All posts by Pastor Karl Hanf

Winners and Losers

The text for this morning’s sermon, Matthew 21:1-11.
Two cities and two parades. On the same spring Sunday morning that Jesus rode into Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate led a parade in a chariot pulled by a stunning and beautiful, horse, symbols of his power and wealth. Behind him would have been a cavalry, with each majestic horse walking sprightly. Next, the foot soldiers, legs and arms crisp in their march, their leather armor creaking and helmets flashing light as they made their way down the street. They carried the weapons of war that brought Rome power, swords, spears, knives, and bows. The fabled Roman peace was kept by these soldiers. Pilate’s annual parade at Passover was popular. The streets were crowded with rich and poor craning their heads to see.
From the opposite end of town, Jesus led his very different parade. He rode a donkey, the animal that common people used if they used any at all. He wore no expensive robes just the two pieces of clothes he likely owned, a tunic and a cloak. There was no army behind him, no weapons of war to enforce the peace he declared. His parade only travelled through the poorest part of the town, not past the villas and palaces. There was a crowd to see him but a fraction of the size of Pilate’s parade. The parade was disappointing, just Jesus, nothing really to see or inspire awe.
Two parades and we have to decide which parade we are going to follow. One is the parade for the winners in this world and the other is for the losers. One is led by a man who sees the people as valuable commodities for Rome. The other sees value in all people. One, brings peace at end of a sword. The other offers peace through love, nothing else. One, understands that in this world compromises have to be made and unfortunately this might mean that bad things happen to good people. The other makes no compromises when it comes to the well being of another. One is led by a man who expects people to bow and serve him, respect him when he comes into a room. The other is led by a man who got down on his knees and washed the feet of his servants. By Friday, one will eat a feast with his wife and the other will lie dead in a tomb.
Two parades and we have to decide which parade we are going to follow. Of course, we want to follow Jesus, but are we likely to follow this Jesus, in this parade on this week, all week? In our Christian imagination we picture Jesus coming back a final time not as a loser by our world’s standards but a winner. In the middle ages, they painted pictures of Jesus returning as a powerful king. In the Left Behind books that were so popular ten years ago, Jesus returns willing to finally fight back and vanquish his enemies. Even our insistence that Jesus could have avoided the cross but didn’t because it was his Father’s will, seems to want Jesus to be someone who he wasn’t. If someone is dedicated to love in all instances, without compromise, can that person ever win in this world. And if not, are we ready to lose in order to love? We want to follow Jesus, but are we likely to follow a Jesus who loses in our world?
I like to win. I received no B’s ever on my grade cards from K-12. Why? My parents were actually worried that I put too much pressure on myself. I wasn’t in the running for the Valedictorian. My friends certainly didn’t care. I was always going to the University of Toledo and they didn’t care. In 1982 the entrance requirement at Toledo was being able to sign your name…on the check to pay for the classes. I certainly had to work hard for A’s, too. They didn’t come easy like for some kids. I got A’s instead of B’s because I hated to lose, and as every year went on without a B, the pressure built internally, within me.
This is a piece of who I am still. I stopped running marathons because I would get too disappointed at the end of a four hour race if I missed my goal time by a few minutes. I cancelled my doctor’s appointment last week because I had gained 10 pounds over the winter and I couldn’t bare to be weighed in and have that recorded…Okay, it was 15 pounds, man, tough crowd. I hated that Messiah’s weekly worship average went down by ten or so people last year. For all of these things, no one cares…but me. They are all defeats rather than victories and I hate to lose.
When I became a new pastor in 1999, I was at a synod function and because of my friendship with Dave Smith, a superstar seminarian, well respected before he ever became a pastor, I was invited to sit with the pastors who were the leaders in our synod, the winners. Nervously, I chortled on about all the ways I was going to change church as we know it, insecurely trying to impress them. Finally, Jim Wilson, pastor at Lord of Life in Worthington, looked at me and said, “Karl, I am not sure what part of the gospel you wouldn’t compromise to succeed.” I was stunned and didn’t say anything else. Now, because of retirements and deaths and the lowering overall of standards, I sit at this same table all the time. I won, but Jim is still at the table, and I have never had the nerve to ask whether he thinks I won by compromising the gospel.
This is who I am. I want to follow Jesus but I want to win, not lose. I want to follow Jesus, but I don’t want it to hurt. I want to follow Jesus, but I want my parade to go through the nicest parts of town, not the worst and I want to ride on a horse, not a donkey. I want to follow, Jesus, but can’t we be pragmatic about it, sometimes tough love has to be meted out, difficult decisions have to be made, for the good of everyone sometimes we have to turn our back on someone in need. I want to follow Jesus, but I want a parade behind me, so if that means keeping 80 sheep happy and letting 20 go, so be it. I want to follow Jesus but I want Easter Jesus, not Good Friday Jesus.
It is time for all of us to realize, that there is no difference between Good Friday Jesus and Easter Jesus. Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade was no fluke, this is who he is, one with us, wearing jeans and a shirt, through the poorest part of our cities, riding a 90’s Taurus not a shiny Maserati. When Jesus comes back, my bet is that he will make the same decisions he made the first time. He will love without compromise. He will forgive even people who aren’t seeking it. He will be hit without striking back. He will be willing to die, rather than do anything to take him out of union with God. Can I follow a loser who will win in the end? Or, will I continue to resist dying to this world, compromising the gospel to win? Whose parade will I be in? You?

Seven Essential Questions of Faith: How do I find fulfillment?

The text for this sermon is Matthew 22:15-22

In the cat and mouse game that makes up a lot of the book of Matthew, the Pharisees are at it again, trying to trick Jesus. With their question about paying taxes he seems to be left with two bad choices. Support the payment of taxes and have the people hate him or be arrested by the Romans for encouraging people not to pay taxes. Jesus chooses option three, by indirectly answering the question, pretty much saying pay your taxes, but telling them and us they have a much bigger tax to worry about, paying God what God is owed. He does all of this while holding on to a coin.
The coin he was holding onto had a picture of Caesar, the leader of the kingdom where it had currency. Jesus told them to spend this coin in the kingdom of the king who minted it, created it, gave it value. Then he looks squarely at the Pharisees, the disciples, the crowds around him and in a real way us. We are like this coin, because God’s image is stamped on each and everyone of us, our King, in our Kingdom. God creates us. God gives us value. God mints us and now God tells us to go and spend our coin, our lives in the Kingdom of God.
Let’s go and spend our coin. We have been fooling with the Seven Essential Questions of Faith during Lent and today we ask a question that not only people of faith ask, but everyone really, what brings us fulfillment? My answer, spending our coin. After fits and starts and thoughts and words and frustration, that is the answer I am sticking with. What brings us fulfillment is spending our coin in the world. Giving our lives back to God, who minted us and gave us value.
We have choices you know, with this coin of ours. We could save our coin. Saving our coin is about not taking risks, not embracing our gifts, not believing the good news, that daily we die to sin so that we can rise and embrace a fresh start. Almost six or seven years ago, we had a thirty something year old visitor to Messiah, that met me in my office before she ever worshipped here. Her husband had just abandoned her and her two kids in an ugly incident that had left her devastated. Her marriage, her family had been everything to her. She had bet her life on it. She had lost the bet.
She had been raised in the church, served in the choir as a teenager, gone on mission trips and youth gatherings, but had not been back much since college. Now, when life seemed really difficult, church seemed like a good place to start over. She had a lot of gifts to share. She smiled even in an otherwise emotional meeting, as she told me what she liked to do, how she would like to start refocusing her life on God in the church, introducing her children to this joy that she had as a child, but had never shared with them before. She came to worship about four times in a row, but then only once or twice a year around Christmas. She is saving her coin, next year, she is going to become a bigger part of the church she told me at Christmas, the last time I saw her.
Saving our coin makes no sense. How long do we want to live life thinking about what we are going to do different next week, next month or next year? How long are we going to read stories about people who make a difference in this world, before committing to be that person this year? How much more groaning in God’s world do we have to hear before we decide to help? Spending our coin will bring fulfillment, making a difference in our lives and the lives of those we serve.
We have choices, with what to do with this coin. Many of the gifts God has given us have value in the Kingdom of Man. Dustin Wissinger spends all week as an accountant for a local company and then at night takes care of our books for HEART Food Pantry. Some gifts have value in both worlds, but we lose on the exchange rate. Have you ever been to Canada and tried to spend American money at the counter of a store? The exchange rate is always less than if you had exchanged your dollars at a bank before the trip. Subject to the clerk’s determination on how much your money is worth that day, you always leave thinking you didn’t quite get as much bang for your buck.
This is what motivated our member Brian Peters to lead the 4:30 worship service. Brian has had some success singing and playing harmonica at clubs and festivals around the area. He has even started his own band, Deuce and a Quarter, like them on Facebook. His coin, his gifts have some currency in the Kingdom of man. Yet, he longs to share these gifts with the Kingdom of God. This is where his heart is leading him. He got to talking with a woman he sings with, Holly about this. Her passion has been in the church for a while. Mike, overheard them at a practice one day making plans to sing at Messiah and asked if he could join them, too. They came to us. Thadd and I had no plans to start a 4:30 service. It was their enthusiasm to spend their coin, share their gifts, that convinced Thadd and I. Our lives have value in the Kingdom of man, but they get redeemed at full value in the Kingdom of God.
Let’s spend our coin on God and find fulfillment for our life. This doesn’t only mean a life of helping the poor, lost or least, although there is nothing wrong with that. Spending your coin might mean, working a morning at Joseph’s Coat and see the delight in a mother’s eyes when she finds a faded short sleeved boys shirt that will fit her son. Stay the afternoon at HEART, the food pantry we support, and help the 70 year old woman who worked her entire life at Lazarus, had donated often to food pantries before retirement, and never once thought she would need to shop at one herself. Surely, God would be delighted if we spent our coin serving and supporting financially these ministries or the many others like it that we are passionate about at Messiah.
There are other good places to spend it, too. Jean Limbers has sewn all of her life, her children and grandchildren have worn her clothes. She created the quilt that says Welcome that hangs in our Welcome Center. A few years ago she gave us a gift that is even more special. A pall is a white sheet we put over a casket in a funeral. It is a symbol of the baptism of the person who died and the trust we have that God will keep God’s promise to bring life from death. Jean heard me say that I felt bad we couldn’t include this special ritual for a member who is cremated. She got to work and created a small pall that is not only beautiful, but identical to the large sheet we have used for years for caskets at messiah. We put it over her good friend Charlotte’s urn, just this year.
Let’s spend our coin and not die holding on to it. Let’s start looking at our entire life as currency that get’s the most bang for it’s buck if spent in God’s kingdom. Each and everyone of us is rich already because we are the highest denomination imaginable. God’s image has been stamped on us. Die broke, having given every piece of our lives to the delight and need of God’s world. Amen

Why would Jesus ever curse a church?

This homily is based on the scripture from Mark 11:12-19 and the second chapter of the book The Last Week, by Crosson and Borg.

On Sunday, Jesus has a royal like parade that mocks the very real royal, militaristic parade that Rome is holding on the other side of Jerusalem. In Jesus’ parade, there are no horses, only a donkey, no army with weapons of war in sight, but only poor peasants to greet him. His parade makes a statement about the type of Kingdom that he is there to announce. At the end of that parade he stops in at the temple to look around. Seeing as how it is late, he decides to do nothing yet and instead finds a place to sleep outside of Jerusalem in Bethany.
The next morning, Monday, bright and early he heads out to the temple again, but is sidetracked by a fig tree. It is a sorry looking fig tree, with no figs to eat on it. A very hungry Jesus is irritated by this. Fig trees that bear no fruit are worthless. This is their only purpose and he curses the fig tree. At the end of our reading, he passes by this fig tree again and it is withered and dead.
This brief, odd, encounter with a fruit tree is not meant to show us how human Jesus is, “Look, even he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed sometimes.” It bookends the story of the temple as a lesson of what will happen to the temple, if it doesn’t start bearing fruit. Jesus is not just predicting the temple will wither and die, he is cursing it, willing it to die because it is not serving it’s purpose. A temple that bears no fruit is worthless. This is not the story of Jesus cleansing the temple as it is possibly called, but of Jesus’ cursing the temple.
The authors’ of The Last Week, believe there has been a lot of bad Christian preaching and teaching about what happens in the temple on Monday of Jesus last week. They make the case that Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the temple has nothing to do with a replacement of Judaism by a new and improved religion, Christianity. Similarly, it is not about replacing an old style worship with sacrifices and priests with a better worship that looks like our churches today. This can be a barn burner of a sermon, because everyone likes to be on the winning team, but it is not what is going on.
Nor, is the point a narrow one, that the temple is being abused and misused by dove salesman and bankers. This preaches good, too. I should know I have preached it several times myself. “We should keep the church focused on worshipping God. When we get our Welcome Center’s full with stuff for sale like books, shirts and upcoming dinners, we are losing that focus.”
This may be a grumble that many of you have had as you have driven home from Sunday worship at Messiah, but it is likely not the problem that Jesus had that day. The money changers and dove salesman had to be there because faithful Jews who literally travelled from around the known world to be there that week of Passover, needed the money changer in order to make an offering in a currency that did not bear a graven image, like the Roman money did. They needed the dove salesman to make a pleasing sacrifice to God as a thankful gift for the love and blessing they had received. This sort of commerce was only allowed in the outer courtyard, which is where Jesus found them. The guys working the courtyard that day may or may not have been dishonest, but they were not what lit Jesus’ fuse.
And finally, the authors make the case that this is not a story passed down to make clear to us the humanity of Jesus. “See, he is just like us, he gets irritable when he is hungry and when under stress, like someone would be who is about to die, he loses his cool.” I admit to preaching that, too.
Jesus curses the temple, because the worship had lost touch with her purpose. The temple was to be a place of hope, where ordinary people would encounter God as equals with their brothers and sisters made in God’s image. By the time of Jesus, the temple had become something else entirely. It was not the portal to where God hoped God’s kingdom would begin. It had become instead just another part of the Kingdom of Man, a kingdom that always seeks to control God’s people and deny them justice.
First Herod then Rome had made the temple and the priests who ran it bureaucrats for their government. They were paid lavishly to keep the offering plates full and the people quiet. The Chief Priest and their assistants were no longer from the tribe of Levi, a dedicated tribe of Israel forever gifted to be in service to the God’s temple. Now, they came from one of four aristocratic families and were given their titles and positions of power by the government. History records all sorts of immoral actions by these families and priests in order to gain titles, power and wealth. The governor Pontius Pilate relied on Chief Priest Caiaphas to provide whatever taxes could be squeezed out of the Jewish peasants so more could come to Rome’s coffers and to stamp out quickly and brutally dissatisfaction with Roman rule.
A few decades before Jesus was executed a rabbi convinced his followers to cut down the royal symbol of Rome that King Herod had put over one of the gates of the temple. This symbol of Roman rule had no place in God’s temple where God ruled. The followers of the rabbi were caught. Forty of them were burned alive in front of King Herod. The others were handed over to Rome to be executed. This story alone sums up the state of the temple in the day of Jesus.
Jesus is not symbolically cleansing the temple of dishonest merchants. He is symbolically destroying the temple because it has been thoroughly corrupted. It is a fig tree that bears no fruit. As he is doing so, he quotes Jeremiah 7:5-11. Listen to God speaking through the prophet Jeremiah about his hope for the temple where his presence was promised.
“For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.
And later Jeremiah writes in the voice of God that the temple is not carrying out this hope. And this is the cry of God.
Has this house which has been called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”
The prophet Jeremiah wept over the temple in his day, because they were more worried about petty politics and collecting money than serving the lost and the least. In countless Old Testament scripture that the author’s sight God rejects worship from people that don’t care for justice. Not once in scripture does God reject a people’s justice because of our lack of care for worship. For God, being just with our neighbor is as important as right worship. The temple that Jesus encountered had become a cynical place where the leaders wrongly believed that God could be satisfied with rituals and sacrifices while they abused God’s people. The fruit from the temple was not justice. It needed to be torn down.
The implications are clear for us, today. Faithful, beautiful, right worship of God can never be divorced of our faithful, loving care for our neighbor. The two are intertwined completely. What makes this place holy is not the cross, the sacred vessels, the wonderful instruments, the embroidered paraments or flickering candles. What makes this place holy, full of God’s presence, are God’s people. Whether in here worshiping next to us, or out there living next to us, God’s people must be treated with respect, compassion and love. If that is not the fruit of our worship at Messiah, than Messiah will wither and die just like that fig tree. Amen

What matters most

The text for this sermon is Mark 12:28-34

I turned 40 when I got to Messiah and that seemed old to me. Whereas, 20 or 30 somethings rock climb or play sand volleyball, 40, 50 and 60 year olds golf. I figured since I ain’t get any younger, I should learn to golf. And, how hard could it be, right? You just come up next to a little white ball, swing your club back and whack, the ball goes sailing away. And here is the thing, I loved it as soon as I started doing it. I love to golf.
But, it turns out that it is a little tougher than what I thought. I whacked at it a few times and my ball didn’t sail anywhere, it rolled, casually with really no sense of purpose, a few feet that way, or this way. So I asked about twenty different golfers from this church and they all had a suggestion for me. They all had an idea of what was essential for golf. Head down. Knees slightly bent. Feet a little apart. When you come back, don’t bend your arms. Don’t move your feet. Head down. Carry the club to about your head. Don’t swing hard. Let gravity do the work. Head down. Don’t bend your arms. Now, come at the ball, like pendulum. Follow through. Follow through. Get your head up, watch where that ball went.
By the time people were done helping me, I was so focused on the twenty things I was supposed to be paying attention too that I lost track of what I was trying to do, hit that little white ball so it would go sailing like it does on TV. Worse, I was so stressed about keeping my head down, arms stiff, follow through, follow through, that it was maddening when the ball still didn’t sail. So maddening, that it stopped being fun. I was angry and disappointed in myself, wondering why am I golfing anyway?
Funny, huh. Sometimes we work so hard at something we love, that we take all the fun out of loving it. Sometimes, I think it is like that for people of faith. The scribe asks Jesus, what is most important for people of faith to do? Jesus’ answer is wonderfully simple. What matters most is love. Begin by loving the one and true God and that will lead to loving all whom God loves, which is everyone we have ever encountered.
Yet, if that scribe were to ask twenty different Christians today what is most important for people of faith to do, he is likely to get twenty different answers. Maybe it is the inherent problem of people, that we take simple things and make them more complicated. It is definitely true for people in my line of work, religion. We might start with Jesus’ easy answer that what is most essential is loving God and loving God’s world, but we can’t end there. We have to explain what we mean by that.
People have been fussing with exactly how to do something as simple as loving God and God’s world for thousands of years. Jesus’ answer to the scribe is not forging new ground. Central to the Old Testament, the only scripture in Jesus’ day, is a relationship of love between humanity and God. God created us with love to love, in God’s image, and said it is good. The first story in the bible, the first few words of Genesis explain this pretty well.
The ten commandments in the next book of the bible, Exodus, were the first attempt to clarify exactly how to love God. Loving God is honoring God by not misusing God’s name and making time in your life, a Sabbath, to worship God. If we love God, we love what God loves, which is everyone. Loving everyone looks like honoring those relationships closest to you, like mother and father, being truthful to the people around you, not hurting others with violent words or violent actions, not taking from them, not lusting after them or misusing them sexually, not being jealous of their gifts.
Of course, these ten commandments just created more questions, that religious people loved to answer. In the next two books of the bible Deuteronomy and Leviticus there are over 600 clarifications, laws and rules, on how exactly we are to keep the ten commandments, which of course were given to clarify how to love God and loving others. So if we take a Sabbath to do nothing else but contemplate our love for God, are we allowed to eat on that day? Yes. You can eat. How about cook? No, you should cook the day before. How about take care of my livestock? Yes, you can feed your livestock. How about tend the fields during harvest? No, you can’t do that.
And it still goes on today. Churches all the time make laws and rules to help their people love God and love neighbor, that made logical sense probably at one point in time during some argument or crazy thing in their community, but a law or rule has a habit of sticking around. No dancing, no card playing, no drinking, no short hair, no rock n roll, no, no, no, no, no. Lest we feel smug, Lutherans have there own lists of no’s too, that are meant to help us say yes to loving God and loving neighbor. No flags in the sanctuary, no communion before the fifth grade, no clapping in church, no politics in our sermons, no hats on men in the pews, no, no, no, no, no.
It isn’t just laws and rules. Our rituals in worship have only one purpose to help us grasp what is most essential to faith, loving God and loving others. Whether it is sacrificing lambs at the temple in the day of Jesus, or eating the sacrificed lamb of God at the table in our church today, the purpose is the same, helping us to love God. Yet, religions, religious people, priests, pastors we all layer extra stuff on top of it. Only men can bless the wine because Jesus was a man, only unleavened bread can be used, wine can’t be used because it’s alcohol, you have to be one of us to eat with us, we need to kneel, we need to stand, we need the pastor to bless the wine and bread with his back to us, we need the pastor to bless the wine and bread with her face to us, we should look to the ground and hold our hands out solemnly, we should look at the pastor and hold our hands out joyfully. We should do this once a week. We should do only once a month. Enough. Stop. We don’t just take the fun out of this important ritual, even worse, we take the “love” out of it.
Religion, religious people, scribes, priests, pastors like me, we are only trying to help but the more we help the more we talk, the more we talk the more questions you have, the more answers to those questions we give, the further we march from the first question, what is most important to our faith? And, before you know it we get so tripped up in laws, rules and rituals we forget not only the question, but the simple answer. Our life of faith becomes more about following laws, rules and rituals and less and less and less about what is most essential, love. And it stops being fun. We wonder why we ever even started going to church in the first place
This is not to say there are not tough ethical questions out there that we can debate. This is not to discourage anyone from living a reflective life of asking challenging questions. I am definitely not saying there is no role for religion or pastors to help us in our faith journey. I have a career to think about after all. It is just a reminder that all the rules and rituals of religion were created with one hope and one hope only, to bring us closer to God. Rules and rituals are not our God. Our God is love. Our God of love, loves you passionately and longs for you to share that love.
If you ask a golfer what is essential for a good golf game, some might tell you straight arms or head down or follow through or other things to make your swing just right. The wisest though will say simply, that before you can golf well you have to love to golf. Jesus, easily the wisest when it comes to God, is telling us that what is most essential to our life of faith is love. Love of God. Love of others. Amen

Love Your Enemies? Crazy Talk

The text for this sermon is Matthew 5:36-48

What wondrous love is this that God loves me. I know what you are thinking, of course God loves you Karl. Surely, I have to be one of God’s best products to come out of the 1964 model year. I have been married 28 years to the same person, raised a family responsibly, generous with my money and time to people in need and generally not a burden to society, plus, I am a pastor for goodness sake. If anyone has an inside track on divine love it has to be me.

What wondrous love it is that God loves all of me, not just the good stuff that I put on my resume, but the bad and the ugly parts of me, too. Believe me, I am a mix of all three. Some of you here could tell the rest more than a few bad things about me. And unfortunately, there are a few people who know some truly ugly things about me. There was this guy at my last church that hated me. We never got in a fight, he simply didn’t find my arrogance, self absorption and condescension as charming as others have. There is truly a laundry list of things not to love about me. I lust regularly. Take me to Roosters and you will see what gluttony looks like. Vanity? I can’t pass a mirror without worrying about my hair being out of place. That’s right, even bald guys worry about their hair.

This is what grace looks like, God loves me, delighting in the good, and in spite of the bad and the ugly. God loves me not just when I am lovable, but even when I am despicable. This is the nature of God. This is what God does. God loves.

God loves not just me, but Craig Wood, too. He is the 45 year old assistant gym teacher and middle school coach in Missouri that is accused of kidnapping a ten year old girl and killing her. We don’t know all of the details, but how can they be anything but horrific? We don’t know yet much about Craig Wood or if he is guilty. If guilty, he might be a tragic character even sympathetic, done in by his addictions or mental health battles. We may find out that he has fought his entire life against homicidal urges and lost the day he convinced Hailey to get into his father’s white pick up truck. Or, we might find out that he is pure evil, spreading pain and death in every community he has called home.

The crazy thing is that Craig Wood’s story does not determine God’s love for him. God has loved Craig Wood since the moment he was born. God has loved him celebrating the good in his life and in spite of the bad and now this act which if true, ugly seems to fall short of describing. God has blessed Craig with sunny days, full bellies, relationships and wealth. God loves him not just when he is loveable, but even when he is despicable, too. This is the nature of God. This is what God does. God loves.

God’s gift of love is in no relation to anything that I have done to deserve it, or you, or Craig Wood, either. In very real ways, a case can be made against loving any of us. When we abuse God’s creation in horrific ways like Craig Wood might have, or in stupid ways like I keep doing to my body at Roosters, we are enemies of God. We are destroying what God loves: us, others or the creation. Yet, God loves us in spite of the desolation to the world that our sinfulness causes. God loves enemies and friends alike, and in our lives we all alternate between the two.

This is the nature of God and as people made in the image of God, Jesus’ hope is that it become our nature, too. Our love for friends and enemies is to reflect God’s wondrous love that we first received. The wisdom of this world says this is crazy, and they have a point. Love is not a great strategy to conquer our enemies. Kill them with kindness! This might work if you are a waitress with a really grumpy customer, but all the kindness in the world is not likely to stop an invading army. Martin Luther King Jr. relying on this teaching was able to achieve monumental change, but his enemies killed him in the end and others died, too. Three civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi in 1964 trying to sign people up to vote and four little girls were killed when their Birmingham church was bombed. The hatred that an enemy has for us is real, dangerous and cannot be ignored.

Loving your enemies is crazy. It is a teaching from a guy that would eventually be overcome by his enemies and nailed to a cross. His love for the men who condemned him, didn’t stop them from finding a way to execute him publicly. His love for the men who whipped him, didn’t make any of the strikes hurt less. His love for the men who nailed him to that cross, didn’t stir the heart of any of them to bring him down before he breathed his last. His love was not a weapon, a way to manipulate someone else to get what he wanted. His love was simply his nature, his divine nature, his Godly nature and God wants it to be our nature, too.

In the waters of baptism, we have died to the wisdom of this world and embraced the wisdom of the Kingdom of Heaven. We have thrown off our old nature and put on our new nature, God’s nature, God’s essence, God’s Spirit resides within us now. Let that nature shine in our world, casting a reflection of God, God’s grace, God’s love. Be perfect as our God is perfect.

Loving our enemies looks like respecting the image of God they are made in, even if they have failed to respect that image in others. Loving our enemy might mean allowing an insult, a slap in the face to pass, rather than responding with words that can break their spirit or hurt them, even though that was their intent for us. Loving our enemy might mean walking away from a legal fight, even letting our opponent win both our shirt and our coat. Loving our enemy might mean going the extra mile for someone who will not appreciate it or even acknowledge it. Loving our enemy might mean sharing our hard earned money with someone who has squandered their own. Loving our enemy will always make us vulnerable and will always be risky. It will look crazy to the world and most often not well received. It might mean advocating that Craig Wood not be executed by the state for his crime but rather be kept in prison for life so that he can’t harm others. Imagine travelling to Springfield, Missouri tomorrow to advocate for the rights of Craig Wood.

Don’t shrug off today’s lesson, saying I guess that is why God is God and I am not. Instead, embrace it, love an enemy by real actions that demonstrates grace, an undeserved love. God’s grace is not only a gift God hopes you will bear to the brother and sister in your home or the brother or sister in Christ in the pew next to you. God’s grace is not just a gift God hopes you will bear to the sweet older neighbor next door and the scary teenager with the piercings and tattoos next door to them. God’s grace is a gift God hopes you will bear to even someone who hates you, wants ill to come to you, would destroy your life or spirit if they could. This is the kind of love God has. This is the nature of God and from the waters of baptism it can be our nature, too.  Let your love cast a true reflection of God in our world. Amen

Sandy Hook Elementary, Why and What Now

So, I was going start today’s sermon about Joseph, Mary’s betrothed with a joke. However, it feels like we are in a different mood from the time I outlined this sermon on Thursday, wrote it Friday morning and sat down Saturday afternoon for a final edit. Yesterday, I marked my original sermon unused and put it in a file. Then spent the afternoon trying to have my faith speak to what happened yesterday at Sandy Hook Elementary School. If our trust in Emmanuel, God with us, is going to mean anything of value for our lives, it must have something to say not just in the midst of joy, but great tragedy, too. Continue reading Sandy Hook Elementary, Why and What Now

Raise Your Head, Your Redemption is Near

The text for this sermon is Luke 21:25-36.

A common complaint of modern Christians is that God just doesn’t speak to us like God did back in the bible days. If only we had an angel like Gabriel tapping us on the shoulders to tell us what God wants, we would know what to do. We would react or act appropriately. I don’t buy it. I have never had the angel Gabriel or any other angel hand me a written message from God or spoken one either. Yet, daily I have the opportunity to see and hear messages from God. It is all about listening and trusting. Continue reading Raise Your Head, Your Redemption is Near

Christ is No Earthly King

The text for today’s sermon on Christ the King Sunday, is John 18:33-38.

When I was growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s my family went to church every Sunday. Sunday School for us began with all of the kids meeting together in one big room to sing songs with motions. Some of you might remember those songs, Zacheus was a wee little man…, and I may never march in the infantry, ride in the calvary, shoot the artillery. I may never fly over the enemy, because I am in the Lord’s Army. Yes, sir! Continue reading Christ is No Earthly King

Stories of Grace

Martin Luther lived with the guilt of being a disappointment to his father. His dad had pulled his family into the middle class by his hard work as a merchant. He wanted even better for his son Martin. He wanted him to move into the ranks of the educated elite and become a lawyer. Luther was on his way to fulfilling his father’s dreams, when a bolt of lightning during a storm caused him instead to promise God a life of service as a monk, a career any peasant could aspire and far short of what his father hoped for Martin. His father never forgave him. Continue reading Stories of Grace