Monthly Archives: September 2014

Book Review: “Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker” ~Andrew Root


I’ll make this disclaimer up front: I am biased.  I’m an Andy Root fan.  Andy was my professor in the Children, Youth, & Family program at Luther Seminary, and honestly, his book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry was the reason I chose to attend Luther for seminary. So I can’t claim that this book review will come across as unbiased, objective, and critical.

What I can tell you is this: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, maybe more than any other contemporary theologian in the 20th century, is the most read and widely accepted across all Christian denominations.  Mainliners and Evangelicals; liberal and conservative Christians can argue all day long about anything and everything – but mention Bonhoeffer, a lot of heads start nodding in affirmation and agreement.

Andy (sorry, it’s weird for me to call him “Root” or “Mr/Dr Root”) says acknowledges this in his book, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker, due out October 21st (Baker Academic).  I think the most evident strength, and what will likely draw most people to read it, is the little-known history lesson about Bonhoeffer’s work with children, teens, and young adults in his life.  Andy tells this story well, and highlights Bonhoeffer’s “Theses on Youth Work in the Church.”  Andy’s summary and commentary on this alone will make this a worthwhile read for the “theologically reflecting” youth minister/pastor.

However, I think the real strength of Andy’s work – and he states this in the first paragraph of the Preface – is that for him, this book is deeply personal.  You can sense in his words that his passion for youth ministry and reflecting on the action of God among it has been deeply touched by Bonhoeffer’s theological reflection.  That cannot be discounted here, because the very essence of this work is that youth ministry is about sharing one’s self for the sake of the other.  That is precisely what Andy is being done here.  So the reader must realize if they approach this work with the intent to discredit it, then they are discrediting a person and their very being and ethos.

And so approach this work with the intent to wrestle with it.  Read the ideas, reflect on them, allow yourself to be challenged by them, and after all that, if you still disagree, be thankful for the gift that the theological reflection has sharpened your own convictions about God and youth ministry.  This book will challenge notions that youth ministry is primarily about passing on knowledge or attracting and generating large, loyal, enthusiastic, and well-behaved “Christian youth” – that is the primary argument of the book.  But the greater gift is that in reading it, you will embark on a journey into the “theological turn” as Andy calls it, and will come away with stronger convictions about the youth ministry you do (or in my case as a parish pastor, all ministry I do).

That is, if you’re willing to wrestle a bit. (Which this blogger likes to do without ceasing!)


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Sermon 28 Sept. 2014: “O Mary Don’t You Weep – Exodus and God’s Freedom”

Text: Exodus 14:10-14; 21-29

Note: Rather than read the story this week, I decided to do a little interactive storytelling.  Hopefully you get a sense of what we did; we sang various African-American spirituals responsively in order to tell the story….so if you’re reading along here, feel free to sing them to yourself if you know them!

Last week, we were in Genesis, talking about Joseph.  The rest of Joseph’s story is that he goes from being thrown in prison by his master – on his master’s wife’s lie – to being Pharoah’s second in command.  Joseph becomes the equivalent of the Secretary of Agriculture, and manages the food supply so that Egypt’s people survive a 7-year famine.  It’s a famine that affects Joseph’s family – and eventually, his brothers come looking for food. Joseph is reunited with his family and they are accepted by Pharaoh to live together in the Egypt.

But time has passed.  And the book of Exodus opens with this: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.  He said to his people, “Look, the Israelites are more numerous and powerful than we.  Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will in crease, and in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (Exodus 1:7)  And “deal shrewdly” meant: slavery.  Hard, long years of slavery, and the suffering that came with it.  And the Israelites cried out, and God heard.

Now we still have a lot of the story to cover – about 13 chapters worth.  So I’m going to need your help.  Because we have to do this in about 2 minutes or less. (I sang the plain text; people sang the bold text)

When Israel was in Egypt’s Land, Let my people go.
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land.  Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.

Thus says the Lord bold Moses said, Let my people go.
If not, I’ll kill your firstborn dead, Let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land.  Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.

No more shall they in bondage toil, Let my people go.
Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil, Let my people go.
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s Land.  Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.

And go down Moses did….and the people were let go.  The masses of people, leaving Egypt, celebrating their freedom – Pharaoh had let them go.

That takes us to today’s story: Chapter 14 of Exodus. And this story, it’s familiar to most of you….the parting of the Red Sea.  So I thought rather than just read it, let’s hear it a different way.  And so, verse 10: As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD.  You can imagine what that cry sounded like: Fear.  Dread. Weeping, perhaps. An army approaching, threatening to kill them.  But Moses reassures them. Verse 13: “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again.”

O Mary don’t you weep no more.  O Mary don’t you weep no more, Pharaoh’s army got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep.

God promises to protect and deliver the Israelites; and he does so that day. He gives Moses the power to part the Red Sea….

Moses stood on the Red Sea shore, struck that water with a two by four.  Pharaoh’s army got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep….

O Mary don’t you weep no more.  O Mary don’t you weep no more, Pharaoh’s army got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep.

God did more than that.  In verse 24: He sent a pillar of fire and cloud that “thew the Egyptian army in a panic.” And in verse 25, “He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty.”  And while this was happening, the Israelites; the people “wade in the water,” walking across dry land.

Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God’s a gonna trouble the water.

See that band all dressed in red, God’s a gonna trouble the water.
looks like the band that Moses led, God’s a gonna trouble the water.

Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God’s a gonna trouble the water.

God troubles those waters….Moses parts the Red Sea, and after Israel’s safe on the other side, God drowns Pharaoh’s army; God drowns the threat for good. No more slavery, no more oppression, and O Mary, don’t don’t you weep no more.  And I think that really is good news.  It’s comforting to know that God is a God that “leads us not into temptation, but delivers us from evil” as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer.  God frees us from all things…and I think we like that message. We’re free.

But I wonder for us today, what does it mean to be free? I think the notion of slavery, the kind the Israelites were under, is difficult to us to imagine, living in America today.  We’d have to go back to the Civil War era to recapture any reality of slavery, or maybe more recently, Jim Crow laws of the South & the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s…but even that is 50 years ago.

So what does freedom mean to us today?

I think in this country, for us, freedom is equated with “unlimited choice.”  We can do what we want, say what we want.  We think of freedom as the preservation of OUR civil liberties, OUR rights, OUR choices….freedom is the ability to have control over our own lives and how we to live it.

But I wonder, is that really freedom?  Because if that’s the case, then the story of the Red Sea wouldn’t have happened the way we hear it.  Because when faced with the Egyptian armies, the Israelites cry out, verse 11: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, bring us out of Egypt?  Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Given the “freedom” to choose, Israel, God’s people would’ve chosen to go back to Egypt, back into a life of slavery.  Better to die a slave, a familiar life, than to die out here in the great unknown.  Better to return to Egypt.

But God leads the people to a different vision of freedom: God leads them through the parted waters of the Red Sea to the other side – a life in the wilderness.  And they can’t go back; because God closes those parted waters up – putting to death the Egyptian army that pursued them.  And, as the story goes, for the next 40 years the Israelites will wander in the wilderness before ever reaching the Promised Land.  But they do so truly free – placing their trust and faith in God to lead them, and provide them, and ultimately, lead them into the Promised Land.

In other words, true freedom is about a relationship – a relationship of faith and trust in another, with another… God.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s a better life after all – God’s delivered us from our tendency to “return to Egypt,” to a life of controlling everyone and everything – and in the process end up being controlled by it all.   God frees us so completely, so that life isn’t simply about choosing not to be skeptical, cynical; to not live in hate, fear and mistrust of everyone and everything…….he’s eliminated the possibility of it altogether.  Perhaps because he knows we like it a little too much….and we’ll return there time and time again.  God’s puts to death any reliance on our freedom to choose, and instead leads us to a life where we trust others, have faith in others, and even rely on others, rather than ourselves.

Now maybe our stubborn selves mourn such a notion – our loss of personal “freedom.”  But God’s freedom is tied to a promise – a life of faith and trust and love that’s better than anything we could choose or make on our own.  God has delivered us, no turning back, and perhaps that’s a reason to rejoice…no more weeping, no more mourning.  And we’re truly free.  And perhaps that means time for one more song:

Oh, Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn. Oh Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn. Pharaoh’s army got drownded.  Oh Mary don’t you weep.

Brothers and sisters don’t you cry
There’ll be good times by and by,
Pharaoh’s army got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep.

Oh, Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn. Oh Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn. Pharaoh’s army got drownded.  Oh Mary don’t you weep.


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Reflections on a Day of Service: “A Bottle of Water & Grace”

Earlier this month, our two congregations came together to participate in the ELCA “God’s Work; Our Hands” Day of Service.  ELCA congregations all across the United States organized and did service projects in their local communities, as a way of witnessing to God’s grace-filled work in the world through the hands of the church.

Our congregations decided to serve in a unique way: we handed out free bottled water to folks who came to take part in the Olde Towne Merchants’ Faire, a way to promote local business by the Olde Towne Business Association of Portsmouth.  So everyone bought cases of water, filled their coolers full of ice and bottles, and handed them out to folks until all the water was gone – at the end of the day, we estimated we gave away over 700 bottles of water on a 90 degree day.

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As you can see, our folks went “mobile” with the water – carting around their coolers and handing out water to folks.  And the stories were probably the best part – how people reacted to being offered a free bottle of water and how our people felt while handing out water to complete strangers.


People reacted in all sorts of ways: most were appreciative on a hot day.  For the most part, people were like “yeah, I’ll take one” and moved on.  Others struck up a conversation, making small talk, and asking us why we were doing this.  They got the fact we were a church – it was on our shirts – and church’s do nice and “good” things all the time.  But to give it away for free, with no cute bible verse attached or invitation to attend our churches…..why would you do that?

Then there were those who well, tried to avoid us at all costs.  Walking on the other side of the street.  Others who said no thank you, and “I’ve already been asked by 3 of your people already.”  Others who well, tried to resist and eventually gave in after being asked for the 10th time.  “I suppose it’s a sign I need a bottle of water, huh?”

And then there were those who thought they needed to give something in return.  “Can I make a donation?”  Nope.  One woman actually insisted we take $20 from her, to the point where she chased one of our people down, took her hand and put the money in it, saying, “You have to take this; I can’t not give you something.”

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And then there were our folks.  How in the heck do you go about giving bottles of water to complete strangers?  At first, they congregated around our rally point, not sure what to do.  And then, one by one, two by two….they ventured out.  They found the best spot, and some realizing their limitations, parked themselves on a corner.  Others wandered around.

And then, the whole asking thing: one person noted that when she offered the water, the person refused initially.  When she added it was “free” the person accepted it.  And that got her to thinking: “What if I tell people up front its free?”  Others learned that their tone mattered.  How you ask is just as important as the asking itself.

All in all, it was a good day, and our folks walked away feeling great about what they did.  They felt good about the interactions they had, and what they experienced that day.  Lots and lots of stories, too many to share here.  But while they felt great, some struggle to see the “God at work” in what they did.  Giving away water was an act of kindness, a “Christian” act,” but what it was beyond that, it was hard to see.  So I asked them:

What if the act of giving away a free bottle of water was the act of God giving away grace?

That means that this day of service, the simple act, also bears reflecting on God’s grace – how people respond to it, and how we communicate it as the church.

Understand that not all people respond to a free gift of grace the way we’d like or expect them to.  We won’t know their motive either – whether they just don’t find it valuable, it’s strange or they feel it’s something they have to pay back for.  But in the end, the response of the receiver should never keep the church proclaiming that invitation to grace, the offer of the free gift is always there for the taking.  

And that leads us to the next question: how do we, as the church, communicate grace?  Do we communicate it in a way that people will hear it?  Do they see that it’s a grace for them, for their lives? Do we communicate it with openness in a way people come on their own terms to accept it, or do we try to pound them over the head with it, in order to get them to accept it….because well heck, we know it’s important, it’s about damn time they realize it too!?

How we communicate grace as a church won’t stop it from being offered, but it may turn folks away; people will indeed not hear it or experience it.  God uses the church as an agent of God’s grace, and so how the church communicates grace to the world matters.

That’s why days of service like this one, and ministry in general is important for congregations.  It draws them into a deeper understanding of God and God’s call for them to be the church to the world.  I know it was an important day for our congregations.  And we hope and pray there will be many more to come!

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Wrestling Preseason & Building Culture of Community

It’s that time of year again.

The leaves are turning, the temperatures are getting cooler outside, school’s in full swing.  Wrestling preseason is upon us! (Ha, you probably thought I was going to say it’s college and pro football season!  Nope!)

This is my 11th preseason as a wrestling coach; this is my 7th team I’ve coached over those years.  It’s my second year with these kids, which is awesome – they know me better and I know them better.  We’ve got over 50 kids out for our high school program, a ridiculous number.  And the funny thing we’ve found out as a coaching staff: they love hanging around.

They’ve asked for 6am workouts.  They stick around the room for about 30-40 minutes after our Tuesday/Thursday club practices, until we end up kicking them out.  Last weekend, we set up for the wrestling tournament we hosted, and they wrestled in it.  That Saturday night, it took us about 30 minutes to set up and the kids stuck around playing and talking with each other and the coaches for another 45 minutes after.  And after that, they said, “Coach, let’s all get frozen yogurt.”  And that’s how I spent my Saturday night with my wife: hanging out with a bunch of my high school wrestlers, eating yogurt and listening to their ridiculous banter.

It’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen in my years of coaching: 50+ kids, high school boys no less, who all genuinely like hanging out with each other.  They’re a pretty diverse group of personalities and backgrounds too.  But they like being around each other.  And they genuinely treat each other with respect – from youngest to the oldest; the least experienced and ability to the most experienced and best ability.  It makes coming into the room a joy each and every time.

We’ve got a lot of newcomers coming into the program; and as I think about this preseason, we as a coaching staff are focused on the usual teaching technique and getting kids prepped for the season ahead.  But we’re also focusing on – and to a greater degree – building a culture in our room and program.  It’s a culture of community where each kid has something to contribute, to offer.  It’s a culture of community where each kid and coach has something to learn from each other, and we have a responsibility to look out for each other.

Last night, I told the kids after our practice: “Here’s what’s awesome: you all coming in here, and not only working hard, but enjoying being around each other.  Treating each other with respect.  And that’s what will carry us through the season: taking care of each other, looking out for one another, and respecting each other.  That’s not normal outside this room; it’s not normal for guys your age.  But if you’re focused on treating each person in this room with respect, and looking out for each other….and that means sometimes you gotta push each other – ‘hey, you should come to morning lifting,’ or ‘let’s get another 5 minutes of work in’ or ‘man, let’s get some help in this class’ – you gotta challenge each other because that’s caring about that person and them getting better.  Here’s the thing: you look out for each other, and help each other get better, you’ll get better too.  And we learn from each other….from the youngest on the team to us coaches.  We can all learn something.  And honestly, that’s when for us coaches all this is really fun.  So keep helping each other out, keep working together.”

Now, how much of that they actually heard, I don’t know.  But I think they get it, because I see the signs all the time.  When they talk about guys who are on the fringes, they comments are always, “What’s that guy’s deal?  He could be so good…..we gotta get him back in the room.”  Of course, they worry about their individual goals just like any high school wrestler would, but in the end they do care and look out for each other…and that’s pretty cool.

I think there’s something to take away from the “preseason.”  It really sets the whole tone for what you’re team or organization is about.  What is the focus?  And does what you focus on make a lasting impact on your people?  I guess as I think about my wrestlers, I’m more concerned with them learning what it means to be a man and good citizen through the sport of wrestling, rather than just good wrestlers who can produce titles and championships.  The latter are fleeting….but the character they develop, the bonds they form – those last a lifetime.

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Sermon 21 September 2014: “Joesph & doing the right thing”

Text: Genesis 39:1-23

I don’t know how many of you watch reality TV shows….but Fox aired a show called “Temptation Island” about 10 years ago.  The “plot” of the show was that couples were put in a house to live with very attractive single people to “test” the strength of their relationships, which is a nice way of saying, “Let’s see who’s gonna cheat on their partner.”

Yeah, the show is as bad as it sounds, and thankfully, it never really stuck on air.  But today’s story about Joseph sounds a lot like the Bible’s version of “Temptation Island:” Joseph’s the most trusted servant of his master Potiphar.  And Joseph’s a good looking dude….and Potiphar’s wife wants a little piece of that, if you know what I mean.  She tries to seduce Joseph….and now, what’s he gonna do?  Will he do the right thing?

Speaking of doing the right thing…..if you’ve been following news about the National Football League lately, you’ve heard about the issue with players committing acts of domestic violence against their wives and kids.  And as the media began bringing to light this issue, it didn’t stop with just a couple players….turns out it’s a widespread problem in the NFL.  And it looks like the team and NFL officials have been sweeping the problem under the rug.

But not when one of their biggest sponsors, Anheuser-Busch threatened to cancel their six-year, $1.2 billion dollar contract.  That amount, it was reported, if pulled would basically make the NFL go under.  So now, everyone in the NFL is vowing big reforms in addressing domestic violence, and suspending players indefinitely…with no guarantee they’ll ever play for their teams, or the league, again.

But is this doing the right thing?  Because it sounds like NFL officials are doing this more out of a sense of self-preservation: protecting their image and their pocketbooks really.  And if we think about the outcomes: the league’s image improved, fans continuing to buy tickets and jerseys, and sponsors still keeping their money with the league – does that really address the issue of domestic violence at all?

Joseph’s story today perhaps helps us make sense of such “right decisions.”  Because if it was out of a sense of self-preservation, to save his own skin and stay in the good graces of his master, that decision goes miserably for Joseph – Potiphar’s wife lies, Potiphar believes her, and Joseph’s thrown in jail.  And heck, even if we say that Joseph does it out of loyalty and obligation to his master, Joesph comes across the harsh reality of being a slave: the master’s rage, misplaced it might be…and the result is still the same.

What does it mean to do the “right thing?”  I think we get a sense of that in this little statement: “And the LORD was with Joseph.”  “The LORD was with Joseph, and showed him steadfast love.”  

I wonder….is doing the right thing come out a sense of faith and trust in a relationship?  Does doing the right thing come as a response out of a promise of an enduring presence and steadfast love?  Our story tells us that.  God is faithful to Joseph.  God is present with him and shows him steadfast love.  And Joseph acts accordingly in a way that honors his relationship with God, and with others: “How then could I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”  Joseph does that right thing, because anything less would not be faithful to the God who is faithful to him….the God who also blesses Potiphar and his household – the God who is also concerned for the well-being of the neighbor.

Turning back to this NFL thing…..if we think of doing the “right thing” in such terms, maybe we’d hear more about how we as a collective society are addressing the needs of the victims.  I wonder if we’d hear more about how the NFL would take accountability for their players, and rather than just suspend them indefinitely out of self-preservation of the NFL and to keep corporate sponsorship. They’d find ways to help these men be better husbands and better fathers AND make their way back on the field.

I think about what doing the right thing means for me…..last night, I was shopping in Target with Kelly, when a man walked up to us.  You probably know where this story is going: he gave us his story, trying to get somewhere and not having any money, and how his kids and wife were waiting in the car for him.  But something was different.  There was a desperation in this man’s voice….a sadness, the kind that twists your gut.  He didn’t just ask for money outright; he offered to give me some of his possessions he had with him in the car in exchange for the money he needed.

And me, standing there, I simply said, “Sorry man, I don’t carry any cash with me.”  He replied he’s wait if I needed to get some, and I replied – my hands full with the stuff we were about to buy – “I just don’t have it; everyone’s struggling you know.”

The man walked away, sad, but with no hint of judgment…and Kelly looked at me and said, “It’s just so hard.”  Isn’t that the truth…..because what’s the right answer?  I know God deals with us graciously no matter what decision I make, but in this case, I feel I made the wrong one.  I made a decision more out of my own need for self-preservation.  I tried to rationalize my decision out of my need to justify myself.  But in the end, I simply made the wrong choice.

So, driving into church this morning, I decided I”m going to carry a $5 bill with me from now on.  I’m not going to just simply start giving money away to everyone I see….but in those cases that come up, like this one – and it doesn’t happen that often – I can spare 5 dollars.  I spend that much on a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s….so it may not be much, but I think it’s the right thing.

It’s the right thing because it really isn’t about the 5 bucks.  Rather, it’s the right thing because in the act of giving, I’m saying “I see your need, and I care enough to do something about it.  You are worth that, because you’re a human being.”  And more than that, this act communicates that there is a God who sees them, sees their need, and meets it in an act of steadfast love.  Because in God’s eyes, we are all worth that much.

My prayer for you – and really, it’s a prayer for me this morning – is that what we do in this journey through life, we do so not out of a sense of self-preservation and self-righteousness, but rather out of a faith and trust in a God who promises his enduring presence and steadfast love. Amen.

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Sermon 14 Sept 2014: “Call & Blessing”

Text: Genesis 12:1-9

Would you do it? If God called you like he called Abraham – or Abram as he’s called in this story – would you do it? Would you go? Would leave your home, your family, and your hometown on the idea that God would lead you somewhere, but where that somewhere is….you have no freakin’ clue?

I’m not so sure I would.

Kelly and I were on our honeymoon in Quebec City, Quebec. And we had made plans to head to the battery and garrison, which is what we left of the old fort the French built. Our hotel was, according to my estimation, about a 15 minute walk, a fairly straight shot north. So we start walking, Kelly leading because she’s got a better sense of direction than I do. (Sorry guys, it’s true…women win that battle.) And as we’re walking, I realized a couple things: we’re on the wrong street, headed in the wrong direction, and the scenery looks nothing like the Old City, or the entrance to the battery and garrison.

So at this point I ask Kelly, “Do you know where you’re going?”
And she replies, “Yeah, to go see the battery and garrison.”
And I replied, “No we’re not; we’re going the wrong way; where the hell are you going?”
And on this day, I created the first fight of my marriage. And it was NOT good.

What I learned when it comes to getting to destinations, I like the direct, planned route. I like to know exactly where I’m going, and how long it’s going to take, and where each turn is gonna be. And knowing this about myself, I wouldn’t likely do it; I wouldn’t so inclined to follow God’s call like Abraham.

The idea of jumping right in, flying blind, not having a plan, giving up so much certainty and comfort to answer God’s call – I just don’t think I’d do it. Heck, my own call to being a pastor had more certainty than Abraham’s call in our story. And maybe you’re like me too….when it comes to responding to God’s call, the idea of flying blind….no thank you..

But you know what? I might do it and you might too – if there’s some assurance of what’s around the corner. You know, if we can assured that what’s on the other end of the journey is worthwhile. Maybe like a reward…..maybe that’s why Abraham answered God’s call so willingly. The blessing of a great name….becoming a great nation…..the blessing of the Promised Land.

This name might sound familiar to you: Joel Osteen. Maybe you’ve seen him on TV, or you’ve probably heard of his books: Your Best Life Now & Become a Better You. That big, toothy smile; the nice suit; the slicked back hair; the strong southern accent. Anyway, Osteen and his wife Victoria are controversial figures in Christianity – their basic message is this notion that God’s blessing is a reward for being faithful. And that blessing takes the form of material things: wealth, good family, nice home, cars, a better life…the “American Dream.” Their mantra: “God wants you to be happy; to be blessed with the life you’ve always dreamed of – the best life possible.”. Anyway, Joel Osteen’s wife caused quite a stir with a sermon she gave about a month ago. Here we’re her words:

“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize when we obey God we’re not doing it for God — I mean that’s one way to look at it,” she said from the pulpit. “We’re doing it for yourself, because God takes pleasure when were happy. That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy this morning … just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy.” She added, “When you come to church when you worship him, you’re not doing it for God, really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy.”

In other words, this whole Christian faith, following God thing, it’s about you. It’s about you making a life that makes you happy, because that what God wants. And for those that work at that, God certainly rewards them.

Now maybe you’re cringing at that; as Lutherans, we believe “it’s not about us.” We believe that it’s about what God does for us in Jesus Christ. We respond to God’s call because of the PROMISE of blessing, the promise of grace and forgiveness….and we’re free to answer that call.

But I wonder, as much as we scoff and make fun of people like Joel and Victoria Osteen….their church averages about 44,000 every week in attendance. Joel had two books open #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list, selling millions of copies. I wonder, while we and other Christians condemn their message that blessing equates to worldly prosperity….the truth is we and all of us secretly really, really like it. We like the idea of a reward for our faithfulness, for following God. And you know what? It makes responding to God’s call a whole lot easier if we know God’s dangling the happiness carrot at the end of our journey.

If that’s true, then this is really how the first two verses of today’s story should go: “Now the LORD said to Abram, “IF YOU go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. THEN I will make of you a great nation, and THEN I will bless you, and THEN make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

What does it mean to be blessed by God? In the Old Testament, blessing is traditionally less about the object of blessing as it is the promise of relationship with God. In this way, God calls Abraham to go, the way uncertain and at times difficult, challenging his faithfulness. But Abraham goes with the promise of blessing – the promise of God’s faithfulness, an enduring and everlasting relationship that will see us through to the end of all things.

And this blessing, it is so that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Responding and living into God’s call becomes a witness to others that God’s promise of blessing, the promise of relationship is for them as well. Or as I’ve said before, we are blessed….so that we might be a blessing to others. Blessing not about us. It’s not about becoming a better you and it’s not about God wanting us to simply be “happy” – whatever that means these days.

Blessing is about an enduring relationship with a God who takes us through the peaks and valleys of life; who stays faithful to us when we’re faithful and even more so when we’re not. It’s about a God who led Abraham and his family 350 miles on foot through the desert of present-day northern Iraq, over the mountains of Jordan, and to Israel. It’s about a God who remained faithful to Abraham even when he passed his wife Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin, and a God who remained faithful to the promise of a son, even when Sarah laughed in her lack of faith and trust at God for such a notion.

And such a notion of blessing…..maybe we can go after all…..we can be faithful, we can be church, we can tell others about this God, and we can be a blessing to others….even when we have no freakin’ clue what that looks like or how it’s going to work out. Amen.

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Sermon 7 Sept. 2014: “Beginnings & Promises”

We are beginning with the Narrative Lectionary this fall.  I think it’s a worthwhile lectionary that will, “make a difference” in our communal life of being church & individual lives of faith!

Text: Genesis 6:1-8:22 (Story of Noah)

So I’m guessing you’ve noticed things are a little bit different this morning.  And if you’re thoroughly confused and uncomfortable, I understand and get that.  Yet it’s my hope that “different” means “meaningful.”  Let me explain:

The Kyrie: The Kyrie is really a prayer, a confession of our need for God and God’s mercy as sinners who live in a sinful world.  “Kyrie eleison” means “Lord, have mercy.”  We as a church cry “Kyrie eleison”….for the world, for our nation, for our communities; for the sick, the poor, the hurting, lowly; for our families and loved ones, and for ourselves.  This is how we open worship; this is our confession.

Sharing the Peace:  We share the peace after the confession and forgiveness, because as we’ve been forgiven by God, we are freed then to forgive our neighbor, to greet them with peace rather than hostility.  It’s a way for us to welcome visitors and newcomers; friends and “church family.” But it’s more than just saying hi…. it’s a moment of reconciliation we offer to each other, because God has reconciled with us in Christ.

Opening Hymn: It’s a hymn of praise for God’s forgiveness and grace, and for the privilege to gather and be church in worship together.

Reading:  There’s only one…and I’ll explain a little more in detail in a second…..

Prayers:  This is just me, but I long for our prayers to be more personal, more specific.  I want to feel like we’re praying together, not just reading words off a sheet.  And so, perhaps we try writing our own prayers….and I’ll start that off.  But considering we only see each other once during the week for the most part – maybe we’d do well as a community to share more of ourselves during our time of prayer – our concerns and cares and joys and thanksgivings.

Announcements:  We’ll do them at the end…because 99% of the time I’m giving announcements I forgot about anyway.  And, it’ll force me and everyone else giving announcements to be brief.  How’s that work for ya?

The whole point is to make worship about this time with God in community – experiencing God grace and call in our lives in Word and Sacrament.  It’s worship where sinners like you and me come to take stock of our lives and how we fall short, and to be forgiven and redeemed by God’s grace.  And as forgiven sinners….in the hearing of the Word in Scripture; in the shared meal of bread and wine – Christ’s body and blood…..we go out to share God’s message of love and grace with all people in and through our lives.

And that’s the point of this Narrative Lectionary – it’ll take us through the whole story of the Bible, one story at a time.  Because here’s the thing: while Jesus is the fullness of God’s love, forgiveness and mercy…..God’s been in the business of loving and forgiving the world for a lot longer than that.  And we’ll see that in these great stories and scriptures in the Old Testament…and perhaps, you’ll see how the whole Bible really does tell a complete story of God’s love…..and of Christ’s love.

And so we start at the beginning….well sort of.  It’s not Adam and Eve and the garden….but the story of Noah and the Flood is a lot like that creation story.  There’s a pattern we can see that’s the same in the story of Adam and Eve and in Noah and the Flood:

God has created the world – a world he calls good –  because God has a desire to love.  The world was created and God said it was good.  He created humankind and said it was very good.  And God doesn’t totally destroy the whole world in the flood.  He spares Noah and his family, every living creature “two by two,” and even the food from the earth for them.

But humankind is inclined to sin, and this affects God.  In other words, God gets angry, but I think deeper than that God is hurt by human sin.  God’s cry to Adam and Eve is “What have you done?”  And at the beginning of the Noah story, Genesis Chapter 6, which we didn’t read, says that “the LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually….and it grieved God to his heart.”

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like responses of a pained parent who loves rather than an angry God who wants to punish.

And God’s response is two-fold: a judgment on humanity and its action that comes with consequences, but also an act by God to save, restore, space, and redeem the whole creation.  Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden, but God doesn’t destroy them…rather they now work the land as a consequence of their sin.  Everything in the ark is spared – even though a flood is sent to wipe out the rest of the creation.

And finally, God makes a covenant – a promise – with humanity that expresses God’s faithfulness to all of creation and humankind.  And God gives humankind a special role within creation as part of that promise.  Adam and Eve are able to bear children, and promises their son Cain, after he murders his brother that he will protect him from those who might want to kill him.  God sends a bow in the clouds as a promise never to destroy the earth again and gives Noah and his family a role as caretaker – even though God still judges that “the inclination of every human heart is evil from youth.”

Sin and judgement; grace and promise.  That is the movement of the story from the beginning.  This is the theme of the bible, it is the theme that patterns our worship, and it is the theme that tells the truth about our lives.  

We are sinners in need of grace – grace that God gives freely and unconditionally.  Against popular thought these days, “God doesn’t accept us just the way we are; but God embraces and loves us just the way we are.”

We are sinners – not simply people who do bad things, but sinners in that our hearts are so often turned towards mistrust and hate and pride and prejudice that destroy relationships and even the earth we live on.  That is not acceptable to God.

But God embraces and love and forgives sinners.  Because God created us and God still loves his creation – including humankind.  God promises never to completely destroy us, to cut us off completely from a relationship with him.

And out of this promise, God calls us to a new role and life – a life that’s framed around the simple commandment to “Love God, and Love your neighbor.”

That takes me back to our worship: I hope you sense those movements in worship.  We cry “Lord have mercy”, “Kyrie eleison” in our confession that we are, indeed, sinners…..but God embraces us AS SINNERS – not as do gooders, waiting for us to become a better version of ourselves..…but sinners in need of God’s grace.

And God forgives, redeems and is gracious to sinners – to us.  We hear that in the Word – I hope you’re hearing that in the sermon! – and perhaps even more powerful, we experience it in the sacrament of Holy Communion.  It is at this meal, bread and wine, that people in their great need come, and they leave….forgiven sinners.

And as forgiven sinners, we’re then sent…..that’s what the blessing is for.  We’re sent blessed before we go, so that we might be a blessing to others.  We are a blessing….freed to live out the great commandment, “Love God and love your neighbor.”

So yeah, it’s going to be a bit different around here – not just on Sunday mornings either.  But perhaps we’ll hear familiar stories in a new way, hear stories for the first time…but we’ll hear anew, and experience together that age old good news of forgiven sinners always in need of God’s grace….grace that God promises and gives over and over, throughout the story of the Bible, in our Lutheran tradition, and today and to your children’s children and as God promised Noah….from generation to generation.

So maybe different is a good thing.  Something to be thankful for.  Amen.


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