Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

The grace that brings new life

Create in Me

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew in me a clean and right spirit.” Psalm 51:10

The Psalms express all sorts of feelings. Luther once said that if he could have only one book of the Bible on a deserted island that he wood choose the Psalms. These songs and poems of the Jewish people touch our hearts and express our thoughts in deep and powerful ways.

Many of the Psalms are attributed to King David. A musician, David was one who expressed his deepest thoughts and ideas in lyrics and melodies. While we don’t have the original tunes to which these were sung, we do have the words. We can imagine some of the events in David’s life that may have spawned the various words. Psalms of triumph and victory when he thinks of the battles he won or the defeat of Goliath. Psalms of safety and protection when he found himself in danger.

The words of this Psalm are some of the most famous of any of the Psalms. This plea for renewal and forgiveness may have come from David’s guilt over the death of Uriah and his subsequent marriage to Bathsheba. Confronted with the fact that he had sent Uriah to his death in order to marry his beautiful wife, David also had to contend with the eventual guilt that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Perhaps you have things from your past that continue to haunt you or at least come to mind more than you’d like. While most of us experience guilt about many things, it is still hard for us to let them go. Our minds have the events etched in them and even time won’t erase them completely. Here our plea is for God’s grace to wash us, refresh us and release us from our pain. Hopefully that allows us to restore relationships with those who have harmed us or who we have harmed.

This verse is often sung in our worship as the offertory – our last song before we receive communion. The sharing of Christ’s presence reminds us that in our brokenness, while we are yet sinners, Christ still comes to us. He comes to us not because we have our act together. Rather, he comes to offer healing, hope and new life.

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Listening to God Through Younger Ears

Samuel and Eli painting by Woodward

Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me.  (1 Samuel 3:17)

Eli was the wise old sage who was entrusted with raising Samuel, a young boy who would grow to be an important leader in Israel’s history. Samuel had experienced voices at night. Eli had discerned what the voices were – they were God speaking to the boy.

As a result of Eli’s guidance, Samuel had a visit from God and heard some incredible and important news. It wasn’t good news for Eli, who had been too lenient when raising his own sons and they had gone off the rails as a result. Samuel had been told that Eli’s family was to be the object of God’s anger forever. There was nothing Eli could do about it now.

So when Eli asks Samuel about what God has said, Samuel surely would have rather not said. But Eli knows the kid knows the truth and he wants to hear it. And Samuel tells Eli the news. The awful things that Eli’s sons have done will taint Eli’s family name forever. The damage has been done.

Our congregation council has been reading a book entitled Growing Young. It is a book about congregations that have done a good job revamping ministry in ways that help better engage younger people.

One of the key first steps? Listening to what young people have to say. Filled with insights and energy, they will often say things that help us do ministry better even if we don’t always want to hear it. But listen we do – for in listening we may hear a word from God. And unlike Eli’s family, with Christ at our side, it is never too late to find new life.

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God Gives Enough

MannaAnd Moses said, “When the Lord gives you in the evening meat to eat and in the morning bread to the full, because the Lord has heard your grumbling that you grumble against him—what are we? Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.” (Exodus 16:8)

The above quote comes from the journey in the wilderness as the Israelites left Egypt and spend 40 years wandering their way toward what would become Israel. In the desert, where there is little food and water, God has provided for them to have what they need. God has rained bread (manna) from heaven for them to eat. When they tired of this (which did not make God happy), God has overwhelmed them with quail (which they eventually grumbled about as well).

As human beings, we have the tendency to feel entitled to what we have. Society blames the poor for this, but actually the more we have the more we defend it as “ours.” We need only look in our closets, basements or garages to know that even if we feel like we are struggling in some ways, in other ways we have enough and even too much. Are we satisfied? Are we thankful? Are we gracious as a result?

God’s desire for us is that all of us have enough and are thankful for what we have. When we have received – we are to give thanks. When we receive more than enough – we are to be generous.

The God who gave manna and quail in the wilderness would eventually come to give us everything in Jesus. In Christ we are claimed and transformed from the grumbling, entitled people we may often be into the life-giving and gracious people who continue the work of Jesus.

Look around you at all God is doing! Where there is brokenness and pain (like we see after mass shootings, storms and earthquakes) see how God is working in the midst of struggle to provide manna and quail in our time. And pray and respond about how God can use you who have received life to share life.

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God May Be Closer Than We Think

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When the Lord saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”  (Exodus 3:4-5)

The encounter Moses had with God coming to him in the burning bush is one of the most amazing stories in all of scripture. Moses had fled from the Egyptians because he had killed an Egyptian who was beating a Jewish slave. For many years, Moses lived in the wilderness as a herder. It was while watching a flock that Moses sees a bush burning but not being consumed.

Coming closer to see, Moses hears God speak the above words to him. The place where he was standing was holy ground. He was not just in the fields watching sheep. He was in the presence of God. God was calling him to rejoin the Jews in Egypt and to lead them from slavery to freedom.

Because of what Jesus reveals to us, the experience of Moses may be closer than you think. God can and does use all of us. God sees our lives and the lives of those around us who are struggling. It is God’s deepest desire that all who suffer find relief and that wherever death reigns, people bring life and hope.

We are reminded this week that we are always in the presence of God. God may simply stay by our side quietly. But God may call us to stir from our normal lives and speak to us in ways that call forth courageous and hopeful actions. God is close. Are you watching? God is speaking. Are you listening?

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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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