Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, February 17, 2013: First Sunday of Lent

Texts:  Deuteronomy 26: 1-11  +  Psalm 91:1-2,9-16  +  Romans 10:8b-13  +  Luke 4:1-13

Good morning students, and welcome to your Lenten study hall.  My name is Erik Christensen and I will be your instructor for the next five weeks as we explore the ministry of Jesus in preparation for the great Three Days leading up to the festival of Easter.  The required reading for this class is the gospel of Luke, though there are select passages from the gospel of John that are recommended as well.  You can find these texts in most any bookstore, or in the bibles in the pew-back in front of you.  You can also find them online and in a variety of translations for both print and eReader formats.  There are no quizzes or papers in this class.  There will be one final, administered with water, and you will all pass.  Although there is no such thing as extra credit, you will earn brownie points if you can name the theological doctrine by which we all pass this course on the strength of another’s merits.

There really is a part of me that would still love to teach college or grad school.  Mostly so I could use that tone of voice (“Good morning students…”).  Looking for a season of the church year best suited to the living out of my professorial fantasies, Lent was the obvious choice.  Throughout its long and storied history, the season of Lent has been used as a time for the education and formation of people preparing to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  As the church moved out of the first century and into a period of persecution, many found it difficult to remain true to the promises they’d made at the time of their baptisms — promises that we ourselves have made, or that were made on our behalf by parents and sponsors when we were children.  Christians facing political persecution in the form of imprisonment or even death would sometimes turn their back on the community of the baptized.  Lent was a time when those who had left the church could return, using these forty days as a period of repentance for sin and renewal in faith.

In the modern era, we recall and observe both meanings of this ancient season:

baptized_we_live_coverThis is a time of preparation for baptism. In fact, this year we are celebrating with Jessica Castro and her children Jessie, Angel and Lilly their decision to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.  In preparation for that event, Jessica Palys and I are meeting with the family for an hour each week before worship and studying together, using Dan Erlander’s short, wonderful, illustrated text “Baptized We Live: Lutheranism as a Way of Life.”  

And this is a time for each of us who are already baptized to be reflecting on the ways that we may have capitulated to the pressures of the world that tempt us to turn away from the promises made at baptism. Individually and collectively we use this season of Lent to repent for the ways we have broken or betrayed the solidarity with all God’s people that is the gift of baptism, and we renew our faith and our promises to be co-workers with all of creation in God’s in-breaking reign.

The stories we hear this morning, on this first Sunday of Lent, fit the theme of identity and temptation quite perfectly.  We are, perhaps, most familiar with the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness — first with bread, then with political power, and finally with the promise of divinity, even immortality.

These temptations come at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and they remind me of the three renunciations we make at the beginning of the baptismal rite before we are washed in these waters and initiated into the mission and ministry of Christ.  We ask,

  • Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
  • Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
  • Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?

To each of these questions the candidate responds, “I renounce them,” mirroring Jesus’ own renunciation of Satan’s tempting offers.

Last month I spent the better part of a week down in Atlanta, Georgia.  I was there by invitation from the Worship staff from the Churchwide offices of the ELCA to be part of a team of clergy who worked together on crafting new language for contemporary Christian worship.  In that process one of my assignments was actually to find new words for these ancient baptismal renunciations.

south_park_satanRecognizing that many of us are unfamiliar, even uncomfortable, with the use of the name “Satan” — surrounded by depictions of a red-fleshed bully wielding a pitchfork on South Park or various horror movie renditions of “the Devil,” I had to try and find new words that more accurately reflected ancient views of what we are called to renounce in our baptism.

In the gospel of Luke, the devil tempts Jesus with offers that expand in their scope. The first temptation is bread.  We may not think too much of bread, but if that’s true, then it’s probably a sign that we have enough of it, or enough money to never have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.  Of the world’s 6.7 billion people, almost 1 billion go hungry each day — that’s about 14% of the world’s community that prays “give us this day our daily bread” with an urgency we may simply never understand.

For these people, a person who could have made bread out of rocks would have been a magician — but a person who became bread for the whole world would have been a savior.

The second temptation is political power.  The devils tells Jesus, “to you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.”  There’s some sly humor in Luke’s gospel at this point, I think.  The devil is asserting that politics are the devil’s playground, and who among us hasn’t thought the same at some point in our lives, or even in the last week? In a world of back-room deals, the devil is offering Jesus the sweetest deal of them all.  But Jesus renounces the devil’s claim over politics, and in doing so I think he ennobles the political work of the church, our calling to use all the tools available to us to shape the world so that it more fully reflects God’s peace, mercy, justice and love.  In a world where politics too quickly becomes a synonym for division, the baptized people of God recall Paul’s words to the Romans, “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

In a world in which political leaders living nations away controlled the lives of millions of people, a person who ruled the nations would have been a hero — but a person who prioritized people over power would have been a savior.

The final temptation is cosmic in scope.  The devil tempts Jesus with the promise of divine protection.  He says, “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here for it is written, ‘God will command the angels concerning you, to protect you.’”  It is the promise of eternal life.  If you are the child of God, then nothing can hurt you, nothing can kill you.  That is the devil’s tempting lie.  But Jesus will be the one who shows us the breadth and the depth of God’s solidarity with all the suffering world.  A love so deep that it will not pass over death, but will enter it just as fully as each of us someday must.

In a world dominated by death, a person who escaped death would have been a legend — but a person who embraced death so that each of us could live more fully, less fearfully, would have been a savior.

So we, when we are baptized, follow in the footsteps of our savior, renouncing the devil’s empty offers in favor of a new life lived in solidarity with all the world’s people: the hungry, the oppressed, the weak and the dying.

As I looked for new words to communicate these ancient ideas, I tried to think about the range of situations in which people are baptized and how I would speak to each.  In one case, I imagined a worship service where those being baptized were old enough to answer for themselves, but still young enough that the traditional language would be far beyond their daily vocabulary.  I tried to find words that children could say with honesty and integrity.  This is what I came up with, and as we close this first lesson in our Lenten study hall I’m going to ask you to respond to these questions — if you feel comfortable doing so — with the words “I say no to them.”  As we finish, I’ll ask you to join me in reciting the Apostle’s Creed — remembering those words by which we were each baptized.  To make that easier, how about we each open our hymnals to page 229 in the front.

Friends, as you get ready to be baptized, I’m going to ask you to say no to the things that hurt you and to say yes to God.  Some of our words will be short and simple, and some will be long and complicated, but all will tell the story of God’s love for you and for the whole world.

Do you say no to hate, no to violence, no to greed and no to everything else that is the opposite of God’s peace, mercy, justice and love?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to rules, no to habits, no to traditions, no to prejudices that go against God’s hopes and dreams for the world?

Response: I say no to them.

Do you say no to the things you do but shouldn’t, no to the temptation to do nothing when action is needed, no to everything that pulls you away from God?

Response: I say no to them.

Saying no to sin, and all that hurts us and God’s creation, I ask you now to say yes to God with the words used by Christians at their baptisms since the very earliest days of the Church.

Do you believe in God the Father?

I believe in God, the Father almighty,

creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,

born of the Virgin Mary,

suffered under Pontius Pilate,

was crucified, died, and was buried;

he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again;

he ascended into heaven,

and is seated at the right hand of the Father,

and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

I believe in the Holy Spirit,

the holy catholic church,

the communion of saints,

the forgiveness of sins,

the resurrection of the body,

and the life everlasting.

Amen.

 

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Messages

2012 Annual Report: Pastor’s Report

Pastor’s Report to the Congregation for 2012

Submitted by Pastor Erik Christensen

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In 2013 our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), will be celebrating its 25th anniversary.  Formed in 1988 as the merger of its predecessor bodies — the American Lutheran Church (ALC), the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC) — the newly established ELCA was more than just an association of congregations, it was the coming together of a rich variety of cultures.  The ELCA brought together the liturgically formal, organizationally-centralized, and ecumenically-oriented LCA with the Midwestern, congregational piety of the ALC and the reforming character of the AELC.

The ELCA’s webpage (www.elca.org/25) for our 25th anniversary celebrations states,

In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul writes, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

We are a church that is deeply rooted — and always being made new.  Our roots are in Scripture, tradition and the Lutheran Confessions, as well as in the vibrant communities and rich histories of our congregations. These roots are an ongoing source of nourishment, enabling us to be a church that is resilient, always reforming and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Reading that description of our life together as a church, I was struck by a couple of things:

First, it was gratifying to see that the language we’ve been using throughout the fall during our stewardship campaign, Deeply Rooted — Branching Out, was also being used throughout the church as a metaphor for the ways we are living into the future together (www.elca.org/LIFT).  We are, as congregations, but also as a denomination, always living in the tension between who we have been and who we are becoming — a tension that is never resolved, but faced anew in every generation.

Second, I noticed something in our denomination’s framing of this 25th anniversary that gave me renewed courage and hope for the future.  As we enter our 7th year of redevelopment, it can sometimes feel like we are playing catch up with the rest of the church.  As though, somehow, other congregations have managed to keep up with the pace of change while we have, somehow, fallen behind.  As I read Paul’s words to the Corinthians though, I am reminded that the process of redevelopment is really something to which all people, all congregations, all denominations, and the whole church is being called, always and eternally.  Because we are in Christ, we are always becoming new!

So, I look back on 2012 through that insight — that, in Christ, we are always being made new.  As you read the ministry reports submitted by the Education & Faith Formation, the Social Justice and the Worship committees, you’ll detect that same theme.  Over and over our lay leaders report, “the past year was a reboot,” or “after reconstituting ourselves…”  Acting Council Chair Scott Shippy concludes the introduction to his report, “it should not be surprising that a new way of being St. Luke’s is needed.”

A new way of being — of being St. Luke’s, of being Lutheran, of being Christian — is needed.  A new way of being is always needed, and by faith the Church’s confession has always been, “In Christ… everything has become new!”

Like the ELCA, St. Luke’s renewal has brought together a rich variety of cultures.  Among us you can find lifelong Lutherans and people only recently come to faith; we count among our numbers people steeped in the words and sounds of Lutheran liturgies from green hymnals and blue hymnals and red hymnals, and we are a to people who didn’t grow up with books in their hands at all, but instead sang songs by memory and by heart, passed down from their parents and grandparents.  We are a community of readers and thinkers, planners and organizers, singers and writers, listeners and prayer-warriors.  We are artists. We are people who have lived in this neighborhood all our lives and people just passing through.  We are young and old.  We are single and partnered.  We are Latino and Anglo, Native and colonizers, Black and White, gay and straight, bisexual and transgendered. We are people with homes.  We are people who have known homelessness.  We are able-bodied, healing from wounds, and in recovery from addictions.  We are newly born, we are nearing death and, by our baptism, we are all headed for new life.

We are being made new!

Surrounded by so rich a diversity, arriving each Sunday to discover that we are once again not the same community that we were the week before, we have a special calling as a congregation at this time to look up from our books and look around our sanctuary.  We need to always be noticing who has just arrived.  We need to be intentionally welcoming the visitor, inviting the newcomer for coffee and conversation, or a play date with our kids, or dinner in our homes.

We need to become comfortable telling the story of how God is moving in our lives, and we need to continue to create opportunities — through bible studies, through service opportunities, through small groups, through worship — for people to experience the real and transformative power of God’s love for them, and in them, and through them for the sake of the world.

This is work none of us can do alone.  We need the skills and passions, the gifts and graces of each and every person in our community.  We have been blessed by an extraordinarily committed group of lay leaders whose mission is to equip the whole congregation for lives of loving service.

As we embark on this new year, our 7th year of redevelopment, our 25th as a denomination, our 113th as a congregation, we draw our courage from the witness of God’s saints, ordinary people like us, who in every generation were transformed by the power of their baptism, made new creations by the power of Christ.  Through them God healed and transformed the world.  Through us, God continues to act.

With thanksgiving for God’s power at work in us, always making us new,

Pastor Erik Christensen

 

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