. He can't create peace among people who prefer to live in worlds of hate and revenge. There has to be a faith and an openness to what Jesus has, to receive it. And so this means the attitude that we have towards Jesus affects the works that he can do among us in our time. It's our faith that brings Jesus into our lives. It's our faith that transforms us to be people who are not only nurtured by him in different ways, but also turned into people who will serve him.
     
    Some of the reports I've heard from missionaries over the years in different cultures, some of those who have attended faith healing events too, say the same thing: that it takes a person willing to believe for this thing to happen. That is, if the culture is open and believes that there are evil spirits and demons, then it's possible to have exorcisms and so forth, and that kind of thing is alive and well. Or if there are people open to having words said and be healed by what we call "faith healing," then it can happen. But where a culture is, shall we say, scientific and doesn't believe that those things exist, then the things don't happen. But you can go to different places in the world today where the culture allows these things and believes that they are there, and the healings and exorcisms and that things like that can happen.
     
    To show how transformative Jesus is, Jesus calls the disciples to himself. He says this is Nazareth, let's go on now. And he sends them out. He walks among the villages and says: you go out two by two. Go into the villages around here. And these disciples were able to heal people and they were able to forgive sins. The group goes out with a sign of the good that can come with a person who follows the Lord. There was faith with the disciples. When Jesus told them, they believed it and they did it. They could heal people. And the people that they encountered evidently believed too, because once he left Nazareth there were all kinds of healings that happened. The disciples do well. They're excited when they get back. They've been able to do these things. They believed, and they performed many miracles of healing.
     
    Well, this all led to a lot of confusion in that day about who Jesus was. They didn't know what to make of him. Jesus caused such a clamor because of his healings and the words he said, that word about him got out -- even rose up to the leaders, to Herod, ruler of his territory in Galilee. And Herod wanted to know: is this guy human? Or is this guy of God? And Herod had John the Baptist on his mind, since he had put him to death. And so he says this Jesus must be John the Baptist come back to life again. So that was one of the theories that was out there: Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life again. The fact that John had lived his life and then met with such a horrible end is a warning, alongside the other lessons of today, that there is rejection. Whenever the ministry of Jesus is in action, there's rejection. The people of Nazareth rejected him. The authorities rejected John the Baptist. Herod rejected him so much he killed him. Jesus, when he tells the disciples to go out, he says: be prepared, people will reject you. So he tells them to shake the dust off their feet when they're done with the town, if they've been rejected there. The follower of Jesus finds resistance. Just as John found it, Jesus found it, and the disciples found it. Mark wants to prepare us all for that fact. If we're transformed, believing in ministry in the same style Jesus had, we will encounter resistance. It's part of being a disciple.
     
    The calling of a Christian to faith is a call to a difficult journey. It's not putting on the Superman cape and thinking that everything's going to be great. It's willingly enrolling in a life of servanthood, even though there are many opportunities for joys and for thanksgivings at every turn on this journey. Even though there are difficulties along the path, many fulfillments come with it. All of the parts of our reading today hint that when the truth of Jesus gets close to people, they react to it. Often it's a word that calls to a different kind of life, and says the life you're living right now isn't very close to what God wants for you. And you hear that word and it changes you. Sometimes it's the application of God's law, and we find out that strikes a nerve and there's a strong reaction. What we're doing isn't fitting what God wants for us very well.
     
    The word that Jesus spoke at his home church hit a nerve and energized that crowd against him very much. He spoke and brought up things that were very close to home for them. They didn't want to hear and learn what Jesus had to say. So they used his humanity as grounds against him. We don't want to hear this, they said. So they kind of covered their ears and said: you're too human for us. You're too ordinary for us. We don't want to hear it, whether it's right or not. Jesus knows that the disciples, as they said, will find this resistance as they go out. Some will welcome the word and some will not. And then when we hear about the story of John the Baptist again, we hear in a horrible recounting of his death that it was all about his speaking a word that hit a nerve. He called what Herod was doing wrong. He said you're committing adultery with your brother's wife. You shouldn't be doing that. And it met resistance that hit a nerve and it ended up causing him to lose his head. Herod and his wife then are angry with John. He points out what's not right and it costs him, and they get rid of him.
     
    So the word comes close to all of us, and when it does we react. It reminds us of who we are and reminds us of who we aren't. It convicts us of the wrongs that we've done. It reminds us how we don't like a Jesus too much like us, and how we are slow to serve. As he sent the disciples out, maybe we're a little slow to get in gear to serve as he wants us to. The word of Jesus comes and shows us our moral weaknesses, reminds us that as we follow Jesus, others will be out to pull us away and take us away from this mission of the Lord. It's not an easy path. But it also reminds us that we are children with Jesus in baptism, children of God. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus. It reminds us that we can celebrate the humanity of Jesus because that means he is like us. We are like him. He is one of us. He got into the water and was baptized as we were baptized. He entered into our world. He knows what we go through. So we can build up faith, so that we can receive the miracles, so that we can receive the healing. We can receive the forgiveness that he wants us to have. To those who believe, there is much to be received. God is there. He wants to give it. Believe and it will come to you. So we keep the faith so that we can receive the wonderful gifts God has in mind for us. 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 6:1-13
  • 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
  • Nov 27, 2011Cultural Distraction
    Nov 27, 2011
    Cultural Distraction
    Series: (All)
    November 27, 2011. Pastor Penny's sermon is on the ancestry and reign of Josiah, King of Judah, and how he achieved reforms and helped his people rediscover who they were after being culturally distracted. It is the same for us. It is so easy to be distracted by our culture. This Christmas, let's not forget our story.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    See if you can follow my line of thinking. What do all of these activities require in order to do them well: play video games, play laser tag, go deer hunting, bird watching, watching for falling stars, waiting for your parents after school when there are lots of cars, or as you're driving to work making sure that you take the right exit from the freeway to get where you're going. What do all those things require? Skill? Patience? You've got to be awake. You can't get diverted. You've got to be awake and you can't get distracted.
     
    We heard from a long passage, which our lector Carol did so well with all those names, and it was about Josiah. It was a sliver in the life of the children of Israel when they were very distracted. For maybe more than a hundred years, they went through this period of being very distracted by this immense empire of Assyria that was sliding down toward them like some poisonous river. And first it filled up the Northern kingdom, which at that time was called Israel. And it took over, it conquered them and ruined their capital, Samaria. And then it slid down into the Southern kingdom, which at that time was called Judah. But it stopped short of Jerusalem. They could not conquer Jerusalem. So it receded back and the Assyrians let Judah become a vassal state. They didn't really conquer them, but they had to pay money.
     
    The strange thing is the king of Judah, a Jewish man, Ahaz, chose not only to be a political vassal, but to be a cultural and religious vassal of Assyria as well. He started taking on the manners and the language of Assyria as well as their gods. And many people did. He built altars to the gods of Assyria. Now when Ahaz died, Hezekiah his son ruled Judah and he had a small reform. He reformed his father's ways and he wiped out the altars. But when he died, his son Manasseh was remembered as the most wicked king of Judah, because he fully embraced the culture and the values of Assyria. He had altars to their gods all over the land and even in the house of God in the temple in Jerusalem. He encouraged temple prostitutes, and most horrible of all he sacrificed his own son to the god of Moloch. When Manasseh died, another son ruled for two years and was killed. And then the powers that ruled put his son in place. His little eight-year-old son became the king of Judah, and that boy's name was Josiah. And he was able to achieve reforms that none of his ancestors had. When he came into power he got rid of all the altars.
     
    But the most important thing was later on in his kingship. He sent people in to repair the temple and they discovered a book -- the "Book of the Law" it's called -- and experts have tried to figure out what that book was. And what they determined is that it was a big part of the book we have of Deuteronomy, the book of the law. Most likely it was the part that described how 500 years earlier, their ancestors had made a covenant with God. Moses had led them to make a covenant with God. God offered it first. God said, "I will be your God. I will protect you. I will bless you. I will make you the light of the world. Just live like my people." And they said yes. Well, of course they didn't all live that way. And certainly they weren't living that way in this distracted time. But Josiah had called them back to be the people they were intended to be. You see, they had forgotten their story -- the story of being freed from Egypt, the story of being led to the promised land. They forgot their story and who they were. They had become distracted, by a culture that didn't share those values and didn't know them.
     
    Well, I think we live in a time with far more distractions than they lived in. I think we're full of distractions, and it only gets worse before Christmas. There are so many things on our to-do lists -- so many responsibilities, so many pressures -- that it's very easy for us to get distracted by our culture and to let our culture determine who we are and what we think about ourselves. You know, we are people of God who can look in the mirror every morning and say, "That person I'm looking at is a treasure to God. That person is valuable." But our culture doesn't always let us do that, because we have this huge list of things we're supposed to be doing. You know, as people of God we should be able to look at our faults and our failures honestly, without excuses, to be willing to admit when we have said words in anger, to be willing to admit when we've dropped the ball and let people down, because we know that God still loves us, that God forgives us, and that God's judgment on us is the only judgment that matters. Everything else is distraction. And when we are free not to worry about our image, not to worry about how we're doing, not to worry about what we look like in the eyes of others, then we are free to see what's happening around us, to sense the people that need our help, and we're free to help them.
     
    Last week Keith and I were at a workshop and we heard about a man (they changed his name, they called him Jerry) who worked for Merrill Lynch in New York City, and he was a manager. He has was highly appreciated and well-respected. But one day, upper management gave him quite a task. They said, "Take this group that you've been shepherding, that you've been managing. We want half of them to go across the river to Jersey City and be headquartered there, and the rest to stay here in New York City." So Jerry thought well, that's fine. It's better for Merrill Lynch apparently. And it was going to be fine for those people that were going to go to Jersey City, because most of them lived across the river. So it would be a far shorter commute.
     
    But they weren't situated very long across the river before he began to hear complaints. "This building you have us in is sick. We're all getting respiratory illnesses." Well Jerry, being a problem solver, gets the engineers in there and investigates, and they said, "We can't find anything wrong with this building." Well after a little while there was another complaint from the group across the river. They said, "Parking is a problem here." So, Jerry meets with the building manager and they work it out so that parking isn't a problem. After a little while, Jerry gets a complaint. But it's not from the group across the river. It's from his boss. He said, "Jerry I need to see you." And when he sat down in the office he said, "Jerry you've always been such a good manager. But what's happened? This group over there across the river, they are unfocused and they're not pulling their weight. They're so unproductive. Now, I'm sending you to an executive coach and that will help you."
     
    So Jerry went reluctantly to the executive coach, sat down, and told him everything that had happened. And the executive coach could see that Jerry was demoralized. He was feeling bad about himself. He was feeling like a failure. He he was guilt-ridden. And so the coach did one thing. He said, "Jerry, tell me about everything that happened before this. Tell me how you got to be a manager at Merrill Lynch. Tell me what your accomplishments were that got you this job." And then Jerry began to tell him, and it was a wonderful record of achievement. When Jerry left the coach's office, he felt a lot better. And it wasn't long before a light bulb came on in his mind and he understood the group across the river. He said, "You realize that the group across the river wasn't upset because of the building or because of the parking. They were upset because they felt cut off, they felt exiled, they felt ignored, unappreciated." So then it was an easy thing to fix. He simply divided his time between New York City and Jersey City. He had two offices. And when they had staff meetings, they alternated locations between the two. And he even orchestrated a party for those across the river river: "Welcome to Jersey City" party. Freed from his guilt and his distraction of worrying about his own ego, his own abilities, he was able to see the needs of others and to help them.
     
    It is that way for us, and that's what Jesus is telling us. It is so easy to be distracted by our culture, to let them name us, to let them guide us, to forget our own story, and therefore to forget who we are, the story of God's love, an amazing love -- starting at Bethlehem and ending on the cross, and then ending again as he rose from the dead. So this Christmas let's not forget our story. Let's be reminded of its glory, and therefore reminded of who we are. Let's get out those Advent wreaths. And some of us just made some this morning. Let's light a candle. Let's find that Bible. And whether you're alone or with a family, open it up, read it, pray. And let this Advent be a time when we are not focused on the distractions of our culture, but focused instead on the important story. Our story. The story that tells us who we are.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2011, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, 2 Chronicles
  • Feb 13, 2011Zero Tolerance
    Feb 13, 2011
    Zero Tolerance
    Series: (All)
    February 13, 2011. Pastor Keith preaches from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus selects four areas of life as examples of where the scribes and Pharisees are kind of tolerant, but God has zero tolerance. And Jesus receives the zero tolerance punishment of death for us, and sets us at peace with God and at peace with one another.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We reflect more on these verses from Matthew in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. We begin in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    I'm guessing that most of us, if not all of us, when we were children had times when we resisted taking a bath. Our parent would say to us it's time to have a bath, and we would say I just had one. Maybe it was days ago, but we'd say that anyway. Or I'm really not dirty, I don't need one. Well when Jesus came, he was telling the people around him in so many words: you need to take a bath. You need to get cleaned up, just like a child in denial thinking that they really don't need a bath, even though they are dirty. And Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and the scribes and the people around him: you need to get yourselves cleaned up. He says to them, in effect, you've convinced yourselves that you are clean, but you've lowered the standards of what cleanliness is. And in a way, you've kind of hidden it with perfume or deodorant or something like that. You don't realize how dirty you are. And who among us hasn't looked at the Ten Commandments and said, I think I can keep them okay? I don't really do so badly. I care about God. I try to watch my language. I go to church. I care for my parents. I don't kill people. I don't steal. I don't commit adultery. I don't lie about others. I don't plot to get their stuff from them and take their workers away from them. I'm not really so bad, really. I just need a tune-up maybe now and then, but I'm not so bad when it comes to the Ten Commandments.
     
    But in Jesus' day people who were really serious about the Jewish faith wanted to be absolutely right about it, because they didn't want to be taken into exile again ever. They wanted to get it right. And so they thought maybe the Ten Commandments were too vague. So they added some 613 laws to have a more complete guide about how to live. They sorted through the first five books of the Old Testament -- that's what we call it; they would call it the Torah -- and counted some 613 different laws for human behavior. There were rules for exactly what you should believe, how to do the rituals, how to do marriage, how to do sexuality, how to take a vow, how to correctly appoint a worship space, how to be proper at the holy days. There were laws about how to treat your neighbor, and on which days how to treat them, how to be fair in financial dealings. In all that were 613 rules for righteous living. And they set about keeping them, thinking that things were fine between them and God if they kept these 613 rules.
     
    But our lesson today shows us that Jesus has something else in mind. He says in the verse right before where our text begins, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into heaven." The scribes and Pharisees thought they had it pretty well together. They thought they were clean. They had enough income to keep the rules. They attempted to be righteous enough that God would look favorably upon them. And they had it together pretty well. They were the epitome of devoted living. They had the means to keep these laws in detail. They thought they were in for sure. Their hope was through their carefulness and their respect for God, so they thought they had an in.
     
    But Jesus comes and says: not so quick. You've given honor to God, but look where your loyalty is. It's really to a book of laws. And that really distracts you from God. You think about those laws, how you can satisfy those laws, but really they're just the basics. It goes much deeper than just some prescriptions for behavior. Your whole person is involved in this, Jesus is saying. Your head, your heart, your hands, all of you is involved in this. And unless you respond with your whole self in a perfect way, you have come up short. We hear about zero tolerance for this or that infraction. Especially we hear about it in schools and workplaces. But the prime example of the one who has zero tolerance is God. The scribes and the Pharisees thought they had it mediated in such a way that they could find the law of God as something they could keep, and they defined it for themselves. But just as Jesus says, unless you are more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees you will not see the kingdom of God. They needed a bath. They weren't clean enough. Their whole selves had not been dedicated to God. They needed something to clean them up. They were only half clean.
     
    Jesus selects here then four areas of life as examples of where they are kind of tolerant, but God has zero tolerance. They may think they have kept the faith and the commandment if they haven't killed someone, but this commandment goes all the way inside. It's not just about killing and committing murder. It's also about hurting someone, hating someone, or even having anger against someone. All these are the same in God's eyes. It's not about just calling somebody a fool or not insulting them. All these things are included. It even goes inside, into what you're thinking. So this is where Jesus calls for a thorough cleanup and for peace, so that you don't come before God, even get to church and find your offering is there but you still have a lingering thought about someone, anger with that person. He says drop your offering where you are, go amend those differences with that person so you aren't thinking hateful thoughts when you come before me. Get yourself cleaned up. Come to the table with a good feeling and with peace.
     
    A little while ago we made peace with one another. Get all that stuff cleaned up. You want to be clean before the Lord. We exchanged peace. And this is what Jesus does: Jesus exchanges it. While calling for righteous living, he takes our sin upon himself. He receives the zero tolerance punishment of death for us, and sets us at peace with God and at peace with one another. With our greeting of peace to each other as we did this morning, we remind each other of this peace that God has with us, and therefore we have with each other. And we extend that forgiveness ourselves as we forgive other people, with the authority that God has given us to do that. The exchange has been made. Jesus took the punishment. We are able to receive the peace, and we share that peace. What a difference a bath makes. If we call that baptismal washing in the font that we had a moment ago a bath, we find that we are cleansed -- and we are cleaned by God. Our actual sins and the sins we mentally contemplate come before God and they are forgiven. We come away with peace with God, and not so focused on our behavior. We come away giving thanks to God for the peace that has been given us. And we make peace with other people.
     
    When we look at these laws we find out how much trouble we're really in. We find out that being angry or hateful is contrary to God. We find also that our inclination to make other people into objects that we would like to possess is what amounts to lust. Again, it's hard to put limits on where our mind goes. We image and desire things and people that were not meant to be ours. We know how hard it is to keep our mind from going where God doesn't want it to go. But rather than pretending we're okay, it's time to take a bath and to be cleansed of it. This morning, little William got one of these baths. Most of us here have gotten one of these baths at the font. They are named after the Greek word for washing: to be baptism. That's where the word comes from. As William was baptized, we have been baptized with the double kind of promise that our sins have been washed away through God's own death for us, and we're free to have a whole relationship with God and with others. We don't reduce our connection to others because we just look at them on the basis of looks and say I only care about how you look. Because we've been baptized, we connect with people on a deep level, with the whole person, appreciating that person as a gift of a thorough creation God has given to us in another person.
     
    And God gives us the gift of family and the unity of marriage. Especially in times when women were viewed as property more than as full human beings, it was easy to change wives. One could write a certificate, a piece of paper, and be done with the association. As long as one followed the rules of the day, a person really saw no problem with it and no sin was really involved, they thought. But Jesus says that's not really the way it is. For a man and a woman to be in marriage is not a matter of property. It's a matter of full human relationship. One doesn't move from one person to another person as though you're changing titles to cars. Relationship is a whole human endeavor involving heart, mind, and soul. God is a god of relationship. God has created human beings to be in relationship with each and every one. Since the first man and the first woman, that relationship has been abused and taken advantage of by humans. God, in zero tolerance, could have said you've offended me, you went away from me already in the Garden of Eden, and you failed this relationship. God could have written a certificate declaring that God was out of there, God was done with it all, and said: you're on your own. I'm out of here. I have no care for you anymore. God had every right when people disobeyed him.
     
    But God didn't. God valued the humans and the relationship too much to do that. God said: I will do whatever it takes to redeem and restore this relationship. So God gave his son. And he came and he loved us, showed us, and reminded us what this relationship is all about. He said and showed how it was about love, about whole people, about dignity, and regarding one another as full human beings. The only certificate that was written was the one that was above his head when he was hanging on the cross that said, "This is the king of the Jews." And far more powerful than that paper certificate was the word that came from heaven that said of his upcoming death, when he was at the Mount of Transfiguration, "This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased." That was like a verbal certificate saying this is the one. Jesus was washed for us at his baptism that we might live as full human beings, and in full relationship with God, and in full and loving relationships with one another. And Jesus died for us that these same things might happen.
     
    Well, what do we need for relationships? And it's what we talked to the kids about: we need full communication and loving communication to have good relationships. Sometimes we say to someone who's spoken badly: go wash your mouth out. Our speech is critical, both with God and with one another. It's the second ranking commandment behind love of God himself. We say you shall have no other gods, and then we say you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. It's number two commandment. Our speech with God is all important. It's what we use to thank and to praise and to pray. It's a precious thing. When we throw our speech around like it's nothing and use God's name in vain when we're not talking to or about God, we're taking God's name and making it into something cheap. God says it's a precious thing I've given you: my name, and speech, and the ability to communicate with me. Use it as this precious thing.
     
    And so Jesus says make your communication with one another, with other human beings, precious too. As you talk to other people, as you talk to God, don't make it so light and so unreliable that you need to swear to some sort of oath to make someone think that you're telling the truth. Be truthful in all of your communication, so that when you say yes, people know you mean yes -- and when you say no, people know you mean no. And they can count on you to be reliable about that. That's having a washed-out mouth. That is a baptized mouth, one that knows that to be loved by God and to love means that truth is spoken for the sake of relationships. As Jesus tells us these things that are expected of us, it can be daunting. But they are the things that God's had in mind from the beginning. It's all a matter of what makes for a good relationship -- with God and with one another: feelings of love not anger, valued persons, valued relationships, and valued communication for the sake of relationships. In Holy Baptism we have been cleansed. We've been reborn. We start again to love, to cherish, to go the extra mile, to speak well to and about one another. What Jesus says might seem arduous and even impossible just to hear it. But through the Holy Spirit these are marks of the Christian life. And with Christ they're not only possible, but even likely. Amen.
     
    And now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2011, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Keith Holste, Matthew 5:20, Matthew 5:21-37