Sermon: Journey Toward the Promised Land: God is at Work

We come to the end of this sermon series and this journey. We see God at work behind the scenes and a talking donkey. How could it get any better?!?

Article: Jesus’ Family

If you were to ask Jesus about the relationship with his family at the beginning of his ministry he might have said, “It is complicated.” When Jesus began his ministry it wasn’t clear what his family thought of his career choice. Jesus’ step-father (Joseph) was either a carpenter or a stone worker depending upon the translation. In those days, many male children learned the family business.

None of Jesus’ family except for Mary and Joseph were mentioned by name until after the resurrection. James, Jesus’ half-brother or step-brother became the head of the Church after Jesus. James even has a book in the New Testament. Although we don’t know James back story, I assume James didn’t believe that his half-brother Jesus was the Son of God during His ministry. Yet after the resurrection, he became a leader within the Church. The resurrection of Jesus changed everything for James and many others.

When Jesus was preaching, teaching and healing, His family didn’t know what to do with Him. In Mark chapter three we hear how Jesus family struggled with his identity.

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

 I know this is a surprising revelation for some for two reasons:

  1. Jesus has more family than his mother and step-father.
  2. They think Jesus is crazy.

I am sure if you grew up with someone it would be a hard thing to accept that they are now preaching, teaching and healing in God’s Name.

Even people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth found it difficult to accept that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s love (see Luke 4:14-30). They tried to kill him for the things he said in the synagogue.

A little later, Jesus’ family comes to find him again after they thought he was “out of his mind.”

Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”

He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” Luke 8:19-21

Although we don’t know why they came to see Jesus this time, if the past is any indication, they weren’t coming over to say “hi” and tell him to “keep up the good work.

Jesus uses the situation and the moment to teach the people around him. “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”

What might be perceived as a slight to his family (if they heard) is a promise for the rest of us.

What I find interesting is that Jesus doesn’t say anything about faith in this moment. He is completely practical. When you hear biblical instruction and then actually do it, you will be a child of God.

We don’t have to be related to Jesus to be in His family. He provides a way for us to be adopted into His royal family: put in to practice the things he taught us.

That’s what I need to hear…every day. A reminder to act like a child of God because I am a child of God! Even when I fail, the cross of Christ reminds me that I can start over at any time. I need lots of “do-overs.”

We don’t know what happened to the rest of Jesus’ family but it is clear that Mary (his mother) and James were also children of God because they followed Jesus’ teachings later in life.

As child of God, I need a Heavenly Father to guide me. I need a divine parent to watch over me and I need a big brother like Jesus show me the way.

God bless,
Pr. Ben


Sermon: Journey Toward the Promised Land: Priorities and Change

We continue in the series and the people of Israel come to the edge of the Promised Land. Will they respond to God’s invitation? Jesus talks about invitations too. This is a question of priorities.

Article: Vows Made

Once a year I participate in something called a Chrism Mass. It is a worship service that blesses and consecrates oil for anointing. We use anointing oil for baptisms but it can be used for other purposes as well. I did not go to this worship service for the oil. I went because it is also the one time a year I renew my ordination vows. It is not required but I choose to go every year. I also participated in a service like this when I lived near Chicago.

The Chrism Mass worship is geared for pastors and deacons but all are welcome because corporate worship is always public and never private. I was surrounded by colleagues from the Bay Area. From as far south as Carmel and as far north as San Francisco. After the service, we ate lunch together. Oh and our bishop was there too.

As we came to the part of the service where we renewed our ordination vows, I was especially struck by one of the promises. “Are you resolved to continue to preach faithfully and teach diligently the word of God as it is found in the Holy Scriptures and taught in the confessions of this Church?” The response to this question and the others was “I am so resolved.”

 This question corresponds to one of my ordination vows which also relates to the constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America under section 7.31.02.

 As I reflected on this vow, it occurred to me that over the years, various people do not understand that I am bound to this promise. That somehow, the things I say and the decision I make as a pastor are totally based on personal opinion and nothing else. Sure, I have opinions. Everybody does. However, when it comes to the work I do, I feel compelled to turn to the scriptures. I trust the Scripture not only to guide me but also to mold me.

I also understand that not every pastor does that. Sigh.

I was having a great theological discussion with a member via email and I described myself as being an orthodox Christian. Not the denomination (Greek or Russian Orthodox) but that I believe in the traditional, historic and theological beliefs passed down through the Bible and the Lutheran perspective as found in the Book of Concord. That might surprise some of you.

If I did not have the scriptures as a foundation I would be lost. What would be the point of preaching? Or teaching? Or even making a decision? It would be all based on opinion or personal preference. That is not appealing to me at all.

I enjoy a good theological discussion. It does not bother me in the least to have people disagree with me on theological grounds. After all, we have many denominations don’t we? It is good to talk about issues using scripture as a foundation for dialogue even if there is not universal agreement.

There is one other reason I take this and my other ordination vows seriously. There is an admonition found in the book James within the third chapter. Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. This verses causes me to pause. I am held to a higher accountability. I will be judged by God with more rigor for the things I say and the things I do. I do not take that lightly.

If you ever wondered what makes me tick, now you know.

This renewal of vows was good for me because it made me stop and think about what I have promised to do until I take my last breath.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben




Sermon: Journey Toward the Promised Land: Spiritual Growth

We continue on in the journey of the Israelites. Today we discover something totally amazing: God is moving us toward a committed relationship. We even discover the path through the Israelites. Listen in, you might be surprised.

Article: Paths of Right Standing Re-Visited

On Wednesday night worship during the season of Lent we have been exploring the 23rd Psalm. Last night I spent some with the words “God guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Psalm 23:3b.

A number of Bethelonians (or is it Bethelites) heard me speak on this passage but I feel led to share some more reflections with those who could not attend (or live in Cupertino). For those of you who were there, this is mostly new material. Think of this as a director’s cut with bonus material. Ha!

Let me begin with a bold statement: God wants to lead His people. Not for selfish purposes or to cause detriment. I am reminded of the verse in Jeremiah most of you know, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

 God already knows the rest of our lives and God wants to guide us toward the future that He has planned. Can you imagine that? God knows how it ends. Not just the world, but the lives of everyone and wants to lead us toward hope and a future. An eternity with God, in my opinion, is quite a future! However, God is not just talking about the end (which is really a beginning) God is also talking about the journey towards that end. God wants to lead us.

Of course there is something that gets in the way of God leading us, we do. Free will is second greatest gift God gave humanity (Jesus being the first) and we use that freedom to walk our own paths. After all, we know what is best for us or so we think. Yet God never gives up on us. Even when go down our own path that usually leads nowhere or worse, a more dangerous path, God is there guide us back. We just need to stop long enough to listen and reflect and hear the voice of Jesus calling.

Yes, there are times when things happen beyond our control that often lead us to a dead end. Grief and trauma caused by other people and events can cause our lives to careen into a ditch. Even when life will never be the same again, Jesus is in that ditch waiting to help us out when we are ready to move forward.

Not only does God want to lead us but God wants to lead us towards Him. “Paths of righteousness” are paths of right standing with God. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the “junk” that comes between God and ourselves (better known as sin) is removed. See how good God is? Jesus even eliminates the barriers to growing closer to Him. God wants to lead us closer to Him throughout our lives. Paths of right standing.

Now here is the really cool part of this… the closer we are to Jesus the more he rubs off on us. It works like this in our other relationships too. The more time we spend with people, the more impact they have on us and visa-versa. (Rachel tried to limit my contact with the children growing up for this very reason. I’m kidding!)

Imagine, the more time we spend walking on the path of righteousness the more we will reflect the love, compassion and values of Jesus. I totally need more of Jesus in my life especially when I am driving or backing out of a parking space and other drivers don’t stop. I am sad when I see Christians who say they believe in Jesus but do not reflect His love toward others on a consistent basis. They believe in Jesus as a concept but Jesus has not changed their hearts as they walk their own paths. They prefer to cast God in their own image and have God approve of what they believe in. Often this manifests in God hates what I hate (or fear).

There is a reason God wants to draw us close and transform us so that we look a little more like Jesus and a little less than ourselves. This is that reason: God would love for us to share that right standing with others.

God leads on paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake. God asks us to share His love.  The other night at the Lenten service I was wearing my trusty llama socks. I was thinking about (but didn’t talk about) how God enlists us to be sure-footed Jesus loving llamas on the path of right standing, guiding others through the rough terrain toward the greatest Sherpa we have ever known. Jesus has walked these treacherous trails of life and has provided us the path to take. As his llamas, we can guide others on that same path… for His name’s sake.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Journey Toward the Promised Land: Nostalgia->Complaining-> Worry

We continue the Israelite journey toward the Promised Land. Food becomes an issue but it is also nostalgia that leads to complaining that leads to worry. Jesus has something to say to us about this pattern.

Article: Quo Vadis?

Do you know the legend of Saint Peter’s death? There are several versions but nothing recorded in the scriptures.

The best known appears in the Acts of Peter, a third-century work that records Jesus closest  disciple’s death. When the Neronian persecution began, Peter leaves Rome rather than face crucifixion with other Christians in the Hippodrome.

As he flees south along the Appian Way, he encounters Jesus walking toward the city. “Quo vadis, Domine?” Peter asks. “Where are you going, Lord?”

Jesus, in what became known as the “Quo Vadis Legend”, replies. “To Rome, to be crucified again.”

Peter, once again humiliated, thinks further, turns, and goes back to the city where, at his own request, he is crucified upside down, feeling himself unworthy of being crucified in the same way as his master.

All we know for sure is that Saint Peter was martyred in Rome in the second half of the first century around the same time that Saint Paul was killed. It is widely accepted that Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded.

When I think of this legend I can’t help but think about our struggles to remain faithful.

As the persecution increased, as the story goes, Peter fled Rome. Life would be easier if not safer somewhere else.

OK, so we are not under any sort of persecution in the United States, but it is clear that many Christians park their faith in the garage when it conflicts with a deeply held personal belief or we become strangely silent in moments when there is controversy. It is as if we spiritually flee Rome when “the going gets tough.” Whether it is an internal conflict or an external struggle, many runaway from Christ and who Christ calls us to be.

I am not pointing fingers here. Only you can discern if you are one of these types of Christians. Of course, it helps to be self-aware and it is essential to understand what scripture says about the nature of God and what scripture says about how Christians might live. That could be some of the problem. It is hard to have a Biblical worldview if a person doesn’t know their Bible.

We could go through history (recent and ancient) and see this play out over and over again in different ways. For example,  The Spanish Inquisition that began in the 1490s. Instead of preaching the good news of Jesus to all people, the Church persecuted anyone who was not Christian. Many were forced to convert to Christianity under duress and many others died.  Another example, slavery and racism in our country. Many Christians have been on the wrong side of these issues throughout our nation’s history and some still are.

It is not only issue driven. It can also be our response to anything. Last night at our Lenten worship, Dave Denny talked about a preacher on the campus of DeAnza College who was spouting all sorts of angry words about who God hates (including a banner just to be crystal clear). You can see where a person like that will make life more difficult for other Christians (like us) to talk about Jesus because people will now assume that all Christians are like that.

As Peter left Rome, he saw Jesus headed toward that same city. The conversation they had changed Peter’s mind and he went back. I am hopeful Jesus is having those same conversations with people today through prayer, worship and conversations between Christians.

The truth is this: we follow a God of love. A God who willingly died on the cross so that we might see the depths of that love. More than that, Christ’s death is the way God deals with our lack of faith and bad attitudes (sin). The cross is a sign of reconciliation. God calls us back to Him through that cross. It is through the One who died on that cross who can remove our brokenness and replace it with love.

One of the reminders of Lent is to follow Christ all the way to His crucifixion. We are called to take up our crosses and follow Him (Mark 8:34). It is a call for every Christian to put our selfishness and bad attitudes to death. It also is a reminder that there are more important things than saving our own lives (our agendas, our personal beliefs, etc.…)  and some things are worth dying for.

Christianity is not meant to be a side dish or a condiment to enhance our entrée. The call of Christ is to leave our personal ambitions and agendas behind to become the love of God in this hurting and broken world. Leave the judging to God (Romans 2:1-4). Hate has no place in God’s Kingdom.

God bless,
Pr. Ben



Sermon: Journey Toward the Promised Land: It is Not About the Water

Today we begin a new sermon series. We will be spending the next 5 weeks looking at stories of the exdous of Israel as they make their way to the Promise Land. We begin with the need for water. But it is not about the water.

Article: Greed is just one our problems…

He who loses money, loses much; He who loses a friend, loses much more; He who loses faith, loses all. – Eleanor Roosevelt

 Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.” ― Horace Mann

 In a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy. ― Matt Taibbi

 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. – St. Paul of Tarsus

 No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. –Jesus of Nazareth

Unless you gave up the following the news for Lent, you already know about the tragedy that occurred in Parkland, Florida yesterday. There are 17 families grieving the loss of a loved one because they were killed by a disturbed lone gunman.

It causes me to shudder when I think about Christians receiving ashes yesterday with the words, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” for some in Florida it was prophetic.

It leaves us asking that same questions that we have already asked several times already in 2018, “Why?” and “How can we end this?”

The status quo is not acceptable. Cold blooded murder is not acceptable under any circumstance as a Christian. Not that I need to say that, but I guess I do.  The killing of innocent people is not the “trade-off” for the constitutional right to bear arms. There is no such thing as acceptable losses in order to preserve the freedom to own an automatic or semiautomatic weapons from a Christian point of view.

Some people will want to tell you that this is only a “mental health issue” and not a gun issue. Others will say that if someone wants a gun bad enough, they will procure one. Still others will say, it is “too soon” to talk about solutions knowing that it is never the right time. Another group will tell you that it is the time for “thoughts and prayers” and we should not try to “problem solve” in this moment or at the time of other tragedies in our recent past. All of these arguments are excuses for inaction.

As you know, we have a school at Bethel and we are located across the street from Cupertino High School. I suppose that makes me think about these things a little more seriously. As I write this, I can hear our children playing on the playground.

Is there a solution to this madness or should we expect a new normal or violence in the United States?

I refuse to believe that school violence or mass shootings is our new normal. There is no doubt that there are many things that contribute to the increase in violence: family and societal breakdown, the lack of political compromise, a mental healthcare system where people are not receiving the care they need either from a lack of personal assets or community funding and the list goes on.

And there is one more thing contributing to this ongoing problem: greed. Greed has the ability to make you do and say things that are contrary to your core values. The promise of more money can cause your moral compass to spin. A person who has traded their morals for money have lost their way.

The amount of money being spent by organizations to support politicians directly or indirectly is staggering and disheartening. It is the kind of money that will make a greedy person drool. I am not singling out the “gun lobby” on this. There is way too much money in politics period. This type of money prevents honest discussions and compromise on a whole range of issues including common sense gun laws, background checks and the sale of deadly weapons at unregulated gun shows in various states.

Money gets in the way of fixing a lot of things at the national and state level because lawmakers are beholden to their donors whether directly or indirectly.

Greed is not the only problem  but it is a big problem in finding solutions that protect people especially when we elect and trust lawmakers to work for the good of the community and not just special interests.

Within the first amendment of The United States Constitution it states that the government shall not abridge “the freedom of speech, or of the press…” yet we have libel and defamation laws. Even the Supreme Court once ruled that yelling “fire” in a crowded theater does not constitute free speech because it is “dangerous speech” (Schenck v. United States, 1919). Can we not have stronger protections as it pertains to the second amendment?

Is it not time to put the sixth commandment above the second amendment?

Everything I have written about are “heart issues.” As a nation we have a serious heart condition. It is time to do some soul searching and problem solving.

Last night at Ash Wednesday service I said that “Love is the most powerful force in the universe.” I stand by that statement because it is love that raised Jesus from the dead and love that turned Saint Paul from killing and persecuting Christians to becoming Christianity’s greatest theologian. It will take our active love and concern to slow this cycle of increasing violence.

Let us pray…
Lord of Love,

We pray for everyone affected by gun violence, domestic violence and senseless violence. We sense there is something really wrong with the ways things are in our world. The problems seem insurmountable and never ending. We despair at the mess humanity has created for ourselves.  Fill our hearts with your love so that we are protected from the sin of violence and greed in our own lives. We ask that you use us as your children to bring real change and lasting peace to our communities, our nation and your world. Please show us the way. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben