Jan 12, 2014
Rules vs Relationships
Series: (All)
January 12, 2014. Sometimes people think that being Christian is all about the Ten Commandments. But while they are not featured front and center in many churches, baptismal fonts are. Pastor Penny preaches on the role of baptism in our lives, and with the help of Mark Twain illustrates the difference between two ways of looking at life: through rules or through relationships.
 
*** Transcript ***
 
We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 
I wonder how you would feel if this display were always front and center in our churches. And for those of you in the back, it's the Ten Commandments that we're illustrating here. I think those who don't understand Christianity might think that that is who we are as Christians. And sometimes we are tempted to believe that too. People will say that Christians are people who do the right things, who do good things. It's about the Ten Commandments. But you know, these things aren't front and center here, and I don't know of any church where they are. What is front and center is our baptismal font. And that's front and center in a lot of Christian churches. I've been in one church (and probably more than that, but one that I know of) where the baptismal font is always there. It's installed there; it never moves. And that way everyone has to pass by it. On the way to communion in this church, because the railing is up here, everyone passes by the font. If there's a wedding, the bride and groom separate and pass by the font. When there's a funeral, the casket and the mourners pass by the font. And the reason, I believe, that the baptismal font is so visible in our churches, is to remind us that everything that happens in our lives is touched by our baptisms.
 
Now I know that sounds like an amazing claim. And you say well, really how does baptism make a difference in my daily life? Let's look at what Jesus said at his baptism. You probably remember that John the Baptist went about baptizing people with a kind of ritual washing away of their sins. But he promised that someone who would come after him would be more powerful. And when that person came, the baptism that that person would give to people would give them the Holy Spirit. Well, then one day John sees the very man that he's been predicting, kneeling before him, asking John to baptize him. And John says no. I mean, it should be the other way around. And then Jesus says no, it's proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. And I think that's the word that trips us up: righteousness. Because we go back to this. We think of doing good things, that's what makes us righteous. But you see, that's the Greek understanding of that word. You know, that there are certain values and certain deeds that, if you do them, you are a righteous person. But that wasn't Jesus' understanding. That wasn't the Hebrew understanding. That wasn't the understanding of that word all through the Old Testament. What righteousness is in Jesus' eyes and in the Old Testament is: being faithful to a promise.
 
God, the Old Testament writers said, was righteous because God was faithful to the promise that God made to Abraham and Abraham's descendants: to be their God, to guide them, to forgive them, to protect them. So God was righteous. God was faithful. And the children of Israel were on and off: faithful, righteous -- because they were intermittently faithful to their part of the promise -- that in response they would trust this guy, God, who claimed them. Now, of course the Ten Commandments had something to do with their faithfulness, but it wasn't integral. What was center to their faithfulness was trusting the relationship. And then, out of joy and out of thanksgiving, they would try very hard to keep the Ten Commandments. And there's quite a difference then, when we think of these two ways of looking at life: through the Commandments -- through rules, or through relationships.
 
Maybe a good illustration of this comes from a favorite story, a classic story of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. If you know the story of Huck Finn, you know that he was a poor boy. I don't know whether his mother died (she wasn't really in the story as far as I can remember) but his father was a drunkard. And so poor Huck, he had a rough, tough life. But he was very free. But two older ladies, sisters -- one a widow, one never married I think -- took pity on Huck, and they took him under their wing. They took him into their home to civilize him. So they bought him new clothes. They tried to teach him to read. They brought him to church. They tried to teach him manners. But poor Huck, he just couldn't stand that confinement that they gave him. He appreciated what they were trying to do, but he ran away because he couldn't handle it. Well while he was running away and hiding out on an island, he bumped into another man who had run away, who was none other than Miss Watson's (one of these two ladies) slave, Jim.
 
Now as soon as he saw Jim, he started having conscience pangs. Huck started to think, I should turn him in. He's a runaway slave. Because the rules that they were teaching, even the church in those days, were that Jim was a possession of Miss Watson. And so Huck felt he was stealing not to make Jim go back or to turn him in. But Huck pushed away those feelings and those conscience pangs, and he and Jim became quite a duo. For day after day, they floated down the river (as we're speaking of rivers) toward Cairo, where Jim believed he would be free. And they had lots of adventures. But as they got close to Cairo, these conscience pangs returned to Huck and he started feeling that God was so angry with him. He used the word many times "wicked" -- that he was a wicked person for not turning Jim in, and so he said the way to do it, the way to get out of this feeling is, I've got to write and tell Miss Watson: "Here's where Jim is. Come and get him." So he sat down. He wrote the letter. But just when he was about to send it, he started thinking of his relationship with Jim. All the nights they had travelled together that. They had sung together. They had eaten together. Jim's kindness to Huck. They had taken shifts in staying awake to make sure people didn't find them. And sometimes Jim would take Huck's shift just to let Huck sleep a little longer. And Huck remembered how he told Jim, I won't turn you in, don't worry. And Jim said, you are my best friend.
 
So here's this poor boy. He is just torn with agony. On the one hand, he feels God is so angry with him for stealing against a lady who just tried to help him. And on the other hand, he cares for Jim. What he finally does is he says, I think I am going to burn in hell for this, but he rips up the letter and he refuses to turn Jim in. He's a good illustration of the difference between living by rules -- which can be wrong or can be misapplied -- and living by a relationship and a commitment to a promise.
 
And when Jesus was righteous in his baptism, what he did was the Holy Spirit came to him to share with others. So that when we are baptized we are initiated into this same kind of a relationship. And it is so freeing to know that we are not the rules of life. That's not our identity. We are not the good things we do. We're not the bad things. We're not the things we're proud of, the achievements. We're not the failures or the things that we are ashamed of. The rules are there and they can be helpful. But our identity is here. It is: sons and daughters of God. And this is where it begins. Just like with the children of Israel, we're going to break these rules, these Ten Commandments. We are going to forget. We are going to avoid being faithful to God. But God is always faithful to us and takes us back and forgives us, again and again.
 
So that's the first way that baptism touches our everyday lives. We have a whole different relationship with God. But as you know, we are not baptized privately. We have a baptism in the middle of a church service with a whole congregation, because we're baptized into a congregation. And that's the second amazing blessing from baptism: we learn to treat people differently. No longer are we bound to be judgmental, to nitpicking, to criticizing, to remembering and keeping score, and feeling superior to people and putting them down. We don't have to do that, because we have been made in this community, brothers and sisters. We set aside all those worries and we concentrate on our relationships. And this is really where we learn to to treat people outside of this congregation. This is our laboratory. I mean, you think of the differences of the people within this congregation. There are people who are Republicans. There are people who are Democrats. There are people who love classical music. There are people who love hard rock. There are people who want to sing songs written by dead white men only (and I've been told that). And there are people who would just as soon hear Negro spirituals every Sunday. And we tolerate each other. We accept one another. We don't nitpick. We say: but we are one. We are brothers and sisters. So it's here that we learn how to treat people outside of these walls.
 
So that's the second blessing. We have a whole new way of looking at people. But there's one more blessing to baptism. You probably know that we have another baptismal font. We own a second one as a congregation, but it's not in this building. It's outside, in the columbarium. And there's another congregation around that baptismal font. They are the faithful departed. They are our loved ones who are represented there with ashes and sometimes with a memorial stone only. But they are waiting for the third blessing of baptism, which we are too because we've had already two births, haven't we? We've been born as human beings. We've been reborn as children of God. And because of the righteousness of God, because of the faithfulness of God, because of the faithfulness of Christ unto death, we are invited -- we expect, we celebrate -- a third birth, when Christ returns. And these will be here. And it will be our great joy to be utterly faithful to God and to one another for eternity.
 
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain
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  • Jan 12, 2014Rules vs Relationships
    Jan 12, 2014
    Rules vs Relationships
    Series: (All)
    January 12, 2014. Sometimes people think that being Christian is all about the Ten Commandments. But while they are not featured front and center in many churches, baptismal fonts are. Pastor Penny preaches on the role of baptism in our lives, and with the help of Mark Twain illustrates the difference between two ways of looking at life: through rules or through relationships.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    I wonder how you would feel if this display were always front and center in our churches. And for those of you in the back, it's the Ten Commandments that we're illustrating here. I think those who don't understand Christianity might think that that is who we are as Christians. And sometimes we are tempted to believe that too. People will say that Christians are people who do the right things, who do good things. It's about the Ten Commandments. But you know, these things aren't front and center here, and I don't know of any church where they are. What is front and center is our baptismal font. And that's front and center in a lot of Christian churches. I've been in one church (and probably more than that, but one that I know of) where the baptismal font is always there. It's installed there; it never moves. And that way everyone has to pass by it. On the way to communion in this church, because the railing is up here, everyone passes by the font. If there's a wedding, the bride and groom separate and pass by the font. When there's a funeral, the casket and the mourners pass by the font. And the reason, I believe, that the baptismal font is so visible in our churches, is to remind us that everything that happens in our lives is touched by our baptisms.
     
    Now I know that sounds like an amazing claim. And you say well, really how does baptism make a difference in my daily life? Let's look at what Jesus said at his baptism. You probably remember that John the Baptist went about baptizing people with a kind of ritual washing away of their sins. But he promised that someone who would come after him would be more powerful. And when that person came, the baptism that that person would give to people would give them the Holy Spirit. Well, then one day John sees the very man that he's been predicting, kneeling before him, asking John to baptize him. And John says no. I mean, it should be the other way around. And then Jesus says no, it's proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. And I think that's the word that trips us up: righteousness. Because we go back to this. We think of doing good things, that's what makes us righteous. But you see, that's the Greek understanding of that word. You know, that there are certain values and certain deeds that, if you do them, you are a righteous person. But that wasn't Jesus' understanding. That wasn't the Hebrew understanding. That wasn't the understanding of that word all through the Old Testament. What righteousness is in Jesus' eyes and in the Old Testament is: being faithful to a promise.
     
    God, the Old Testament writers said, was righteous because God was faithful to the promise that God made to Abraham and Abraham's descendants: to be their God, to guide them, to forgive them, to protect them. So God was righteous. God was faithful. And the children of Israel were on and off: faithful, righteous -- because they were intermittently faithful to their part of the promise -- that in response they would trust this guy, God, who claimed them. Now, of course the Ten Commandments had something to do with their faithfulness, but it wasn't integral. What was center to their faithfulness was trusting the relationship. And then, out of joy and out of thanksgiving, they would try very hard to keep the Ten Commandments. And there's quite a difference then, when we think of these two ways of looking at life: through the Commandments -- through rules, or through relationships.
     
    Maybe a good illustration of this comes from a favorite story, a classic story of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. If you know the story of Huck Finn, you know that he was a poor boy. I don't know whether his mother died (she wasn't really in the story as far as I can remember) but his father was a drunkard. And so poor Huck, he had a rough, tough life. But he was very free. But two older ladies, sisters -- one a widow, one never married I think -- took pity on Huck, and they took him under their wing. They took him into their home to civilize him. So they bought him new clothes. They tried to teach him to read. They brought him to church. They tried to teach him manners. But poor Huck, he just couldn't stand that confinement that they gave him. He appreciated what they were trying to do, but he ran away because he couldn't handle it. Well while he was running away and hiding out on an island, he bumped into another man who had run away, who was none other than Miss Watson's (one of these two ladies) slave, Jim.
     
    Now as soon as he saw Jim, he started having conscience pangs. Huck started to think, I should turn him in. He's a runaway slave. Because the rules that they were teaching, even the church in those days, were that Jim was a possession of Miss Watson. And so Huck felt he was stealing not to make Jim go back or to turn him in. But Huck pushed away those feelings and those conscience pangs, and he and Jim became quite a duo. For day after day, they floated down the river (as we're speaking of rivers) toward Cairo, where Jim believed he would be free. And they had lots of adventures. But as they got close to Cairo, these conscience pangs returned to Huck and he started feeling that God was so angry with him. He used the word many times "wicked" -- that he was a wicked person for not turning Jim in, and so he said the way to do it, the way to get out of this feeling is, I've got to write and tell Miss Watson: "Here's where Jim is. Come and get him." So he sat down. He wrote the letter. But just when he was about to send it, he started thinking of his relationship with Jim. All the nights they had travelled together that. They had sung together. They had eaten together. Jim's kindness to Huck. They had taken shifts in staying awake to make sure people didn't find them. And sometimes Jim would take Huck's shift just to let Huck sleep a little longer. And Huck remembered how he told Jim, I won't turn you in, don't worry. And Jim said, you are my best friend.
     
    So here's this poor boy. He is just torn with agony. On the one hand, he feels God is so angry with him for stealing against a lady who just tried to help him. And on the other hand, he cares for Jim. What he finally does is he says, I think I am going to burn in hell for this, but he rips up the letter and he refuses to turn Jim in. He's a good illustration of the difference between living by rules -- which can be wrong or can be misapplied -- and living by a relationship and a commitment to a promise.
     
    And when Jesus was righteous in his baptism, what he did was the Holy Spirit came to him to share with others. So that when we are baptized we are initiated into this same kind of a relationship. And it is so freeing to know that we are not the rules of life. That's not our identity. We are not the good things we do. We're not the bad things. We're not the things we're proud of, the achievements. We're not the failures or the things that we are ashamed of. The rules are there and they can be helpful. But our identity is here. It is: sons and daughters of God. And this is where it begins. Just like with the children of Israel, we're going to break these rules, these Ten Commandments. We are going to forget. We are going to avoid being faithful to God. But God is always faithful to us and takes us back and forgives us, again and again.
     
    So that's the first way that baptism touches our everyday lives. We have a whole different relationship with God. But as you know, we are not baptized privately. We have a baptism in the middle of a church service with a whole congregation, because we're baptized into a congregation. And that's the second amazing blessing from baptism: we learn to treat people differently. No longer are we bound to be judgmental, to nitpicking, to criticizing, to remembering and keeping score, and feeling superior to people and putting them down. We don't have to do that, because we have been made in this community, brothers and sisters. We set aside all those worries and we concentrate on our relationships. And this is really where we learn to to treat people outside of this congregation. This is our laboratory. I mean, you think of the differences of the people within this congregation. There are people who are Republicans. There are people who are Democrats. There are people who love classical music. There are people who love hard rock. There are people who want to sing songs written by dead white men only (and I've been told that). And there are people who would just as soon hear Negro spirituals every Sunday. And we tolerate each other. We accept one another. We don't nitpick. We say: but we are one. We are brothers and sisters. So it's here that we learn how to treat people outside of these walls.
     
    So that's the second blessing. We have a whole new way of looking at people. But there's one more blessing to baptism. You probably know that we have another baptismal font. We own a second one as a congregation, but it's not in this building. It's outside, in the columbarium. And there's another congregation around that baptismal font. They are the faithful departed. They are our loved ones who are represented there with ashes and sometimes with a memorial stone only. But they are waiting for the third blessing of baptism, which we are too because we've had already two births, haven't we? We've been born as human beings. We've been reborn as children of God. And because of the righteousness of God, because of the faithfulness of God, because of the faithfulness of Christ unto death, we are invited -- we expect, we celebrate -- a third birth, when Christ returns. And these will be here. And it will be our great joy to be utterly faithful to God and to one another for eternity.
     
    Thanks be to God. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain
  • May 19, 2013Reaching Out to the Unchurched
    May 19, 2013
    Reaching Out to the Unchurched
    Series: (All)
    May 19, 2013. There are big changes ahead for the church. Today, 20% of people in the United States say they have no affiliation with any religious group. They are the "unchurched." How can we reach them? Pastor Penny draws a parallel between this challenge and the day of Pentecost. She suggests that Pentecost was not a one-time event but that it goes on, and that we need it.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    When we had this lesson on the day of Pentecost in Bible class on Wednesday, one of the women said, "You know, we never hear what it was like from the disciples' point of view." We don't, really. So if you will imagine with me and permit me, I'd like to imagine what the day of Pentecost might have been like from the point of view of one of the disciples: Peter.
     
    When Jesus told us, the disciples, that we would receive this power, we had no idea what he meant. I thought the power would come gently, gradually. But when Pentecost day came, I discovered it was anything but gentle. I was almost in pain with the light and the sound and the sense that a spirit was filling me and moving me. We were literally drawn out of the door of that room and into the crowd waiting around the outside of the building. And I, walked up to a group of people I would never have approached before -- Peter, just a country bumpkin from Galilee -- and I walked right up to sophisticated Romans. And I began to speak to them. And I discovered that I can speak Greek, even though I was never taught that language. And they could understand me, and I could understand them. And so of course I began to say: I need to tell you what this is all about, what my friends and I have experienced, about how God is changing everything through this man called Jesus.
     
    But I had no longer begun to tell them, when I was compelled by the Spirit to climb up on a wall and begin to preach -- me, a fisherman, who just days earlier had been too afraid to tell a group of servants that I was Jesus' friend. I was preaching to hundreds of strangers. And here is the most amazing thing: they listened. And thousands of people joined our group that day because of what we said. And the marvels kept coming, because we did things entirely differently. We were used to worshiping in the synagogue, but we began to meet in homes. We were used to staying with our own, you know the poor and the rich. We were all together. We pooled our money. We ate a common meal. And I have to say, I didn't always like the people I was eating with. But I grew to love them because of one man: my friend, my savior, the one who took me -- a sinful fisherman -- and cleaned me up, forgave my sins, and gave me a reason to live. That's how that first Pentecost felt to me.
     
    I'd like to suggest this morning that Pentecost was not a one-time event -- that it goes on, and that we need it. Because there are big changes ahead for the church. The church has been changing over the last fifty years. Fifty years ago, half of the people in our country went to churches like this -- mainline Protestant: Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal. And now maybe 8% to 16% do. Fifty years ago Christians filled the Muny for an Easter sunrise service. They filled Kiel Auditorium for reformation services. Not anymore. Today, 70% of our youth fall away from the church, and only a third come back when they're older. Across the board, congregations -- and not just in Protestant churches, across the board -- are reporting that Sunday morning attendance is down, collections are down. And it trickles up to their church bodies, to their publishing houses, to their seminaries. The Seminary I graduated from just let 8 of their 44 professors go for financial reasons. While the Protestant, the Christian, the organized church like this is diminishing, something else is growing in our country -- and maybe you've seen the statistics. It is the "unchurched." Today, 20% of people in the United States say they have no affiliation with any religious group.
     
    Now here at Christ Lutheran, we are truly blessed. Our membership is stable and grows a little bit. We have a nice cross-section of ages. We have vital lay leadership. We meet our budget -- not always easily, but we do. But even here our Sunday morning attendance diminishes. We're okay right now. But we have to be prepared. And I don't mean to cast guilt; I think we're all doing the best we know how. But what I'm saying is across this nation, people are meeting in churches, they're baptizing, they're marrying, they're burying, they're communing, they're praying, they're talking about doctrine, they're singing songs, and they're shrinking. So clearly, we need to be open and thinking about how we can share the gospel in a new way.
     
    Now I think we get some guidance, and we definitely get some hope, from the story of Pentecost and from the gospel. The story of Pentecost shows us that if people, the unchurched, are not coming to us, it is very important that we go to them. And you do that because you work with unchurched people, you live next door to them, you go to school with them. They may be in your families. And the second thing we learned from the Pentecost story, besides the fact that we need to go out, is that communication is essential. Now, I don't suggest that you get on a wall and preach to your friends. That wouldn't be effective. That's not how we do it. But as you engage people that you know, or don't know so well, but are unchurched, you listen. You learn from them. You learn to care. You model in your life the hope that is within you. And you are ready and may be given the opportunity to answer the questions "So why do you go to church?" and "What is this all about to you?"
     
    The individual, the one-on-one, is going to be the new thing of the future. It's the old thing of the past, but it's certainly going to be part of our future. But beyond that, how the church will organize itself, how it will worship, how it will share the message and pass it on -- we bring this challenge to the Holy Spirit. We bring it to the Holy Spirit the way the disciples did: they waited and they prayed.
     
    Because we learn two things about the Holy Spirit that give us the confidence and the hope that that's the place to go. The first is we learn the Spirit is powerful. The spirit of Jesus -- and that's what we're really talking about when we say the Holy Spirit, that Jesus lives on in our lives -- the spirit of Jesus can do new things in the most unusual places and ways. Jesus turned death into life by rising from the dead on Easter and brought us back to God. So the Spirit is powerful. But this is maybe even more important: the Spirit is forever. Jesus said that: I send you an advocate who will be with you, not for a time, not for a generation, not for a millennium. But forever. This Spirit as believers lives within us. We make that a formal event here at the baptismal font, but the spirit of Christ lives within us and uses us as it used the first disciples, to move out and to wait for change.
     
    So we have a challenge before us. But we don't bury our heads in the sand like the ostrich, and we don't look at it fearfully. What we do is what we heard the disciples doing in the story today. They prayed and waited for the Spirit. So we pray, and we wait to see how the Spirit will bless us and use us to bless the world. We pray and we wait to see what new thing the Spirit will do among us.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2013, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Acts 2
  • Apr 14, 2013Strength to Cast the Nets Out
    Apr 14, 2013
    Strength to Cast the Nets Out
    Series: (All)
    April 14, 2013. Pastor Keith preaches on the balance we should seek, between caring for one another in the church and reaching out to the world, in discussing the gospel story of the risen Jesus commissioning Peter and the other disciples.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We continue to focus on this story of Jesus with these disciples, and I'd like to begin with what one person has written as what Peter's initial thoughts might have been. So this is a rewrite from Peter's point of view:
     
     
    "There was nothing else to do, so I went back to fishing. We knew he was alive. We'd seen him, and then he went away without leaving instructions. So I said let's go back to fishing, and the others agree. I mean, we had to feed ourselves somehow. You can't just exist on fresh air and memories. You need something more than that. So we went back to fishing, and we caught nothing. I wondered if we'd lost our touch, or if (I hesitate to say this) it was some kind of punishment from God that now we couldn't catch fish.
     
    "Then in the morning, somebody shouted out to us that our nets were on the wrong side. 'What does he know?' I grunted. But to please the others I hauled in the nets on the left side and threw them out on the right side. And when the net began to strain, I had this funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had grunted, 'What does he know?' But now I knew who he was, and knew that he knew everything.
     
    "When we got back to the shore, he didn't give me or us a scolding. He just said, 'Would you like some breakfast?' And then he fed us. I only realized why he had fed us when, in a private moment, he looked me straight in the face three times and said, 'Do you love me, Peter?' The first time I was embarrassed. The second time I was annoyed. And the third time I was convinced. 'Yes, I love you. You know I do.' 'Then feed my lambs.' And, 'Feed my lambs.' And, 'Feed my sheep.' Then I realized that he had fed us so that we could feed others. And that he loved us so that we could love others in the same way he had loved us."
     
     
    Well this little written reflection reminds us of what state the disciples were in after the resurrection of Jesus. They couldn't really see him much. He appeared now and then, but he didn't go around with them constantly. And so they were kind of on their own. And so what do you do now? They'd been with him for three years, given up their regular life to be with him. And now they're on their own. "So what do we do now?" That's that question that the disciples had to wrestle with, those first weeks after Easter. And according to today's lesson, they go back to what they knew best: they went back to fishing. They went back to catch fish to take to market to make a living. They thought they would have to do that again.
     
    But then some things began to make a difference. Jesus showed up and commissioned them, we could say. Part of what's going on today is a kind of commissioning to Peter. And the Holy Spirit enters on Pentecost to start the church and bring things in a whole new direction. So before very long, they didn't lack for anything to do. They had plenty to do. But in every generation down to our own time, the question after Easter can always be like Peter's: in the light of the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, what are we to do now? What's our job to do now? How does that leave us? What are we supposed to be doing? How do we live out the power of the resurrection in our time? What direction do we take, given the realities of our day?
     
    Well our story today of Jesus with these disciples really has two parts, and each part has its own point. The first part is Peter and the disciples fishing and they are sighted by Jesus. He sees them and tells them to change their nets to the other side of the boat. And so they have some difficulty, but they do that: they pull the nets up on one side, put them down on the other side — and they now catch many, many fish, so many they can barely haul it in.
     
    In all of the gospels, when it talks about catching fish like this it's not really as concerned about fish as it is about people. And these are images that the gospel writers use the think about how we go out and gather people for the kingdom of God. And it's normally talking about the church growing in numbers, and the fish are kind of the symbol for that. The other gospels usually have these stories at the beginning — in the beginning Jesus chooses the disciples, and then they have the catches of fish. But John places it way at the end. And there are other stories about catching fish. There's a story about catching so many fish, and some are bad and some are good and who makes the determination, and the idea is that God is the one who judges, not humans. But they're always talking really about people, even though fish are the image.
     
    Well in these other stories too, the catch comes after the frustration of catching nothing. Jesus says "do this" and then they catch many fish. And there's a lesson here for us, because sometimes we think it's all up to us — that if we evangelize the movement out some way that we'll think of all this stuff to do to spread the kingdom of God. But often the ideas we think of don't go so well. They may have come from the marketing world or somewhere else, just be a hunch, and they don't function very well as a vehicle for carrying the gospel.
     
    We notice in this story though that when Jesus gives the command and tells what to do with the net, then there is a great catch of fish. And it reminds us that our work and spreading the word is done as we are informed by the word of Jesus. We don't just go in a vacuum to strategize how best to spread the word of God. We want to do it with the guidance of Jesus. And so we've studied from his word, which he's given us in scripture. The past few years we've used a method called Dwelling in the Word, where we look at a passage of scripture before we start a meeting or before we start an endeavor, and repeat it, during if it's a long-term endeavor, to say, "What's the word teaching us here? What do we hear from the word of God that we can bring to this task that we are about?" We get our word from Jesus. So we are more likely to do the fishing, in say the case of evangelism that he would want, than if we were just on our own, left to our own brains.
     
    The other point of this story is that Jesus calls them to shore and invites them then to have a breakfast with him. That's the other part. Now we've talked about evangelism. In this other part now, he comes and he talks with them. Especially Peter. And first there is the forgiveness. Peter's forgiven the three times because he had denied the Lord three times. And he asks Peter, "Do you love me?" And Peter says, "Lord, you know that I do." And then he says to him, "Feed my lambs." Again, "Feed my lambs." And then, "Feed my sheep." We might say this is the other part of the work of the church. Instead of the evangelizing part of the church, this is the nurturing part of the church. It's the work of caring and taking care of one another. As Jesus commissions that to Peter, it's commissioned to all of us: to take care of one another and the church of our time too.
     
    So we have two different parts of the story here, but each one represents what we do in the church, no matter what century we're in, no matter what year we are in. We asked the question like Peter: "What do we do now?" But we know that we're called to go to the world, to be evangelists as they catch the great catch of fish, and we know that we're to be spreading the word out in the world. We also know that we take care of one another as we are called to feed the lambs and feed the sheep. We are to help one another grow in faith and in faithful living.
     
    So these two main tasks — whether we're under duress because of politics as they were in those times (that is, an emperor and a government), or politics of the day, or a time of secularism as we might find ourselves entering now — we're reaching out to other people in the caring for one another. Both tasks continue, no matter what the environment of the time. Well sometimes it seems like these two compete with each other, and if we have limited resources or a budget that's only so big, we say well, the main task of the church is to be reaching out, so we need to put our resources over there. And some others say well, the task of the church is to nurture one another, to grow in the the word, to help one another. And so we have sometimes these two kind of ideas competing with one another in the church. But we could call this a polarity: two things that kind of seem to resist one another, but yet they're of the same organization. And I think modern practices would show us polarity is a good thing. Polarity brings a dynamic, instead of just having a thing here and a thing here if there's some tension between them, and it brings a liveliness to the situation. And so we have those discussions. And as we have those discussions it means that we sharpen our ideas and figure out exactly why am I motivated in this way. Yes, we do need to care for one another. Yes, we do need to reach out to the world. Is one more important? Or how do we balance these two things out? That polarity is good for us, and there are lots of polarities in the church. This is one of them, and it could be a good thing and strengthen us, because we need both of these things, as our Lord shows us.
     
    This story has some other key factors, just outside of these two points, that help us learn to be Christians after the resurrection. One is a reminder that we're all like Peter. That is, we're all sinful. We all have something to confess to the Lord. We've all denied our Lord in our own way. We've given up on the Lord, given up on God, shied away from being represented as one of Jesus' people in a certain situation. We've shied away from being fully identified with Jesus, sometime. We've gone another behavior, another path. Yet it is Jesus who reaches out to us, like he did to Peter, and says, "Do you love me?" knowing that we really love him. He knows what our answer will be, but yet he asks us, because he wants us to say, "Yes Lord. I denied you, but I do love you." And he receives us back and brings us back into the fellowship, into the fold. We, who could have been cast off, are given responsibility to cast out the net and to be evangelists and to be on his side. So, we're like Peter. But we're invited back in and given even responsibility within the great church of God.
     
    At the end of the reading Jesus predicts that Peter will be led off to die someday. This is what happens, as he is crucified in Rome at the end of his life. And we think of that phrase again that he tells Peter: "Peter, feed my lambs." We think about what lambs are used for in the religious world. They were for sacrifices. And we remember even when Jesus was baptized, John the Baptist said, "Behold, the Lamb of God," because he knew he would be sacrificed. He would be the sacrificial lamb for all of us. Well, as Peter here is strengthened for his living sacrificially, all of us are really lambs of God, and we are therefore called to live sacrificially. We pray, not so literally as it was for Peter that we actually have to give up our life. But he calls us to be in service. And it's not easy to love. Our love in the Christian sense is sacrificial love, giving of the self. Our life may be harder because we're choosing to love someone else. That's living with sacrificial love. That's being one of the lambs.
     
    Doing these things is not easy. Jesus knew it firsthand. The disciples knew it firsthand. Being a follower of Jesus isn't easy. The good word of Jesus, when you're evangelizing, isn't always received with joy. Loving others, inside the church or outside the church, isn't always an easy task to do either. It takes something to give us strength to do this, something to sustain us, something to be, to give us strength to cast the nets out, and to be caretaking other people that Jesus wants us to do. And for that he does give us a meal. He had the fish and bread for the disciples. To us he gives the meal of bread and wine, which he also gave to them on Maundy Thursday. He gives us the meal to have, again and again, because we know each time as we come back to receive this meal, we haven't lived as we should have before the Lord at all times. He receives us back to this meal to say: I include you. You are included in. You're in the fellowship. Go out and do it again this week, and cast nets and love other people and do the things that I called the disciples to do. Do them and come back, be re-included in the group and do it again. We are made at one as we come together for the meal, and equipped to go out to serve. So it's always fair to ask this question: what do we do now that Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended? The main priorities that Jesus lays out for those people, he lays out for us. They still apply: to be creative in reaching out with the word, and to live with love, caring for one another. These will always be part of the answer. Amen.
     
    Now, may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2013, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Keith Holste, John 21:1-19
  • Apr 7, 2013The Snake Was Wrong
    Apr 7, 2013
    The Snake Was Wrong
    Series: (All)
    April 7, 2013. Pastor Penny relates two stories today to help us understand the meaning of Easter: "The Snake," by Anne Herbert, and "The Birth of the Pointless People," by Daniel Erlander.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    Even if you're not a basketball enthusiast, you know probably that tomorrow is the final game in the NCAA tournament. And I'm sure that after the event is over, there will be a lot of analysis of it. And there will be talk about what it means, putting it in perspective, and where to go from here, so that the winning team will probably talk about how this is the high point of their lives and they've been working toward this goal for years. The winning coaches will feel validated in their strategies. And when they talk about where to go from there, they'll probably make some guesses as to which players will be drafted to the NBA, and what the teams will look like next year, and what coaches will get moved around. After any event, we always want to try to analyze it, put it in perspective, understand what does it mean and where do we go from here.
     
    Well, we're one week away from the most important event in the Christian church, and that is the celebration of Easter. And Jesus, in today's gospel, was one week away from that event. And he gathered his disciples together to understand that event, to ask really what did it mean, and where do we go from here? Those are good questions for us a week out of Easter to ask: so what really did Easter mean, and where do we go from here?
     
    I think before we tackle those questions though, we probably need to remind ourselves of why we needed Easter to begin with. And to do that, I'd like to tell you a story that I first heard in the seminary. It's a story written by a woman named Anne Herbert. It's her rendition of the Garden of Eden, not meant of course to displace the one in the Bible, but maybe to shed some light on it. She tells it in the first person, as one who was there. And her story is called "The Snake."
     
    "In the beginning, God created more than two people. God created a whole bunch of us, because God wanted us to have fun. And God said, 'You can't have fun if you don't have a whole gang of people.' And then God put us in this playground, this park called Eden, and said, 'Enjoy!'
     
    "And at first we had the kind of fun that God expected us to: we rolled down the hills, and we waded through the streams, and we swung on the vines, and we frolicked in the forest. And there was a lot of laughing.
     
    "But one day the snake said to us, 'You're not having real fun, because you're not keeping score.' We didn't know what keeping score meant, so he told us. That didn't sound fun, until he said, 'I think you should give an apple to the person who plays the best. And the only way you're going to know who plays the best is to keep score.' Well now that sounded like more fun, because we all knew that we were the best.
     
    "But things began to be different after that. There was a lot of yelling. And we spent hours creating rules that we could score for our games. We had to give up on some games like frolicking, because we couldn't think of any rules for the game.
     
    "And by the time that God noticed that we were playing differently, we were spending about 45 minutes a day playing and the rest of the time working on our scores. And God became angry. And God said, 'You have to leave my garden because you're not having fun.' We said, 'We are too having fun' — and we were having fun. And God shouldn't get angry with us just because we weren't having fun his way.
     
    "But God didn't listen.
     
    "God kicked us out of the garden. God said, 'You can't come back until you stop keeping score.' And then, just to get our attention, God said, 'You know, someday you're all going to die and these points aren't going to mean anything anyway.'
     
    "But God was wrong. Right now my all-game cumulative is 15,548, and I feel very good about that. It means a lot to me. And if I work really hard before I die, I think I can get my score up to 20,000. And that will be quite an accomplishment. But even if I don't do that, my life has value because I have taught my children to be high scorers. And they certainly will get to 20,000 or maybe even 30,000.
     
    "When you think of it, life in Eden wasn't very meaningful. I mean, fun is good in its place. But it doesn't mean anything if you can't keep score. God has a very superficial attitude toward life. I'm glad that my children aren't being influenced by God anymore — that we've left. And we're all very grateful to the snake."
     
    Well, that's kind of a sad story. And it has unfortunately the ring of truth: that we so often take our accomplishments, which are important and necessary and good, and we make them into what is most valuable in our lives and what gives our lives meaning. Because we are naturally competitive and selfish, we tend to quantify everything we do. And I remember when I taught remedial reading, and already in first grade every child knew whether they were in the best reading group or not. We quantify, we measure, we compare grade points, how many friends we have on Facebook, how we look, how much money we make. And that's what gets our energy going, trying to get better in those areas. And we are so hard on ourselves, and we can become so depressed when we don't do well. And it's too bad, because God was trying to tell us that what we accomplish is not where we get our true value.
     
    But back to Easter and what does Easter mean then, now that we see that we have a need for something here? I'd like to tell another story. It's a sequel to the first one. It was written by another person, a pastor named Daniel Erlander. And this story is called "The Birth of the Pointless People."
     
    "When God looked at the old gang that used to have so much fun rolling down the hills and frolicking in the forest, and saw them tragically working hard to add up scores and condemning people who didn't have high scores, God became angry — so angry that God said, 'I am going to destroy them.'
     
    "But then God wept and said, 'I can't destroy them.' And God repented.
     
    "And so God tried different ways to move them back into a life without points. And finally God smiled and said, 'I have an idea. I will enter their world of point keepers, but I will do it very gently.'
     
    "And so God entered the world of point keepers as Emmanuel, God with us. And this is how Emmanuel did it: he would tiptoe up to someone who had very few points, or no points at all, and whisper to them, 'You don't need points.' And they would smile and think maybe that's true. And then he would gather all these people together, and they would have a party and they would eat and drink and dance. And one of them would say this is a pointless party, and they would all laugh. And people who weren't at the party would stand around on the sidelines, waiting to see what would happen. And Emmanuel would turn to them and say, 'Come to me, all you who are burdened by keeping score, and I will give you rest.'
     
    "But the people who were in charge of the points were threatened by Emmanuel. So they put him in jail, and then they killed him. And Emmanuel's friends wept. And then they said, 'We knew it was too good to be true. The only thing left for us is to go back to keeping score.' And they buried him in a borrowed tomb, and they went back to Jerusalem to work.
     
    "But God said, 'Aha! So the point keepers think it's back to normal, do they?' And God called out, 'Get up, Emmanuel. Get up.' And Emmanuel did. He got up, and he called his friends together. And he said, 'Let's continue with the party. Let's continue our work.' And at first they were hesitant. And then they joined hands and made a big circle, and started the party all over. And then Emmanuel breathed on them and said, 'Now I give you the power of my yoke, the power to care for each other, and to care for the world.' And then before Emmanuel left he said, 'And remember: the snake was wrong.' "
     
    Well, the people in charge of keeping points in Jesus' day were probably the Pharisees. They had all kinds of rules for how you could become a child of God by what you did. And they too were threatened by Jesus. And of course, as we know, they had him tried and killed. But Jesus didn't stay down. I'm sure that the disciples felt just the way the people in the story did. And they thought after Jesus died, "Well we thought it was too good to be true." And that's why when he came out of the grave, as we heard in today's gospel, it was so hard for them to believe that he was really alive. When he came out of the grave Jesus showed that his way, not the way of the point keepers but his way, was the true way — that our value is already here, that he gives it to us, all the value we could ever want, that our points mean nothing compared to that, that we are children of God through Christ. The writer of John tried to tell us that at the end, where he says, "I put these words down so that you would believe in Jesus, and so that in believing in him you would have life."
     
    The meaning of Easter is that we have this new life, this freedom from judging ourselves and others. But where do we go from here with this? Well, when Jesus got the people together he, like in the story, breathed on them and he said, "As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you." And that's really where we go from here. We are sent out with this freedom, this new joy, this sense of confidence to live out our lives wherever we are — on the playground, or on Facebook, or in the boardroom, in the kitchen, behind the wheel, in front of our friends. We are just simply called to live out this freedom and not to judge others. And as they see that, and as they see that we are working to make the world a place where people are not condemned for not having points, things will change. The meaning of Easter is simply that we have a new freedom, and we've been sent to share it. The meaning of Easter is that we can know beyond a shadow of a doubt what Jesus always knew, and that is that the snake was wrong.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2013, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, John 20:19-31, The Snake, Anne Herbert, Tales of the Pointless People, Daniel Erlander
  • Mar 3, 2013The Higher Way
    Mar 3, 2013
    The Higher Way
    Series: (All)
    March 3, 2013. Pastor Keith's sermon is about the higher way of thinking that God has, and how Jesus came to be an example of this higher way and show us how to live this higher way.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We continue to talk about this lesson from the Old Testament, and the one from the New Testament that Jesus gave us in the gospel. We begin in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    Years ago I saw a painting, by an artist known to some of you I know, that quoted our lesson from Isaiah today. It talked about "'My ways are not your ways,' says the Lord. 'My ways are higher than your ways. My thoughts are not your thoughts.'" And that's been a favorite verse of mine ever since. I don't remember the details, but I believe the occasion of the picture was that some tragedy had happened in someone's life, and it was done to help this person through this hard time. And I think especially at awful times in people's lives, tragedies or times of untimely death, sometimes we just don't understand it ourselves. We can't figure out why this thing happened. And so we do commend it to trust God, who we believe has a higher wisdom, and trust that God has thoughts that are higher than our thoughts, and a wisdom that's different than our wisdom — that somehow this does make sense to God, who will ultimately take care of us all. I think that's still a useful and valid and comforting way to look at these verses. But I've come to see that there's another way to look at how these show a kind of "higher way" of thinking as well, show the higher ways and the higher thoughts of God. And I think they come through in both the Old Testament lesson today and in what Jesus says in the gospel.
     
    One Bible editor put a caption over these verses of Isaiah 55 saying "An Invitation to an Abundant Life." It invites the listener to come to a place that was never available before — that is, new ways of thinking about how God addresses the world. And it's the beginning of an explanation of what this higher way is. The very beginning of the text says, "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come and drink." It's an invitation to everyone. It's a radical idea of who "everyone" is, because in most societies there's a hierarchical structure, and some people who are closer get invitations before others do. Some people are never invited. And certainly in ancient cultures, virtually all of them are hierarchical. And some got the invitations and other ones didn't get the invitations. Here, Isaiah says — and God says to us — everyone is invited. If you need water you are invited, and every human being needs water. And he says if you're thirsty come and get it, but you'll be getting wine and milk — the expensive things, not just water — but you'll be getting wine, milk, things like them. He says you use up your life going after bits and scraps here and there to try to survive with, but that's what you strive for. But what I give you is rich and abundant food. So this is the higher way. Everyone is invited, no matter what their status is. What they receive is rich and satisfying, and everyone receives it as a gift.
     
    The way of God that is demonstrated here is a higher way also, because it comes as a one-way, everlasting covenant. Isaiah says when you come and listen to the word and receive this free, abundant life I'm giving to you, he says in so many words: I am promising to you, God says, this isn't just a once-and-forget-it kind of thing and if you ever stray away the deal's off. No, this is an everlasting covenant God makes, he says, just as I made with David I'm making with you. And the promise to David was that he would always have someone from his lineage on the throne. And there were no "ifs" in that covenant; it was just a one-way covenant. God promised there always be someone from your lineage on the throne. God is making a long-term promise here and there are no conditions, no ifs involved. It's just a promise: I am there for you. And then he further outlines this higher way. This higher way is for all peoples — even peoples they don't know about. They will bring the word to peoples unknown to them. And he says peoples unknown to you will be coming for the word, to hear it. It's for everyone.
     
    The normal way is to kind of keep things close. We usually gravitate towards the groups and the people that we know. We tend to be kind of "cliquey" as human beings. But in the Jewish way, they were usually very particular in those days about not inviting other people in, because they didn't want the things of God to be defiled. And more typical was the response of Jonah. When Jonah was asked to go to Nineveh, he went the other way. That's the more human reaction. "No Lord, I don't want to go to a new place. Let me be comfortable where I am." But that's the lower way, the human response. So we see this higher way of thinking put out here as, he says: go invite everyone no matter where they are. Even if you don't know them, invite them. And so there are several examples already here in Isaiah of this higher way of thinking God has, to invite everyone with no matter to class or wealth. It's a promise made unconditionally to people, not on the basis of whether they deserve it or not, whether they've earned it or not. The promise is there for them, and it is to invite everyone — not just to care about the insiders or the in-group.
     
    So that's what we hear from Isaiah. Now, what do we hear from Jesus? We see how Jesus came to live by this higher way, how Jesus came to be an example of this higher way. And he showed how to live this higher way. Jesus knows that very troubling things happen in the world. In our gospel today, he cites both a mass murder (we could say) that happened in his day, and this tragedy of this tower falling down and killing 18 people in the south side of Jerusalem. So Jesus knows how tragedies and bad things happen to people. Jesus makes an example from these by saying that these men from Galilee — who probably work in a guerrilla warfare band and thought they could come down to Jerusalem and somehow take on the Romans — were put down by the Romans, killed by the Romans. And just to rub it in, Pilot took their blood and mixed it in with the sacrifices in the temple, and just kind of really rubbed it in everybody's face that you're not going to do this anymore. This is a horrible fate for those men though, for this to happen to them. And then Jesus reminds the people of this tragedy that happens with this tower falling down and killing several people.
     
    The common thinking of that day was that how you die is a reflection of how God regards how you live. If you die an untimely death, or if you die a particularly tragic death like happened in these cases, that meant those people were living badly, and God was judging them for their bad lives. And Jesus says no, that's not what it's about. God doesn't send worse death to some and other deaths to others because God wants to punish people because they're living poorly; that's not the way it works. But the point Jesus does make is that these people died, but he says this means all of you need to repent because everybody will die. No matter when they die or how they die, everybody will die. So he says it is for everyone to be repentant and to receive the promise that God makes.
     
    Here again, Jesus begins to show the higher way. The next thing is this parable he tells, the way of patience that God has. God's higher way is to be patient with people, to give the person every opportunity to live in tune with God. The lower way, the sinful human way to handle things, is to require that person, the other person, to live up to our standards of excellence, and to be off with them if they don't live up to those standards. There's little room for less than excellent performance. And the rationale is always there to judge the other person who underperforms. We can be quick, by human standards, to fire someone from their responsibilities if they aren't living up to them, or if things aren't working out — to either send them away walking or to walk away ourselves. We think that being decisive is a justified way to do things. Jesus says there's a higher way. He tells the example of this man then, who has a fig tree, who wants to fire the fig tree right away and be rid of it. He expected it to bear figs, but it didn't. He told the worker to cut it down, but the worker said no, if I work with it I think it will do better. Let's give it one more year to give it some extra attention. Let's see what will happen. This is the higher way, of having patience and giving another chance. Jesus reflects this in his statement: the higher way of God is to live with patience towards others and to call them to do better, rather than to cut them off right away.
     
    In all of this, Jesus is telling us that God has taken the higher way with each one of us. God could cut us off immediately. God has every right. He could have cut the world off at Adam and Eve. He could have just said that's it, I'm done with this experiment. But he didn't. He was patient with the whole human race. But it's true that all will die. It's a fact. We don't know when. But God is patient with us, but we will all die. That's what we're about since Ash Wednesday, when we put ashes on our head to remind us of that fact. But Jesus tells us yet that amidst this reality of life, there is a higher way. Our God is a God of patience, a God of second chance. Our God receives all, and the covenant of God is everlasting and it is unconditional. So we want to be ready though to receive our God. He calls us to line up our lives and line up our minds so that we are aligned with God and can receive all the grace and mercy that God wants to give us. If we're open to it we'll see it, we'll receive it, we'll live by it.
     
    Well God showed the ultimate higher way, when his love toward us allowed Jesus to be lifted up high on the cross. God's higher way ultimately comes to us in the lifting up of Jesus on the cross for our sake. That ultimate act of love, which was the willingness of Jesus to die, allowed our deaths (deaths that we know are coming) to be covered over, and to be clothed instead with the robe of righteousness and the robe of resurrection. The new life is promised to us because of Jesus, his death, and his resurrection. His being lifted up brings us to a much higher way with God. These deaths of ours which will surely come, as well as those of others, are blanketed by the death and the love and the resurrection of Jesus. We have been given new life.
     
    Because now that our lives have been renewed and been redeemed, God looks to us to live a higher way ourselves. By baptism we've been called to this new life in Christ, to live a higher way than what we were before. In 1 Corinthians Paul says to the people in Corinth, as they were going through some struggles: let me show you a yet more excellent way. That's the last verse of chapter 12. That begins then the great love chapter of chapter 13, a more excellent way to live: the way of love — a higher way to live, that does away with selfishness, does away with vengefulness, and does away with cliques. It's a way of love for one another. God has called us, God has given us life, and we're like fruit trees then, that God has planted that we might bear the fruit of the Spirit. Love is the first of the nine spiritual fruits that Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians. God gives us the ability and plants us to produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the fruits we produce as we are rooted in Christ in this new life he gives us. These are the fruits of living the higher way. God has planted us to produce these fruits. Thankfully, God has patience with us and allows us to grow these fruits. When we see these fruits of the Spirit as opportunities for us to live and to serve, we readily make them a part of our ongoing lifestyle. And when we practice them as our way of life, we are demonstrating a higher way. We are showing the way and thought of God — that it is of steadfast love, steadfast promise, loving everyone no matter of status, loving everyone no matter of their origin. We pray that remembering our baptism, we will live by the higher way. Amen.
     
    Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2013, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Keith Holste, Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9, Barren Fig Tree, 1 Corinthians 12:31, 1 Corinthians 13, Gift of Love, 2 Corinthians, Galatians 5:22-23, Fruit of the Spirit
  • 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
  • Apr 8, 2012The Ability to Hope
    Apr 8, 2012
    The Ability to Hope
    Series: (All)
    April 8, 2012. Pastor Penny preaches this Easter morning on the ability to hope, and to expect that the good will overcome the evil.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Quite a few Easters ago, when my sister invited us over to her house for dinner, and our nephews were pretty young, my cousin came too. And as she opened the door and entered the house, she said something to my sister — without realizing the age of the audience that would hear it. She said, "Oh, I think someone just ran over the Easter Bunny out there." Then she looked at my little five-year-old nephew's face and realized she shouldn't have said that. But it didn't matter to him, because he just squared his shoulders and looked at her and he said, "That wasn't my Easter Bunny. My Easter Bunny knows to look both ways." I think we see in children the ability to hope, and to expect that the good will overcome the evil.
     
    It was a little harder for the women at the tomb on Easter morning, those two Marys and Salome. Maybe they were sort of the "extended family" of Jesus. Salome is thought to have been the mother of James and John, Jesus' disciples. And we hear that those three women were ones who provided for Jesus during his ministry in Galilee. So they were probably like his aunts, inviting him over to eat, and always pushing a little more food onto him, and listening with rapt attention to what he said and laughing at his jokes. They must have loved Jesus like their own sons. They had the courage to leave their safe little towns in Galilee and follow Jesus to the dangerous and big city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They were the ones that watched as events unfolded that week. And they saw the storm clouds brewing, and they saw Jesus arrested and put on trial and beaten and brutalized, and finally hung on the cross. And they were there when he hung on the cross. They were there to see the limp body taken down off the cross and put into a tomb for a grave. And when they rolled that stone in front of the tomb and it shut, they must have felt that was the end of hope. And so when the young man they saw in the tomb that morning told them that Jesus was alive, they couldn't believe it. They ran away in fear and told no one anything.
     
    I don't think they have a corner on hopelessness. I think we have all felt it at times, maybe for days. Maybe weeks, maybe years. When hopelessness just seems to slither into our lives and curl around a dream or a plan, a hope that we had for ourselves or our families, and squeezes the life out of it, and we're left hopeless. I think we're probably all here this morning looking for something better, believing that there is something, somewhere, better than what we experience in this life. Something better for the world than tyrants and factions that kill each other. Something better for our country than gridlock in Washington and people without jobs and healthcare. And something better for us.
     
    How many of us have, after a long week, just hoped for some respite, just reached out hoping that we could have some peace of mind, some certainty, some satisfaction in life, only to discover that fruit is elusive and we never quite get it. A friend said once she thought that Easter was a time of renewal. And she'd been reading about centering yourself and being present, and believed that if she could master the technique of feeling present in the moment, and work at it, little by little, that life would be better. But I don't know of anything that I've read or any skill that I can acquire that can change my heart. I know how to forgive; I just don't want to do it sometimes. And unless we change our hearts the world doesn't change, and there is no hope.
     
    But Martin Luther said the cross, of all things, the cross of Jesus teaches us hope when there is no hope. And I think what he meant is that the cross is the greatest proof we have of God's love and the extent of God's love. The extent of Christ's love, who was willing to be crucified for us, who on the cross was like a magnet pulling all of the animosity and violence and failures and selfishness of the whole world onto himself. And it destroyed him. But it left us healed. What we could not do for ourselves — create hope — he has done. And all he asks then is that we receive it, accept it, believe it.
     
    But even there we waver, don't we? It is so hard to believe, like the women wavered at the tomb. But the offer still stands. Jesus holds out his hands: "This is my gift for you." Once when he was on the cross he cried out, "It is finished." He meant more than his life. He meant the plan that God had created when sin came into the world, to rescue us, was just about complete. And on Easter morning it became complete. When Jesus was raised from the dead, that exchange with him was complete. His perfection for us. Our sins for him. In the Easter morning light, God looks at us and sees us as blameless.
     
    Now that is hard to believe, isn't it? It's hard to grasp. It's hard to understand the resurrection. And there are those who call themselves Christians who don't believe in the resurrection, some of them scholars. There are several, I suppose. You can read many. John Dominic Crossan is one, and he thinks that when the disciples said they saw Jesus, what they really meant was that after Jesus' death they had a sense that they could live in a more loving way and they began to do so. Another scholar, Spong is his name, believes that when Peter said he saw Jesus alive, what Peter really meant was that he (and these are his words) "felt embraced by a sense of forgiveness and it forever changed his life." Yeah, those are easier things to understand, to interpret the resurrection psychologically. But really would you give your life for a feeling or a sense?
     
    Because that's what these men did. Eleven of the twelve disciples, tradition tells us, gave their lives up because they wanted to tell the story of Jesus' resurrection. People saw him. People talked about it. It changed their lives. They began the Christian church. N. T. Wright is a scholar, and I think he has it right. He says really, the only rational way to explain what happened on Easter is to assume that they were right: they saw Jesus; he was alive. They felt him, touched him, saw him eat, they knew he was there. And because of that they knew for certain that God is stronger than their leaders, the Roman Empire, and even death. And that, and that alone, is what motivated them with the gift of the Holy Spirit to turn their lives around. Peter began preaching. Peter, who cowered before and denied Jesus. They found their voices. They believed it. And I think that the young man at the tomb knew that in not too long a time, the women too would believe him — which of course they did. Because he gave them an assignment that morning. He said go, go tell the disciples to go home to Galilee, because Jesus has gone there ahead of you. He's waiting for you with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
     
    In the movie "No Country for Old Men" there is very little hope. If you've seen the movie, the villain, played by Javier Bardem, is an evil man. He's a hitman for drug runners, and there's nothing good to say about him. The law enforcement officer who's always trying to catch him and never quite does, played by Tommy Lee Jones, also seems to be a man without hope. Except there is this moment in the movie where Tommy Lee Jones tells his wife a dream that he had just had, a dream about his father, who also had been a law enforcement officer doing the same kind of work, but who had died some years earlier. He told his wife the dream took place in olden times. And he said, "I was on horseback going through a pass in the mountains at night. It was dark and it was cold and I was alone. But then suddenly I saw my father on horseback, and he was riding alongside me. And when I looked over, I saw he was holding a horn with a flame with fire." That's apparently how they transported fire from one place to another. And he said, "And without a word then, my father just went by and went out into the distance ahead of me." And he said, "In my dream, I knew what my father was doing. He was going to build a fire. In the cold and the dark he would build a fire, and he would be there waiting for me when I got out of that pass. He would be there for me."
     
    And that's really an image for our Easter hope — that however hopeless things seem to be, whatever we are experiencing, God is there alongside of us, reclaiming that experience for the good. And whatever we think might be out there in the future, God is there waiting for us, through this life and into the next, waiting to bless us so that we would work with him to bring the word of hope to others. This Easter may we accept that gift, may we believe that hope, and with it experience the freedom that comes — freedom, like walking out of a building after a long day at work or at school, walking out of the hospital after a long illness — and you step into the clear, clean air and sunshine like stepping out of a tomb into a new day, into a new life with Christ.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2012, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Mark 16:1-8
  • Mar 11, 2012Wake-up Call
    Mar 11, 2012
    Wake-up Call
    Series: (All)
     
    March 11, 2012. Pastor Penny preaches on the story in John of Jesus turning over the tables in the temple. The gospel is a warning. It's a wake-up call from God to help us take account of our lives, especially our time.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    Well, Greta loved going to church on Easter Sunday. She loved the Easter egg hunt and the Easter brunch and the Easter lilies. But she also loved sitting there with everybody singing those happy songs, and hearing the trumpet in the background. There was just one thing that Greta didn't like about Easter, and that was her mother was never there. Her mother was always home making Easter dinner. Greta's mother was a consummate cook, and the Easter dinner was her centerpiece — and she invited lots of friends and relatives to it. And it was a wonderful ham dinner with a cross-shaped cake for dessert, presented on a round mirror. And Greta always saw her mother presiding over the meals, sitting at the end of the table, glowing as the compliments would continue coming. But then one year on Good Friday, a wind storm came through her neighborhood and they lost their electricity for a few days. So, Easter dinner had to be canceled at their house. So that Easter Greta's mother came to church, and sat next to her of course. And as everyone was singing those hymns Greta was just beaming, because it was wonderful to hear her mother's lovely soprano voice joining in. And she looked up and smiled at her mother, and she thought to herself that her mother shared her joy in being there. And truly she did, because her mother was always there, every Easter, from that time on.
     
    Now in contrast to that happy story, we have a rather stark gospel lesson. Jesus is violent. Our Jesus, our peacemaker, is violent! First, we see him perform his only negative miracle: he curses a fig tree and it withers. And then he gets involved in a chaotic scene, an angry scene in the temple, at the height of Passover. Now, the cursing of the fig tree we understand a little more when we know that the fig tree was a symbol in the Old Testament for the children of Israel. And scholars tell us that what Jesus was doing was performing a parable. He was warning his disciples that there was something desperately wrong with the spiritual health (or lack of it) with the kingdom of Israel. And it was dangerous, and they would be cursed for it. And what was wrong with them would clearly be seen in the next event, when Jesus walked into this crowded temple — ten times as many people as normal (we're in Jerusalem at Passover) — and began throwing furniture around. I mean, you can imagine the sound of knocking down wooden tables on the stone pavement, and the crashing and the money being flown around, and the animals: the sheep and the cows that were there to be purchased for a burnt offering, the sounds in this chaos.
     
    And Jesus must have had a terrible look on his face. His eyes must have been flashing with anger, because people did what he said and he cleared the place out. But it's so unlike Jesus, and we have to ask: why now? Jesus saw many injustices, and he was troubled by them and sometimes spoke harshly — but never, never throwing furniture around. Well, he was witnessing the desecration of his Father's house — the temple, the meeting place of God and human beings — where there was a holy of holies, containing the Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments. This was God's house. And he watched as people desecrated it in three different ways.
     
    First of all, they brought the smells and the sounds of the marketplace into the temple itself. And he said not only that, but secondly they were cheating the people as they did it. Those who were changing the money from the foreign coinage to the Jewish half shekel, and those who were selling the animals for a burnt offering, were cheating people. He said: you are making my Father's house into a den of thieves. But the third way they were desecrating the house of God — and maybe it's the saddest — is that they carried on this buying and selling in the only place where Gentiles were allowed to worship. It was the court of the Gentiles, and those people who believed in the Jewish god but weren't of Jewish background were allowed there and there only. They had taken it over — in other words, pushing these people out so that they couldn't worship at all.
     
    And Jesus' quotes Isaiah, where we hear God describing God's plan for the temple as it's being rebuilt 500 years earlier. God said: I want my house to be a place of prayer for all Nations. I want everyone, from all backgrounds, to be able to come and be part of my family. And so, because of the selfishness of the sellers and the money changers, and the leaders who allowed it and encouraged it because of their selfishness, because of their greed for money, they had turned God's dream for the temple into a nightmare.
     
    Now this didn't happen all at once. For hundreds of years this selling of animals and the exchange of money had been going on, and it was an important part of being able to worship on the Passover. It hadn't, however, gone on in the temple. But slowly, people began to be greedy. And they began to be selfish about what they did. And the leaders allowed it and encouraged it. But I'm sure it took a while to get to that point, and that's the scary thing: because we all know how easily we can make subtle changes for the worse.
     
    We can head to the store to buy one thing, one thing that we really need, and end up buying a lot of things we don't need. But it just happens a little bit at a time. You see one thing and well, that would go and that would go, and pretty soon you have a lot of things you had never intended to buy. Well, you know our banks will tell us when we've come to the wall on that one. We can't keep doing that. But time is a whole different thing. We can squander our time little by little, and no one calls us into account. I think that probably for many of us, we are like Greta's mother. We want to be good and perfect. We want to do things well. We appreciate success and the feeling it gives us, and the admiration of other people. And so we throw ourselves into what we're doing, whether it's our work or our school work or an athletic endeavor or even a hobby. We say well, if I do a little more, well then I can do it perfectly. If I take on a little more responsibility at work, then I will be more successful. Then I'll have a little more clout, a little more power, a little more prestige, I'll feel better about myself. Or if I write one more paper for extra credit, my grade point will improve a little more and it'll be perfect. Or if I get up earlier and do 20 more minutes of warm ups, I will be much better in my sport. And little by little, we squander our time. We take it all for ourselves so that there's not enough time left over for our family, for our friends, or for God. We're too tired at the end of the day for a time of prayer. We're too weary at the beginning of the week to be in church.
     
    And what Jesus is saying in this dramatic and vehement action in the temple is that it's dangerous. He's warning us that we are on the verge of giving away nothing less than our relationship with God. Giving away that experience of God's love, and forgiveness, and guidance, and healing, and the joy of repaying God by worship. That's what's at stake.
     
    Well our gospel isn't all bad news. There is hope. First, there's hope because we know that the very Jesus whose eyes flashed in anger continued on Holy Week, to the cross, where he died for the very people that were desecrating his Father's house — those people who, after his demonstration, began to plot to kill him. For those people and for us, he was willing to die to forgive our sins, and to give us power to change. He said: see that mountain that the temple is built on? If you believe and pray, God can even change that. In other words, God can take the biggest barrier in our life and help us reform it or change it, or even replace it.
     
    An example: I was with some pastors from Kansas City this last week, and they talked about some of their parishioners who were frustrated, because their sons were involved in hockey and all the practices and the games and the tournaments were on Sunday morning, and they never made it to church. They decided to change that. So they partnered with local clergy, who provided a worship service on the rink. There in the arena, in between games, they would gather for a time of prayer and singing and a short message. And the result they hadn't counted on was that it was a witness to all the other families who weren't involved with church, who saw them being that passionate about their faith, and who were then invited to join.
     
    Our gospel today is a warning. It's a wake-up call from God to help us take account of our lives, especially our time. To evaluate it, to open our hearts and let God tell us what God thinks of what we do — so that we, through the power of God, cannot be the tree that withers, but the tree that is fruitful and healthy and that bears the fruit of love, for our families and our friends, for our community. And especially for God, the one who loved us enough to die for us, to make us part of his family.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2012, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, John 2:13-22, Jesus Cleanses the Temple