Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Our Need to Give

 Matthew 16:21-26




Jesus tells is that to be his followers, we must take up our cross.

Now not even the most zealous Christians today

believe that Jesus meant that everyone should be

crucified like he was crucified.

But Jesus did say that we should deny ourselves and take up our cross.


Jesus doesn’t say that his followers need to believe

in a particular creed or doctrine, or need to sing

a certain kind of hymn, follow a certain kind of worship, 

not even to subscribe to a certain morality, which is how we usually define Christian.


But he says If any want to be my followers,

deny yourself, take up your cross

In other words, sacrifice.


This is a vital attribute of the Christian community.

We are the people that sacrifice.

We put our own wants and even needs aside and give to others.

He didn’t say specifically what we needed to give

or how we should deny ourselves.

But he said that we should.

Die to ourselves is the way he put it.


These days it seems, like the prevailing identity of Christians is

Not people who deny themselves anything but people

people who demand, very loudly, for their own rights:

their right to say whatever they want,

their right to do whatever they want and not face consequences.

their right to deny services to people different from them,

their right to have their personal views dictate law.


During the height of the pandemic,

there was a really disturbing video of a man who identified himself

as a Christian pastor, and his mission was to go into stores without

a mask and pick loud fights with the workers who tried to stop him.

He said it was his Christian duty to defend his rights.


But Jesus defines his followers as the ones

who deny themselves, who give what they have for others.


Now I think that naturally, we’re generous people. We want to give.

But we’re taught over time to hold onto things

We have been taught to fear that there isn’t enough.

We’ve been taught to hold back, to hoard what we have, just in case.

To the rational world, and to many people,

just giving things away seems ridiculous.

And giving your money away seems especially ridiculous.


If you are like me, or most people, you have a

complicated relationship with money.

It’s a joy, and a pain. It’s a source of pride, comfort, and anxiety.

Habits and feelings about money are

hidden deep within the recesses of our brain

some where we aren’t even consciously aware of them.


Money is the cause of many family

arguments and many divorces. 

It’s a motivator for crime, violence, and murder,

It causes wars, devastation and  famines.

It can at once be freeing and constraining,


There is not one life in here that is not in some way,

determined or influenced by money.

Money controls where we live, what we eat,

where we go, how much power we have or don’t have.

Money is a huge determinate in our lives,

the lives of other and in the world.

And yet many people of faith feel like God doesn’t

have anything to say about money. Like it’s outside of God’s concern.


Mark Allen Powell, New Testament professor at Trinity Seminary

in Columbus tells the story about baptism in the first century.

New converts were devoting themselves to Christianity

and getting baptized.


But when they were baptizing in Gaul

the men who were soldiers

would go into the water to be baptized and hold their

dominant hand up outside the water because

that was the hand that would hold their sword

when they went into battle.


They wanted to reserve that piece of their lives

and not have it influenced by Christ’s teachings,

so they can go on and continue to do what they were doing.


Dr. Powell says that this is how many people feel about money.

He said we want to hold our wallets outside of the waters of baptism

so we can do whatever we want with it and not worry about God.


We want to follow Jesus, but leave our money out of it.

The way I spend and share and invest money are only my business.

Maybe our complicated feelings about money get in the way,

And maybe  it’s a feeling that the most holy God 

would have nothing to do with such a vile and profane thing as money.


But money is mentioned over 800 times in the bible,

Money is discussed in the scriptures constantly.

God is concerned with all that we are and all that we have

and in many, many different ways, the scriptures tell us that

God hopes that we share what we have.

Money is one way we deny ourselves and sacrifice.


Now a lot of churches have given themselves a bad reputation

by trying to separate people from their money,

and often with very bad and selfish intentions.

From indulgences in Luther’s time  to many modern televangelists,

Some prominent churches have given

honest churches like our own a bad name.

People have found over the years that God’s hope

for our generosity is easily exploited.

And what they are exploiting is our basic need to give.


My first congregation had a relationship with

a community in Honduras. The children in Honduras had to pay to go to any

grade in school above Middle School 

and we gave scholarships to them so they 



The community was originally a large group of 

people that had lived in boxes along the

banks of a river until floods had threatened 

their homes.

The homes that were built for them were cinderblock homes

with many people living in one room. 

Dirt floors, outdoor kitchens.

Bare houses without much in them.

The people were poor. Very poor.

The bus across town to high school cost a quarter, and many

of them struggled to get that money. 


One evening, they had a dinner for us at the school

and the teens who received scholarships

gave us gifts. They were all souvenirs of Honduras,

probably gotten from the mall in the city.

Trays, boxes with scenes of Honduras on them.

My gift was a little house, which my student Yasmine gave me.

These gifts were modest, but we knew they cost money

we knew they cost more money than they had to spare.

We asked our guide and translator –

who was also the young people’s mentor— where they got the gifts.

We were hoping maybe he gave them the money for them.

He told us they had saved up the money to get them.

They knew we were coming and they saved for months.

That freaked a lot of us out.

Someone kindly asked if they could give it back,

you know, so they could use these now super-precious 

gifts for themselves or return it for the money.


Our guide and translator told us no.

They want to give something to us.

They need to give something to us.

That was their love.

This is their nature. Don’t deny them that.


As poor and in need as they were, they had a desire to give.

And it was true, whenever we brought out candy 

or toys for the little kids, none of them grabbed

all they could, they were always concerned about

the other children around them.

They always made sure that each one of them had enough.


It was humbling to say the least.

We had so much, and we were hesitant to give.

They literally had nothing, but didn’t think twice about

giving away what they had.


Giving is a need we have.                  

It gets buried in us by our fear about the future,

our own desires, our own greed sometimes,

and we lose touch with that.


But the truth is, God gives, abundantly, lavishly to all of us.

God has given this world and everything in it.

God gave us Jesus to take away the sins of the world.

Giving is part of God’s nature.

When we give, we come close to the heart of God.


This weekend, we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For his sacrifice to the good of our life together as a society.


He said: “An individual has not started living

until they can rise above the narrow confines

of their individualistic concerns

to the broader concerns of all humanity.”


When we give to one another, to another organization,

to a church -- when we put our own individualistic concerns aside,

and look beyond our own wants to the broader concerns of humanity,

we get back the life that God has sought out for us.


For those who want to save their life will lose it,

and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.


Monday, December 19, 2022

Love - Advent 4

 Isaiah 7

Matthew 1

December 18, 2022

Advent 4 – Love


I admit I didn’t remember much about this king

Ahaz that’s mentioned in the Isaiah text.

It’s used often enough during Advent,

because a passage from it is quoted in

Matthew’s Christmas gospel,

you think I would know more about it.

But guess I’ve been passing it over every year.


I think I just kind of assumed that king Ahaz was a good and

faithful king who was asking God for a sign.

I mean he says he wasn’t going to “put God to the test”,

which sounds like a good and faithful thing to say.

I mean Jesus says that in Luke when he’s tempted by the devil,

right, so King Ahaz has got to be good, right?


Wrong. King Ahaz was not a good king.

He was actually an awful king.

Ahaz started ruling when he was just 20

and he was not good at it.


At the time of this chapter in Isaiah,

Ahaz was worried about the Northern Kingdom of Israel

joining forces with Damascus and defeating him.

So he allied himself with the Assyrians.

The Assyrians were basically the terribly neighboring

empire that was constantly wreaking havoc over the Israelites.

He was hoping that together they would defeat the Northern kingdom.

God was not pleased.


In 2 Kings it says that on a diplomatic visit to Assyria,

Ahaz saw an altar in a pagan temple that he liked

and he had the same altar built in the temple in Jerusalem

and he sacrificed on it and made the priests sacrifice on it

and then he took things out of the temple

and he gifted them to the king of Assyria.

God was not pleased.

And in this passage in Isaiah,

God is talking to King Ahaz through Isaiah, the royal prophet.

Ahaz is going up to the pool of Siloam to

check on the water supply.

Isaiah begs Ahaz to trust God.

Isaiah tells Ahaz to just ask for a sign and God will give it to him.

But Ahaz has no interest in listening to God.

He gives that lame, “I won’t put God to the test” line

as an excuse not to listen.

He would rather put his faith in the Assyrians.

God was not pleased.


And Isaiah can’t take it anymore, he says:

“It’s bad enough that you have tired the people

with your hypocrisies, now you’re tiring God.

Well, God’s going to give you a sign anyway

even though you’re not asking for it, here it is:

A young woman will give birth to a son,

and she will name him Emmanuel, God is with us.

And before he’s old enough to know between good and bad.

the two kingdoms that you’re afraid of, will collapse.


This is not said in a calm, comforting,

Christmas-like way as I always assumed.

The stage direction would say, “Angry. raised voice.”

maybe a little aggressive pointing on Isaiah’s part.

There, that will be the sign, you dope.


Then Isaiah goes on to say that although the

Northern kingdom and Damascus would fall,

The Assyrian kingdom, the kingdom that Ahaz

put his faith and trust in to save him,

would eventually come and destroy Judah.

He would just have the privilege of being the last to see it all go down.

Deliverance and justice.


You know, sometimes I regret doing the research.


So, my question is, why would Matthew choose this verse?

Why did he choose this verse in Isaiah to talk about the  birth of Jesus?

Matthew and all the Jews he was talking to undoubtedly

knew the whole story of Ahaz. They knew what he had done

and how he had lead the Israelites to their destruction.

Maybe it was solely because of the young woman,

which could be interpreted as a virgin, giving birth to a child.

but I think there was more to it.


Matthew and Joseph and Mary are also living in a time when

Israel is under Roman occupation.

Their leader, King Herod, is another king

who is an arrogant bully

who sells out his own people and their faith

to the Roman Occupiers to maintain his power.

He is also sleeping with the enemy.

He has no interest in hearing about God’s signs.

He has no interest in learning about God’s ways.

He has put his faith and trust into earthly things.

And this all leads to the destruction of their country.


A corrupt and selfish leader,

A kingdom who’s lost its way.

A once faithful people who don’t want

any sign or help from God.


But God’s giving a sign anyway.


There will be a child and he will be born

to a young woman and he will be called

Emmanuel, God with us.


And does this sign from 3000 years ago

have anything to say to us today?

I think so.


Emmanuel. God is with us.

God longs to be with us.

God longs to know us and to be a part of us.

In spite of our stupid, greedy leaders,

in spite of our stubbornness,

in spite of our disinterest in God’s ways and plans.

in spite of the deals we make with the devil.

in spite of selling our real treasures for a moment’s comfort.

In spite of all we have said and thought and done

and all we have failed to say, and think, and do.

Even though God may not be pleased.

God is going to give us a sign anyway.


God will come to be with us,

to share in our joys and pains,

to show us a new way of comfort and justice,

to become one with us.

To live with us

and to die for us.

And that is love.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022


 Isaiah 35 December 11, 2022 Advent 3 – Joy

Christ Lutheran Preschool's
Christmas Play


When I was a child, one of my favorite things

was a box. It was big. I think it held some of those

big speakers that we used to need with our

giant stereo systems we had in the 1970s.

I don’t know for sure where it came from, but it

was big enough to sit in,

to put a blanket over,  I could pretend it was my house,

a car, a cave, I put my private things in it, my stuffed animals.

I could write on the walls, which I often got in trouble

for doing in the real house. I found joy in that box.

For weeks I woke up with joy because of that box,

until I moved onto something else that was my favorite thing.


Truth be told, I envy my younger self, I wish I could go back

and find such prolonged joy from such a simple object.

But too much has gotten in the way.

Too much life, and jobs, and family, money, and loss.


I see your children here and I am tickled by

the joy they find in the most mundane things like waving and saying hello

to me when we pass each other unexpectedly.

Of course I know they’re not joyful all the time,

but when children are joyful, it’s genuine and pure.

I wish I could recreate that pure joy in myself.

That’s why it’s so good to be around them.

Just to share in their moments of joy.


But finding joy in ourselves is not that easy.

As adults, we know we will never capture that same

innocent naïve joy that children have again. Although we try.

Are you happy? Do you feel joy? How can I get my joy back?

We ask these questions of ourselves and others a lot.

We take our emotional temperature often.


I think contemplating joy and pursuing joy are modern constructs.

Maybe just of the 21st century.

I don’t know that this would have been

a question in the prophet Isaiah’s time.

It probably would have seemed foreign to everyone.

I mean people were joyful,  they felt and expressed joy,

it shows up in the scriptures all the time.


But  my guess is that they were more pragmatic about it.

The questions would have been:

Are you dead? are you hungry? are you in pain?
If not, then great, you have joy.

Kind of sounds like my grandmother when I think about it.


But now, joy seems to be a bit of an obsession,

at least with middle class people.

Once we have a place to live and

our basic needs met, then we want to know

Do I feel joy? and if not, how can I get it?


We try to buy joy, for ourselves and our children.

We try to obtain joy by having more things.

About 8 years ago, Sears had a Christmas

ad campaign that was “Real Joy Guaranteed”.

There is so much wrong with this, I’m not sure where to start.


Then we try to get joy by getting rid of our things.

Marie Kondo, the de-cluttering expert that seemed

all the rage a few years ago, wanted  us to look

at every item we own and say, “Does this bring me joy?”

and if not, her theory was we should get rid of it.

I don’t know if a box of band-aids gives me

joy, but I still think I should hold on to that.


Today we want to achieve joy,

to find it and keep it for ourselves,

we want to buy one thing, or get rid of one thing,

we want to have the right formula for joy and keep it in our life.

We want joy in our home life, family life, in our church

in our worship experience, we want to own joy, to be in control of it.

To turn it on when we want it.

 But I’m not sure that’s how joy works.


Now this week in Advent, our focus is joy.

They also call this Gaudete Sunday which means rejoice in Latin.

This joy Sunday has been the third Sunday in Advent

since the fifth or ninth century.

A long time in other words.


Isaiah’s vision of joy is this:

He tells the people that :

“The hopelessly dry land will be wet,

the desert will be in bloom with crocus.

Those who have weak hands and knees

will be strong again.

The blind will be able to see,

the deaf will be able to hear,

and those who can’t walk will be

running and leaping.”

These are definitely joyful images.

But this is not joy that can be bought,

or achieved, or even given to someone else.

The irony is that the joy that Isaiah describes

is the joy that has come out of pain and loss.


The water is amazing because it’s falling on dry ground.

The crocuses are so enormously beautiful

because they’re blooming in the dead land of the desert.


Imagine having the pain

and stiffness and other effects of aging

just taken away from you, your hands and feet strong again.


And seeing and hearing aren’t particularly joyful

things for most of us, but if you haven’t been able

to see or hear, those things would be amazing gifts.


And if one moment you couldn’t walk,

and then you could, even if you weren’t the leaping

kind, you would probably leap with joy.

Pure and genuine joy. That is joy that comes from God.


The joy that comes from God is not joy that

can be pursued or bought or found.

And it’s not joy that can be forced on us,

or that we can force on ourselves.

It’s joy that comes out of our pain.


This is the real joy of the good news of Jesus.

This is the story of the cross of Jesus.

The life and death and resurrection of our savior.

This time of year, we celebrate the birth of a child.

A child who was born into the world to save the world.

Who felt our pain and sorrow, who felt the pain of those

those around him, and who suffered on the cross.

But out of that cross came resurrection.

New life. The salvation of the world.

Real joy for all of us.


So if you are not feeling the joy of the season

right now, if this time of year makes you sad,

if things aren’t going as well as you want it to,

if you have depression, if you’ve suffered loss,

if you’re missing someone, if your health is bad,

if you can’t do the things you used to do,

or you are sad for others who are suffering.

That is okay. Know that Christ is with you.

Christ is with us.


And God’s favorite job is making new life out of old.

Bringing joy out of sorrow. We are waiting for joy.

God’s joy will find us again.


And if you are feeling joy now this season, cherish it.

Give thanks to God for it every moment that you do.


And let us all cherish the joy of the children here now

and all the children around us.

For a moment, let’s see the world through their eyes.

And experience the innocent and pure joy

of just simply being alive.


Through the infant Jesus and through the

the wonder of young people:

A  little child will lead us to find real joy.