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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon: Transformation Explained, Part 2

There is so much good stuff in Romans 12 that I decided to pick up where I left off last Sunday and go deeper into the biblical notion of transformation. You may want to listen to “Transfomation Explained” first.

A Tale of Two Churches

Maybe that title is a little misleading. This isn’t a story or a tale. If I had named this article, “An Observation of Two Churches” most of you wouldn’t take the time to read it. (Just kidding, I hope.) I am being transparent up front about this… so if you want to stop reading, this is your exit ramp!

It appears more and more there are two distinct types of Christian churches in our nation.

One type of church is primarily focused historic doctrinal purity and making sure their church members adhere to the proper way of believing and acting. If they don’t, they are asked to leave. And many people are never welcomed at all. Believing in Jesus Christ “the right way” is the most important thing. This works well for many members of these churches because they fit in and agree with the rigid theological structure that is expected of every member. A person who does not conform to this type of orthodoxy is not welcome. There is no room for discussion because everything is crystal clear, black and white. Most churches that operate this way have a clear sense of who is going to heaven and who is going to hell in the afterlife.

“Righteousness” (in this case) is obedience to the doctrine and behavior. This type of obedience “pleases God”. Living up to God’s standards is very important to members of this church and often, they are quick to point out those who do not, especially members of the other type of church.

The other type of church is focused on the relational aspect of God, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ. That isn’t to say doctrine isn’t important to these people. This church views the love of God as more important than “getting it right 100% of the time.” Members of this type of church see that humanity is so flawed (sinful) that living up to God’s standards is impossible. Instead, they rely on God’s loving forgiveness given at the cross of Christ for all things. That doesn’t mean they have given into sin and do whatever they want, far from it. These people will tell you that they live from God’s abundant grace and that is what motivates them to reflect the love of God to others. Since religious conformity is not their top priority, this type of church tends to judge other people a lot less than the first church described above. They see that sin permeates everything and drawing lines in the sand doesn’t really fix anything because there is sin on both sides.

“Righteousness” (in this case) is a relationship with God and one another. Loving God and loving their neighbor is very important to members of this church and often welcome those who don’t fit in at the other type of church.

It is clear (from experience) that the first type of church (described above) sees the other church as “soft on sin” and unbiblical. It is also clear that the second church (described above) sees the other church as rigid and unwelcoming of anyone who may be different theologically speaking.

Both churches have a developed theology—even if the theologically rigid church accuses the other church of “anything goes.” Both churches are trying to mirror what they think God has conveyed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Both churches read the same Bible, confess the same creeds and even pray the same prayer (The Lord’s Prayer). Needless to say, each type of church sees themselves faithful to the scriptures and a true representation of what God calls the Church to be.

Is there any way to reconcile these two views of the church? I don’t think so. There is a reason why there are so many denominations and non-denominational churches. No one can agree on everything.

Even with this division we should be clear about a couple of things. Churches and individual Christians that tell people that God hates them for any reason is both a lie and it is contrary to the good news that Jesus brings.

Wait a minute—what about Psalm 5:5-6? The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful people the Lord abhors. As far as I can tell, that is all of humanity. It is disingenuous for a Christian to say, “God hates sinners but loves the righteous.” The primary mission of Jesus Christ was to save us from our sin and the separation from God caused by our sin. All of Christianity believes this. We can’t start cherry picking sins (and sinners) we don’t like just because we don’t sin like that or understand why “they” do those things. Besides, what is sin to me might not be a sin to someone else (ask me about that some time, it is Biblical).

Remember what Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

Jesus engages with people who are far from God or have been told they are not acceptable.

Many people who hold to a more rigid historic doctrinal purity think, “If ‘they’ don’t ‘change’ after believing in Jesus they really don’t believe and therefore shouldn’t be a part of the church.”

Here is what I know about that… I am still a sinner. Even being a pastor for over nineteen years, I still sin. I don’t think I am qualified to tell people that Jesus doesn’t love them. If Jesus doesn’t love them, then certainly Jesus doesn’t love me either.

I have yet to meet someone who is perfect. Life is messy because we are messed up. Martin Luther reminds us (Lutherans) that “Baptism never becomes useless, unless you despair and refuse to return to its salvation.” (Luther’s Works Volume 36 p.69) Baptism isn’t just a one-time thing as many believe. It is the source of forgiveness in our lives. A place to be washed clean again and again because we get messy (sin).

Luther isn’t suggesting a re-baptism. He is saying we need to return to our baptism in confession and repentance. Remember water doesn’t save, but Jesus attached to the water does. Only faith in Jesus saves, water is just the vehicle for Christ’s presence.

Hating sinners doesn’t work. Churches that label people as sinners and hates them (or excludes them) doesn’t exemplify the work of Jesus. It is also hypocritical because we are all sinners. As a matter of fact, we tend sin the same way over and over again and I am not sure Jesus loves us any less because of that habitual sin.

The response to this line of reasoning is this, “Where does it end? There are no boundaries!” Of course, there are boundaries. It is our responsibility to protect those who are being hurt by another in various ways (physically, emotionally, spiritually, psychologically). This is not arbitrary or a perception of what I think “being hurt” means. We are to love those who have no power to change their situation and we are to love those who have power over others too.  But we include a firm “Stop hurting others” with that love.

This goes back to the idea of agape or sacrificial/unconditional love. The kind of love Jesus showed to all people. Jesus’ death on the cross extended forgiveness to sinners of every age… even sinners who still sin, like me.

The church is imperfect because humans are involved. Nobody has it all figured out or gets it all right. Even with that said, I see my calling as pastor to love and forgive in order to draw people close to Jesus. I know God has changed me over the years, but I am far from being in “final form.” How can we expect people to change, when we can’t even change ourselves? That won’t happen until we see Jesus face-to-face. Until then, I will keep on loving, forgiving and welcoming.

I can’t help but think of this story of Jesus…

36 Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, 38 and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. 

 39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” 

 40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” 

 “Tell me, teacher,” he said.

 41 “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 

 43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

 “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. 

 44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” 

 48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)

 Our faith in Jesus has saved us. Not our behavior and certainly not for having the ability to identify sinners and exclude them.

If you are still reading this… know that you are loved and always welcome wherever I am.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

 

Sermon: Transformation Explained

Paul of the New Testament talks about the reason we should engage in Spiritual Growth and one of the possible ways we can cultivate a growing faith. Listen in as I help apply Romans 12 to our lives.

Article: Spiritual Growth According to Peter

…make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive… 2 Peter 1:5-8

Shortly before his death at the hands of the Roman government, Simon Peter wrote two letters to the churches of Asia Minor (See- 1Peter 1:1).  It is clear that Peter was Jesus’ right-hand man. In this short passage we see Peter’s encouragement to add specific qualities and characteristics to our faith so that we might be the fully prepared for life itself.

Knowledge
It seems like Peter is asking to build upon our faith one block at a time and it begins with knowledge. Faith doesn’t require knowledge but having information or facts about God can help each of us to understand the nature of God and the world around us. The more I learn about God the easier I find it to trust Him and God’s will for my life. However, many people confuse having knowledge of God with faith. Trust is not knowledge.

Self-Control
Being a person of faith, it is clear that some things are better for me than other things. The ability to say “no” to some things is not easy, but it is a sign of maturity. It is not difficult to avoid things that cause pain but I don’t think that is what Peter had in mind. As it is, don’t we pray “And lead us not into temptation” on a regular basis? That is because there may be things that give short term satisfaction but hurt us in the long haul. Temptations are like a wolf in sheep’s clothing… we will eventually be bitten. More than that, we are examples to others. Someone is always watching us.

Perseverance
String enough “no’s” together and you develop perseverance. This is the ability to stand by your beliefs. This is integrity. The more we are able to walk away from temptation, the easier it becomes. Endurance and perseverance leads to constancy. When you are known as being steadfast, others will come to you for help and advice.

Godliness
Who doesn’t want to reflect the nature and will of God? I know I do. As I said last Sunday, when Jesus returns one day, I want Him to be able to recognize qualities of the Kingdom of God within me. Clearly, no one ever quit being a Christian because it was too easy. This is challenging stuff! I sincerely strive to reflect the love and grace of God in everything I do. The path to that goal is through knowledge, self-control and perseverance. There is no short cuts to achieve this goal! Thankfully God gives us all the time and forgiveness we need.

Mutual Affection
Godliness should lead to mutual affection. That is nice way of saying, people like you and you like people. The Greek word is Philadelphia or better known as “brotherly love.” It is the first step toward a larger love. We begin with training wheels. In a lot of ways, this is a stepping stone to something better but definitely more difficult. We begin with liking and being liked by people who are comparable to siblings… like fellow Christians.

Love
It shouldn’t be a surprise we end here. Why? Because love is where we begin. We wouldn’t even be having this discussion if God didn’t love us first. But this is more than brotherly love. This is agape love, unconditional love. You know, the kind of love God has for sinners (like us). Love that is not reciprocated. This kind of love is sometimes translated as “charity.” Why charity? Charity is a gift that often goes unnoticed or received without gratitude. This is the highest of all types of love because it requires nothing in return. Because of that, it is the hardest to give. Maybe that is why it is the last on the list, because it is the hardest to achieve for most people.

These verses remind us the importance of spiritual growth (one of our core values). We don’t have to grow spiritually, but I hope we do. Yes, we will still make mistakes and sometimes become stagnant in our faith but God’s unconditional love will never leave us. Jesus is the proof of that.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Sermon: What the Prophets are Telling Us

The prophets of God are sent to hold up a mirror to society. In Isaiah 56 we hear how God views those who feel cut off from others. The Kingdom of God is different and better than the world we know. Oh and Jesus is in total agreement with Isaiah’s assessment.

Article: From Bishop Holmerud

If you are not signed up for the Sierra Pacific Synod e-newsletter, here is what Bishop Mark Holmerud wrote about “hate” and the events of this past week. I hope you find it helpful as we discern who we are and what our response should be to those who hate.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

“Could it be, could it be, that we are called — for such a time as this?” a song by Jonathan Rundman

Hate. Hate speech. Hate rhetoric. Hate crimes. Hate groups.  Hate is the common thread and the impetus behind the 917 Hate Groups that have been identified as operating in the United States. The “Hate Map” of the Southern Poverty Law Center shows that there are 79 such groups in California and 4 in Nevada. These groups advocate hate in all forms — racism, neo-Nazism, white nationalism, anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim sentiments, xenophobia and anti-immigrant beliefs, misogyny, and violence towards the GLBTQ community.

I’m sure the list of those whom these groups identify as objects of hate is more extensive than we want to believe, and more present in this part of our country than we may be aware. At least that’s been true for me. I had no idea there are over 83 hate groups operating in our backyard – in the territory of our Sierra Pacific Synod. I imagined the “stronghold” of these groups was in the southern part of our country, in places where violence has been erupting for years, where the lynching of black people was once common, and where people needed to press for their right to ride on public transportation and sit at lunch counters. Not true. It’s here. It’s now. I have recently been made aware that there are planned demonstrations in the coming months by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups here in northern California. Perhaps there are planned demonstrations in northern Nevada as well.

The events in Charlottesville a few days ago and many other recent acts of hatred and violence are a clarion call for us to pray, to be aware, to be vigilant, and to speak out where such hate emerges from the shadowy depths where its adherents are emboldened to act out of fear and hate. Could it be that we are called for such a time as this to be voices of the light and peace of the Gospel to be proclaimed with even more ardor and purpose? To make clear, as Presiding Bishop Eaton has called us to do, that “White supremacy has no place in the kingdom of God, only the love and healing of the reign of the Prince of Peace.”

If you are feeling called to speak out, The Southern Poverty Law Center has provided a helpful guide called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate” to move us from the uncertainty of knowing how to respond to hate and violence to taking small steps toward speaking out, organizing, standing with those who also wish to decry hate speech and hate groups in our communities.  I invite you to contact your local ecumenical and interfaith groups, civic and governmental leaders and community organizers who are seeking to address the presence of these 83 groups in our area, and the 917 that exist in this country. I am and will be committed to providing support and resources in as many ways as possible to speak of Christ’s love in the face of this monstrous evil. I encourage you to follow the links below to learn how you can be involved in this Gospel call to action.  I believe this is a time in which we have been called to speak and act.  May God be with us as we step forward in faith.

Ten Ways To Fight Hate – From the Southern Poverty Law Center website

  1. Act
  2. Join Forces
  3. Support the Victims
  4. Speak Up
  5. Educate Yourself
  6. Create An Alternative
  7. Pressure Leaders
  8. Stay Engaged
  9. Teach Acceptance
  10. Dig Deeper

Peace,
Bp. Mark

Sermon: Leaving Security Behind

The events of Friday and Saturday in Chalottesville VA have overtaken our country. What is our response? What false securities do we hold on to? I try to answer those questions in this message.