Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

God Works – Even When We Hurt

Josephs Coat

Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. (Genesis 37:2)

Almost nothing rivals a really bad fight between two people who have a lot of history together. They may even have a good history, but if something drives a wedge between them, things can get really ugly really fast.

Joseph is famous, even today, in part because of a musical about him and the beautiful and special coat that his father gave him. It made Joseph happy and proud to have the coat. It made his brothers even more envious and angry with him. In the verse above, you can see that this is not a neutral issue. Joseph is having dreams of being better than his brothers and lording over them in it. He is not shy about telling them this. He seems to enjoy rubbing it in. And the brothers, who already don’t like him, hate him even more.

Eventually, the brothers will plot to get rid of Joseph and convince their father that Joseph is dead and gone. Joseph will end up a captive in Egypt. A string of events too long for an article like this will unfold. When a famine forces the brothers to move south and into Egypt to find food, all memories of Joseph will be long gone. Yet in this sequence of events, Joseph will be in a position of power in Egypt and the brothers will (unknowingly) find themselves at his mercy. Although Joseph is not beyond having a little fun to get even with them in the process, eventually he will announce forgiveness and look to find ways that God was involved in all of this, even though almost all the things that happened seemed bad at the time.

This is a good lesson for all of us. We often watch for God at work and look most easily at good things and rejoice. But it is harder and takes more focus to look at the struggles of our lives and see God working there, even when the events were tough or even painful.

This week, take a little time to look back over your life and some of the biggest things that have transpired. Look especially at the places where you struggled or experienced pain. How do you see God sustaining you through that, working to bring life from that, or involved in some other ways? Remember, God is bigger than our successes. God is at work, even when things are rough.

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The Promise to Abraham – The Faithfulness of God

God of Abraham et al

And he (Abraham) believed the Lord; and the Lord[b] reckoned it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6

One of the basic tenets of the faith is that we are saved by grace through faith. Our faith does not save us, but only by faith does grace become real. So, faith is an essential part of God’s graciousness coming to us. This story is the formative story for the people who would become known as Israel or Jews in history. What this story tells us is that faith has always been the key to God seeing us as righteous. In fact, righteousness in scripture is not only a characteristic reserved for good people, but also a gift and sign of the activity of God in someone’s life.

The radicality of that is easily seen in the story of Abraham and Sarah. Two older people, beyond normal childbearing years, have risked their comfortable lives to journey off to a new place simply because God asked them to. God has promised heirs for them, but to date Abraham and Sarah have had no children. Instead, they have tried to take matters into their own hands and Abraham, at Sarah’s request, has had a child with Hagar, their maid/slave. While this has given an heir, Abraham is not happy with the outcome. God had promised an heir to he and Sarah. The son from the maid was not what he had in mind.

The verse above is about God’s response to Abraham’s grumbling. God is faithful and will fulfill the promise. Abraham and Sarah need to trust more fully and not try to manipulate the situation to accomplish what only God can do. Abraham gets the message and believes God and God is pleased to see his faith restored and views Abraham as righteous again.

In our lives, we routinely have ideas about our future and plans for how things are to turn out. We often see these as faithful to our identity as followers of Jesus and hope God will make them happen. But we get sidetracked, life hits a pothole, or something we had counted on simply doesn’t materialize. It is easy to get discouraged and even angry with God.

The Story reminds us that we live in the “lower story,” a human story that can be messy and even disheartening. Over the top of that continues the “upper story.” It is the story of God’s abiding faithfulness, even when our faith is weak and our resolve is broken. Abraham and Sarah’s story is the formative one for the people of God. It is no accident that it follows in the same pattern as the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. People will make a mess of things. God will keep working to bring life and hope.

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God’s Partners from the Start

The garden of Eden with the fall of man, by Jan Brueghel de Elder and Peter Paul Rubens

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.  (Genesis 2:8)

We often think of Eden as this amazingly beautiful paradise that was formed as part of creation and was pristine and in some people’s imaginations, even perfect. Ask a typical group of pastors who have graduated from seminary and they will share the story of creation something like this: God made the world and everything in it. There was a beautiful garden called Eden. God made the man and then the woman and placed them in this paradise. But because of sin, the paradise was lost.

It’s a familiar story. One that almost all of us know and have internalized as the basic story of our culture. If it weren’t for our sinfulness, the world would be perfect. But because we sinned, God’s perfect world was damaged and was lost.

There’s just one problem with that. It isn’t at all what the Bible says when it tells the story of Adam and Eve. In the verse above, the man exists before the garden. After forming the man from the dust of the earth, then God planted a garden and put the man in it. In the verses before the one quoted at the top of this post, the story says, “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth…” In other words, the man in this version preceded the garden.

Why is this important? Because the story of Adam and Eve is not at all about paradise lost. It is about people created to join in God’s work but losing their way. The garden was not perfected before people arrived. The garden was developed and to flourish in partnership with Adam and Eve.

As we begin the biblical story, we start with creation and why God got this whole project started. The God who is Trinity prefers to work in partnership with others who share a like commitment to getting creation right. God’s coming in Jesus shows how committed to the work God is. The story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden reminds us that the invitation to follow Jesus is simply one more opportunity to join in with God – something that has always been an invitation since the beginning of time.

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Connected by Faith

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12)

Body of Christ C

In our culture, it has been more and more fashionable to have a “do it yourself” religion. People pick and choose viewpoints they like about various things, shape their “doctrines” to match the ideas they like, and then fly solo with a religious life that is primarily individual focused. Many of these people will say things like,  “I don’t need to belong to a church to believe in God.” Most of these people in our context still consider themselves Christian in some way, and it is not our job to be too judgmental about this.

But at the same time, Biblical Christianity is not an individual religion. We are baptized into the body of Christ and as we are joined to Jesus, we are joined to all others who are joined to Jesus too.  The risen Christ draws a community of people to himself and individuals who are joined to him belong to this community. No one can boast that they are independent and self-sufficient and still claim the name of Jesus.

The church is called to be the best expression of Christ’s presence in the world today. We gather around God’s Word to proclaim the Gospel of that same word made flesh in Jesus. We celebrate the sacraments to honor God’s baptismal claim on our lives and to eat and drink to honor Christ’s presence in our midst. We are sent out bearing Christ’s presence to the world as our feet, hands and voices continue the ministry of Jesus in our time and place.

When the Apostle Paul wrote the verse above, it was part of a letter to the people of Corinth who had lost track of the essential nature of the church and how connected they were to each other. Many centuries later these words are still useful. If we belong to Jesus, we belong to each other. Our faith does not make us self-sufficient – quite the opposite. Our faith connects us to Christ and to each other.

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Be Transformed

Transformation

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

A friend of mine once preached a challenging sermon about how God was calling people to be changed by their faith in Jesus and be bolder in their work as Christians in the world. The sermon must have been a powerful one and had an impact. But the impact was not all positive. The music director of the congregation came up to him afterward and accosted him, “Don’t you ever preach a sermon like that again. I have enough stress in my life already. I don’t come here to feel uncomfortable. I come here to be comforted!”

Paul’s letter to Romans provides a challenging picture of Christian faith. Baptism joins us with the death of Jesus. We die with Christ so that we can be renewed in the resurrection life. (Romans 6) It also provides a comforting picture of the Christian faith. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8). So, Paul’s letter lifts up both a comforting image of the faith and a challenging one. You can’t have Romans without having both comfort and challenge. We may want only the one, but the gospel brings both. It is life-giving and life changing.

Part of what faith does is a paradox. We are loved and affirmed as children of God, exactly as we are. Grace and forgiveness and new life come as a gift. Our faith tells us this. But we are also challenged and even prodded by the Spirit to not stay where we are but also set free to risk becoming the people God created us to be – far more than we are yet. Our faith tells us this as well.

The gifts of grace are to be used to shape us and guide us in God’s ways. Transformation is the expectation – not just an optional bonus. You are loved exactly as you are. But God loves you too much to leave you exactly as you are, too.

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How to Build a Life

Rich Fool

Jesus said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21)

The quote above is the last line of a story Jesus told about a rich man who stored up lots and lots of wealth in bigger and bigger barns. But when he gets his wealth stored up, he then dies and gets to benefit from none of it. His entire life’s work was wasted. Jesus sees this as the ultimate example of foolishness – focusing on the stuff that is limited to this life without focusing more attention on the things that are of eternal value.

If you are a relatively normal person, you probably struggle with this as well. How much should we save? How much should we spend? How much should we give away? How do we live a life that is both engaged in the present and also grounded in eternity?

These are the questions that shape wisdom with regards to our money and possessions. Conventional wisdom says that we should find some balance that fits our resources and our values. First fruits giving ensures that we build generosity in first. Structured savings ensures that we don’t just spend everything that we have left and don’t plan for the long-term realities of life. Living on the remainder allows us to have the things we need and to sustain ourselves in ways that allow us the chance to be happy and productive people.

Jesus knows that this isn’t easy. The temptations to do the wrong thing and to act stupid with what we have can seem like the best way to enjoy life and control our destiny. But the cost maybe losing sight of what matters most and damaging our souls.

It may be wise for each of us to learn from Jesus and get our lives in balance and focused on the right things. We were not created to simply desire more and to accumulate. We were created to receive grace from the God to whom all things belong, and then to use these gifts wisely in ways that bring life to others.

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What’s In Your Way?

Whats in your way

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:20)

We often think that when God gives us something hard to do, it is an act of discipline and maybe even borders on punishment or a test. After all, if we don’t want to do something, then having to do it is not fun. It may even cause us stress and make us angry.

But this week’s text has an encounter with a rich young man and Jesus. The young man wants to know how to inherit eternal life. The answer, in his case, is to sell all that he has and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow Jesus.

It is not what he wanted to hear!

But the text also says that Jesus did this precisely because it was the loving thing to say. This rich young man had counted on his wealth to be there. It was the trusted and reliable thing in his life. In the process, God was an interesting but optional ingredient in his day to day decisions. Money, not God, was his place of security.

For just that reason, Jesus identifies the money as the thing keeping him from entering eternal life. It is the thing that stands between him and utter dependence on God. It isn’t that the money is necessarily bad. But he had enough money for it to be his source of security and as a result, he didn’t find it possible to depend on God.

The young man went away crestfallen and unable to let go of the one thing in his life that was killing him. Jesus couldn’t say, “If that is too hard, try something easier.” All he could say is, “This is the thing that will bring you life – it is the honest and loving answer to your question.”

What in your life gets in the way of trusting God fully? It may be money or possessions. It may be something else. But whatever it is, getting our life in order means putting God first and other things follow. Whenever something else goes first and then God follows after that, we are clinging to something that stands between us and being fully alive.

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You Heart and Your Stuff

Treasure and Heart

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Matthew 6:21

The statement above from Jesus is often misquoted. People prefer to say, “Where your heart is, your treasure will be also.” But that isn’t what Jesus said. Our heart follows our treasure – we don’t necessarily treasure what is in our hearts.

This is important in a world like ours. In our country, we are overwhelmed with things. Most families have more than one of a lot of things that people in other parts of the world have none of (cars, TV’s computers, etc.). The more we have, the more defensive we become. It is rich people who live in houses with security systems locked inside of gated communities. Something about our stuff shapes us and if we aren’t careful, to much can actually make us afraid!

Often, people live in fear and can’t let go of things. Closets overflow. Extra rooms become closets. Basements become inaccessible. Garages are turned into personal warehouses. If this is you, then this lesson is a great chance to learn another way to live from Jesus – the master of simplicity and faithfulness.

There has been a movement in our society to encourage people to simplify. Less stuff can make a better life. There is less to clean, less to maintain and less to lose. Clutter is reduced and both time and space are often both freed up. But something often forces us to cling to things, desire more things, and in the process our heart is changed. A glad and generous heart can become clingy and defensive.

This week, take a little time to look at your life. What things so you have? Of them, which ones could you live without? Which ones, if you got rid of them, would it actually improve your life to be freed from?

Jesus knew that the lure of the material could throw our hearts out of balance. As we learn from him, letting go of things that don’t matter may not just free us from clutter, it may set our hearts free as well.

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Jesus Is the Point

Communion Emmaus
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
(John 6:35)

For the next two weeks, we will reflect a bit on communion using John 6.

Not everyone who believes in God believes the same things about God. For example, many of the founding fathers of our country were quite strong believers in God but did not believe God was involved in an ongoing way with the world. These people are from a belief system known as “deism.” Deism believes in God. It believes God made the world and set the ground rules for how life works. But they don’t see God as doing anything on a day-to-day basis. The classic example to explain how deists think is the old wind up style alarm clock. God made the clock, wound it up, and now it is running. The world is the same way – God made the world and get things started but now we are living with the results and God isn’t intervening on what happens.

At the other end of the spectrum are those people who believe that God has a plan for everything and that life is well scripted by God. We hear this viewpoint sometimes when someone dies, especially a younger person. Someone will say, “Well, when it’s your time to go, it is just your time to go.” Some people even claim that they don’t wear seatbelts because they know, “If it’s not my time to go, I’ll be fine.” In this kind of thinking, God is in charge and predestines everything. God’s script for your life and fate are almost the same thing. So fatalism thinks that outcomes are set in stone and we just live out our destiny.

Lutheran Christians teach neither of these extremes. We believe that God made the world and everything in it (like deists) and we believe that God is intimately involved in the world and in our lives (like the fatalists).

But we also believe that life matters and that God’s involvement always presses towards life in the kingdom of God in ways that include a variety of choices and paths along the way and that human life and the decisions we make are part of the journey toward God’s reign. Not every detail of your life is scripted before you are born.

Because of this, we believe that our relationship with God matters. God has come to us in Christ and opened windows into the mind and heart of God. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we see God’s commitment to being fully in the world and God’s willingness to participate in all things fully – even suffering and death. No one, even God, is immune to the struggles along the way. In fact, the gospel message is grounded in God’s promise that life wins and Christ’s demonstration that God will be with us in and through anything, even death itself.

This is why we belong to a tradition known as “sacramental Christianity.” When we gather as a community of faith, we believe that our gathering matters both to us and to God. We believe that when we show up for worship that God shows up too. It is Jesus who stands at the center of our worship and gathering around Jesus in worship is rehearsal for the rest of our week as well. We celebrate Jesus’ presence in bread and cup during worship. But we live in Christ’s presence every minute of every day.

 

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Faith Matters

Faith Hebrews Quote

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

The book of Hebrews is a later book in the New Testament. It’s focus is to address Christians from a Jewish background and help them stay the course in their new commitments to be followers of Jesus. Tensions were high and the cost of discipleship could include alienation from family and neighbors, imprisonment, or even death. It was easy to give up and simply try to blend in with more ordinary people – just try to look normal and not stand out.

Into this environment, the author of Hebrews wants people to hear words of encouragement and hope. Don’t stop believing that Jesus is the one. Don’t give up on the newfound faith that is yours.  Cling to the truth that Jesus is the one who brings life and that believing this is the most important thing.

In our modern era, we have inherited a definition of faith that is centered in content. Do we believe the right things? Do we understand the right ideas? Do we have the facts right? All of these can be useful at some level. But they are not the Bible’s primary concern.

The Bible was written and assembled to help people believe that Jesus was the one in whom they could place their trust. Details about Jesus’ life were shared, not to get you to know the facts, but as pointers to get you to believe the big thing – Jesus is Lord. With that kind of faith, lives were being changed. People without hope who were longing for a different kind of world than the one in which they lived received a promise. Jesus is ushering in the Reign of God. The world is changing. And the just and peaceful world for which you long will one day arrive. Faith is the assurance of things hope for; the conviction of things not seen.

There are a lot of divisions in the Christian community today. Most of them have to do with (dis)agreement about history, theology and details. A lot of people have a lot invested in keeping us divided – it protects their status as leaders and experts in their little world. But the Bible’s basic message should bring us all together. In Jesus, God is doing something amazing and the world for which we all long is coming. The hopes you have are justified and real. Maybe you can’t see it yet, but believe. Salvation is on its way.

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