Browsing articles tagged with " Matthew"
Oct 17, 2017

Sermon: Don’t Let The Church Tell You What To Do!

Listen to last Sunday’s sermon here:

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Jul 3, 2017

Brexit 1776? – Happy Independence Day!

#Brexit1776
Well-meaning, patriotic, happy American friends share this meme a lot these days. There are indeed a couple of things that the American Declaration of Independence and the British vote to leave the European Union have in common:

1. People want to rid themselves of perceived oppression.
In 1776 the thirteen colonies made their case against King George: “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”
In 2016 the British electorate did not really know why they did not want to be part of the European Union anymore. As a matter of fact it wasn’t until after the vote that Brits started googling “What Is The EU?”.

2. People are concerned about the status of migrants
In 1776 the biggest concern for America was and ought to be: How can we get the most people here and make them citizens as quickly and as smoothly as possible? The king of England is hurting us by putting up a fence around our borders: “He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
In 2016 the overall British sentiment was: “We don’t want no refugees!”

If you have to parallel the Brexit of 2016 to an event in American history, I propose 1620. The pilgrims were one group of migrants who formed what later became the United Church of Christ. They declared their #Brexit1620 by leaving Britain and finding a new home in America.
In 2017 the United Church of Christ declared itself an Immigrant Welcoming Church. At #UCCGS the pilgrims’ sons and daughters remember what it means to be a refugee.
July 4th is not a Brexit but opening your welcoming arms to those oppressed by ruthless empires: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

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Mar 14, 2017

Dwellers and Vagabonds


Last year was my 20th High School reunion in Germany. I did not go. But a friend of mine did. We talked about it a few months later. He was astonished that most people in our graduating class seemed to still be able to call each other without using a different area code. We agreed that probably the small sample of those who actually attended the reunion was not representative of our entire class. Of course, local people come to a local gathering. Our classmates who live in the US, in South Africa, and Australia, did not show up. No surprise there. So overall I guess my graduating class is split down the middle. There are really two kinds of people:
1. dwellers, who stay local and make themselves at home where they grew up and
2. vagabonds, who move regularly, explore the world, and reinvent themselves constantly.

I am a vagabond. I left my hometown right after high school, never to return. That is the norm in the ministry. Divinity schools are usually not available where you grow up and you cannot effectively minister to people who knew you as a child. But then again, a lot of professions ship people all over the world. The military rotates you from one assignment to the next every three years, the oil and gas industry makes people follow the boom and bust cycle from one place to the next. Refugees are running for sheer survival. We vagabonds have a great example in Jesus who is famous for saying: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Then there are dwellers like my classmates who stay local. I envy them. They can rely on friendships they have established for decades. They can even tap into the vast network that their parents and grandparents before them created in the community. Everybody knows where they belong in the story of the town. They have their own spot carved out in their particular place. They belong. The Psalmist is famous for feeling at home like that – at home with God: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (Psalm 23:6b).

The church needs to be a place for both dwellers and vagabonds. It does not belong to those who have been there for a long time. The church needs to stretch the comfort zone of dwellers. On the flip side the church cannot let vagabonds pass by without offering nourishment along the way. It has to create an oasis for vagabonds. The body of Christ needs to provide opportunities for dwellers to leave their comfort zone and for vagabonds it needs to provide opportunities to learn stability.

I practiced dwelling recently by getting a landline phone. Since I moved to the US I have only had a cell phone and kept the number wherever I went. Now there is an actual wire buried in the ground to keep me connected. I am practicing being in one place. On the flip-side I have seen dweller friends volunteer in places they had never dreamed of. When you support people that are totally unlike you, you grow in totally new dimensions. Even if you stay local you can still expand your horizon. Both takes practice: Learning to stay put and learning to get out there. Practice what you are not naturally good at! It is worth it!

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Feb 28, 2017

I’m going Cold Turkey for Lent


There used to be a strict rule at our house in the mornings: “Don’t talk about anything important before I had my first cup of coffee.” I would misunderstand you. I would not be able to pay attention. Short: I would not be at my best. So it was safest for myself and everybody else to avoid human interaction before the beast was tamed by caffeine. So whenever this rule was broken that could result in a rough start for everybody involved. Coffee ruled my life.

Matthew 6:21 reminds me, “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That is a hard cup to swallow. Because it means that in effect I have made coffee the king over my morning if not over the whole day. Because in the afternoon I would need another dose. I treasured coffee to a level that I said I could not make it through the day without it. But coffee and I, we are not unique: Just today I had a lunch conversation where several people outed themselves as tea addicts. They could not even fathom giving up their ice tea that comes with every meal. I have known soda fanatics and from anecdotal evidence I think Diet Coke die-hards are the most fanatic.

So last Saturday something strange happened: I woke up early to go exercise. Now, that is not strange, that is normal for me. But what struck me was what I did not do: After the workout I did not rush to get myself a coffee. Instead I let the day go on – without the tiniest dose of caffeine. Maybe coffee does not rule my life? Maybe I can do it without the rush? Then came Sunday morning with a splitting headache and a fatigue that would last all day. Withdrawal was real and carried into Monday with general grogginess and muscle stiffness.

Today is Tuesday, day three without any caffeine, and I am okay. I am reasonably awake and attentive. It still feels somewhat funny but I am managing. In case you were wondering why I invite you so deeply into my intimate habits: That is what Lent is all about. Lent is an opportunity to give yourself a reality check of where your priorities are, what you can do without. “What are you giving up for Lent?” is not a cute question on the side. It has to puncture your very heart. It must reveal where your treasure truly is. Maybe the better way to pose the question is:
What is one thing I cannot live without?
What is one thing I wish I did not do?
Even though I started before Ash Wednesday I intend to stay away from caffeine all the way through Easter.
Can you imagine Jesus stood up on Easter morning from the grave without a single cup of coffee?

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Dec 20, 2016

Syria then and now

Christmas is a highly political story. Remember what triggered Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem? – The Roman Emperor had ordered a census so that he could tax all his subjects in their hometown. Herod was a satellite king for the Roman Empire. He governed the Roman province called Syria around the time Jesus was born. The gospel of Matthew tells the story that when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Baby Jesus escaped as a refugee to Egypt. As a grownup he was eventually arrested and crucified. The sign on his cross said what the wise man had been proclaiming at his Birth “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.

The mighty Roman Empire was afraid of a babe in a manger because people saw him as the king. As a consequence oppression only got harsher. Innocent infants were murdered. Today we call these acts terrorism. Terrorists want to spread terror. That is not the bomb or the killing itself but it is that feeling of not being safe in situations where you are actually supposed to be safe. A baby in crib, like Jesus in his manger is supposed to be safe.

Unfortunately terror never stops. Just over the last 48 hours we have seen events that question a decent sense of safety and security. The Russian ambassador to Turkey was shot to death in an art-gallery opening a photo exhibit. 12 people were killed by a truck plowing through the crowds at a Berlin Christmas Market. Places of art and entertainment are supposed to be fun and safe. That is what terror does: Bringing fear to places where it does not belong.

Christmas is a highly political story. There is much to fear in the world. Some things have always been scary. Other terrors are brought upon the innocent on purpose. But the Christmas story also contains the answer to the fear of terror. It is the proclamation of the angel in the Gospel of Luke: “Do not be afraid!” That is not only an emotional comfort like “Don’t feel bad.’ It is a profound call to resist the temptation of being terrorized. Baby Jesus will not die today! Working for peace in Syria still makes sense! Creating community in the city is still a beautiful thing! Do not be afraid!

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Nov 29, 2016

I walked into the living room this morning

I walked into the living room this morning. This time of year the entire space looks like a winter wonderland. There is not a square inch that is not filled with Christmas decorations: a collection of ten nutcrackers, five Christmas stockings, two trees, hundreds of lights, five advent calendars, and all kinds of knickknacks, wreaths and evergreen everywhere. The one collection that stands out most though are our currently 18 nativity scenes. They range from tiny candle holder to children’s toys to finely crafted olive wood straight from the Holy Land. We have amassed them over the years always looking for the perfect one. In the process we found out that there probably is no perfect one because we really love having this museum of variety in our living room.

Remember how I walked into the sanctuary last week?
There you will find a similar collection of nativity scenes. There are 26 of them currently. Some display the stable with child-like naivete. Some create a royal palace around the divine child. They come it all shapes and sizes.

nativity
Both at home and at church I am very diligent at making sure to take Jesus out of the scene where possible. The baby simply does not belong in the manger until Christmas. If he is glued in or otherwise attached I will not break the piece but a removable Jesus will be removed. That is good Christian practice to me because it sends a powerful message: Advent is not Christmas!

Advent derives from the latin adventus and means “coming”. Christ is still in the process of coming! He is not born yet. Our job is to be here tensely waiting. There is no fulfillment yet. There are no gifts yet. Expectation is building up. Advent wreath and calendar serve as countdown clocks to tell us: It is not Christmas yet! And there is great reward in expectant waiting.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment showed how important delayed gratification really is: Psychologist Walter Mischel placed a marshmallow in front of series of children and left them alone with it for 15 minutes. Before he left he told them that they would get a second marshmallow if they did not eat the first one while he was away. Wait 15 minutes and add 100% – sounds like a great deal. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and other life measures.

Christ is in the process of coming. The baby has not hit the hay yet. There are no shortcuts.

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Dec 8, 2015

Who can receive Holy Communion?

The Lord be with you!
Und mit deinem Geiste!
Lift up your hearts!
Wir erheben sie zum Herrn!

This is how over 100 people started the Communion Prayer for our German Christmas Service last Sunday. A few times a year we have multilingual events whereas Holy Communion is usually celebrated once a month. It so happened that our Adult Sunday School class worked on the topic of Holy Communion as well. When I stop by towards the end of their time I sometimes get to attend the final round of conversation and sometimes there are issues they request my input on. Communion was such an issue and their question was: Who can receive Holy Communion?

The short answer is: Everyone!

The main reason for that is simple: Holy Communion is nothing but the Word of God made accessible to those who wish to receive it. It has the same message that every sermon has: God loves you. Everyone is invited to hear the Word of God in the sermon, so everyone is invited to eat and drink the Word of God in Communion as well. Bread and wine are tangible sermons.

Some traditions have tried to limit access to the table by excluding those who are not considered worthy. By that standard nobody would be allowed at the table because we are all sinners. Jesus had Judas at the table of his Last Supper knowing full well he would betray him. He was not excluded but on the contrary Jesus has consistently dined with sinners. That includes you and me. That is also the reason why on Communion Sundays the order of our service includes a Prayer of Confession followed by the Assurance of Forgiveness. We need to acknowledge our sinfulness because it actually makes the Lord’s Supper all the more important.

There used to be a variety of age limits on the participation in Holy Communion. The argument usually went like this: Children do not grasp the meaning of Holy Communion. Yet understanding is not a prerequisite for participation: Family Ministry brings Communion to people in retirement homes and I can assure you that some of the residents do not even recognize that they are holding a cup of grape juice in their hand. What they do understand though is the feeling that there is a group of people that cares for them and that is after all what communion means – being together with one another and with Jesus Christ.

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Aug 26, 2014

Jesus just isn’t a good Christian

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
(Matthew 16:24 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 31 August 2014)

Nobody in their right mind likes following Jesus. For the first disciples that meant giving up everything: family, home, job, their very lives. Jesus was a radical prophet who thought kingdom come was right around the corner: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28). That is not a life I would want to live and every year there is one sect or the other proclaiming “the end is near”. Jesus told his disciples they will live to see kingdom come, really?

And this whole self-denial thing? What is that supposed to mean? The end of summer is such a wonderful season to affirm one’s own identity with all the labels we attach to ourselves: the schools we attend(ed), the sports teams we support, the party we support in the upcoming elections, you name it. Why would anyone want to give up the wonderfully crafted self-identity that took so much work to develop?

As a church we just can’t afford this kind of radicalism: Imagine Jesus were to rush into the sanctuary one Sunday, yelling at everybody to get out of their pews and follow him into the streets and proclaim kingdom come. Dear Lord Jesus, please check the bulletin: The service doesn’t conclude until the postlude, sit still and be a good Christian at least for this one hour on Sunday morning.

Maybe Jesus just isn’t a good Christian. And how could he be: He was a first century prophet expecting the world to end as soon as the Roman occupation of Israel was thrown off. He just didn’t have the experience of “doing church” for over two-thousand years. We had to learn to live with the fact that life as we know it, that our earth, that people with all their flaws, that institutions are just going to stick around for a while. We have created a home for ourselves, both physically and spiritually.

But then again: Maybe we just aren’t good followers of Christ. Thank God we have those ancient stories to keep us on our toes. A verse like today’s is a constant reminder, that we ought to be more than what we already know about ourselves: Don’t take yourself too seriously, allow your assumptions and your knowledge to be challenged by the still-speaking God.

gissucc

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Aug 4, 2014

Walking on Water

Karl Barth (Theology of the Word of God), Paul Tillich (the Philosopher among Theologians) and Rudolf Bultmann (not interested in the historicity of Jesus) vacation together at Lake Zurich. They rent a boat and head out. The sun and heat are brutal and they get thirsty. “I’ll go get a few beers”, says Karl Barth, gets out of the boat and walks across the Lake to the city of Zurich. It’s a beautiful day and the beer is quickly gone. “Paul, you go get us another round of beers”, says Karl Barth. Paul Tillich gets out of the boat and soon returns with a six-pack. The sun is hot and they get thirsty again. “Rudi”, says Karl Barth, “it’s your turn!” Rudolf Bultmann gets anxious. The others start mocking him: “What’s up Rudi, it’s the easiest thing to do!” Bultmann tips his toes in the water. He doesn’t want to be a wimp and takes a big courageous step out of the boat. And Splash! He sinks! In shock Tillich turns to Karl Barth: “Karl, you suppose we should have told him where the stepping stones are in the water? Karl Barth replies: “What stones are you talking about?”

That is a joke that circulates in divinity schools. In reality though I have a certificate that I did walk on the water. I earned it at the Sea of Galilee at one of the spots that claims the be the one where the Jesus story happened. There are dozens of them all around the Lake because bus loads of tourists from all over the world want to make that experience of being like Jesus. Yes, there were stepping stones. I don’t have super-powers. Nobody can walk on water. The disciples knew that and they were scared when say saw Jesus in the dark on the lake. They thought he was a ghost.

This week’s watchword is Jesus’ response to their fear:
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
(Matthew 14:27 – Watchword for the Week of Sunday 10 August 2014)

Barth is right: It doesn’t matter whether there are stones or how that worked with the walking on water. What matters is the spoken Word: Take heart!

God’s Word does really work miracles when spoken into the right situations and it’s okay that stepping stones may be involved.

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May 29, 2012

Fathers of the Covenant

With father’s day coming up soon, here are some biblical thoughts on fathering:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…”
Every family has its own stories. God’s people tell the story of being slaves in Egypt and saved from there, please refer to Deuteronomy 26:1-11. The stories we tell make us who we are. What are the stories of your family?

“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
God doesn’t care for family values. People of the covenant are mostly called to leave behind their loved ones, please refer to Genesis 12:1-4. Blessing is where the unknown is. Are you willing to leave your comfort zone?

“Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.”
Isaac’s faith was tested big time. He trusted his father with his life – literally, please refer to Genesis 22:1-19. How much do you trust your father?

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords.”
On his death-bed Jacob blesses his sons – each of them with individualized blessings. He is disappointed in some of them and brags about others, please refer to Genesis 49. Does that sound like your family? What kind of child are you?

“Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Can you imagine how tough Joseph’s life was, raising the Son of God as his own? That teenager must have been hell to talk to. That’s probably why the Bible doesn’t contain a single story of Jesus’ childhood. A couple of things become clear in Matthew 2:13-15
1. God himself is part of a blended, non-traditional family
2. A wandering Aramean was my ancestor, please refer to the beginning of this article.

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