Apr 6, 2014
Lessons From Lazarus
Series: (All)
April 6, 2014. Pastor Keith preaches on the lessons of faith we can learn from the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
 
*** Transcript ***
 
Near the very end of his gospel, the writer John says, "Now these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." And this story about Jesus and Lazarus, and the other people involved, is a story that tells us what this believing for the sake of having life is like. It shows us what some of the dimensions of this faith are like, and what life with faith can look like. As we think of different characters we've heard about in this story we have read, we've seen faith at work in at least five different ways.
 
For one thing, we hear Mary and Martha react to Jesus when he finally gets to them. We hear how faith has a basic trust, but how it leaves room to grow. Their faith grew from where they were before Jesus came that time. When both Martha and Mary approached Jesus, each one demonstrated that Jesus had the ability to heal Lazarus. They said, "If you'd been here Lord, you could have healed him. He would not have died." So they had this basic belief that Jesus was good and Jesus had this power to heal someone. It was a good faith, and likely more faith than most of the people around them had — who were still very doubtful about Jesus, and sometimes against Jesus. Yet we know that all along, there was even more in store for them to know about, and more for them to grow in faith. Jesus had more in mind than to simply heal Lazarus from an illness. Jesus had something more he was going to use. He had an intention for this time. So Jesus timed his arrival especially late, so that their faith could be stretched. Not only would Jesus heal Lazarus, he would bring him back to life from death. Jesus gives the sign here that he's about more than just sustaining physical life. He's about having life itself. Jesus structured his visit so that this would be apparent. He intentionally waited those extra days after the call for help came to him, so that Lazarus would be thoroughly dead, so there could be no thought that he just kind of passed out for a while and was coming back to life. He was officially dead after four days. Jesus wanted the faith in Mary and Martha to grow. They had that basic belief that he could heal. Jesus shows their faith has room to grow. It can grow to believe that Jesus brings life from death.
 
There's a good reminder for us in this lesson. How often does God do more for us than we even expected God would do? There are those times when we'd be happy if this or that came out of a certain situation, but maybe even more goodness comes out of it than we thought would come from it. Maybe there's not just a healed body, but a healed relationship that comes out of some medical thing. Maybe we believe in such a way that we'll be happy if only one good thing comes out of it, and many more good things come out of it. Or faith is shown that we believe so much, but even more God is capable to give to us. Faith has room to grow.
 
A second lesson about faith from this story is that faith tolerates what it cannot understand. That is, faith has a growing edge that sometimes is kind of difficult. Just as growth in many things happens only with growing pains, so growth in faith comes with a measure of difficulty. Faith understands this, and faith accepts difficult times as times to grow. In this story both Martha and Mary blame Jesus. Their anger shows. While they're glad to see Jesus, because their faith had expectations of Jesus they were upset that he didn't come sooner. "If you had been here, Lazarus would not have died." The disciples also questioned Jesus. They tried to dissuade him from going near Bethany, which is in Judea where Lazarus lived, because they feared that Jesus would be stoned by the Jews were out to get him, if not they themselves. Their faith had a growing edge here also. For all of them, their faith came to a new and deeper place, but they had to go through a painful time to get there. This wasn't easy for any of them. They all had to go through an experience they would have preferred to avoid. Disciples would have preferred to stay where they were and not go to Judea. Mary and Martha would have preferred for Jesus to come early so that he could heal Lazarus while he was still alive. But they all came to a deeper faith, which received an even greater gift than they first imagined. But it came with difficulty.
 
How often doesn't it happen for us — that the way for our faith to grow could not have come by an easier path and we think we'd prefer an easier way, but maybe there's something difficult we need to go through and that grows our faith? Maybe there's an illness we would have happily gone without. Maybe there's some circumstance in life, maybe related to our work or our career or our relationship. Maybe there was a really hard way for us, involving a loss of something or someone. Yet it started and worked with our faith, and our faith was able to have a growing edge, and we came to an even deeper relationship with God than we were before, and a deeper appreciation of the life that God gives.
 
A third thing we see about faith in this story is that it cares with feeling. Faith is not something of just one dimension. It's not just something we do with our mind and say we believe. Faith, by its nature, involves other parts of life. Faith cares for others. Along the lines that James says, "Faith without works is dead," we could say that faith involves love. While love is apparent on many levels of this story — there are great relationships between Jesus and Mary and Martha and Lazarus and the disciples — it involves one of the deepest signs of emotions that we hear in any of the gospels. It says, in fact, that Lazarus was one who was loved by Jesus. It says that Jesus weeps on the way to the tomb. We're not exactly sure if he was weeping because of the loss of Lazarus, or because he was weeping in sympathy with all the others who were so sad about the death of Lazarus. But either way, Jesus has lots of empathy here. Jesus, even in his faith, has love for others. We know that Jesus does weep here. And at that time, Jesus shows his faith by speaking to the Father. And he says, "Father I do this. I pray to you now that I will be raising Lazarus," he's saying. "And I do this as a way to show them that I have this faith in you." The faith of Jesus even involves a love that cares deeply. It brings out his full emotions and his deepest love. Faith is like that. Our faith is showing when we care about others, whether family or friends or of others who suffer hardship or discrimination, or Christians who are being persecuted, or others in the world having a hard time. Our faith brings us to feel for them and to care for them, so that we do what we can to ease their situation.
 
The fourth lesson about faith in this story is that faith believes unto death. In the early part of the story when Jesus is with his disciples, he comes to this decision to go to Judea. And at first they don't understand. But he says it's for Lazarus' sake, and Lazarus has died. And then Thomas says we too must go, that we may die with him. They'd just been talking about how dangerous it was and how lethal it could be to go there, yet Thomas voices his faith that's ready to go. He has a faith that's ready to die with and for Jesus. This is the same Thomas who, after the resurrection, had a hard time believing it. But his basic faith grows to accept this new reality of Jesus, that Jesus is the resurrected Lord. This Thomas goes through a hard time with the other disciples as the Jewish council, based on what Jesus does with Lazarus, decides Jesus is too dangerous — and they actively start to kill Jesus then, to go after him, to arrest him. Thomas knows about that, and Thomas has a love and a heart that's deep. And as he comes through this very painful time, and is helped along by Jesus, he finally says after the resurrection with a faith deeper than before, "My Lord and my God." From then on and once again, he puts his life on the line. Thomas is able to say: my faith leaves me even to be willing to die. As tradition has it, he went to India for the sake of Jesus and died a martyr's death. Thomas, like his Lord, has a faith unto death and lives it out to the end.
 
The faith commitment we make with Jesus is deep. We follow the one who believed the mission all the way to the cross, and we follow him. We need a strong community to do this, other people with us to do this. And we need the marks that we make by baptism and by membership in a community, marks which set us apart and say: I'm with this group and I'm with the Lord too. I also myself say, "My Lord and my God," each one of us says. And we follow where our Lord leads us, no matter how difficult the path may be.
 
There's at least one more lesson about faith in this story. It's a joyful end, but there's something undone. We just kind of talked about it with the children here. Lazarus was out of the tomb. He's alive, but he's not free to go. He's all bound up. And so Jesus has to say, "Unbind him and let him go." He can't unbind himself. His hands are all tied up. He needs help to do this. Being people of faith means we are the ones who do the unbinding where God has set people in the world free. God has freed the world. God has given new life. Sometimes people are still bound up where they are and don't know the freedom, and don't know the life that God wants them to have. God's faithful ones are the ones who do the freeing of others. God's faithful ones have seen what God is up to, and have a word to share with others so that they can see what God has done for them. And as Jesus did so often, and touched people's eyes so that they could see, and then he would send them on their way with new life, God's faithful ones today are the unbinders. We are people who are unbound ourselves, and so we help others become unbound from the fetters of their lives. We can help people's eyes become open so that they can see another way to live, what God has in mind for them.
 
So there are at least five ways here we can learn about faith in this story. First of all that faith, even though it has a basic trust, still has room to grow. Secondly a faith has growing edges, sometimes difficult, as it gets deeper. We know thirdly that faith cares with feeling and love. We know fourthly that faith believes unto death. And fifthly, faith acts as it responds to the command of Jesus: to unbind those who have been given new life and set free, and to help them in that process. May we all let the means that God gives us — through his word, through baptisms, through communion, and through the good word of one another — find faith that is nourished and that grows in these ways. Amen.
 
And now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Keith Holste, John 11:1-45, James 2:17
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  • Apr 6, 2014Lessons From Lazarus
    Apr 6, 2014
    Lessons From Lazarus
    Series: (All)
    April 6, 2014. Pastor Keith preaches on the lessons of faith we can learn from the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Near the very end of his gospel, the writer John says, "Now these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name." And this story about Jesus and Lazarus, and the other people involved, is a story that tells us what this believing for the sake of having life is like. It shows us what some of the dimensions of this faith are like, and what life with faith can look like. As we think of different characters we've heard about in this story we have read, we've seen faith at work in at least five different ways.
     
    For one thing, we hear Mary and Martha react to Jesus when he finally gets to them. We hear how faith has a basic trust, but how it leaves room to grow. Their faith grew from where they were before Jesus came that time. When both Martha and Mary approached Jesus, each one demonstrated that Jesus had the ability to heal Lazarus. They said, "If you'd been here Lord, you could have healed him. He would not have died." So they had this basic belief that Jesus was good and Jesus had this power to heal someone. It was a good faith, and likely more faith than most of the people around them had — who were still very doubtful about Jesus, and sometimes against Jesus. Yet we know that all along, there was even more in store for them to know about, and more for them to grow in faith. Jesus had more in mind than to simply heal Lazarus from an illness. Jesus had something more he was going to use. He had an intention for this time. So Jesus timed his arrival especially late, so that their faith could be stretched. Not only would Jesus heal Lazarus, he would bring him back to life from death. Jesus gives the sign here that he's about more than just sustaining physical life. He's about having life itself. Jesus structured his visit so that this would be apparent. He intentionally waited those extra days after the call for help came to him, so that Lazarus would be thoroughly dead, so there could be no thought that he just kind of passed out for a while and was coming back to life. He was officially dead after four days. Jesus wanted the faith in Mary and Martha to grow. They had that basic belief that he could heal. Jesus shows their faith has room to grow. It can grow to believe that Jesus brings life from death.
     
    There's a good reminder for us in this lesson. How often does God do more for us than we even expected God would do? There are those times when we'd be happy if this or that came out of a certain situation, but maybe even more goodness comes out of it than we thought would come from it. Maybe there's not just a healed body, but a healed relationship that comes out of some medical thing. Maybe we believe in such a way that we'll be happy if only one good thing comes out of it, and many more good things come out of it. Or faith is shown that we believe so much, but even more God is capable to give to us. Faith has room to grow.
     
    A second lesson about faith from this story is that faith tolerates what it cannot understand. That is, faith has a growing edge that sometimes is kind of difficult. Just as growth in many things happens only with growing pains, so growth in faith comes with a measure of difficulty. Faith understands this, and faith accepts difficult times as times to grow. In this story both Martha and Mary blame Jesus. Their anger shows. While they're glad to see Jesus, because their faith had expectations of Jesus they were upset that he didn't come sooner. "If you had been here, Lazarus would not have died." The disciples also questioned Jesus. They tried to dissuade him from going near Bethany, which is in Judea where Lazarus lived, because they feared that Jesus would be stoned by the Jews were out to get him, if not they themselves. Their faith had a growing edge here also. For all of them, their faith came to a new and deeper place, but they had to go through a painful time to get there. This wasn't easy for any of them. They all had to go through an experience they would have preferred to avoid. Disciples would have preferred to stay where they were and not go to Judea. Mary and Martha would have preferred for Jesus to come early so that he could heal Lazarus while he was still alive. But they all came to a deeper faith, which received an even greater gift than they first imagined. But it came with difficulty.
     
    How often doesn't it happen for us — that the way for our faith to grow could not have come by an easier path and we think we'd prefer an easier way, but maybe there's something difficult we need to go through and that grows our faith? Maybe there's an illness we would have happily gone without. Maybe there's some circumstance in life, maybe related to our work or our career or our relationship. Maybe there was a really hard way for us, involving a loss of something or someone. Yet it started and worked with our faith, and our faith was able to have a growing edge, and we came to an even deeper relationship with God than we were before, and a deeper appreciation of the life that God gives.
     
    A third thing we see about faith in this story is that it cares with feeling. Faith is not something of just one dimension. It's not just something we do with our mind and say we believe. Faith, by its nature, involves other parts of life. Faith cares for others. Along the lines that James says, "Faith without works is dead," we could say that faith involves love. While love is apparent on many levels of this story — there are great relationships between Jesus and Mary and Martha and Lazarus and the disciples — it involves one of the deepest signs of emotions that we hear in any of the gospels. It says, in fact, that Lazarus was one who was loved by Jesus. It says that Jesus weeps on the way to the tomb. We're not exactly sure if he was weeping because of the loss of Lazarus, or because he was weeping in sympathy with all the others who were so sad about the death of Lazarus. But either way, Jesus has lots of empathy here. Jesus, even in his faith, has love for others. We know that Jesus does weep here. And at that time, Jesus shows his faith by speaking to the Father. And he says, "Father I do this. I pray to you now that I will be raising Lazarus," he's saying. "And I do this as a way to show them that I have this faith in you." The faith of Jesus even involves a love that cares deeply. It brings out his full emotions and his deepest love. Faith is like that. Our faith is showing when we care about others, whether family or friends or of others who suffer hardship or discrimination, or Christians who are being persecuted, or others in the world having a hard time. Our faith brings us to feel for them and to care for them, so that we do what we can to ease their situation.
     
    The fourth lesson about faith in this story is that faith believes unto death. In the early part of the story when Jesus is with his disciples, he comes to this decision to go to Judea. And at first they don't understand. But he says it's for Lazarus' sake, and Lazarus has died. And then Thomas says we too must go, that we may die with him. They'd just been talking about how dangerous it was and how lethal it could be to go there, yet Thomas voices his faith that's ready to go. He has a faith that's ready to die with and for Jesus. This is the same Thomas who, after the resurrection, had a hard time believing it. But his basic faith grows to accept this new reality of Jesus, that Jesus is the resurrected Lord. This Thomas goes through a hard time with the other disciples as the Jewish council, based on what Jesus does with Lazarus, decides Jesus is too dangerous — and they actively start to kill Jesus then, to go after him, to arrest him. Thomas knows about that, and Thomas has a love and a heart that's deep. And as he comes through this very painful time, and is helped along by Jesus, he finally says after the resurrection with a faith deeper than before, "My Lord and my God." From then on and once again, he puts his life on the line. Thomas is able to say: my faith leaves me even to be willing to die. As tradition has it, he went to India for the sake of Jesus and died a martyr's death. Thomas, like his Lord, has a faith unto death and lives it out to the end.
     
    The faith commitment we make with Jesus is deep. We follow the one who believed the mission all the way to the cross, and we follow him. We need a strong community to do this, other people with us to do this. And we need the marks that we make by baptism and by membership in a community, marks which set us apart and say: I'm with this group and I'm with the Lord too. I also myself say, "My Lord and my God," each one of us says. And we follow where our Lord leads us, no matter how difficult the path may be.
     
    There's at least one more lesson about faith in this story. It's a joyful end, but there's something undone. We just kind of talked about it with the children here. Lazarus was out of the tomb. He's alive, but he's not free to go. He's all bound up. And so Jesus has to say, "Unbind him and let him go." He can't unbind himself. His hands are all tied up. He needs help to do this. Being people of faith means we are the ones who do the unbinding where God has set people in the world free. God has freed the world. God has given new life. Sometimes people are still bound up where they are and don't know the freedom, and don't know the life that God wants them to have. God's faithful ones are the ones who do the freeing of others. God's faithful ones have seen what God is up to, and have a word to share with others so that they can see what God has done for them. And as Jesus did so often, and touched people's eyes so that they could see, and then he would send them on their way with new life, God's faithful ones today are the unbinders. We are people who are unbound ourselves, and so we help others become unbound from the fetters of their lives. We can help people's eyes become open so that they can see another way to live, what God has in mind for them.
     
    So there are at least five ways here we can learn about faith in this story. First of all that faith, even though it has a basic trust, still has room to grow. Secondly a faith has growing edges, sometimes difficult, as it gets deeper. We know thirdly that faith cares with feeling and love. We know fourthly that faith believes unto death. And fifthly, faith acts as it responds to the command of Jesus: to unbind those who have been given new life and set free, and to help them in that process. May we all let the means that God gives us — through his word, through baptisms, through communion, and through the good word of one another — find faith that is nourished and that grows in these ways. Amen.
     
    And now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Keith Holste, John 11:1-45, James 2:17
  • Mar 9, 2014Locked For Life With God
    Mar 9, 2014
    Locked For Life With God
    Series: (All)
    March 9, 2014. Jesus died to show us that God loves us and has declared that we are not just acceptable, but we are treasured and priceless beyond measure. Pastor Keith preaches on Jesus' temptation in the desert and how he withstood it. Just as Jesus was baptized, we are baptized too. Just as he was tempted then as the Son of God, so we are tempted now as children of God. And just as Jesus successfully carried out his mission, as God's children we continue to carry on the mission, locked for life with God.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We continue to look at our text about the temptation of Jesus. We begin in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    Well, several of our youth spent most of the weekend enduring a 30-hour famine. They chose to fast for 30 hours so they could identify with those who are hungry most of the time. They became more aware of world hunger and food distribution issues, and of hunger in our area. I haven't been able to talk with any of them since they came back, so I'm not sure how that all went. But maybe we can all chat with some of those who went to this famine, and we can find out how they dealt with the hunger and how they dealt with the time. Maybe everybody who went should hold up their hands. Okay, Ray did. I guess we've got Ray here today. Others are maybe — I don't know — recovering? But okay, talk to Ray. Okay.
     
    Well, while 30 hours seems like a long time to us, that was only a fraction of the time that Jesus was fasting. Jesus had just been baptized. And as prophets and other spiritual leaders often did after, when they were ready to start their life's work they would go off to a desert or wilderness to be there for some time, to engage in a kind of meditation time before they were to engage in the ministry — because usually their ministry involved a lot of very rigorous activity and challenges. It was a time to become connected to God, so that one had a connection that would stay during this challenging ministry ahead. And so, while Jesus was in this time of fasting for some 40 days, the devil sees this as an opportune time to come to Jesus and tempt Jesus from his mission. He thought Jesus might be getting desperate, I suppose, at this time to break his fast and saw it as the good time. And while the temptations may have been for certain things, the key to the temptation is in how the question is stated to Jesus, how the devil talks to Jesus. "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." He doesn't say: I dare you to turn these stones into bread, or wouldn't you like to turn these stones into bread. Rather it is, "If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread." The temptation is about who Jesus is. Will he keep his identity as a son of God and be true to the Father, or will he become someone else, give up on the mission, and not go through with God's plan for his life and kind of change his life's direction?
     
    I was recently at a conference where research was quoted that says that the two things people want most in life are meaning in life, and connections. And it occurred to me that I think the two go together. It may not be true in every little bit of the way life works, but much of our meaning, a great deal of our meaning, comes from the people we are associated with, the people we are connected to. The connections we have in life give this life meaning. How the people react to us, and how we relate to them, says much about who we are. We gain our identity and likely our meaning from the people we are connected to. We can't be fathers or mothers, which is identity for some of us, without children. We're all a child to a parent. We may be a husband or a wife to someone. We're connected to people at work. And all that is part of who we are. We have neighbors. We have friends. We're all citizens with one another in a country. All these are different connections that we have, and all these things work together to give us meaning for who we are. We have an array of relationships, and these tell us, and make us, and define us who we are. They give us our identity.
     
    Well in the story of the Temptation, the devil begins by trying to undermine the identity of Jesus, who had just received his baptism from God. And God has just said, "This is my Son with whom I am well pleased." Now, the devil comes and tempts Jesus, and says if you are God's son then turn these stones into bread. The devil seeks to rob Jesus of his God-given identity, and to replace it with a false one of his own making. Jesus resists this temptation, but not by brute force — knocking the devil out or something like that — or by sheer will. But he takes refuge in his identity, and that's where he gets the strength to withstand this temptation. It's his identity that's grounded in his relationship with God. That's his main connection. He's connected to God. He has a relationship with God, so he turns to that relationship with God for his ability to withstand this temptation. It's the relationship that involves his complete dependence upon God. But even as he does that, he identifies with all other human beings. Keeping within who he is, Jesus doesn't get out of himself but stays within his own person. Jesus will be hungry as other people are hungry. He will be beat, dependent upon the will and grace of God. So he identifies with human beings and he identifies with God. As he identifies with people, he will be at risk or be vulnerable as other people are. But he will always find his safety, his strength, and his relationship with his Father. He will refuse to say no, I'm going to go another direction, I'm going to get my power over here. He continues always to be in relationship with his Father.
     
    Well as Jesus had just been baptized, he was baptized because he wanted to show that he was one of us, that he identified completely with us. So he became human as we are, and the baptism was a way to show his humanity. So in his baptism, he is one of us. And just as he was tempted then as Son of God, so we are tempted as children of God. And so we share this identity with Jesus. In baptism we've been declared children of God. We're tempted also. We're challenged to find our wherewithal to withstand temptations in our relationship with God. Just as Jesus used that means, that's the resource we have for fighting temptation ourselves. We are connected to God. We keep that connection because that is our very strength.
     
    Sometimes we fall into doubt though. That's what the original temptation was in the garden. The devil approached Adam and Eve, as we heard a little bit ago in the first lesson, and established doubt. Did God really say that? Do you think God really meant that, that if you eat that fruit things will fall apart? Was that really what God had in mind? Eat the tempting fruit and find out, was the temptation — who you can really be. You can really be so much better. You don't know how good you can be if you don't go beyond the limits God has put on you. You can be like God in fact, the devil said. So doubt was created about who they were and whether God was really for them or not. They lost track of themselves. They lost their perfect relationship with God.
     
    So the devil comes to us and creates doubt also. Are you really who you think you are? Can you really survive in your current state? Aren't you being held back from your potential? Maybe you could do better if you went another direction. If you get out of your current self, and kind of shed it like a snake would shed its skin, wouldn't you be much more successful and happy? That's the kind of doubt that seeps into our mind as we're tempted. In each day we're besieged by countless ads that seek to create in us a sense that we're lacking something. A sense of insecurity is planted in us. And that sense puts a plant in us that we're inadequate. We need something more. And our God-given identity is undermined with the thought that if we buy this car, or improve our smell, or make our teeth whiter, somehow we will be more acceptable. They say we hear some 18,000 messages a day just kind of picking away at us, saying do this, do that, and you'll be better if you get this product. All these are always saying to us: you're not good enough the way you are. You're not skinny enough, you're not smart enough, or you're not pretty enough, or you're not strong enough, or you're not rich enough to deserve the love and respect and acceptance (which really we already have from God) but they say there could be more if you buy into these things. We're told always you need something more. You can get LifeLock or other products to supposedly keep your identity from being stolen. But the temptation to let our trust in God be co-opted is a far worse threat than identity theft happening for us. If we let our identity as a person of God, fully reliant on God for what we need, be taken from us by trusting in something else, then something far worse has happened to us than what has happened to our credit card if it got compromised at Schnuck's or Target or something like that. Then a key relationship is threatened and we risk losing our soul, the soul of who we are. We need to stay locked tight with God.
     
    We're tempted by the quick fixes. We would like to have plenty so we'd never have to worry about having plenty. We'd like to have superpowers that we could rescue maybe an inadequate paycheck or too short a retirement account, and just have powers to take care of that. We'd like to be king of the hill, as the devil tempted Jesus, or we'd like to rule the world. We'd like those things. And in our desperate moments — our times when it seems that we're famished, or we have just no more energy, or no more fuel to go on — when it seems like we're all alone and we have no relationships to remind us of who we are, and we feel like a homeless person who has nowhere to go except around the corner, hoping that corner will block the wind for us, we're challenged to keep trusting, not to lose our connection, and to remember who we are as ones connected to God.
     
    Just as Jesus was baptized, we are baptized. We are marked by God, as we were created by God. We are put in a life locked with God. The same Jesus who withstood the temptation in the wilderness would be tempted again. The devil would speak through criminals, through soldiers, through the people gathered at the foot of the cross while Jesus was there, and they would tempt him with the same kinds of words: "If you think you are the messiah, if you are the Son of God, come down off the cross." Always tempting Jesus. "Are you who you think you are, or are you someone else?" To the very end he was tempted, and to the very end Jesus remembered who he was. He was God's son, and so in his last words he says, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." He knew who he was because of the one he was connected to.
     
    Well, this work of Jesus is our way to come through our times of desperation, our temptations to lose sight of who we are, to go off some other direction trying to find quick relief. Jesus offers us a way to safeguard our identity by locking it in God's good gift and promise. Jesus died to show us that God already loves us and has declared that we are not just acceptable, but we are treasured and we are priceless beyond measure. Think about this last week. Was there a time maybe when your identity was threatened, that you were tempted to live outside yourself? Was there a time when you felt inadequate or unworthy? How did it go? Were you able to remember and believe the promise of the one you are connected to, the promise of God in Jesus that you are enough — not just enough, more than enough – and accepted as God's own child? I hope so.
     
    When Jesus was hungry, it was preparation for his mission. He completed that mission in the coming months and years as he succeeded in doing what he needed to do, and even suffered unto death for it. When our youth were on this hunger famine time, yesterday on their fast, they did not just sit around thinking about how hungry they were or how nice it would be to have food, or play games to divert themselves, to think about other things. Rather, they were involved in a service project with Humanitree, learning about people who live in hard situations much of the time. Knowing who they were as children of God, they were on mission in God's name. So we, as we allow God to keep us connected, know who we are as God's children, locked for life with God, and we carry on the mission — even willing to pay the cost that we incur doing that — because we know whose we are. Amen.
     
    Now, may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Keith Holste, Genesis 2:15-17, Genesis 3:1-7, Matthew 4:1-11
  • Feb 9, 2014American Hustle
    Feb 9, 2014
    American Hustle
    Series: (All)
    February 9, 2014. In Matthew 5, the scribes and the Pharisees were hustlers. They used the law of God to their own advantage against others. They refused to admit it and to seek forgiveness. But that is the difference between them and us. Pastor Penny preaches today on this text, and reminds us that Jesus doesn't call us hustlers. Jesus has other words for us. He says we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    His father owned a company that didn't do very well because people took advantage of him, so he determined he would be different. He would be famous and rich, at the expense of others if need be. She left a small town that didn't seem to notice her and struck out to find fame and fortune, and she didn't care if she had to shove people aside to do it. And they, the man and woman, met at a party and instantly were a dynamic duo. And they went through life garnering glamour and goods on the backs of other people. They sold fake loans and counterfeit art. They bribed politicians. They even got a little close to the Mafia, and they did alright for a while. Okay, now that is the plot of a movie. It's called, if you've seen it, "American Hustle." But it's not just a movie. It was loosely based on the Abscam event, where politicians were bribed or did accept bribes. But it's also called American Hustle because I think it really does describe what we have learned to accept as the way the world goes: you need to watch out for yourself. You need to stretch and get what you need. And if you hurt other people, or if they somehow get hurt, don't notice it. Just carry on. I mean, we're not surprised when we hear about a politician accepting a bribe anymore. It seems the way of life. Or we hear about a high financier getting inside information to make a deal. It's normal.
     
    It's so normal, this idea that we look out for number one even at the expense of others, that it gets into our blood. Somebody does something dishonest at work or at school and we look the other way. We've got our careers to worry about, or our friends or our status. Don't get involved. Someone proposes building something that would be great for the community, but it might jeopardize the value of your home, so you oppose it. I mean after all, isn't the American way to elect officials that will help us? We don't think too much about whether it will help the state or help the country or the world, but that's the way government works: they help us. And we use resources that we know deep down are going to be needed in the future, but it's so hard to give up the comfortable life. In so many ways we have bought into the American hustle, and we don't even notice when we work to get what we want at the expense of others.
     
    But Jesus doesn't call us hustlers. Jesus has other words for us. Jesus says you are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. And he said that because we have been given a different understanding of success, a different reason to feel good. We have been given this view of goodness that means we look out for each other. We heard that in the Old Testament. God said, I don't want all your false fasts. What I want you to do is be merciful, clothe the naked, take the homeless into your home, feed the hungry. Then, then I am pleased. That's what is beautiful. That's what is good. And we have this vision. But how do we carry it out in a world that is constantly trying to shape us into hustlers? Well we can't do it alone. And if you read the gospel in the Greek, you will see that when Jesus says you are the light of the world, you are the salt of the earth, that word "you" is plural. He's not saying it to one person. He's saying it to all the followers. He's saying it to us as a community, as a congregation. And we know that it makes a huge difference that we do things together. It is such a beautiful thing to be part of a community.
     
    We had a meeting a few nights ago thinking about the vision of this church. And as we talked, we began to wonder: although we value the community, do we value the gifts of the individual members? Maybe some of you have thought: why don't they ask me? I know about this. Why hasn't anybody asked me to do this or my advice, or come to me? And we began to think that maybe it's for shyness or lack of knowledge of who has what gifts, or just because we're in a hurry, we may not have asked people to use their valuable gifts for this community. And then on the other side, there's that part of us that may not want to use our gifts. We might think, oh no, another meeting. We may not see the value that we have to offer, the value of what we have right here.
     
    There's a story about a pastor who came to visit a parishioner who hadn't been coming to church for a while. And he graciously received the pastor, and he knew what the pastor was there for. And he had made a fire in the fireplace, so he invited the pastor to sit down. And they sat there and he waited for the pastor to say what a pastor would say. The pastor didn't say a word. After a few minutes the pastor got up and he pushed the screen of the fireplace over, and took the tongs and he took a little piece of wood that had been burning right in the middle of the fire, and he put it over to the edge all by itself. And then he sat down. Together he and the parishioner watched as that little piece of wood just got darker and darker, until it was hardly even an ember. And then he got up and he took the tongs and he put it back in the middle of the fire, and it burst into flames. And then he said well, I guess I should be going now. And as the parishioner walked the pastor to the door, he said: thank you pastor for your visit, and for your fiery sermon. And he said I'll be back in church next Sunday.
     
    We need each other. This is how we get our fire. This is how we keep on the level path. We need each other, and we're best when we're together. We think of what the church has done together, how we have stood up against racial discrimination, abuse of women, prejudice against gays and lesbians, how we have built hospitals and nursing homes and had a whole social service network, how we have helped stop world hunger. This is what we can do together. And even a congregation, like the salt, can influence all that is around it. When Keith was on his internship at Our Redeemer in Indianapolis, already the neighborhood was getting kind of crime-ridden. But the congregation refused to move, as they have up to this time. They have a beautiful plan. They say if we keep our building up, if we come driving in there every Sunday morning, we're helping the neighborhood -- even if it means that we hire a guard to watch our cars for evening meetings, which they do.
     
    There's so much we can do together. But is it enough? We hear that haunting last sentence of the gospel: unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But you see, the scribes and the Pharisees were hustlers. They used the law of God to their own advantage against others. They refused to admit it and to seek forgiveness. And that is the difference between them and us. Every Sunday we publicly confess our sins. In our own homes we probably say the same to God, and we receive that forgiveness. And so Jesus says to us: I didn't say you will be the salt of the earth. I didn't say if you work hard enough, you might be the light of the world. I died and rose to say to you: you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. All we need to do is to live what we already are -- to live life, watching out for others, and being able to step back ourselves. Not an easy task, but we have each other, and we have the power of the Holy Spirit. And we have the promise that when Christ returns, everything will be transformed and we will all see together the Kingdom of Heaven.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, LGBTQ, Matthew 5:13-20
  • Feb 2, 2014Papua New Guinea
    Feb 2, 2014
    Papua New Guinea
    Series: (All)
    February 2, 2014. Pastors Penny and Keith talk about their recent trip to Papua New Guinea.
     
    [In this sermon, Pastor Penny and Pastor Keith refer to photos that were being displayed by projectors in the church at the time.]
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    [Pastor Keith]
     
    Well we've heard about Simeon in our reading this morning as one who held this Christ child and said he is the light of the nations. And this gospel that comes through Jesus then is the light to all nations, and we're going to focus this morning on it being the light to a place in the world called Papua New Guinea. It's just north of Australia. And the part that you see in orange there is the part that's Papua New Guinea. The island is divided in half. It's the second largest island in the world. But the part that's in orange, and then New Britain and some of the other islands around it, make this country that's in partnership with our Central States Synod, ELCA. We've been in partnership for many years now. Different people in our synod, including a former bishop, have lived in Papua New Guinea during part of their lives. So we have a partnership with Papua New Guinea, as well as with Eastern Russia, the Urals, and Siberia. People from there were with us this summer, and we hosted a dinner for them back in June. But today's focus is on Papua New Guinea.
     
    This is a picture of our delegation. See Penny there, and the mission developer in our synod office, and pastor Gary Teske, who most recently was pastor at Lawrence, Kansas. Now he's retired, but still working with our companion synod committee. The two other men you see there are Walter and Phillip, two men who were the ones who took us around and took care of us on this trip. I want to talk about the last Sunday morning we were there. We went to this church at a place called Sattelburg. It's kind of in a German style; you can see it looks like a cathedral. The mission was started by Germans about 1886, late 1800s, when Germans had come to put in plantations and to take trees for wood. There was a pastor who came first to be minister to the workers, but then noticed all the people who were doing the low-level work, the natives, and began to change his idea from being a chaplain to the German workers, to being a missionary to the workers who were doing the hard work. And so he started that in this area. It took a long time, maybe 25 years or so, to get conversions to happen.
     
    But this church is on a very high mountain, one of the highest places in that area. And as you probably recall, important things happen in the spiritual world on mountains. In the Old Testament we have several things that happen on mountains. And the normal lesson for today, if we weren't doing the Presentation of Our Lord, would include the words of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus was on a mountain to speak. So, high places like mountains, in both more native religions as well as Christianity, can be important parts. And so it was a symbol to have a Christian church on this mountain that had been the premier spot for the native religion of Papua New Guinea. For the people it was their high, holy place. And so their religion went away, and Christianity came to take that place. And so this is at this place called Sattelburg.
     
    Well for once on the trip, we were early for something. We were early for church. And so we'd ridden in this pickup up there. And so we were talking, waiting for the worship to happen. And the man you see on the right had been in our conferences all week. Even though he was an older man, he was always concerned that the stewardship plans that we were talking about were not modern enough, that they would not appeal to the young people. And so we heard from him in other ways, both in the pigeon, that normal language, and he could speak English also. But here we begin with a new theme, and he talked to us with a big thank you. He said, "I want to thank you for being here." First I thought he meant like other people we've run into, people on the reservation or people in El Salvador, or others who say, "Thank you for being here because it just helps us keep up hope." But that was just his start. He did thank us for coming, but he said, "I mean 'you,' as all of your people who have brought the gospel to us. We would not be the same. We would be back in slavery to death," like we heard in our Hebrews lesson today, "If it weren't for the gospel having come here. It's completely changed us as a people, both in ways that make for good institutions, but especially in our faith. It changes how we think." And so he was one who thanked us as representing all those who have come before, as ones who brought the gospel to him and to those people.
     
    We talked to Pastor Gary Teske, who was with us on this trip. He had been a missionary in the western highlands for about nine years. In our conversations we asked Gary, how did you come into villages that have never heard a word about Jesus or the gospel, and make any change with them? He said well, we'd arrange a meeting with either the tribal elders, and other people would come, and we'd say you live under this "slavery to death." That is you live under, in your former religion, the fear always of what the spirits of the ancestors are going to do to you today. Are you going to make the right move? Are you going to do the right thing? Or will your ancestor haunt you in some way? You never have a moment of joy because you're always worried about what the spirit of the ancestors are going to do. I have news to you, Gary would say, of a different god, a god who cares about you, a god who doesn't want you to live in fear, a god who wants you to live knowing care and love. And it wasn't always at the first meeting that they would convert, but hearing a word of a god who loves them rather than gods who are always after them converted the people. And that's, I think, what he really was trying to say to us that day.
     
    About 15 miles away is another church, and it's the scene where another conversion happened for the people in about 1909 (we'll see on a chart in a minute) when a pastor got all the tribes together on this spot and said: this is the day I ask you to choose. I ask you to choose to live for the Lord Jesus and to lay down your weapons. And he had the persuasive power -- we'll call it the power of the Holy Spirit, would be better explanation. They laid down their weapons and they all that day said yes, said -- as many tribes -- that they would now become Christian. And so, we begin to get a hint of what a difference this has made in the last hundred, hundred twenty-five years in this country and change of life. Someone said, we used to fight all the time, we would eat each other, you know. There were cannibals. It was awful. But everything is different now with the news of Jesus.
     
    Pastor Teske used the example when he was in the highlands that, as for Paul and others, congregations don't always get along very well. One of the congregations under his charge had split. He was disappointed and had a meeting with them, and said we've been talking about love and loving one another in the Lord. Isn't there a way to work this out? And they said no, there's no way to work it out. And a man came to him afterwards and said Pastor Gary, just remember that in former times we would have killed each other. Now we're just splitting into two different churches. So it's a depth of change that the gospel has made in this place, and we came to appreciate it. Part of our guide's thanks was for the institutions that came with the church. They didn't have organized schools. They didn't have organized hospitals. But because of God's care now, through the faith, they have. This is the sign for a hospital begun by Lutherans from Germany -- the Brown Hospital, still operating. They have hospital care, ways to heal one another, ways to heal a person. And now they have things like a school system and regular daily primary public schools. They also have a government. He was proud that Lutherans are in high places in the government, that they are a part of things. People from their district are high up in the government. And so this wouldn't have happened in the days before PNG became independent in 1975. So he went on and on to talk to us about big changes. The gospel has made this light of Christ to the nations, has changed them just thoroughly, as individuals and as a people, because it's come to them.
     
    Now Pastor Penny will pick it up.
     
     
    [Pastor Penny]
     
    As Pastor Keith mentioned, it's probably been a hundred twenty-five years since the light of the gospel came to people in Papua New Guinea. As an aside, the children were looking at a picture of a child fascinated by wheels. It's been said that in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, in the isolated valleys, the first time they ever saw wheels was in the second world war, because they were that isolated. So this was a country that was very isolated and certainly didn't know the gospel until a hundred twenty-five years ago. And like Anna and Simeon, they live now the gospel. You can see it in big ways, where they've come to be peaceable and they've organized a government. But we saw it in three ways that I think are very distinctive in Papua New Guinea.
     
    In the first way, we saw how the gospel changed them, that they love to get together. And it's nothing for them to travel by foot, on hot and humid days, carrying things on their heads and on their backs for a half hour or more to get to a meeting or to get to church. They routinely walk, and they're just so eager to be together. They had a farewell dinner at one place for us, and it was a potluck. And I sat next to a lady and I said what did you bring? And she pointed to a big tray of things. Turns out she'd walked for a half hour or more carrying that tray. And by the time that potluck was over it was pitch dark, and she was going to just turn right around and walk -- no electricity or anything, no flashlights -- home again, carrying her tray. She was happy to do that. They love being together. They love community.
     
    Another thing that I noticed was (and this is not new for anybody who's ever been to a third world country) they have a different sense of time. And of course it's a challenge to people from the Western world, but I came to really get a better sense of why they have a different sense of time. They took time to greet people. We went to a nature preserve, and the men that were guiding us went up and they were talking with the the guards and shaking hands and laughing. I thought they must know these men. No, that's just the way you are in Papua New Guinea: you take time for one another. They didn't mind just watching each other. We saw three men who were volunteering to repaint the student union at a seminary in Lae. And there were four or more watching them, just spending time with them. They took the time to be together, to encourage each other, to be friendly. When we were staying in the rural area, we stayed in a guest house, which is the house on the left. And it was right next to the district office, right across the lawn from us. And I was amazed that late into the night there would be guys in there laughing and talking. It was a place of socialization, not just business. They did get business done, but they did it on their own time, which allowed for a lot of talk and care of one another.
     
    We took a number of different hikes. And I was hiking with this man who's a minister named Robert. And before he became a minister, for 18 or 19 years he was a commercial fisherman, or sailor I should say. And he told me one time they sailed to Florida and they docked in Miami and spent a month there. And I said, what did you think of United States? And he said, I've told my friends if you want to live in the United States, it's all about time, time, time. We have a different sense of time. We have our own agendas. Therefore our meetings start on time. Their's don't. Their worship may not start on time and may not end on time. But the reason, I came to realize, is because they set aside their personal agendas for other people, and they're just very willing to let interruptions become their business. So it was frustrating and refreshing at the same time.
     
    The third way that the light of the gospel really shows through in their way of life is their hospitality. We were fed three times a day by a woman who insisted on bringing these lavish meals for us. We told her we still have some left over, we can eat this for two meals. No, she would take what was left over and give us something brand-new out of her garden, which was quite a distance away. She had to hike to it. Or she would go to the local market and use the fruits and vegetables from the area. But she would also have canned meat and ramen noodles. They have their own brand of ramen noodles, many flavors -- and she used it so creatively. Every meal was different, very tasty and beautiful. This is how she liked to serve the fruit. So we really knew the hospitality of food and being well cared for. Often when we'd go places there would be a ceremony to greet us. They call them "sing sings," where they'd have native garb and they'd sing native songs. The second time we encountered it was when we came from traveling by ferry to this rural area. And of course being PNG, they didn't have the battery for the ferries. The ferry was three or four hours late. So what they had intended to be a ceremony in the afternoon leading up to dinner, was now in the evening and it's pitch-dark there. But they waited for us. And then they met us and they had erected kind of a gate out of foliage and it would fall down -- they would push it down -- to show that we were welcomed, and then we would walk over that gate. They had prepared the passage to the meeting house where we were going to have the meeting, decorated it with petals. And they led us by this procession wearing their native garb and singing their native songs all the way up to the house where we would be having the meeting.
     
    There were often gifts. You can see we all got PNG hats. I mean they have so little. Beautiful bags, you saw the men wearing them around their heads. Everyone used them as a way to transport papers, books, groceries, babies, whatever you had. You put that around your head to transport your baby. You can see we're trying out our caps. Necklaces too. They liked to give gifts, and it was a beautiful thing they did. But I think the person who embodied hospitality the most for us was Walter. He's an official with their district -- or their synod, it would be like our synod. But he was our guide. And he was always hovering, so to each other we called him our mother hen. He was a beautiful man. And the last time he showed it, we were about to leave to return to Lae for a four-hour ride in a motorboat. I'm going to move ahead so you can see what they are like. They're not that big, and they pack them full of people and things, and they sit really low on the water and go very fast and they're way out in the sea. And nobody, nobody has life jackets. Well Walter couldn't stand that. Here he was in charge of the four of us, and he wanted to make sure we got there without drowning. So Walter borrowed life jackets, four of them -- and there were fifteen of us in there, so I'm not sure what would happen. And here he is, like a good flight attendant showing us how to put on the lifejacket to make sure we were protected. He was a beautiful person and his hospitality was amazing.
     
    At one service, which is so typical of them, they just turned to the four of us and said, you sing a song. And we looked at each other thinking okay, what do we know the words to that kind of fits in? And someone said how about "They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love." We thought okay, we probably all know that one, so we started singing it. And of course they knew it and they joined right in -- and they knew all the words. And it was really a kind of a theme song, I think for me anyway, because as we flew out it was a very sad time. I figured, being logical, I would never see these people again. And they were so gracious and so passionate about their faith. But they reminded me of all the ways that we who have the light of Christ live that light out -- in the way we treat other people, in the way we treat time, in the little things as well as the big things. They were a good reminder to me of the wonderful responsibility and gift that we have in knowing the light of Christ, and that whatever we do we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to let the world see that we are Christians by our love.
     
    So they taught us a lot. And we have a lot to be grateful for. And hopefully we will keep in contact with them and continue to support them.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Pastor Keith Holste, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40
  • Jan 12, 2014Rules vs Relationships
    Jan 12, 2014
    Rules vs Relationships
    Series: (All)
    January 12, 2014. Sometimes people think that being Christian is all about the Ten Commandments. But while they are not featured front and center in many churches, baptismal fonts are. Pastor Penny preaches on the role of baptism in our lives, and with the help of Mark Twain illustrates the difference between two ways of looking at life: through rules or through relationships.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We begin this morning in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
     
    I wonder how you would feel if this display were always front and center in our churches. And for those of you in the back, it's the Ten Commandments that we're illustrating here. I think those who don't understand Christianity might think that that is who we are as Christians. And sometimes we are tempted to believe that too. People will say that Christians are people who do the right things, who do good things. It's about the Ten Commandments. But you know, these things aren't front and center here, and I don't know of any church where they are. What is front and center is our baptismal font. And that's front and center in a lot of Christian churches. I've been in one church (and probably more than that, but one that I know of) where the baptismal font is always there. It's installed there; it never moves. And that way everyone has to pass by it. On the way to communion in this church, because the railing is up here, everyone passes by the font. If there's a wedding, the bride and groom separate and pass by the font. When there's a funeral, the casket and the mourners pass by the font. And the reason, I believe, that the baptismal font is so visible in our churches, is to remind us that everything that happens in our lives is touched by our baptisms.
     
    Now I know that sounds like an amazing claim. And you say well, really how does baptism make a difference in my daily life? Let's look at what Jesus said at his baptism. You probably remember that John the Baptist went about baptizing people with a kind of ritual washing away of their sins. But he promised that someone who would come after him would be more powerful. And when that person came, the baptism that that person would give to people would give them the Holy Spirit. Well, then one day John sees the very man that he's been predicting, kneeling before him, asking John to baptize him. And John says no. I mean, it should be the other way around. And then Jesus says no, it's proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. And I think that's the word that trips us up: righteousness. Because we go back to this. We think of doing good things, that's what makes us righteous. But you see, that's the Greek understanding of that word. You know, that there are certain values and certain deeds that, if you do them, you are a righteous person. But that wasn't Jesus' understanding. That wasn't the Hebrew understanding. That wasn't the understanding of that word all through the Old Testament. What righteousness is in Jesus' eyes and in the Old Testament is: being faithful to a promise.
     
    God, the Old Testament writers said, was righteous because God was faithful to the promise that God made to Abraham and Abraham's descendants: to be their God, to guide them, to forgive them, to protect them. So God was righteous. God was faithful. And the children of Israel were on and off: faithful, righteous -- because they were intermittently faithful to their part of the promise -- that in response they would trust this guy, God, who claimed them. Now, of course the Ten Commandments had something to do with their faithfulness, but it wasn't integral. What was center to their faithfulness was trusting the relationship. And then, out of joy and out of thanksgiving, they would try very hard to keep the Ten Commandments. And there's quite a difference then, when we think of these two ways of looking at life: through the Commandments -- through rules, or through relationships.
     
    Maybe a good illustration of this comes from a favorite story, a classic story of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. If you know the story of Huck Finn, you know that he was a poor boy. I don't know whether his mother died (she wasn't really in the story as far as I can remember) but his father was a drunkard. And so poor Huck, he had a rough, tough life. But he was very free. But two older ladies, sisters -- one a widow, one never married I think -- took pity on Huck, and they took him under their wing. They took him into their home to civilize him. So they bought him new clothes. They tried to teach him to read. They brought him to church. They tried to teach him manners. But poor Huck, he just couldn't stand that confinement that they gave him. He appreciated what they were trying to do, but he ran away because he couldn't handle it. Well while he was running away and hiding out on an island, he bumped into another man who had run away, who was none other than Miss Watson's (one of these two ladies) slave, Jim.
     
    Now as soon as he saw Jim, he started having conscience pangs. Huck started to think, I should turn him in. He's a runaway slave. Because the rules that they were teaching, even the church in those days, were that Jim was a possession of Miss Watson. And so Huck felt he was stealing not to make Jim go back or to turn him in. But Huck pushed away those feelings and those conscience pangs, and he and Jim became quite a duo. For day after day, they floated down the river (as we're speaking of rivers) toward Cairo, where Jim believed he would be free. And they had lots of adventures. But as they got close to Cairo, these conscience pangs returned to Huck and he started feeling that God was so angry with him. He used the word many times "wicked" -- that he was a wicked person for not turning Jim in, and so he said the way to do it, the way to get out of this feeling is, I've got to write and tell Miss Watson: "Here's where Jim is. Come and get him." So he sat down. He wrote the letter. But just when he was about to send it, he started thinking of his relationship with Jim. All the nights they had travelled together that. They had sung together. They had eaten together. Jim's kindness to Huck. They had taken shifts in staying awake to make sure people didn't find them. And sometimes Jim would take Huck's shift just to let Huck sleep a little longer. And Huck remembered how he told Jim, I won't turn you in, don't worry. And Jim said, you are my best friend.
     
    So here's this poor boy. He is just torn with agony. On the one hand, he feels God is so angry with him for stealing against a lady who just tried to help him. And on the other hand, he cares for Jim. What he finally does is he says, I think I am going to burn in hell for this, but he rips up the letter and he refuses to turn Jim in. He's a good illustration of the difference between living by rules -- which can be wrong or can be misapplied -- and living by a relationship and a commitment to a promise.
     
    And when Jesus was righteous in his baptism, what he did was the Holy Spirit came to him to share with others. So that when we are baptized we are initiated into this same kind of a relationship. And it is so freeing to know that we are not the rules of life. That's not our identity. We are not the good things we do. We're not the bad things. We're not the things we're proud of, the achievements. We're not the failures or the things that we are ashamed of. The rules are there and they can be helpful. But our identity is here. It is: sons and daughters of God. And this is where it begins. Just like with the children of Israel, we're going to break these rules, these Ten Commandments. We are going to forget. We are going to avoid being faithful to God. But God is always faithful to us and takes us back and forgives us, again and again.
     
    So that's the first way that baptism touches our everyday lives. We have a whole different relationship with God. But as you know, we are not baptized privately. We have a baptism in the middle of a church service with a whole congregation, because we're baptized into a congregation. And that's the second amazing blessing from baptism: we learn to treat people differently. No longer are we bound to be judgmental, to nitpicking, to criticizing, to remembering and keeping score, and feeling superior to people and putting them down. We don't have to do that, because we have been made in this community, brothers and sisters. We set aside all those worries and we concentrate on our relationships. And this is really where we learn to to treat people outside of this congregation. This is our laboratory. I mean, you think of the differences of the people within this congregation. There are people who are Republicans. There are people who are Democrats. There are people who love classical music. There are people who love hard rock. There are people who want to sing songs written by dead white men only (and I've been told that). And there are people who would just as soon hear Negro spirituals every Sunday. And we tolerate each other. We accept one another. We don't nitpick. We say: but we are one. We are brothers and sisters. So it's here that we learn how to treat people outside of these walls.
     
    So that's the second blessing. We have a whole new way of looking at people. But there's one more blessing to baptism. You probably know that we have another baptismal font. We own a second one as a congregation, but it's not in this building. It's outside, in the columbarium. And there's another congregation around that baptismal font. They are the faithful departed. They are our loved ones who are represented there with ashes and sometimes with a memorial stone only. But they are waiting for the third blessing of baptism, which we are too because we've had already two births, haven't we? We've been born as human beings. We've been reborn as children of God. And because of the righteousness of God, because of the faithfulness of God, because of the faithfulness of Christ unto death, we are invited -- we expect, we celebrate -- a third birth, when Christ returns. And these will be here. And it will be our great joy to be utterly faithful to God and to one another for eternity.
     
    Thanks be to God. Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2014, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain
  • May 19, 2013Reaching Out to the Unchurched
    May 19, 2013
    Reaching Out to the Unchurched
    Series: (All)
    May 19, 2013. There are big changes ahead for the church. Today, 20% of people in the United States say they have no affiliation with any religious group. They are the "unchurched." How can we reach them? Pastor Penny draws a parallel between this challenge and the day of Pentecost. She suggests that Pentecost was not a one-time event but that it goes on, and that we need it.
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    When we had this lesson on the day of Pentecost in Bible class on Wednesday, one of the women said, "You know, we never hear what it was like from the disciples' point of view." We don't, really. So if you will imagine with me and permit me, I'd like to imagine what the day of Pentecost might have been like from the point of view of one of the disciples: Peter.
     
    When Jesus told us, the disciples, that we would receive this power, we had no idea what he meant. I thought the power would come gently, gradually. But when Pentecost day came, I discovered it was anything but gentle. I was almost in pain with the light and the sound and the sense that a spirit was filling me and moving me. We were literally drawn out of the door of that room and into the crowd waiting around the outside of the building. And I, walked up to a group of people I would never have approached before -- Peter, just a country bumpkin from Galilee -- and I walked right up to sophisticated Romans. And I began to speak to them. And I discovered that I can speak Greek, even though I was never taught that language. And they could understand me, and I could understand them. And so of course I began to say: I need to tell you what this is all about, what my friends and I have experienced, about how God is changing everything through this man called Jesus.
     
    But I had no longer begun to tell them, when I was compelled by the Spirit to climb up on a wall and begin to preach -- me, a fisherman, who just days earlier had been too afraid to tell a group of servants that I was Jesus' friend. I was preaching to hundreds of strangers. And here is the most amazing thing: they listened. And thousands of people joined our group that day because of what we said. And the marvels kept coming, because we did things entirely differently. We were used to worshiping in the synagogue, but we began to meet in homes. We were used to staying with our own, you know the poor and the rich. We were all together. We pooled our money. We ate a common meal. And I have to say, I didn't always like the people I was eating with. But I grew to love them because of one man: my friend, my savior, the one who took me -- a sinful fisherman -- and cleaned me up, forgave my sins, and gave me a reason to live. That's how that first Pentecost felt to me.
     
    I'd like to suggest this morning that Pentecost was not a one-time event -- that it goes on, and that we need it. Because there are big changes ahead for the church. The church has been changing over the last fifty years. Fifty years ago, half of the people in our country went to churches like this -- mainline Protestant: Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal. And now maybe 8% to 16% do. Fifty years ago Christians filled the Muny for an Easter sunrise service. They filled Kiel Auditorium for reformation services. Not anymore. Today, 70% of our youth fall away from the church, and only a third come back when they're older. Across the board, congregations -- and not just in Protestant churches, across the board -- are reporting that Sunday morning attendance is down, collections are down. And it trickles up to their church bodies, to their publishing houses, to their seminaries. The Seminary I graduated from just let 8 of their 44 professors go for financial reasons. While the Protestant, the Christian, the organized church like this is diminishing, something else is growing in our country -- and maybe you've seen the statistics. It is the "unchurched." Today, 20% of people in the United States say they have no affiliation with any religious group.
     
    Now here at Christ Lutheran, we are truly blessed. Our membership is stable and grows a little bit. We have a nice cross-section of ages. We have vital lay leadership. We meet our budget -- not always easily, but we do. But even here our Sunday morning attendance diminishes. We're okay right now. But we have to be prepared. And I don't mean to cast guilt; I think we're all doing the best we know how. But what I'm saying is across this nation, people are meeting in churches, they're baptizing, they're marrying, they're burying, they're communing, they're praying, they're talking about doctrine, they're singing songs, and they're shrinking. So clearly, we need to be open and thinking about how we can share the gospel in a new way.
     
    Now I think we get some guidance, and we definitely get some hope, from the story of Pentecost and from the gospel. The story of Pentecost shows us that if people, the unchurched, are not coming to us, it is very important that we go to them. And you do that because you work with unchurched people, you live next door to them, you go to school with them. They may be in your families. And the second thing we learned from the Pentecost story, besides the fact that we need to go out, is that communication is essential. Now, I don't suggest that you get on a wall and preach to your friends. That wouldn't be effective. That's not how we do it. But as you engage people that you know, or don't know so well, but are unchurched, you listen. You learn from them. You learn to care. You model in your life the hope that is within you. And you are ready and may be given the opportunity to answer the questions "So why do you go to church?" and "What is this all about to you?"
     
    The individual, the one-on-one, is going to be the new thing of the future. It's the old thing of the past, but it's certainly going to be part of our future. But beyond that, how the church will organize itself, how it will worship, how it will share the message and pass it on -- we bring this challenge to the Holy Spirit. We bring it to the Holy Spirit the way the disciples did: they waited and they prayed.
     
    Because we learn two things about the Holy Spirit that give us the confidence and the hope that that's the place to go. The first is we learn the Spirit is powerful. The spirit of Jesus -- and that's what we're really talking about when we say the Holy Spirit, that Jesus lives on in our lives -- the spirit of Jesus can do new things in the most unusual places and ways. Jesus turned death into life by rising from the dead on Easter and brought us back to God. So the Spirit is powerful. But this is maybe even more important: the Spirit is forever. Jesus said that: I send you an advocate who will be with you, not for a time, not for a generation, not for a millennium. But forever. This Spirit as believers lives within us. We make that a formal event here at the baptismal font, but the spirit of Christ lives within us and uses us as it used the first disciples, to move out and to wait for change.
     
    So we have a challenge before us. But we don't bury our heads in the sand like the ostrich, and we don't look at it fearfully. What we do is what we heard the disciples doing in the story today. They prayed and waited for the Spirit. So we pray, and we wait to see how the Spirit will bless us and use us to bless the world. We pray and we wait to see what new thing the Spirit will do among us.
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2013, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Penny Holste, Acts 2
  • 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