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Article: Two Rabbis

jesus-teachingOn Wednesday night, we hosted Rabbi Dana Magat from Temple Emanu-El in San Jose. I kept thinking about something he said to us about Reformed Judaism. Essentially Rabbi Dana said that our actions have eternal significance. How we act in this life has ramifications in our afterlife. I am sure the good Lutherans in the room bristled at the comment as they remembered Martin Luther’s explanation of the second article of the Apostles’ Creed. (Am I right? Ha!)

Here is what Pr. Luther wrote: I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, delivered me and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver and gold but with his holy and precious blood and with his innocent sufferings and death, in order that I may be his, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.

We Lutherans say– we don’t have to worry about how we act because Jesus saved us by offering himself as a sacrifice on the cruel Roman cross. It is God’s grace that covers our sins and we don’t have to worry about the afterlife if we believe in Jesus.

As Pr. Luther would say, “This is most certainly true.”

BUT…

There is always a “but.” Remember what I said last night, “Lutherans live life in the grey.” We wrestle and sometimes do not resolve things and that is ok too. There is another Rabbi from 2000 years ago whom we follow also said this about this life and the afterlife:

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. 18 But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 

 21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 

 22 “The man with the two talents also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.’ 

 23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ 

 24 “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 

 26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. 

 28 “ ‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. 29 For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Matthew 25:14-30

 Before I even talk about this parable of Jesus you need to know that this is in a section of Matthew where Jesus is talking about the end times, judgment and the afterlife. This parable reminds us that our actions today (this life) have ramifications for our tomorrow (the afterlife).

Jesus teaches us that what we do with our gifts (abilities, passions, skills, etc.) have some bearing on our future. If we waste or hoard what has been given to us; we will answer for that. The amount of what we have (abilities, passions, skills, etc.) been given isn’t the measure of acceptability. It is what we do them (no matter how small) that matters to God.

It is the difference between asking my son (when he was in school), “Did you get an A on the test?” versus “Did you do the best you possibly could do?” The point I am trying to make is this: God isn’t looking for perfection. He is looking for our best effort. Notice the servant in the parable who doesn’t make an effort with what he was given. It did not end well for him.

The parable is not meant to scare anyone. It is meant for us to reflect on the kind of life we are living and whether it matches up with God’s expectations. Those who are truly following Jesus think about their actions. Those who rely on what Pr. Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” do not. To put it another way, “If your faith hasn’t changed you, it probably hasn’t save you.”

I understand that sounds a little harsh but it gets at the heart of what Jesus was teaching. As God is generous with us by giving us gifts (abilities, passions, skills, etc.) we use those gifts to be generous with others. If we neglect those gifts or keep them to ourselves, we will have to answer for that.

Of course, we cannot earn our way to heaven. Yet there is something to be said about the quality of afterlife we will have based on how we live our lives today. If you doubt me, go re-read the parable of Jesus.

On Wednesday, one Rabbi reminded me of what another Rabbi once said.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

benbergren dot com 1400-700

Sermon: Joseph Needs a Push

Joseph, Jesus step-father struggled with Mary’s pregnancy. Listen in to find out why he changed his mind and helped Mary. Here is the link to the painting I mention in the sermon: http://benbergren.com/joseph-nativity/

 

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Article: What Kind of Sabbath is Important?

 

 

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I was thinking about this story earlier today and the implications it has for us as worshippers of Christ… I know, I know, I think about weird stuff a lot.

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain-fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” 

He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?  In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 

Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Mark 2:23-28

Jesus was walking through a field of grain with his disciples on the Sabbath day of rest. As they walked through this field some of them plucked a few heads of grain and most likely popped them in their mouths.

When the religious authorities saw this, they interpreted what they saw as “harvesting the crops.” (Clearly they weren’t.) None the less, the Pharisees accuse Jesus and his disciples of doing work on the Sabbath and therefore sinning.

How is this sinning? Let’s go back and see what the Law says…

Deuteronomy 5:12-14 says this about that commandment, “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do.”

The Sabbath day is a day of rest for everyone. There are clear instructions about what can be construed as work if you do enough of it and clearly Jesus wasn’t working.

Yet Jesus points out The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Sabbath means a day of rest and a day of atonement. God gave us the Sabbath for our benefit. When we start adding rules about how that happens, we lose sight of the gift of rest and atonement.

This is a classic case of the confusing the means with the end. The ultimate goal of the Sabbath is not to work 7 days a week. Taking a day and resting is good. Even more than just resting, God says to make the Sabbath day holy. Set it apart as special. God wants us to remember Him on the Sabbath day too because God is holy.

The problem comes when we set all sorts of rules (privately or publicly) about what kind of Sabbath makes a real Sabbath.

We get so caught up on what makes up the Sabbath—we miss what God intends: A Day of Rest and a day of atonement.

Religion can get in the way of the kind of Sabbath God wants for us. God wants to have a relationship with us where we trust Him and His promises. The proof is in the gift of Jesus who came to earth to show us how much God loves and then gave his life as a sacrifice of atonement to remove all the barriers (sin) that would keep us from God. To help foster this relationship God would like to have with us, he designates a day to not work so that we can rest and think about Him.

Sounds good so far, right? The problem begins when we start adding rules (and sometimes they are personal rules) about how we connect with God on the Sabbath. Yes, I am talking about we say and do at worship on our Sabbath… Sunday mornings.

I probably could list 100 things I have heard people say about worship that begins with the following sentence: “It really isn’t worship if we don’t…”

  • Say a creed
  • Sing certain hymns
  • Have three Bible Readings
  • Have Communion every Sunday
  • Feel a little guilty
  • And the list goes on…

You all know what I am talking about. We all have our preferences and preferences are fine but when we impose them on everyone else, it becomes a burden. This is often played out in another sentence I hear almost every year at church this time of year: “It isn’t really Christmas until I…” Now someone’s Christmas is dependent upon me doing the thing they like/want. That is a lot of pressure!

I am sure God does not have a worship rule book in heaven. I am also fairly sure God doesn’t send the angels to make sure we are doing it right. Why? Because: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

God will not grade us on the quality or quantity of worship we participate in. God looks at the intention of our hearts. God wants to connect with you without personal “rules of engagement” or be bound to the container of Sunday morning worship. Be open to the gift of the Spirit. Now and always.

Happy Advent,
Pr. Ben

benbergren dot com 1400-700

Sermon: Advent- Preparing for a Guest

We begin Advent (a time of preparation) by hearing from John the Baptist. He tells us to get ready. Do we get ready for a guest by just waiting around? No. We make preparations to make our guests feel at home. Listen in as I talk about to get ready for Jesus’ return.

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Article: Who is my Neighbor?

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In Luke 10:25-37 an expert in Jewish Law asks Jesus about what he must do to go to heaven. As an expert in Jewish Law, he knew the answer. He was testing Jesus.

Not surprising, Jesus turns the table on him and asks the expert, “What does the Jewish Law say?”

Quick with an answer the “lawyer” replies, “‘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, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” 

The expert summarizes the entire Law of Moses in one sentence. Jesus affirms this answer.

That answer was not satisfying enough. He had to take it a step further. (He should know better than to push Jesus.) The expert in the law asked this, “And who is my neighbor?” 

Hold on to your hats, Jesus is going to tell a story… and he did. The parable of the Good Samaritan. Here it is (if you don’t know the story)…

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 

In one paragraph Jesus offends pretty much everyone. The two people who passed by the injured man were like the “expert in the law.” They were too busy with their own careers to help this man. The unsaid implication was this: if the priest or Levite stopped and helped this man, they would be deemed “unclean” and unfit for service at the Temple in Jerusalem. They chose to remain clean and walk on by.

The Samaritan helped this poor guy. Yet Samaritans in Jesus’ time were viewed as impure half-breeds and heretics. The Samaritans were looked down upon by the Jews for terrible reasons. It was racist. The Jewish authorities essentially kicked the Samaritans out of the “family” 500 years before Jesus for “mixing” with non-Jewish Tribes at that point the Samaritans began to worship God somewhere else (Mt. Gerizim). That made the Samaritans heretics too since the only place you can truly worship God was the Temple in Jerusalem.

Yet Jesus points out that the un-redeemable and horrible Samaritan was more compassionate than the priest and Levite. Tell me that wasn’t upsetting to the expert in the Law?

Yet Jesus doesn’t answer the question posed by this lawyer (Who is my neighbor?). Instead Jesus asks this, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” 

See what Jesus did there? He didn’t answer the original question of “Who is my neighbor?”. Instead Jesus instructs the expert of the law and us to be a neighbor.

The original question gets at “Who do I have to be nice to?”. Jesus flips the script and tells us that this question is not as important as being neighborly. The main ingredient of being a neighbor is having mercy on people.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t put qualifications on who we should be neighborly to. Just “Go and do likewise.” Be merciful to people… especially those who are struggling in any way (like the injured guy who probably was not a Samaritan).

What does this have to do with us today as Christians. A lot actually. Recently there has been a movement of declaring yourself a “safe person” to all people by wearing a safety pin. The safety pin obvious symbolizes that you are a safe person to all people without qualification. It is a sign of being neighborly and showing mercy to those who might need a neighbor right now. I have nothing against being that kind of person in the world (no surprise there, right?).

However, what makes me sad is that the “cross” we wear as jewelry and the cross we display on our cars and other places does not symbolizes safety unless you are a fellow Christian (to those on the outside.) If I were to wear a cross on my lapel, it may cause some people to fear me because of what I may “stand for” as a Christian. That is not to say we are all “like that.” It is clear to me that the Christian family does not appear to be “safe” for other people when we must resort to using safety pins and not the cross of Christ.

Being neighborly shouldn’t be conditional. The expert in the law was hoping to discover who he could be merciful to- and more importantly who he did not have to be kind to. Jesus doesn’t define who our neighbor is, instead he instructs us to be a merciful neighbor to all without condition.

I would like the cross to be a sign of God’s compassion again and not a symbol that causes someone to pause and wonder if we are safe people to talk to or wonder if we will help them in their time of trouble.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

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Sermon: Christ as King Today

What good is having a future theoretical king? Not much actually. What does it mean to have a King today? As Christians, we are verbally complicit in Jesus agenda when we pray the Lord’s Prayer.

 

 

 

 

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Article: Jesus and Faust

Faust playing chess with the devil
Faust playing chess with the devil

Back when I had cable TV, I would often watch movies that I would never ever pay money to see in the theater. For example, there was a terrible movie that came out in 2000 called “Bedazzled.” If the name doesn’t ring a bell, be thankful. It was awful.

The plot of this movie is as old as time. Someone doesn’t have something they want. Satan offers it to them but with strings attached. Usually it has something to do with “selling your soul” or some other unknown consequence hidden in the fine print.

In Bedazzled, the main character just wants to be with the woman he secretly longs for. Satan gives him what he wants (for a price) and it never goes the way he hoped it would.  Do not rent, buy or borrow this movie. You will never get that 90 minutes back.

Like I said this story is as old as time. In Genesis, the serpent offers Adam and Eve the “forbidden fruit” and essentially tells them that eating it was no big deal… it was a big deal.

One of the most famous stories about making a deal with the devil comes from Germany all the way back in the 1400’s. The story is about a man named Faust who wants more knowledge. As the story goes, he sells his soul to Lucifer to gain this knowledge.

Even Jesus faced this very real temptation during his forty days in the wilderness. When Satan came to tempt Jesus the second time this is what happened:

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.” 

Hey Jesus, I’ll give you everything! You’ll be in charge! You will be the greatest leader of all time! Power is good! Just worship me, you know…sell your soul.

As you know, Jesus said, “No thanks” and then reminded Satan that only God the Father is worthy of praise.

This isn’t a battle only for Jesus. At the end of 2 Timothy, Paul is giving his final instructions to Timothy when he writes this:

Do your best to come to me quickly (Timothy), for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.

A lot of things compete for our attention like poor Demas. Not only do they compete, but they consume us. Not unlike Golem’s unhealthy obsession with a certain powerful ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Eventually you will be let down by the things that you hold too tightly. We may never sell our souls or make a deal with the devil that is so dramatically portrayed in the movies and literature- but in some ways, we don’t need to.

We willingly let money and power get in the way of God’s intentions for us.

The biblical word for this is idolatry. We elevate things above God and make them sacred.

For example, many Lutheran pastors I know around the country have been told recently by their congregations that their sermons are “too political”. Why is that? I suppose it could be that these pastors are being too partisan which is incompatible with Biblical preaching. However, my guess is that the clear majority of people have elevated politics and political parties above God. Politics can be a religion to some.  Seeing the unbridled passion of people in this election cycle tells me this might be the case. I would love to see that same white hot devotion directed at Jesus and the priorities he told us are important.

Believe it or not I am still the same person I was a year ago. I have been called to preach the word and speak on behalf of “the least of these.” That is more uncomfortable today than it was six months ago.

This coming Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. Come and hear about what it means to follow the King of Kings and Lord of Lords today.

Won’t it be nice in heaven when we will be able to laugh and say, “I am so glad there will never be an election again because Jesus is the King of eternity.”

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

benbergren dot com 1400-700

Sermon: What Really Matters

Do words matter? Does it matter who says what? Is it ok to say whatever you want? I tackle those questions and more in this message less than one week after election.

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Article: The Letter…

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Many Bethel people wanted to see the letter I preached about last Sunday. It was written before election day and was addressed to whoever won the election. We now know who won the election. The letter still stands. I have only added a postscript that reflects the current state of events. Everything else in the letter was written before election day so as not to be accused of being a partisan hack.

Dear President-Elect,
This election cycle has shown the extent of the division within our country. It is also clear that neither you nor your opponents reached a threshold of victory of 50%. To say it in a different way- only a portion of the country voted for you and there is no so called mandate.

We haven’t seen rifts in our country like this since 1964 shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act that caused southern Democrats to leave their party.

I hope that now that the election is over that you will spend this time repairing the damage that polarization causes. The time for accusations and personal attacks is over. It is time to recover the term “We the people” and bridge the chasm of “us versus them.”

This is important because governments like churches are fragile. These institutions are based on trust. When there is a lack of faith in our governing documents and leadership —churches close and governments fall.  Our nation was birthed out of a lack of faith in government. The Civil War began over a lack of faith in our federal government.

It is often said that the weight of the office of President changes a person. I pray that transformation happens for you.

Whether you care to admit it or not, transparency has been an ongoing issue for both major party candidates to one degree or another. Transparency is connected to integrity. Of course each party has said the other candidate is worse than the other. That is irrelevant now, you will be taking the oath of office in January and as our next president we expect transparency and not hiding things from us. Integrity matters.

Many in this country believe that the separation between church and state means that faith is not welcome in the halls of power. However, we know that this means there will be no state sanctioned religion. It is time for you to embrace your relationship with God more than ever.

Since you and your opponent have stated that you are both people of faith specifically the Christian faith, let me remind you that God is not bound by our constitution. Neither was God impressed with Nebuchadnezzar’s personal power. God used Daniel to remind Nebuchadnezzar that caring for the least of his constituency is vitally important.* And Jesus warned the politically astute Pharisees that caring for others above appearances matters to God.

As King Nebuchadnezzar found out, the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of this world and gives them to anyone he wishes. Your leadership, like all leadership is a stewardship. It is temporary and even you are accountable. We hope and pray that you already know this and that you will ask yourself daily, what is God’s will in every decision you make.

While it is true you are accountable to us, the citizens of the U.S.A. we are not your source of greatest accountability.  And while it is also true you must communicate with the United States congress, someday you will report to someone with far more power.

While you will talk and consult with other world leaders during your presidency, we hope you will not forget to consult with the Creator of the Universe and the Creator of this nation.

We wish you the best because our future will be impacted by your decisions.

May God bless you,
Pr. Ben

*P.S. “The least of these” in our nation are very scared right now because of the things you said on the campaign trail. Do they have a reason to be scared?

 

 

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Sermon: A Letter to Our Next President

For the first time in 8 years a new president will take the oath of office in January. In this message (before the election) I talk about what God says about leadership and finish with a letter to our next President.