Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

Blessings From God

Jacob and Esau

So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. (Genesis 27:22-23)

There is a saying that comes out of God’s work with Abraham and his descendants that says that we are “blessed to be a blessing.” Oddly enough, no matter what our story has been and how we go the blessings that we got, life only moves forward. Whatever our past has been, we are then called to act now to make a better future for others.

Jacob and Esau were brothers and rivals. Esau was older – the family blessing was to be his. But Jacob was his mother’s favorite. She wanted him to have it. She tells Jacob to get a pelt of fur and place it over his arm. Esau is a hairy young man and Isaac, their father, is getting old, blind and senile. He is an easy mark for stealing the blessing. The trick works and Jacob is blessed. Esau is cut out of his rightful place and now Jacob has control of the family fortune.

This doesn’t mean easy street for Jacob. Esau is murderously angry when he discovers what has happened. Jacob is forced to flee for his life. Having it doesn’t result in all that Jacob and his mother had hoped. In fact, it appears that he has the blessing and loses everything as a result.

A bit later, Jacob will be alone in the wilderness and have a dream. It is a famous dream known as “Jacob’s Ladder.” In the dream Jacob sees a ladder with angels ascending and descending from heaven to earth. He encounters God, who tells him that he has been blessed to be a blessing. All the people of the earth will be blessed through him. It is an amazing event and Jacob awakes stunned by what he has discovered. In spite of his devious nature and in spite of stealing his brother’s blessing, God still wants him to be a blessing to others. In fact, not just to some others. God wants Jacob to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”

This reminds us all that we are to always take stock of our blessings, wherever they have come from. All of them belong to God. If we have done things we shouldn’t have to accumulate more than our share, we are still (perhaps even more) expected to turn from the things we have done and work toward the good of others. A few blessings in our hands are still to be a blessing to everyone around us. Even when we are in the wrong, God continues to use us to do what is good and right.

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A Sacrificial God

 

Jesus Cross

Abraham said (to Isaac), “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:8)

Abraham and Sarah were the recipients of only one son. That boy, named Isaac, arrived late in life after much grief and waiting. Although God had promised them this son, their trust in God’s promise was already tested as they were old and had more than given up on this long ago.

Yet they did have a son. He was to be their heir and not just their heir, but also the heir to Israel’s future. As Isaac thrived so would Israel. If anything happened to him while he was still a young boy, all would be lost.

When Abraham says the above words to Isaac, they are on their way to a mountain where Abraham believes that he is to sacrifice Isaac as a way of honoring God. The writer tells us that this is a test. But it is also clear, Abraham doesn’t know that it is a test. For him it is just an order and obedience seems to both honor God and also mean that Isaac will end up dead. Abraham must have been tormented by this. Imagine having God finally come through and give you what you want and then ask you to be involved in losing it forever!

The story ends with Abraham’s statement proving to be true. God intervenes, a ram is provided, and Isaac lives. God has seen Abraham’s faith and faithfulness.

But the story points to something much bigger. It is a mini-parable of what eventually happens with Jesus. God sends Jesus to be among us knowing that he will be resisted, rejected, and eventually be killed. God will provide proves to be prophetic. Not only does God provide a ram to prevent Isaac from being sacrificed, God also provides Jesus so that we don’t sacrifice either. We learn in two ways that Hosea 6:6 is true: God “desires mercy not sacrifice.”

While we often look at the Christ story primarily as sacrificial and with Jesus as a stand-in for us, scripture points to a God who simply wants us to trust and obey. In so doing, we are to know that God can be counted on to provide. God shows us, even in the hardest of times. And God’s actions and desires are directed toward helping us live and pursue the things God is calling us to do.

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Creation: The Beginning but not the Ending

Creation D

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. (Genesis 2:1)

If you just read the above verse in isolation, you could easily assume that creation is a “one and done” project. God started something and brought it to completion. Six long days of work with incredible results. The chaos of the deep had been transformed into the masterpiece that is our world. Now it is time for God to step back and rest in the knowledge that the world is “done.”

But scholars universally agree, that is not at all what the creation story is about. In fact, the creation story is the beginning of a long term commitment and a relationship between the God who made the world and those of us who make it up. The gospel that matches best with this text is John 1 which reminds us that the world was made with involvement from the Son of God – the Word made flesh. That same word was to both be involved in making the world and would continue to be involved in it.

The coming of Jesus shows us that far from being done with the world when the creation story concludes, God is actually just beginning to be involved with creation in an ongoing, life giving and sacrificial way. God brings life. God suffers death in order to restore life. The world is a work in progress and God is intimately involved in continuing to work on the world.

As people of faith, we teach that Jesus is a sign of God’s commitment to our world and a promise of the coming Reign of God. Transforming this world will not be easy work but God is not worried about the stress and pain needed to bring life.

God decided at the beginning to stick it out until the end. Our encounters with Jesus give us the good news that we cling to in the midst of the ups and downs of life: God’s work to create the world at the beginning was just that – the beginning. But God is not done yet and promises to keep working to bring us life and love until the end, when everything will finally be finished and God’s promises will be fulfilled.

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Nourishment for Life

Communion C

So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away. (1 Samuel 21:6)

The above verse is part of a story where King David and his troops are hungry and there is nothing to eat except the bread in the Temple. This bread has been set apart for a particular purpose – it is not viewed like ordinary bread. To just eat it would dishonor the purpose for which it had been set apart. But they are hungry, at the Temple, and this bread is all there is.

Jesus will quote this same story in his ministry centuries later. Oddly enough, things that are set apart for God can be taken back and re-purposed for peoples’ needs if the situation demands. God doesn’t actually need our stuff – Martin Luther emphasized that in his own teaching. So we set it apart, not so God won’t go hungry but as a part of the discipline of remembering God in all that we do.

In this case, David makes the case that his troops need the bread more than God does. The priest at the Temple agrees. They take the bread, set apart for God, and it becomes nourishment for the people of God instead.

In communion, both of these things happen. Bread and cup are set apart and established as vessels of food and drink for God’s purposes. But then, just as God announces that these elements are the body and blood of Jesus and bear the presence of Christ for us, they are taken from the altar and brought to God’s people. It is we and not God who eat and drink. We are nourished and refocused. Christ is with us! Christ who died and rose again is here now!

Oddly, the point of communion is all about Jesus, who manifests his presence among us as the host and focus of communion. But at the same time, Christ devotes himself to nourishing us and making us into the people of God he hopes and promises that we will be. The table brings us close to God and in the mystery, God comes even closer to us.

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The Body of Christ

Communion Emmaus

Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Corinthians 11:28-29)

This passage has been used in so many ways over the centuries. Usually it has been used to scare people and so many people have felt anxious and worried as they have come to receive communion. What if I don’t do this right? What if I don’t believe the right things? Will I be judged by God as unworthy and bring some condemnation to myself?

Within some traditions in the church, including some Lutheran ones, this has been used to support belief in the “real presence” of Christ in the bread and cup. Of course, we believe that when we commune that Jesus is present (Martin Luther said Christ was present “in, with and under” the elements). To eat the bread and drink from the cup is to celebrate that Christ is truly present among us. We trust this promise and celebrate communion weekly when we gather to be sure that each week when we gather, all of us have the chance to recognize that we aren’t just a bunch of people with a common interest in religion. We gather to honor and celebrate the presence of Christ in our lives and in our worship together.

But this probably isn’t Paul’s primary concern in this passage. The people of Corinth were dishonoring this presence by having communion in ways that excluded and cut some people out of the communion. Because they shared communion as part of a dinner, people brought things to share. But the well-to-do got lots of food and drink and some even ended up drunk! The poor among them got little to eat and felt left out. This was not how Jesus hoped communion would be!

Paul tells them that what they share dishonors the body of Christ. In every other place that Paul uses the term “body of Christ” he is referring to the community. We together are the body of Christ. It is the community of faith that is to be the presence of Jesus for the world. When we commune in ways that exclude and leave people out, we dishonor the body, fracturing it rather than uniting it in this meal.

Next time we gather for communion, remember to celebrate that Jesus is here. But equally so, honor the fact that he his here both for us and in us. Together, we represent Christ for the world. When we are divided, we do that poorly. When we are united, it is an amazing thing to see!

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United With Christ

Baptism Romans 6

Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5)

Joined to Jesus, we go nowhere without the promise of God’s presence in our lives. This is the promise made to us in our baptism. That Jesus died for us and in baptism the old us dies with him. We are “united with him.” No promise in life can mean more than the promise that God has committed to always be with us in all things and in all places.

It is easy to take that for granted. In fact, the Apostle Paul knew the risk of knowing this. To promise us that God would love us no matter what also meant risking that without the fear of losing God’s love, we might not care much about what we do. After all, does it matter in the big picture what we do, if no matter what, God will still love us?

Paul wants us to know that it matters a lot. It matters, not because God’s love is dependent on it. But it matters because God wants our love back and God wants us to want to please God. In fact, our response is to be the true desire to bring joy to God and carry out God’s will and work in the world.

Paul calls this side of our baptism, “newness of life.” How can we who have died with Christ be raised to the same old us? We are a new creation in Christ. Do our lives reflect the old us or do they reflect the new us of the baptized people of God?

Our baptismal covenant is a call to join God in the work of loving the world. It is a call to discipleship and transformation and the kind of new life that only Christ can bring.

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Baptized into the Body of Christ

Baptism Water

So those who welcomed Peter’s message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:41-42)

The good news about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is an amazing revelation for many people. We have all known people who have reminded us of Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh stories – always seeming to be down and with a cloud over them. Sometimes we have probably been that person ourselves!

When the crowds on that first Pentecost discovered that even though they had been part of rejecting and crucifying Jesus – the Son of God who had come to love them into new life – they were stunned. Had they known what they were doing they felt they would surely have chosen another path. But it seemed to be too late. Jesus was dead.

But Peter’s preaching reminded them that with God it is never too late. Resurrection brings new life to people who need it most. And as the Spirit moved among them, thousands of people believed and rejoiced at the message. About three thousand of them were baptized that day.

As part of being baptized, these people joined the apostolic community. This community of faith was committed to proclaiming and living out of the good news that God had offered new life in the resurrection of Christ. So they gathered to learn and care for one another, to share in communion together, and to pray for each other and the world around them.

We often think of Baptism as “me and God,” that since I am baptized I am promised eternal life in Christ. While that is true, a key part of baptism is “us and God.” We are brought into a community of faith where we gather and support each other, are nourished by God, and called to be people of prayer. Baptism is about more than just us as individuals. It is about our recognition that God is more than my God – God is our God. When we live that way, the church becomes the church. We are God’s people. We are given the life we need in Jesus. We discover too, that we need and are blessed by each other as well.

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Praying at All Times

Prayer D

“Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” (Ephesians 6:18)

Prayer. What is it and how does it work? In fact, does it work? Almost everyone has wondered these things about prayer at one time or another.

Prayer is an incredible gift from God. There is much about prayer that helps us understand the nature of God and the nature of the Christian faith.

First, prayer puts us in a position of significance. When we pray for other people, we stand in that space between the person or persons we are praying for and God. We are granted and accepting the role of priest on their behalf. God has allowed us a role that is powerful and focused on bringing help to someone who needs an ally.

But second, prayer puts us in a position of humility. While we intercede for someone else, we also therefore sit at the feet of God. It is God who made the world and everything in it. It is God who has made us and claimed us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When we come before God in prayer we are struck by how amazing God is and how humble we truly are.

It is in this tension between power and humility that we discover the meaning of prayer. In praying for others we accept some responsibility toward our neighbors. Their problems are our problems and if we can be helpful, love calls us to do so. But we also recognize that we are not God and that we are dependent on the love and grace of one far more awesome than we can even put into words.

Prayer is an expression of our belief that the God who made us also loves us. It is also an expression of the love that we have been given for one another. We stand in a relationship with God and each other. We share our concerns for each other with the God who is concerned for us all. That is an enormous responsibility! It is also an enormous privilege. And that should bring comfort and hope to all of us.

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Equipping the Saints

Ephesians4.11-16_Equipping

 

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-12)

Somewhere things got out of balance. There are a lot of theories about how it happened, all of them likely to have some merit. But for all the reasons that it happened, the consequences of this have taken their toll on the health and vibrancy of the church.

The thing that got out of balance was ministry. The Bible is clear, Jesus’ own ministry was clear, our Lutheran theology is clear: everyone is a minister! But something got out of whack and as a result we began to define the “Minister” as someone who had gone to seminary and worked full time for the church. This is not at all what we teach. But somewhere inside many (all?) of us we seem to believe it.

So this lesson offers a very important corrective to this misconception. All the roles in the church with titles (like “apostles” or “prophets” or “pastors”) are there for the sake of the whole church. And they are not working instead of the whole church. In fact, it is his or her job to be sure the church has what it needs so that everyone can minister. And while ministry includes work within the church, it is equally important to help people use their faith and callings as parents, neighbors, employees and citizens in their daily lives. Ministry can and does happen anywhere and everywhere that God’s people are involved.

What needs to happen in the American church is that congregations need to teach ministry as the norm for what it means to be involved in a congregation. If someone does go to seminary, he or she should already be a trained minister before they get there. That’s the congregation’s job! Being a leader in the church is about learning how to equip and train people for the ministry they already have. And the work of the church should be shaped by this calling to help equip everyone for the work of ministry and the building up of the body of Christ.

So, take a few minutes to reflect. What and where do you do ministry? How can the church help you do it better? Share your thoughts and ideas with your church leaders. If we do this well, all of us will be better ministers and God will be glorified in new ways in the work we do.

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Wheat or Weed?

wheat-tares_sermons

“Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’” (Matthew 13:30)

Jesus tells a story about a man who sows seeds and then finds that there are not just good plants growing but also weeds (also called “tares”). The workers are outraged and want to know what to do. It is their instinctive desire to go pull up the weeds and get rid of them immediately. The own says, “No.” They are to wait until harvest time because pulling up the weeds now will almost surely also damage the wheat. The result may be less weeds but it will also result in a smaller crop. It is better to wait.

This story puzzles the hearers. In fact, later in the same chapter, the disciples ask Jesus what it means. The answer is not obvious. Like many parables, thinking about this brings many more questions than answers.

The kind of weeds in the story look a lot like wheat plants. You can see a comparison in the picture with this article. Like many grassy plants, part way through the growth cycle everything looks pretty much the same. And unlike some crops, like tomatoes for example, it is hard to tell the weed from the crop and things are so close that you can’t pull up a plant without damaging the plant next to it. You just have to live with the mess for a while.

But at harvest time, the wheat produces grain and the weed plants don’t. The result is that you can easily tell them apart, Harvest time is a better time to do the sorting. Not now. Later.

The parable reminds us that the world is a complex place. We live right next to people who have different agendas and bear different fruit than we do. It is tempting to root them out. Much of the anti-immigration sentiment that we often hear today comes from this desire for us to sort things out and have a pure field (whatever that means). But this parable reminds us that we need to be more careful about rooting out those people and things we don’t like. We may do a lot of damage in the process and not be helpful in doing what God is doing.

In the end, you can tell more about a person by what they are for than by what they are against. This parable reminds us that in the end, God wants us to bear fruit. When we do, we will easily be seen as grain in the field by the God whose world it is. While some situations call for us to rise up and oppose the bad, we know that in all situations we are to stand strong and work for the good.

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