Grounded in Christ — Sent to be a Blessing.

Zion Lutheran Church

A God of Second Chances

Repentance A

Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:7

When Martin Luther proposed changes to the church 500 years ago, there were many things that he put on the table. These had to do with both theology and practice. The Lutherans who would eventually take on his name adopted some of his ideas. Others ideas were somewhat lost or minimized.

One of the things that Luther changed but didn’t want to lose was the idea of repentance and confession. While he was opposed to mandating private confession before communion, Luther was both in favor of emphasizing confession and also favored keeping private confession as a both a sacrament and a voluntary but regularly provided for option. While few Lutheran congregations provide for this with any regularity, his goal was to maintain the call to renewal and new life in the gospel. It was not enough to declare that God loves us. That news should transform us and allow us to turn from our old selves and toward new selves. In other words, the gospel declares love but also causes new life.

In the text above, Jesus is teaching about the myth that some people are good enough on their own while others are not. He is making the case that all of us fall short of what God hopes for us. We all need to receive the grace that only God can give. And we all need to therefore repent and receive the new life that it provides.

The words sound ominous on the surface. It sounds like a threat. But Jesus then tells a parable about a fig tree that is not producing figs. There is a desire to cut it down – why keep a fruit tree that won’t produce fruit? But the story then takes a surprising turn. “Don’t cut it down. Fertilize it and see if things change.” God is oriented toward giving more opportunities for life.

Feel like you are falling short? You may be. If so, don’t keep doing things the same way. Repent (turn) and try something new in a new way. But do so giving thanks for a basic truth: We worship a God of second chances!

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Crossing Boundaries with Love

Love A 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27

People often look at religious people and view them as judgmental, hypocritical and mean-spirited. Young adults who don’t participate in church life, when surveyed about Christians, list the above characteristics as top ideas that come to mind. It is a sad but true reality that religious people are often viewed as “people I wouldn’t want to get to know.”

So when we look at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching, it is helpful to remember that love stands at the center. Jesus teaches that the above statement summarizes the core of the Old Testament. Everything in the Law and the Prophets points to one thing: love.

Jesus goes on to show what love looks like in the telling of a familiar story: The Good Samaritan. The story uses a despised foreigner as the hero and respectable insiders as the foil to tell a story showing that true love is bold, courageous, unconcerned about human divisions, and ultimately generous. The hearers of this story would have been both impressed by the message and offended by the plot. But Jesus tells it to remind us that real work that pleases God is not concerned with human categories – it is grounded in people helping people when they need it.

In a world of division, Jesus calls us as his followers to share love indiscriminately. Where other see “us” and “them” and want to love “us” and shun “them,” Jesus only see all of us as created by God, loved by God and worthy of loving. As Christ lives in us, may that be true for all of us who claim the title of disciples as well.

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Are You Listening?

Transfiguration A

A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” Luke 9:35

God’s voice from the cloud interrupts Pete’s reaction to Christ’s Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah have appeared with Jesus on the mountain. Peter is not only amazed – he wants to stay. He suggests building shelters and staying up on the mountain. While he is saying this, the cloud appears and the voice speaks.

If you read the text, you’ll see that the cloud appears quite suddenly. It doesn’t just show up, it arrives as an interruption to Peter’s comments. God cuts him off, almost like there is no patience for such foolishness.

While we almost all long for some sort of mystical encounter with God, something like the Transfiguration, we also almost all want to stay in charge of our lives. We like being independent.

This call to Peter also comes to us. When we want to simply lift up our own ideas it is a good reminder to be quiet for a bit and listen to Jesus. Often our first instinct, like Peter’s, are not helpful. Often the noise of the crowd and what everyone wants is not what God wants.

All of us would do well to take the advice from the cloud. Martin Luther understood that when we are claimed by Christ, he not only redeems us but also guides us. Our live are best lived out, not by doing or saying the first things that pop into our heads, but by listening to Jesus and being obedient to his call.

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Sermon Podcasts

Here are recordings of recent sermons.

February 19, 2017

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Does Grace Make You Happy?

Forgiveness A

“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.” (Luke 7:47)

Grace is a funny thing. If you need it, it can be amazingly comforting to receive it. But if someone you don’t like needs it, it can be very frustrating to see it given freely when you really wish they would get their just rewards!

When Jesus’ comes to Simon the Pharisee’s home for dinner, somehow a woman finds her way in through an open door. In our modern world this seems almost impossible. How would an unwelcomed person find their way into our dinner table? But ancient Middle Eastern architecture was much more open and someone with a goal could almost always find their way in somewhere.

Simon is offended at the woman’s presence. He’s also offended that Jesus is not offended by her! How could Jesus even pretend to be someone so insightful when he doesn’t see what a terrible person this woman is? And not only is Jesus not offended, he seems pleased at her displays of affection.

When Simon objects to the whole situation, Jesus responds with the above verse. People who have received grace are naturally transformed by that grace and want to show their gratitude and love toward the one who has offered it.

Jesus seems clear: the more aware you are of your need for grace the happier you will be when it comes. On the other hand: the less aware you are for your need for grace, the angrier you will be when it shows up.

So, are you someone who is aware of your need for grace and glad that we worship a God who has offered it to us freely in Jesus? Or, do you find the notion that God can forgive people who you are offended by and who you find to be “unworthy,” to be a real thorn in your side?

How you answer that question will tell you a lot about how you see God, grace, your neighbors and yourself.

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Do Our Actions Merit Listening?

Witness B

‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.  (Luke 7:22)

John the Baptist drives our encounter this week. He has sent his disciples to Jesus to ask a question, “Are you the one…or should we wait for another?”

John has invested his whole life in Jesus. He has preached that the Messiah was coming and his mission was simple: make sure nobody misses it. Now, near the end of his work and life, John seems to be having those nagging doubts that we all have from time to time. What if I invested my life in the wrong thing? What if this is the life I had and I wasted it? So he wants to know (for sure) that Jesus is the one and that he has lived a life worth living.

Jesus doesn’t ever tell him. The response above is simple. You have seen what I have done. You know the expectations of what the Messiah could and would do when he came. Go tell him what you saw and what you heard. John will have to make up his own mind based on that.

Jesus knows that he has taught clearly and acted boldly. Anyone who has been watching and listening will know that there is something special about him. His words and deeds match and that will ground how John responds.

This is a good witness to all of us. If we simply speak, even if what we say is true, but don’t ground our words in actions that match, then our witness will bear little fruit.

Perhaps one reason that the church has lost ground in or world is that people in the church are a bit too “normal.” Our message is incredible but the boldness of our actions sometimes doesn’t look too different from those things being done my people who aren’t part of the church at all. We live in times when there is much that God calls for us to do boldly. Opportunities are all around us. The more courageous we are, as we live our lives, the more seriously people will take our message as well.

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Healing in Our Own Time and Way

Healing

The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. (Luke 7:15) 

One aspect of the ministry of Jesus was healing. When he met someone who was hurting and needed help, Jesus seemed to often ask, “How can I help?” He had a heart filled with compassion and a desire to not only relate to the pains and struggles of others but to also try to make their lives better when he could.

In the quote above, Jesus has encountered a funeral procession. A young man, the only son of his widowed mother, has died. Jesus’ compassion is not for the dead young man. His heart goes out to the woman who has lost the last member of her family. She is alone and vulnerable. She is afraid of what the future holds. Jesus senses her pain and acts to bring her what she needs most. This is not just about her getting her son back. It is about her getting her life back, since as a first century woman, her ability to have property and the things she needed to provide for herself were limited.

Each of us is invited to continue the work of Jesus in our own way. Few of us have the ability to raise dead people and bring them back to life! But we are not to dismiss the calling to do what we can to bring life to people who are hurting and to bring help to people who are vulnerable.

The work of the church includes healing. When we meet people who are physically, emotionally or spiritually in need of healing, it is a chance to say, “How can I be a healing presence in this person’s life?” The answer to that may give us clues into how we are to continue the ministry of Jesus in our own time and in our own ways.

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Life is More Complex Now

Sabbath A

Jesus said to them (the Pharisees), “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.” Luke 6

We often hear the Pharisees (Jewish teachers of the Law) cast in a bad light. They are legalistic and contrary to the will of God, we say. Jesus has come to overturn their bad ways and replace them with grace and the freedom that only Jesus can bring.

While in some ways that is true, it is also true that the Pharisees were the more liberal and egalitarian wing of Jewish leadership. While many segments of Judaism focused on the temple and the role of clerics, Pharisees were more focused on empowering synagogues and people to function, especially after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. This means that Pharisees were closer to Jesus’ teaching than most other wings of Judaism. It also meant that the followers of Jesus (also a Jew) saw more competition from the Pharisees as Christianity emerged than from other sects within the Jewish religion.

Luke tells us these stories to mark a line in the sand for followers of Jesus. There is a purpose for the Sabbath – Jesus is not eradicating Jewish practice and Law. But there is a higher authority now – Jesus. Jesus is not here to destroy what came before him. But he is here to deepen our understanding of what it means to be faithful in a complex and often difficult world.

The bottom line is that if a person has a need that can only be met by not complying with Sabbath practices, that need trumps the Sabbath practice. This is not to be taken lightly. If someone is truly hungry and needs to eat, go ahead and do the work to feed them. If someone is in need of healing on the Sabbath, heal him or her in spite of the Sabbath practices. Note that human need is a deeper calling than the practice of Sabbath. This is not a call to slothful ignoring of God’s desires. But it is a clear focus that if love is called for, the Sabbath is no reason to withhold that love.

Of course, in our world today we have gone the other direction. We have somehow internalized that Sabbath is a flexible principle and we can do what we want. The verse above reminds us that if we think that, we are wrong. The Sabbath belongs to the same God who has come to us in Christ. Honoring Sabbath has always been about making God first and setting aside a time to honor that reality. That doesn’t mean Sabbath doesn’t matter. On the contrary. It elevates how much it does matter and reminds us that it is not our desire for flexible free time that are to guide our actions. Rather, we are to discern the call of Christ and make Sabbath a time for focusing and doing only what Jesus asks. Often that will call us together for worship and Christian community. Sometimes, Jesus may direct us to do something else, not always because we want to but because love demands it.

While some feel that the fabric of our society is being ripped in two, it is perhaps more accurate to recognize that we live in a day when that fabric is being re-dyed. Some experience this with joy and hope and others with fear and pain. As part of this process, the church’s identity and mission is also in flux. Denominations battle and split over issues like homosexuality. Congregations watch their numbers dwindle. Worship leaders are challenged to embrace contemporary methods of entertainment and technology to reshape the liturgy.

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The Importance of Invitation

INVITATION C

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10)

At our last church council meeting we asked each member of council how they had come to be at Zion. Every one of them was able to tell a story and in every case that story mentioned someone else. Not one of the leaders in that room simply decided to look for a congregation and came to Zion without some sort of referral, recommendation or invitation. And while we do have some people who simply want to find a congregation and visit and then stay, most of us have a story to tell and a person to thank for our connection to this community of faith.

Research shows that congregations that do a good job if welcoming new people into a long-term relationship with a faith community receive most of their visitors through a person. The most effective way for a congregation to interact with a new person is for someone in the church to already know them invite them, sit with them, and introduce them to other people and the work the church does on God’s behalf. Studies show that most people who are brought to church by someone else give it a serious try. People who “drop in” are almost 90% likely to not stay long term. They visit, can’t connect and give up. One study I read said that only 12% of first time visitors who find the church on their own are likely to become members.

Of course, this is not just about membership and numbers. What we hope for is a connection to the body of Christ that is God-centered, life giving and meaningful. Peter is so stunned by his encounter with Jesus that Christ has to tell him, “Do not be afraid…” This is not just a club that is in need of what some jokingly refer to as “butts and bucks.” It is an expression of the body of Christ and a place where lives are changed, people are loved and through whom God is reaching out in love to the world.

In a few weeks, we will begin a unit on invitation. It will be a chance to reflect on how people become part of a Christian faith community. It will give us the tools we need to talk about our faith and do it well. And it will give us methods to invite people to come with us into exploring what life in the church can mean for the people we connect with in our daily lives. This is nothing new. For centuries people have been inviting others to hear the Good News of God’s love for us that Christ brings. It all began in a boat in Galilee when Jesus invited Peter to follow him with the promise of passing the work on: “From now on you will be catching people.” That work is ours as well, and when it goes well, there is nothing more exciting than helping someone encounter God’s love in Christ.

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Continuing the Work of Jesus

holy spirit J

Jesus said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

This week we turn to the ministry of Jesus. It reminds us that the point of God coming in Christ at Christmas was not just to proclaim, “Look. Here I am!” It was to bring about the transformation of the world.

This week a friend of mine on Facebook, Tim Larson who is a pastor in the Detroit area, posted this poem by the great Howard Thurman:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.”

Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas,” 1985.

What starts at Christmas with the coming of Jesus is the ongoing work of building the kingdom of God – working to bring life, especially the weakest among us. We are now the body of Christ and the same Spirit is offered to us, even promised to us in baptism. What Jesus begins, is ours to continue.

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