All posts by Ben

Sermon: Reformation 500: In Luther’s Words- Do Not Be Alone

As we continue to hear the words of Martin Luther, we are reminded to surround ourselves with Christians when we are feeling down and want to stay in bed with the blankets over our heads. Listen in as I explain why it is important to stick together in times of trouble.

Article: A Shared Reflection from Las Vegas

As most of you know, I am one of the directors of a summer camp experience called Leadership Lab. 17 years ago, my youth director and I took a group of youth from Las Vegas to Leadership Lab. Ever since then, students and staff continue to come to Leadership Lab for a week of faith development and inspiration. Selfishly, I am proud of the legacy of that decision to drag students halfway across the country to attend the summer camp that I have been a part of since 1985.

One of those students, Keri Ann Triunfo wrote this after the tragedy in Las Vegas this past week…

Early this morning, in the wake of tragedy, I went outside to see an orange sky. The wind blew with harsh determination, causing the air to feel cold. It was as if nature itself was in mourning, and I couldn’t help but feel as if God was angry.

When suffering strikes our nation like it did last night, it’s easy for some of us to believe that God is punishing us. That he has taken up his hand against us in wrath and vengeance, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Las Vegas especially, has been likened to that ancient city by some. But those people don’t take into account the innocent women and children exploited here. Where is their justice? Why are they punished? They don’t take into account the brothers and sisters in Christ who are faithfully serving the Lord with their families and churches in this city. No, this massacre was not an act of God. 

The God we serve sent his son Jesus to us, to become a part of humanity. To share in our weaknesses. To feel our pain. To feel sorrow, frustration, fear, joy, love, and even to experience death. Matthew 5:45 tells us that The Lord makes the sun rise and rain fall on both the just and the unjust. Truth be told, bad things happen because our world is broken at the seams. We are broken people. But our Father has not abandoned us.

When these things happen, it’s important for us to remember that the function of the Holy Spirit, is to be our Helper. Our comforter, advocate, intercessor, counselor, and strength. 
In these times of despair and uncertainty, I urge you to remember that our God is not one of wrath, but of compassion, mercy, and love.

So, when I say that I feel God’s anger, I believe it is his empathy on our behalf. I believe he is beside the families, and loved ones of those whose lives were needlessly taken in a moment. I believe he is with the first responders and off duty authorities that risked their lives to protect civilians. He is with the civilians that dove into harm’s way to protect the people beside them, and assist the wounded. He is with the ones that had to watch in horror as countless others were killed or maimed before their eyes. God is here amidst the heartbreak and fear, sharing once again in our sorrows, and in our frustration

Romans 8:38-39 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Very moving, very thoughtful and very faithful. Please keep all people affected by gun violence in your prayers, including the people of Las Vegas and beyond.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Reformation 500: In Luther’s Words- Now What?

Martin Luther reminds us that we don’t have the ability to earn God’s favor. Yet God chose us out of His love. Since we don’t have to worry about our standing with God, now what? This the question I will answer in this message.

Article: A Difficult Sunday

St. Paul writes,
“For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Ephesians 3:18-21

This past weekend was full of passion for many people. There were some who were supportive of the NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem to protest incidents of police brutality and racial injustice and there were some who were not.

As I read the combustible volley of words on social media Sunday afternoon, the verses above came to mind. Specifically, “But our citizenship is in heaven.”

 I love living in the United States of America, but as a Christian I am reminded that I am only passing through and will spend more time in heaven (eternity) than I will here on Earth. Paul prompts me and all Christians to look up to heaven and not be consumed with “earthly things.” While Paul doesn’t list what those “earthly things” are, we can be confident about what it means to be a citizen of heaven even before we get there.

In the simplest of instructions, Jesus tells us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” Matthew 22:39 This is quite different from, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” Matthew 5:46-47

 That is our natural default. We tend to like those who see things the way we do. Jesus challenges us to do more than being nice to those who are like us or are related to us. Hate is never an appropriate response.

We are encouraged to love everyone including our enemies: perceived or real. That is hard stuff. This would include those we don’t agree with. We don’t have to agree with them, but as a citizen of heaven we should attempt to love them.

Yet this weekend reminded me that we still have a serious problem with race in our nation. As a white man, I will never understand the struggles that people of color have had and still have in our country. It would be ignorant for me to say, “I do not experience injustice or inequality, therefore no one does.” Not only should we be aware of such things, but as Christians we should be responsive to those who experience such things.

For those who believed the Sunday NFL was the wrong venue to bring this issue to our attention, I would ask, “What is the right venue?” I ask that honestly because the same is often said about peaceful street protests. It is clear for many, “never” is the appropriate time. There is never a comfortable time to talk about injustice and racial inequality.

It is clear that by Sunday afternoon, there was a national debate going on. Discussion clarifies and it allows us to hear various points of view.

As a Christian, how should we respond to those who are struggling? Paul when writing his letter to the Hebrew Christians shows us an example of how citizens of heaven should respond to those in peril…

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. Hebrews 10:32-37

Lots to think about.

 As a citizen of heaven we should understand something about where we are headed. John gives us glimpse in Revelation 21:3-4

“Now the dwelling of God is with people, and He will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 

 One day, we will be living up close and personal with God. Everything that causes heartbreak in this life will be gone. Not just the things that cause me sadness, but the things that cause others to be brokenhearted (like the things mentioned above).

“The old order of things” will be a thing of the past. What is that, you ask? Lots of things: sin, pain, violence, sickness, injustice, racism, money, government, laws, pollution and the list goes on. One day, the only thing that will matter is that we will be living with God where we will live in peace and joy with Christ and one another.

Until then, we are still citizens of heaven and we should live into the words we pray every Sunday, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

Sermon: Reformation 500: In Luther’s Words- All Ready Taken Care of

This is the first sermon in a new series- Reformation 500: In Luther’s Words. We will spend the next 5 weeks looking at various quotes of Martin Luther to better understand Martin Luther and that his theological writings still have relevance for us today. We begin with the difference between “doing” and “believing.”

Article: Integrity

The Bible mentions the word integrity 22 times and uses 5 different words (3 Hebrew and 2 Greek) to describe integrity.

According to these “root words”, integrity describes someone who is honest, truthful, upstanding, righteous, morally upright and incorruptible. These are great descriptive words of for being a person of integrity. When we talk about Christian integrity we are not talking about “salvation issues.” Jesus came to save sinners (us) and not those who try to be good. The truth is we are broken.

Living with integrity is all about our response to what God has done for us through the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, integrity is all about sanctification (the process of being made holy)!

A Christian author (I forget who) once said, “Integrity is being the same person in private as you are in public.”  In other words, we aren’t doubleminded (see the book of James) or being hypocritical. Integrity is when we act the same way in front of people as we do when no one is watching.

This past week our organist posted the article below on integrity. It is not faith-based, but the list is so good, I wanted to share it with all of you. I am sure you will Christian characteristics within the list below. I hope you find it useful.

 13 Characteristics of People Who Have True Integrity
from awarenessact.com

1. They value other people’s time.
They value their own time so they also value the time of other people. They know you have plenty of other places you need to be and won’t hold you up. If you spend time with them, it is likely they will thank you for that as well.

 2. They give credit where it is due.
They do not take credit for things they did not do. They will always credit those who deserve it. If you help this person with a project he or she will likely mention your name so you can take credit for your work.

3. They are authentic.
They are their truest forms. You won’t catch them in a lie or being fake.

4. They are always honest.
They are honest people that feel no need to lie as it is important for them to get to where they need to get in life honestly.

5. They never take advantage of others.
They are not the kind of people who will take advantage of someone else. They love to build people up and help them get where they need to be. Taking too much from someone else will never be an issue with someone who has a lot of integrity.

6. They do not argue over disagreements.
They will talk through things in a civil manner or not talk at all. You cannot and will not force this person into arguing over something completely ridiculous. I find this to be a very respectable trait.

7. They give most people the benefit of the doubt.
They try to see the good in everyone. I think this is because they feel like maybe there are more people in this world that also have integrity. That being said, if you take advantage of them too much they will get rid of you.

8. They know when something is bothering someone.
They have a great intuition that lets them know when something is going on. If someone is down in the dumps they will notice. Chances are they will actually do what they can to cheer you up.

9. They believe others.
They accept your word as truth until it is disproven. That being said, they do not take lying well. And once you lie to them, it is unlikely that they will ever take your word again.

10. They apologize first.
If they have done something wrong they will come to you and apologize. This is just how they are. They own up to their mistake and try to make things right.

 11.They are humble.
They do not quite know their own worth. While they are very important and do so much good they don’t quite see it. You should remind them of it.

 12. They do good when they can.
They are always helping other people. They love to know that they have improved someone’s life. It gives their lives meaning.

 13. They are always kind to those who need it.
Giving kindness can go a long way. When someone looks like they need a little pick me up these people deliver. They can brighten up almost anyone’s day.

If you are someone who has true integrity, thank you for being who you are and thank you for all that you do. You really do actually make a difference in society, please keep up the good work. If you feel no one else is proud of you, know that I am.

Sermon: Why Joy is Vital

Earlier in 2017 I talked about joy and how it is driving force of our church. Today I revisit the topic of joy after our Labor Day Retreat that talked about “joy in the journey.”

Article: Reformation Reflections

We are quickly approaching the 500th anniversary of the “accidental reformation” of the Church. Dr. Luther had no intention of starting a new church. He sincerely wanted to change the only Church Europe knew: The Roman Catholic Church. He saw errors in the practice of faith that troubled him greatly. He truly believed that the Pope had no idea that these errors were being committed and once he clarified and stated his position clearly, everything would be corrected.

Little did Dr. Luther know was the fact that Pope Leo was raising funds to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and did not appreciate the German theologian getting in the way of this construction project.

Needless to say, Dr. Luther was surprised that he was told to recant everything he ever taught and wrote. He didn’t. And the se rest is history.

Reformations are messy. Church splits are even messier. Although this was a needed correction (at that time)—it wasn’t without great turmoil and loss of life (Peasant Revolt). This story did not come anywhere close to “and they lived happily ever after.” It is only after 500 years that we see a warming of relationship between the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church even if we do not agree on everything and probably never will. However, that does not mean we have to disparage each other and break one of the commandments in the process.

I find it interesting that Dr. Luther came to an understanding of God’s love and grace shortly before the 95 Theses were posted to the Wittenberg Chapel door in 1517.

It was this verse that changed his understanding of God and caused the Western World to be changed in ways he could not even imagine at the time. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”- Romans 1:17

 It was in studying this passage in depth that he came to a new realization- we are made righteous by God through faith. Instead of trying to prove our righteousness through the things we say and do, which is impossible, we are made righteous by trusting in Jesus Christ.

The amazing part of this is that faith is also a gift from God. Listen to this– For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. -Ephesians 2:8

 Later on, when Dr. Luther wrote the Small Catechism for family use, he made this statement which reflects the Ephesians 2 verse. “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith…”

 We have been asked by God to resist the urge to be skeptical of all things we cannot see. Instead, let the Holy Spirit create and sustain faith in us through the gospel story of Jesus and the receiving of the sacraments.

We are all poor beggars in the eyes of God. We have nothing to offer of worth. It is God through Jesus Christ who graciously gives us all things.

Let us rejoice and be glad…and point fellow beggars to the bread of life.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: Covenants: An Invitation to Freedom

What does the Jewish Passover have to do with us Christians? The event illuminates the character of God… the same God we worship. Covenants matter in both the Old and New Testament.

Article: Identity

There’s been a lot of talk about “identity” in culture. Whether that is found in “identity politics” or the seemingly never resolved church discussion about “sexual identity.” We are so consumed with identity that we are very vocal about who we are and who we are not! It is a sad state of affairs when a Christian sees or experiences hate being spewed by another Christian and must inform their friends and acquaintances, “Oh, I am not that kind of Christian.” A friend of my wife recently made a statement like that to her, forgetting that Rachel is married to a pastor.

What do we do when we see or meet other people- if we are not careful? We make snap judgments about them based what is important to them… you know, their identity. It is easy to label someone based on very little. “Oh, they are (fill in the blank).” Instead, we should take the time to get to know a person as an individual.

It totally bums me out that Christians have to differentiate themselves from other Christians who claim the same faith in the embodiment of God’s unconditional and sacrificial love (Jesus) yet most of their personal theology is all about who God is against while subtly reinforcing the notion that they are good in God’s eyes. Life was simpler when we (Lutherans) would distinguish ourselves by saying, “Well, were definitely not Methodists or Roman Catholic, we are somewhere between those two.”

This is not contained to just in religious matters. In the highly partisan environment of politics we are in right now, I have heard people say to me, “I am not sure I can be friends with a person who supports ‘that’.”

I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. I would not be surprised if the topic of identity is upsetting at this point.  I can hear people saying, “Can’t we stop talking about this?” “Aren’t we making it worse, by talking about this stuff so much.” No, we aren’t making worse by talking about such things. We make it worse when we fight, shout and demonize others. Besides, when has ignoring an issue ever made it better?

I think it is easy to be nostalgic, if not naïve, to say things like, “This wasn’t an issue 50 years ago.” Actually, it was an issue, we just didn’t talk about it and used social pressure root out those who wanted to talk about these things. Just because we didn’t talk about things doesn’t mean there was unity. No, it meant we kept things to ourselves in fear of being ridiculed or ostracized. A lack of constructive dialogue on difficult subjects does not equate to harmony.

For those who long for the “good old days,” it may have been good for you but certainly not everyone.

Is there a way forward? Absolutely. The last two weeks, I have talked about how to change the way we think (developing a Christian mindset) about things based on Paul’s writings found in Romans 12. Essentially, one of the ways to change the way we think is to change what we are putting into our brains (social media, news, etc.)

Here are those two messages (if you are interested):
http://benbergren.com/sermon-transformation-explained/
http://benbergren.com/sermon-transformation-explained-part-2/

As hard as change can be, I have good news. Seriously. What I am about to share with you will change the way you think about others, even though these words were written 2000 years ago. It has everything to do with identity.

You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Galatians 3:26-27

 If you are a Christian (I am assuming you are), you only have ONE identity that matters: You are a child of God. More importantly, when we look at other Christians, we should see only ONE thing—a sister or brother in Christ. No more worrying about other people’s identity or what they stand for or against. St. Paul tells us we have ONE identity as Christians—we are children of God, period, the end.

We don’t have to spend needless hours getting worked up about other Christians identities and they don’t need to get all worked up about us. We just don’t. We still need to be concerned over hateful, divisive language and actions. We should always act to end such behavior within the church and in the world.

Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus says this about being a child of God (and being in the family of God).

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.  Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 4:32-5:2

 Instead of getting worked up, we are encouraged to be sympathetic, empathetic and let things go, i.e., forgive. If we engage in living a life of love the way Christ did, we don’t have time for hate. As a matter of fact, hating is so contrary to the message of Jesus that I can’t imagine a Christian hating groups of people or individuals based on identity differences of any kind, let alone within the Christian community. That in itself is contradictory since we are instructed only to see each other as children of God.

Hate is destructive. Hate breaks community. Hate only attracts hate or its offspring of: fear, suffering and violence. Instead, we commit ourselves to love and only seeing others as children of God. To put another way, we are all in the same family and we should attempt to get along. If you have ever been to an awkward Thanksgiving dinner because of who was invited, you understand the encouragement and necessity for everyone to get along and love each other.

And yes, “it takes two to tango.” This is not just an encouragement for those who already love to be kind those who hate. This exhortation is for those who hate (for any reason) to change. Otherwise the church ends up being like a dysfunctional family that allows the angry hateful person to dominate while the loving person makes excuses for poor behavior.

Paul is so convinced that our only identity as Christians is that of children of God, he doubles down.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

 Whoa. Paul dismantles all the major “identities” of his time. Characteristics that people used to oppress, discriminate and treat poorly. It is clear (by Paul’s words) that within the church, differences in gender (in its various physical and relational complexities) are nonexistent as well as social structure and ethnicity. The only thing God sees when he looks at us is that we are His beloved children. God asks us to do the same when we look at each other.

Of course, this is pointing to a larger reality of God’s Kingdom. Any dichotomy we can imagine that separates people within the church—doesn’t change God’s view of us and how we should view others. Whether it be: Married, single or divorced, white or black, republican or democrat, brown eyes or blue eyes, Lutheran or Presbyterian! These things (or anything) doesn’t matter to God and they shouldn’t matter to us either.

Instead let us love each as brothers and sister. And if we pursue this… “we shall overcome, someday.”

From one child of God to another—I love you.