Saturday, June 24, 2017

Foolishness, Wisdom, and Love

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
ACTS DMin in Preaching – Core 1: Preaching as Interpretation
23 June 2017

Text: Proverbs 8:1-11


About a year and a half ago, I had the honor of walking with a family as the matriarch’s health declined and she prepared to die. My friend Vicki’s mother, Prue – short for Prudence – was 100 years old when she died, and Vicki asked me to lead her memorial service.

As we began planning the service together, Vicki brought out notes, written in Prue’s own handwriting, giving us instructions for the service. The notes were written confidently, asking us to sing the hymn “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought!” But Prue added one very specific direction for the singing of this hymn:

DON’T DRAG.

And that was Prue. Up until the last few weeks of her life, she didn’t drag, and so it’s fitting that she would tell us not to drag, either.

There is wisdom in these words of Prue, telling us not to drag. “Sing it,” she’s saying, “And don’t mess around. Don’t let these words about Jesus be dragged out of your mouth. Sing. Proclaim. Tell it.” There is an urgency in her instruction.

So it is, too, with another Prudence character – appearing in Proverbs chapter 8 as the woman named Wisdom. As the writer of Proverbs presents her, she’s calling out, walking all around those ancient streets - streets that were filled with people. She’s raising her voice, she’s taking a stand – she really wants us to hear her:

“You are so limited in your thinking!” She says. “If you’re lacking wisdom, you can learn from me – I am Wisdom, in the flesh!”

Why? Why should we listen to Wisdom?

She tells us why – because Wisdom speaks honorably, she always speaks up for the right, she won’t ever lie to us. Did you hear that last one? In a world that is full of lies, Wisdom won’t ever be untruthful. Wisdom will always say words that are just and true and straight as an arrow. The words of Wisdom won’t go from truth to untruth back to truth again.

Contrast this with another Woman who appears in Proverbs – the character that I’ll call Foolishness. At the end of chapter 7, we read that Foolishness leads our hearts off track, and eventually, Foolishness will cast us down, down – all the way down to a hell of our own making.

Recently, a prominent politician in Washington said that poverty is just a “state of mind” – as if, through the power of wishful thinking, the poor can improve their state in this world.

And yet, if we listen to poor people - if we listen to their stories and we hear what they have to say, we learn that poverty is often systemic and often out of their control. They may work and work, day after day – at multiple jobs – and struggle to afford a safe home, and food to eat, clothes to wear, transportation to their jobs – let alone school supplies for their children. There just isn’t enough. And to say that these people can think their way out of this situation – well, that’s just Foolishness.

So, in Proverbs chapter 7, the character Foolishness is leading people away from Wisdom, and Foolishness is seductive. Foolishness says – as the saying goes - that we can have our cake, and eat it, too, but then that we can take the cake away from our neighbor, and eat their cake, too. And in the real world – in our world – that means that many are poor, and no amount of wishful thinking on their part - or on our part - is going to change that condition.

So where, then, is Wisdom to be found?

She’s there, too. Foolishness is more seductive and sometimes is noisier, but Wisdom is there, too. Wisdom is found in people who take a stand and say, “We have had enough of Foolishness and we are going to help people eat” – and then they do just that by offering healthy meals in our local schools over the summer, when otherwise, children would go hungry. Wisdom is found in our own congregation, whenever we buy canned goods for the Co-op, or school supplies to be distributed by Lutheran World Relief. That is Wisdom.

Because, if you think about it, Wisdom walks hand-in-hand with Love. And they don’t drag – they walk side-by-side, leading us to acts of caring for our neighbor, casting aside the Foolishness of the world that says everyone can do everything on their own. Wisdom and Love say – “Not so fast – we can help, and we will help.”

If we try to understand Wisdom’s ways, we will surely learn from them, especially if we remember that Wisdom’s constant companion is Love. There is much in our world that calls us away from Wisdom, and much that calls us away from Love – but we cannot allow the Foolishness of this world to seduce us away from God’s Wisdom. Loving our neighbor depends on it.

At Our Redeemer, we are now in this long season after Pentecost. In some traditions, it’s called the “Green Season” because of the color of the paraments. But beyond simply being a color that we use during this season, it’s a color that is representative of something bigger, for the green represents growth.



And so I ask you today: In what ways can you grow over the days, and weeks, and months to come? How is God calling you to leave aside the ways of Foolishness and to follow the ways of Wisdom?


Thursday, June 15, 2017

God is With Us Always

Dear reader,

I am leaving on Sunday, June 18, to begin a Doctor of Ministry degree in Chicago. I will be in residence there for three weeks and will be back at ORLC on Sunday, July 9. The sermon that follows is what I preached on my final Sunday at ORLC before leaving town for school.

I am not sure what - if anything - I will post here during my time in Chicago. Rest assured that I'll be back here in July, if not before!

Blessings!
Kathi

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The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Trinity Sunday – 11 June 2017
Text: Matthew 28:16-20
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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This gospel lesson appointed for Trinity Sunday comes from the very end of the gospel of Matthew. This chapter – chapter 28 - begins with the resurrection of Jesus, and includes what we call the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And then the chapter and the gospel conclude with Jesus telling the disciples: “…remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

"...remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

So the Gospel of Matthew ends much the way it begins. The first chapter of Matthew is where we find his birth narrative about the birth of Jesus – his version of the Christmas story. It is here where Matthew says that Jesus will be “God with us” – Immanuel - which is certainly true throughout the life and ministry of Jesus on earth.

But – fast forwarding to the end of Matthew again – Jesus wants his disciples to know that God will still be with them - always, to the very end of the age.

And as for us in our 21st-Century lives - we haven’t eaten with Jesus or traveled with him in the way his disciples did. We’re not sure what his voice sounded like or how he laughed. So this word of Jesus – this promise that God will be with us to the very end of the age - this is an important word for us, too, especially since we have never seen Jesus in the flesh

And each year, this Sunday that we call Trinity Sunday helps us remember that our faith is not only in Jesus. Don’t get me wrong – Jesus is great! But Jesus isn’t all there is.

Pick up a piece of paper and make a “telescope” out of it. Look through the telescope at one thing or person in the room.

Now put down the telescope and look at the same thing or person.

When all we do is look through a small tube, our vision is limited. That’s how our faith is if we only focus on Jesus. Trinity Sunday helps us to see more of God – to see and remember that God is much bigger than our limited vision sometimes allows. But God is not only a Redeemer, but also a Creator and a Sustainer. God is not only a Creator, but also a Redeemer and a Sustainer. God is not only a Sustainer, but is also a Creator and Redeemer. Thinking of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - is important for our faith.

When we are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we are connected to God in all of God’s fullness. As one author said, when we are baptized, “we are immersed into the whole being of God, whether we understand it or not.”[1] This is a great comfort, for it means that we don’t have to understand God completely in order for us to be loved by God. Put another way: God’s complete love for us doesn’t depend on us understanding God completely.

Even those who lived, walked, and talked with Jesus during his earthly ministry had doubts. Look again at our Gospel story for today: at the very beginning, it says that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him;

…but some doubted.”

So the comfort here for us is that we don’t have to have it all figured out.

But there is challenge in Jesus’ words, too – he says we are to go and make disciples. The first challenge is to go – to get out there, outside our box, outside our walls – go! Don’t keep our faith and love only here in this place – but take it out there, with us, everywhere we go.

Jesus’ second challenge is to make disciples – note that he doesn’t say “church members” – but “disciples.” Jesus wants followers who are students, those who are willing to learn, and not just those of a certain age – but Jesus wants all of us to be learning more and more about God, no matter our age, no matter our station in life.

For the next three weeks, I will be absent from you. I’m not sure that being a student in a Doctor of Ministry program is exactly the kind of student that Jesus had in mind, but I do feel certain that this program will make me a better disciple.

Together, you and I are commissioned to keep the ministry going here at Our Redeemer, but your ministry will be all the more important while I am gone. You are commissioned to meet together for worship, learning, service, fellowship, and mutual support – in other words – you are commissioned to keep on living as disciples. You are commissioned also, then, to go and live out your discipleship in your daily lives.

The God who created you and who continues to provide for you, daily –

The God who saved you and who continues to forgive sins, daily –

The God who keeps you in faith, sustaining you in every way, daily –

That God is with you always, even to the very end of the age.

Amen.

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[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3 – essay by Steven P. Eason

God is Calling You

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
A Pentecost – 4 June 2017
Texts: Acts 2; Philippians 4:4-9 (Cecelia’s Confirmation verse)
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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Cecelia has chosen a verse from Philippians 4 as her Confirmation verse, read a few minutes ago: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition present your requests to God." Whenever we look at a solitary Bible verse, it is helpful to look at the context of that verse. So, for some context of Philippians 4:6 –

Remember that this book was originally a letter, written by the Apostle Paul to a group of believers in Philippi. By the time Paul writes this letter, the Church in Philippi is undergoing some suffering as a community because of their belief in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Roman Empire is the pre-dominant ruling power, and absolute allegiance to the Roman emperor is the expectation. But, allegiance to the emperor is more than just saying a pledge – it’s a religion, so Christians in Philippi are being persecuted because they don’t worship the emperor, they worship Christ.

In addition to the suffering that the Philippians are enduring, Paul himself is writing this letter to them while in prison, so he himself is dealing with some pretty difficult circumstances when he writes to them.

So into this situation, and from his own difficult situation, Paul writes these words to the Philippians: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition present your requests to God."

It is one thing if Paul writes these words to them, and everyone is secure and happy in their faith. Having some of the background about the verse, it begins to take on a different significance. Paul writes to the Philippians from a place of endurance, knowing that they are also having to endure some things.

Last week, Cecelia came up here to work on her banner, and she brought her artwork with her. I offered to keep it in my office for safekeeping, and, Cecelia, we had no idea in that moment (when I asked you about keeping it in my office) how much of a witness that artwork would be for me over the next couple of days.

I wasn’t facing difficulties like Paul and the Philippians faced, however, I can tell you there was one point (following a challenging phone call) that I happened to look over and see this verse – and it spoke to me. It spoke directly into the situation I was facing in that moment – directly into my anxiety and stress – and it helped me focus on lifting my anxiety and stress to God in prayer. And several times over the next couple of days, I found myself pondering the words on your artwork. This message was a witness for me.

Even beyond the stresses of our day-to-day lives, we still live in anxious times. Maybe the names of countries and people in charge have changed since the First Century A.D. when Paul lived, but our world is filled with fear and stress, fear and stress that threaten our faith in a loving God.

But today is Pentecost, the day upon which we remember the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Jesus had promised the Spirit to his disciples – and on that first Pentecost, as they gathered, the Spirit descends upon them in a mighty way, granting them strength and power. And this Spirit is poured out on all kinds of people, just as the prophet Joel had said it would be: “…God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”


Which means, Cecelia, that God is calling you – but not only you – but you, and you, and you – God is calling all of us to proclaim God’s love and grace. All of us – young and old, and in the middle – all of us together are joined in this call of proclamation, and we are equipped by God’s Spirit for this work. It is the Spirit who empowers us, and we are not given that power only for our own sakes, but for the sake of this world that God loves. This world needs our witness to God’s love, this world needs our care in God’s name.

Today, you are affirming your baptismal faith. You were baptized – as many of us were – before you could speak for yourself, and so others took the vows for you. Today, you affirm those vows for yourself – promising a life of faith in which you live among God's faithful people, listen to the word of God and share in the Lord's supper, proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

It’s a lot.

But – I promise you this – none of us is alone. Look around you – see your family and your friends, your pastor, and your church family – we are all here to walk with you. In a few minutes, when you come up to affirm your baptismal faith, you’ll kneel for prayer, and we will gather around you, surrounding you with our prayers and our love. Then, this congregation, representing the Body of Christ everywhere, will promise to support you and pray for you as our sister in Christ.

Never forget, too, that the Spirit of God – the same Spirit poured out on those first disciples way back when – that Spirit has been poured out on you, too. That Spirit has been poured out on all of us. Through the waters of baptism, and throughout our lives until today, and into tomorrow, and the next day – that Spirit is with us.

Thanks be to God for this gift. Amen.


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Don't Just Stand There...!

The Rev. Kathi Johnson
Ascension – 28 May 2017
Texts: Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 44-53
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Grand Prairie, Texas

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We have just heard the stories of the Ascension of Jesus as they are found in the book of Acts and the gospel of Luke. A reminder here that scholars believe that Luke and Acts were written by the same person, so we can think of the book of Acts as being a sequel, of sorts to the Gospel of Luke. If you really want to look at this more closely, read Luke 24, which picks up Jesus’ story at the time of his resurrection and includes his Ascension. Then when you finish, flip immediately over to Acts 1, which – after a brief introduction – also includes the Ascension of Jesus. By reading those two chapters in that way, you’ll get a sense of the continuity between these two books.

So the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven is told three times in Scripture: in the Gospel of Mark, in Luke, and in Acts – and this is a clue to us that this story held some importance for those first followers of Jesus. Historically, the Church has remembered the Ascension of Jesus on the fortieth day after Easter – which was last Thursday. In order for us to spend some time with the important stories about Jesus ascending into heaven, I typically move our remembrance of the Ascension to the Wednesday evening before, or the Sunday after, or both.

To the Ascension stories: Jesus is with the eleven disciples, giving instructions to them. He tells them to wait in Jerusalem to receive the promised Holy Spirit – or “power from on high” – so that they can be witnesses for him all over the world. And then Jesus blesses them, and as they watch, he is carried away, up into heaven.

Acts tells us that as the disciples are staring into the clouds, two men in white robes (whom we understand to be angels) show up. In Scripture, whenever angels show up, it’s for a reason – they are, after all, messengers from God. So in this story, their role is to move the disciples along, so they ask, “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

Recently, I’ve seen a car commercial – I don’t remember all the details – but it goes something like this: a skywriter writes a marriage proposal in the sky, and a young woman on the ground (presumably the intended recipient) sees the words. She begins walking toward them – problem is, she’s on a city sidewalk, so she steps off the curb onto the street, completely entranced by the words in the sky, and she steps directly in front of a moving car. The car almost hits her (except that the collision avoidance system stops the car) and she gives a look of thanks toward the car for not plowing her over.

This is how I envision this scene with the angels appearing to the disciples. The disciples are so entranced with looking up at the clouds that it takes something outside of themselves – the angels – to bring them out of staring at the sky. The disciples then follow Jesus’ instructions – they go back to Jerusalem in joy, and go to the Temple to bless God – and to wait.

And it is ten days later – on Pentecost – that the disciples receive the promised Holy Spirit. And then they get to work, sharing the good news about Jesus.

The Ascension of our Lord is an important part of the Jesus story for us. The Ascension is the next step in the journey of Jesus, and it is the next step for the beginnings of the Church. After Jesus ascends up into the clouds, the disciples don’t just stand there, staring into the sky. They move - they act – because they realize that they are part of the story of Jesus.

Do we realize that we are also a part of the Jesus story? We are, and it is because of the witness of those first disciples, as well as countless others over the centuries, and, of course, because of the work of the Holy Spirit. We join the story of Jesus at our baptisms, and we – like those disciples – are called to move and to act.

These are some of the ways the people of ORLC have moved and acted
in our community and around the world during 2017.


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