Sermon for Thanksgiving 2017 Luke 17:11-19

A few years ago, my brother Jon was living in Burlington, Vermont. He was new to the area and new to his position at work. As such, he didn’t have any place to go for Thanksgiving nor did he have the time or funds to come home for the holiday. So, Jon found himself out and about just strolling through the quiet streets of Burlington when he stumbled upon an open restaurant. He walked in and was immediately welcomed and shown to a seat. He made friends with his fellow diners and had a fantastic meal complete with all of the fixings. When he was done, he found the woman that he originally met at the door. “how much do I owe you?” He said. “Oh! No one told you” she said? This is a free meal. Jon was immediately taken aback. He said “but I can pay.” He was starting to feel a little guilty. The woman said, “it’s free. This meal is for anyone who doesn’t have any place else to go. Some are homeless, yes. But some are business travelers going from point A to point B.” The dinner was run by volunteers. “This is our family this day. Our community” she said. Jon left full and thankful. What he needed that day, he received. He didn’t want a meal. He didn’t want pity. Whether he knew it or not, he desired to be part of a community. In a way, I think we all desire that. We all want to be part of something.

As Jesus was in his travels, we are told that he goes into the region between Samaria and Galilee. To go between these two regions wasn’t really necessary for the average Joe traveler. It was desolate, mostly forgotten, and not well traveled. I say it wasn’t necessary for the average traveler, but it was necessary for Jesus. In the region, he came across ten lepers. We don’t use the word “leper” any more. But, these are the forgotten of society. These are the people that have been abandoned, forgotten, even disavowed from their families. They didn’t chose to become lepers, that’s for sure. No one would purposefully choose to be shunned. No one purposefully chooses to be shamed, forgotten, abandoned, or have their humanity outright denied. In our current day context to be a leper can look like a variety of things depending on the community.

For our immediate area, to be a leper means to be homeless, maybe have to stay long stretches of time at the Victory Center. It means that you’re hustling to get money for your next hit of meth or cocaine. To be a leper means that you’re doing things to your body you never said you’d do just to make ends meet. To be a leper means that you may have HIV. To be a leper means you hang out under the bridge, waiting for the ladies from the Canticle to bring you a sack lunch. Maybe it means being a transgender teenager on the verge of suicide daily thanks to teasing. To be a leper could just mean you’re an African American male who gets pulled over all too often for “DWB” (that’s driving while black, in case you didn’t know). What a leper desires is the same thing all of us desire: we want to be seen.

Don’t you desire to be seen? And I mean to be seen in a genuine God-like fashion. When was the last time you felt like you were seen? Not “hey! It’s good to see you, I’ve been meaning to ask something of you.” But, a genuine “hey! I see how you’re struggling and I know you’re doing the best you can.” When was the last time the Holy Spirit, God-filled person in you saw the Holy Spirit, God-filled person in me. Or anyone for that matter? When you see those people begging with their cardboard signs on the corners, do you think “those free-loaders need to get a job.” Or do you wonder “what circumstances lead them to that?” And maybe you might give them a buck or two. But, what if, instead of giving them money, or maybe in addition to giving them money, you said “hey. I don’t know what lead you to having to be out here on this corner, holding this sign, and begging for money. But, I know it can’t be easy for you. I appreciate that you’re willing to do whatever it takes for your family. I have a family too and I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t provide for them. Just wanted to let you know that I see you.”

When you’re a leper and society has told you over and over and over again that you mean nothing, that you’re worth nothing, that you contribute nothing, and that you basically are nothing, you may start to wonder why you bother living. All we need is for someone to see us. In the midst of the darkness, in the midst of that void between Samaria and Galilee, in the midst of the nothing that is existing but not totally living, God meets us there. God meets us there through Jesus Christ and says “I see you.” By curing the lepers, Jesus healed them, yes. But more importantly, Jesus made it such that they could be brought back into community. They could be part of something again. He cured them so that they finally could be seen. Before they were cured, they were part of a small community of lepers. But once they were cured, they were able to be reunited with the ones who had the power to love them. The shame and stigma of being a leper had been removed. To be brought back into community means a literal and metaphorical place at the table.

The leper turns back and thanks Jesus for the healing. And while I am sure he’s grateful for the physical healing, he throws himself at Jesus’ feet for more than just that. He has been made whole physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. He has been brought back into community. His dignity has been returned. I am wondering what it would look like for us to recognize and thank Jesus for seeing us just as we are. How can we possibly thank God enough for seeing us as both broken and beautiful? How do we respond to Jesus who continues to make us part of a community. We are part of the community of saints. We are part of those whom Jesus never forgets. But you know what, so is everyone else. The people we wish to forget are first and foremost remembered by Jesus and part of this Holy Spirit community that makes no sense.

A community of believers makes no sense because the only thing we all have in common is Jesus. And maybe, just maybe that’s enough. Maybe we can thank God for bringing us all together despite the differences. No matter what we do, what we look like, who we voted for, how old we are, no matter what, we are first and foremost children of God and part of God’s community. That is worth thanking God. God meets us in the midst of our Samaria/Galilee desert, no matter what that looks like, and brings us back into community. God meets us in the desolate and promises us “you have not been forgotten.” God meets us in the darkness to remind us that God is the light that no darkness can overcome. God meets us where we are and says “eat. Drink. This is my body. This is my blood. And you, you my child are forgiven and set free.” In those holy moments, we are part of a community. Thanks be to God.

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Sermon for 11/19/17 Matthew 25:14-30

From the book of Marvel, the Spider-man chapter: “with great power comes great responsibility.” That’s right. I just quoted Spider-man. Also, from the book of Vinnie (my dad) “there’s nothing I hate more than to see good talent wasted.” (This is usually said while watching sports or listening to a sports report.) Let’s jump right in because there is a lot to cover with today’s text. It’s probably best if we start by talking about what a talent is at least in the context of Matthew’s gospel today. A talent, in this context, isn’t about things we’re good at. It’s not talking about your ability to play ball, quilt, cook, or a sense of humor. A talent is a coin. But this isn’t about our skills or money. The talents are about our callings. It’s about being put into positions where we can use our power to be influential. Fear often keeps us from using our talent. This parable aims to help us, even empower us, to use our resources for the sake of the gospel. At the same time, we can’t afford (pardon the pun) to waste any time. We don’t know when Jesus will be returning. We cannot wait another minute before sharing the good news.

Talents are usually something we have from birth or because of birth. It could be another word for vocation. What are the things God created  you to do or be? Once you figure that out, then comes the difficult task of figuring out how to use that talent to share the gospel, further the kingdom of God, and general praise of God. Here’s the other thing: some of your talents may be something you have no control over. We may call this privilege. Men, you didn’t ask to be born male. But, here you are. And you have privilege. None of us asked to be born white. But, here we are. And that comes with privilege. Sometimes we may have power because of someone else or because of someone else’s perception of us. What I mean is this: if you have a good reputation to your family name, it is most likely thanks to years of hard work. You may use that to your advantage every once in awhile. As far as perceptions, the best way I can think about how I use this is with my title. When I feel like I may not be listened to or taken seriously, I often introduce myself as Pastor Jealaine Marple. Emphasis on the “Pastor.” Yep…I call up the powers of the office.

But, the point is we all have talents, privilege, and resources that have been given to us by God for the glory of God. God gives us these talents, just like the slave owner gives actual talents to his slaves. Just one actual talent (coin) was worth 20 years of work. So to receive 5 talents was the equivalent of receiving payment for 100  years worth of work. The servants who received 5 and 2 talents grew their talents. They grew their investments. Meanwhile, God gave the last servant 1 talent and he buried it. He had his reasons, sure, but the point is, he didn’t grow it at all. The book of Esther, which I’m sure so many of you are familiar with has this great verse that I call on often. “Who knows? Perhaps you have been born for such a time as this.”

Have you ever thought about God’s purpose for your life? I think we all struggle with that from time to time. Sometimes it’s a midlife crisis. Sometimes it’s just deciding where to go to college. God does have a mission for your life. You identity, your calling starts at baptism. From that moment on, your task it to make sure people come to know God not through anything you do, but for the ways that God moves through you. Let’s think about this in more practical purposes.

From our very first moments, God creates us to be creatures who love and who are loved in return. Part of our task while we are on this earth for no matter how long we’re on this earth is to love. So, picture God giving you, literally handing you a big heaping cup full of love. Most of you know what a measuring cup looks like. You can go out and share this love and maybe even double it, triple it, or let it multiply numerous times. Or, you can keep that love to yourself…just in case. Because, what if God runs out of love. What if God decides to hand out more love, at least you’ve got a little bit to add to it. Are you mentally picturing this now? Maybe you can start to understand then, why the slave owner, or in this case, God, was upset with the slave for burying the talent. The slaves had the opportunity to further the kingdom of God and one chose not to. What has God called you to do but you have either denied the opportunity or ignored it?

See my beloved, instead of looking at the world and the way it is wondering “what can I do” we can look at the world and boldly declare “why not me?” But all too often, we do nothing. We do nothing to save face. We do nothing to save friends. We do nothing to save money. We do nothing out of fear. We have been given great power, whether we realize it or not, and yet, we bury our powers, our talents and hope that no one will notice that we’re not doing what God has called us to do. The power of sin is so strong that we would rather be liked, be loved and adored even, over furthering the kingdom of God. In our baptismal promises, we enter into a covenant to “proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” But, we like to pick and choose who we share our Jesus with, who we serve, and who we think deserves justice and peace. We cannot afford to be on the wrong side of this my brothers and sisters, because the wrong side of this is literal hell.

The good news is that we aren’t in this alone. We can help one another. Furthering God’s kingdom here on earth isn’t something we must do all by ourselves. This is why we come to church. We need the reminder that this difficult work isn’t something we do solo. And even though our temptation may be to stay quiet, God reminds us that he indeed is “Immanuel: God with us.” God is God with us from the waters of baptism to our very last breath. God is God with us when we are striving to bring in the reality of “on earth as it is in heaven” and in the times when we are tempted to bury our talents. You have been created for such a time as this. And with great power comes great responsibility.

Sermon for 11/5/17 Revelation 7:9-17

My alarm went off on the cold morning of January 12, 2010 and I rolled over, turned it off, and started to read through the notifications that had come on my phone. I was living in Sumner at the time and doing my internship. Thanks to Facebook and twitter, I immediately learned the news of the devastating 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti that day. One of my classmates was in Haiti with her internship congregation. Three other students were there doing a January term class, or J-term. The following day, I read the emails from our seminary president. Renee, Ben, and Jon were okay. They were figuratively shaken but they were okay. And then another email followed. It stated that Renee and Jon were well, but Ben’s status was unknown. Then a final email came confirming that Ben was one of hundreds of thousands killed in the earthquake. Ben was killed after being trapped in the building that the three were staying in. In his final minutes of life, as he was being crushed by concrete, rebar, and debris, Ben was heard singing the tune of “Where Charity and Love Prevail.” The last words he sang were “Lord Jesus you bear all the sins a world away. God’s peace to us we pray.” With the help of the Haitian people, mourning their own losses, and volunteers from the Lutheran World Federation, Ben was one of the first people actually recovered from the rubble. By then, of course, he was long gone.

I had known Ben Splichal Larson since before seminary. When Chris and I were touring seminaries, it was Ben and his cousin and best friend, Jon, that took us out for drinks at the Busted Lift in Dubuque. I think I knew then that I was in the presence of people who were special. Not just Ben, but Jon is pretty awesome as well. I thought of Ben as I read that Revelation reading. Ben was quoted as saying that when he dies he wants to go out singing. And that he did. It is a beautiful picture, at least to me, to picture all of our Saints singing the praises of God together.

The Revelation reading says there was a great multitude, so large that no one could actually count how large the crowd was. The multitude was from every nation, and spoke every language, and they were all colors, and abilities, and statuses. It continues saying “and all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’” They are everybody. These saints that sing the praises of God look like us and at the same time, look nothing like us. And the most astounding thing is this: they sing.

My Chris has too many stories of students he has worked with that have been told somewhere along the way that they cannot sing. It usually happens when a person is young. A likely well-meaning choir teacher pulled the student aside and, for whatever reason, told them that they cannot or should not sing. It breaks his heart when he hears these stories and it breaks mine when he relays them to me. In fact, a lot of his doctoral research is going to focus on why people don’t sing…especially why men in church don’t sing. But in the midst of everything else, believers should and do sing. This isn’t a case of just knowing about salvation and God’s goodness, but knowing it so well and being filled with such joy that you simply must sing. “Revelation overcomes such trickery with the  music of the heavenly choir reminding the saints–living and dead–that the good news is heard, even overheard. The saints’ cry may not always come in four-part harmony, but it is always a joyful noise. So the saints listen while they join in the song.” (Tom Tate, Feasting on the Word p220)

This reminds me of that hymn “how can I keep from singing?” In the midst of good and evil, war and peace, feast and famine, wealth and poverty, in the midst of life, no matter what comes across the path of the saints, they just cannot help but to sing. And at the same time, the saints, living and deceased cannot help but listen. And so why do we listen? We listen because by listening we hear the good news. We can experience the good news. We can experience the empty tomb. We can see it with our eyes. We can smell the slight hint of death but we don’t see the body. We can taste the confusion of knowing a man was crucified and laid in a tomb, but now he is no longer there. We can feel the radiance of joy starting to creep into our bodies and shine on our faces through the light that is Christ. But, but! Not until we hear the triumphant cry of “Alleluia! He is risen!” (He is risen indeed, alleluia!) Do we actually dare to believe it.

We gather here, week in and week out, despite what is going on, because we need to hear the good news. It’s one thing to show up. It’s another to show up and hear “you are forgiven. You are loved. You are freed from your sins.” And as if that isn’t good news enough, we sing this good news. We sing it so we ourselves can hear that good news and we sing it so those around us can hear it. Sometimes we may not believe it for ourselves, so we need to hear it from someone else. So we sing. And we show up here, on the first day of the week, just like the women at the tomb, to show ourselves, to show others, to show the world that death, no matter what it may look like, never has the final word. To show up to worship is an act of courage. So much goes on in our weeks that can easily crush us. Life is hard, friends, I get that. Many of us experience highs and lows in our 6 days that follow Sunday. We show up on Sunday as a sign of defiance. We renounce the devil and all the forces that attempt to defy God. We renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God. We renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God. All of that defiance is tiring and can make us weary and weak spiritually speaking. So we show up in the hopes that even the smallest glimpse of hope will encourage us for the week ahead.

And we sing. We sing with our saints. We sing because of our saints. We sing in the hope of joining the saints. The Lamb is already on the throne, in charge of everything we are and everything we need. That Lamb, Jesus Christ, is our shepherd and we shall want for nothing. And our troubles won’t disappear. Evil will do everything it can to attempt to sway us away from God. But our tears, when they come, are wiped away by God. What a powerful image. In our suffering and joy, God is there. Our song is one of salvation. Our song is one of hope. Our song is one of love. Our song is one of peace. And our song has the power to transform us and the people around us. Our song is sung, with joy, in the face of death, knowing that death never has and never will have the final word. We sing, my beloveds. We sing with the saints, for the saints, and surrounded by the saints.

Sermon for 10/29/17 John 8:31-36 Confirmation

Today is a day that is 500 years in the making. Now, I say that not because Ciera, Emma, and Tristan feel like they participated in confirmation for what probably felt like 500 years. I say that because we finally are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. A then Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther had diligently studied scripture and observed that what he read and how the church acted seemed to be in contradiction with one another. During Luther’s time, to go against the church was looked at like going against God directly. The church was more than the church. It served as local government, tax collector, sometimes a clothing or food source, and even a place to receive health care. To argue with the church was like arguing with the president, every member of congress, and your doctor all at the same time. And I’ve said this before, but Luther didn’t set out to start the reformation. He was trying to be true to who and what God called him to be. Through his prolific readings of the Bible he thought that what the word of God said was true, no questions asked. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

As the students prepared to write their faith statements, what was essentially asked of them was for them to answer the question “what do you know to be truth about God?” So I ask you, my beloveds, what do you know to be the truth about God? I feel like I say this all the time, but what these three confirmands did by writing these statements of faith isn’t something that is remotely easy. It’s not something many of us could do. To sit down and literally write about what you know to be true about God is hard. But once you know what you believe to be true, that truth can set you free. Once you know your truth of God you are freed from expectations, freed from disappointment, and freed from the temptation to chase false gods.

And much like what we mark today, it is okay for your truth to be reformed. After all, we are creatures that benefit from experience, education, and our contexts. What you believed about God as a young child may not be what you believe now. God constantly reforms us. What you believe to be true about God doesn’t have to be complex. It doesn’t have to be a novel. It doesn’t even have to be 95 things you believe to be true about God. All it needs to be is the truth. The thing about your truth is it is just that: your truth. So, if I say “I believe that God is a sassy African-American female with rainbow colored hair” can you really point me to a verse in the Bible that would prove me wrong?

Here are some of the truths our students shared with us in their faith statements. “Without God nothing is possible…God’s love is always with me no matter what. … God must have a plan for me.” Another said [God] “will always love me, forgive me, and always be with me … God also helps me remember what is important in life … [God] is good and [God] has the power to help me. … God gives me hope to believe in myself.” This is good stuff, right? Our final faith statement shared what they believe to be true about God by saying “every day God’s love is with me. … I always have God’s love and forgiveness to look forward to. … I feel God’s love … God’s has a different plan than I may have expected … I know God will light the way … The biggest asset in life is God.” These truths for our three confirmands have done something amazing. It has set them free.

I find that many people want to deal in certainty. We enjoy knowing that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We know that come April, the Cubs will start playing baseball again. We know for sure that on Christmas eve we will sing “Silent Night.” There is something comforting about certainty. So to know for certain what you believe is the truth about God can be comforting and it can set you free. As I said before, this truth doesn’t have to be rocket science. I often call it my “elevator speech” or my “tweet speech.” What I believe about God to be true can be said in an elevator ride or 1-2 tweets. I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God promises God’s love to all people. End of story. That is what I believe to be true. And oh my goodness, what I believe to be true about God has reformed over the years. For the longest time, I didn’t believe that God did or could love me. I didn’t know about grace. I thought that God was angry and vengeful and that I would somehow pay dearly for every single sin, no matter how large or small.

But the truth, my truth about God, has led to freedom that only comes from God and comes from believing God to be loving and full of mercy. What will your truth about God do for you? What kind of truths will reform your thinking? What kind of truth might even reform your relationship with God? What kinds of truth will set you free? And even after we come to know the truth about God will we still mess it up? Absolutely! We will continue to put our trust in things and people that are not life giving. We will invest in time that will be wasted. We may even attempt to accomplish our goals and aspirations all by ourselves. And we will fail. Sin is tricky like that.

These young people today are making an affirmation of their faith and their baptismal promises. Their faith may be reformed over the next few years, but they are bold enough to stand in front of all of us today and declare what they know to be the truth about God. And their lives are changed for it. Ciera, Emma, and Tristan, I want to thank you. Thank you for trusting me with your questions and curiosities. Thank you for your amusing snap chat sermon notes. Thank you for being willing to try new things. Thank you for loving yourselves and God enough to go through this process. I pray that the truth you now know and believe about God has set you free.

Sermon for 10/22/17 Matthew 22:15-22

I think we’ve all had those moments where we know we are either stuck between a rock and a hard place or we know we’ve been had or found out. When my brother, Jon, was in high school, he snuck out of the house while grounded. His girlfriend (who was older than him) had been drinking and needed a way home. Jon knew how to get out of the house without being detected. He went and retrieved his girlfriend, safely delivered her back to her house and got back into bed, all while thinking he had gotten away with it. The next day my father woke my brother by yelling that he knew he had snuck out of the house. Jon, trying to not be in more trouble, over and over again said “no I didn’t!” My dad said “Jon. I know you are lying, I’m not going to tell you how, but I know.” And Jon got grounded for like 2 more weeks and lost driving privileges I think.

For the longest time, Jon had no idea how my dad knew he had snuck out that evening. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that the truth had come to light. The night that Jon snuck out to go get Mel, his girlfriend, it was raining. It hadn’t rained that day but we had a small rainstorm creep up on us that night. Jon returned home, after taking all the precautions to not be caught, he had forgotten one important detail: when he turned off the car, the windshield wipers were halfway up. Dad took one look at the windshield and knew something was up. Jon had been caught, he had been had. I think in one way or another, we’ve all been there.

Jesus wasn’t trying to sneak out of his house in today’s Gospel. He was doing simple Jesus things: teaching in the temple. And up come two groups who were strange bedfellows: the Pharisees and the Herodians. These groups working together make about as much sense working together as Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer working together. But they had one thing in common: they wanted Jesus dead. They wanted to get enough evidence to get Jesus arrested. They are in the temple (so, in the church) when they approach Jesus and ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not. Jesus, being amazing, knows what is going on and knows that they are trying to trap him. What the question comes down to is essentially this: Jesus do you believe we should be loyal to God or loyal to the government? No matter what way Jesus answers, he gets himself into trouble. Unless, that is, he answers like as only Jesus can, in riddle like responses.

Jesus asked them to show him the coin they used for paying taxes. Now, they were in the temple, which means they should have traded in all of their denarii for scheckles. But, they pull out the coin to show Jesus the head of the emperor on the coin. Jesus responds “give therefor to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus managed to answer the question without getting himself into trouble. Jesus is really good at this. And as much as we would like to think that this was a problem for Jesus’ time only, we find ourselves in this same predicament quite a bit, whether we know it or not.

The government isn’t trying to catch us, so to speak, but we can be found struggling to distinguish between our loyalties to the government and our loyalties to God. And much like Jesus’ time, it isn’t cut and dry. We can’t not pay taxes (as much as we would like). We do have to obey the law. Trust me on this, if you tell the police officer that you only obey God instead of the speed limit, you are still getting a ticket. But in other ways it gets messy. Last week I talked about claiming “Christian” as a verb. Being a Christian isn’t something we do just for one day a week for one hour a week. It should be something that consumes us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In practical ways, what does being torn between our government and God look like? How about this one: kneeling for the National Anthem. (I’m not messing around this week). Now, I am not going to get into the “why” of people kneeling. But, believe me, it has nothing to do with a flag or disrespecting those who served. But, and what I’m about to say may strike you as controversial or it might even make you mad, our allegiance first and foremost is to God, not a flag or a country. This is why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t stand for the pledge. They refuse to pledge allegiance to anything but God. It might even be said that kneeling for the National Anthem isn’t disrespectful to God, but standing is.

Being a Christian may make it hard to know how to feel when our government participates in capital punishment or war. What about when the taxes we pay to our government go to support issues that we either support or disagree with, such as Planned Parenthood? We want to receive our mail (something our taxes pay for) but we’d rather not see our taxes go to fund sexual offender rehabilitation, because those guys shouldn’t be allowed out of prison in the first place, right?? How do we navigate the waters when our loyalties to God and government disagree? We often get stuck. And we don’t get stuck between God and government necessarily, but we get stuck between God and society. We might decide to yield to what God is calling us to do, but we fear it would cause judgement from our peers, co-workers, or family. And so, we go along with the crowd. Being Christian, standing for what you believe in can cost a lot. It cost Collin Kapernick his job. Remember my beloved, any time we put something, anything, between us and God it is considered sin, no matter how “good” we may think it is.

The good news in all of this is that God and God’s loyalty never wavers. God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy will always and does always surpass and trump even our best intentions. Even when we enter into situations that call us to act boldly and we do anything but, God’s mercy is bigger than that. When our loyalty lies anywhere but with God, God still loves us and gives us multiple chances to get it right. See, because the cross on which Jesus died for you and for me frees us from governmental expectations while simultaneously calling us to have great expectations of our government and ourselves. This means that as Christians if we observe, know, see, etc…our government acting in a way that is counter to Christ and what Christ would have us do, we have an baptismal obligation to do something about it. This means we have to become public theologians and public Christians. When we call our representatives, we declare, “as a Christian I must beseech you to fight for a health care program, or housing, or laws, etc…that are the most beneficial for the least in our society.” Because you know what, that is what Christ would do. Christ wants us to advocate for the least among us, the most vulnerable, the forgotten and downtrodden. And it’s not always easy, and it’s not always popular, and surprise surprise, it’s not always as cut and dry as party lines.

Next time you’re feeling stuck between God and government and you start wondering what is God’s and what is Uncle Sam’s, remember that everything we have and everything we are belongs to God. And it is God, and God alone that can save us. The government, with all of the money, resources, and power on earth, as wonderful as it may be, can never and will never save us. We may live under the rule of law, but we are saved by a king; and not the kind with a crown, the kind with a cross.

Sermon for 10/15/17 Matthew 22:1-14

**nb: this is the Sunday when the congregation I serve celebrates its ongoing relationship with the Foods Resource Bank (FRB) **

Foods Resource Bank, or FRB, has a mission statement that reads: “As a Christian response to hunger, FRB links the grassroots energy and commitment of agricultural communities around the world with the capability and desire of smallholder farmers in developing countries to grow lasting solutions to hunger.” I want to focus a bit on the first part of that mission statement: “as a Christian response.” Yes, what FRB does is a humanitarian response. It’s an empathetic response. It’s a caring response. But, what makes FRB different from other hunger programs is that it is couched in Christ. “As a Christian response” should be what we do with so many issues in the world. We respond as Christians first and foremost. The current Bishop of our church, the ELCA, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton often asks what makes us different than the Red Cross. And it’s not that the Red Cross isn’t a great organization, it is. But the church isn’t the Red Cross. And the Red Cross isn’t the church. Bishop Eaton often says that her four emphasis for the ELCA are: “we are church; We are Lutheran; We are church together; We are church for the sake of the world.”

I wonder if we think much about our Christian response to whatever. What is our Christian response to the North Korean nuclear issue? What is our Christian response to the US’ involvement in relations between Israel and Palestine? What is our Christian response to gun control, the death penalty, or kneeling during the National Anthem? What is our Christian response to health care, the working poor, and slum lords? What is our Christian response to systemic racism? Notice that with each of those issues, I asked “what is our Christian response?” I didn’t ask “what is our Republican response?” or “what is our Democratic response?” What is our feminine response, masculine response, white response, generation X response, and on and on and on. Because no matter what else we are, we are first and foremost, God’s.

Our primary identity is a called, claimed, and forgiven child of God. This is our core identity. It’s as if our identity as a Christian is the “basement” or foundation of the rest of our lives. It is our primary identity. But, we often allow it to become our secondary identity or we move that identity to a status that can almost be called “if we get to it.” It isn’t enough to call ourselves “Christian.” See, “Christian” is a verb. It’s awesome that you come to church. I am glad that you are here. But, being a Christian is more than just coming to church. Let me put it to you like this. I belong to the YWCA here in town. I wouldn’t call myself an athlete. I make dinner for my family on a regular basis. I wouldn’t call myself a chef. I can hem up a fallen pant cuff. I wouldn’t call myself a seamstress. I think you can understand where I am going with this. But I am, or at least try to be, a Christian in every aspect of my life.

In today’s Gospel reading (which, yes, is pretty violent…again), an invited guest showed up to a wedding banquet and wasn’t wearing the proper clothing. And because of that, he was thrown out of the party. And it wasn’t a nice, quiet, keep his dignity kind of occasion. The man was bound by his hands and feet and then thrown into the darkness where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Sounds lovely. This isn’t a story about “what not to wear.” My guess is that many of us have had situations where we were not wearing the right thing. We might have been over dressed or under dressed. Ask me sometime about the first time I met Chris’ parents! Anyway, this reading (much like our previous weeks) is a parable. And the banquet that is being spoken of in today’s reading is an analogy for the banquet that is waiting for us in the kingdom of heaven. It is what we talk about during communion when we speak of a “foretaste of the feast to come.” And the thing is this: it requires more of us than just showing up.

We have been chosen by God. As Lutherans, we do not believe that we can work or earn our way into heaven. We do not believe in works righteousness. It might be understandable for some to be confused by this concept. People may say “if we can’t work or earn our way into heaven, then why do we feed the hungry, or clothe the naked, or visit the imprisoned” or whatever. Our response to the issues in the world is a Christian response. And that response is our response to God’s mercy, grace, and love. When we are filled with God’s mercy, grace, and love, we are filled to the point of almost overwhelmingly overfilled. And our response to that is to then go out into the world to share some of that mercy, grace, and love with others. God’s grace isn’t cheap. The cost was the death of Jesus on a cross. It is time for us to realize that calling ourselves “Christian” isn’t good enough. It’s time for us to act like it as well. It’s time to take our call to serve God and serve others seriously.

And the time to bring about the kingdom of Heaven, is now. We, the people of God, and society in general, cannot afford to wait any longer for “other people” to bring about the kingdom of Heaven. I think this is why the host at the wedding banquet was so upset. The ill-dressed guess didn’t understand, or maybe underestimated, that the call to the banquet is immediate and requires action. We shouldn’t be like the wedding guest: complacent, blase, or merely showing up. Instead, let us take our call as Christians seriously. Our Christian response should be so second nature that eventually we stop calling it a “Christian response” and instead we just call it a response. Friends, God is calling us. God has been calling us. We need to be brave and do more than just wear the title “Christian” like it’s a comfortable sweater. We need to proclaim that to be Christian means that we truly believe that God is Immanuel, God with us. And even more importantly, we need to proclaim that God is Immanuel, God with all of us. That, is our Christian response.  

Sermon for 10/8/17 Matthew 21:33-46

I’ve thought a lot about fences this week. Weird, I know. I keep thinking about the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall.” In it, he wrote “good fences make good neighbors.” I’ve also been thinking about borders and walls, all types of barriers we construct or that are constructed for us. This week has brought us some horrific violence once again. Much like the news reporters, I get so tired of addressing issues like this from the pulpit. And sure, it’d be easy to say “then don’t do it, Pastor.” Well, the fact is, the kingdom of God has been disrupted and hurt. I cannot simply ignore real, tangible pain in the world. For me, that would be like ignoring Christ himself. And it is during times like this that we may be tempted to build fences, either real or metaphorical, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We build fences out of fear, love, knowledge, anger, distrust, and reality among many other things.

So why all this talk about fences? Well, our gospel of course. Among many other things, the gospel story mentions a fence. And here’s the thing. When Jesus tells parables, he’s very specific and the details are for a reason, a purpose. Why did it matter that the vineyard had a fence around it? Why did Jesus include this really important detail? Maybe those hearing this parable wouldn’t have thought anything of it at the time. Maybe to have a fence during Jesus’ time was code for something else. But, as always, there was a method to Jesus’ madness. So let’s talk a little more about this, shall we?

I know many of you have fences on your property. Please hear me from the beginning here, I am not saying that actual fences are a bad thing. Many of you have fences for practical purposes: they keep your livestock where they belong. Without fences there might be more car versus cow accidents. Or maybe you have a fence to keep the critters out of your garden. Perhaps you have a fence to keep the dogs or kids in the yard where you can see them. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a pool and you need to have a fence for safety reasons. With the cost of a fence these days, the decision to put one up isn’t one that is willy-nilly. People usually think hard about it and do research before just putting up a fence. I know that a fence is also rarely maintenance free.

But, we also put up metaphorical fences and walls in our lives. We may not realize that is what we are doing because it often gets done in the name of safety and protection. These types of fences are more to keep people out than to keep things in. Maybe this looks like avoiding a certain area of town after dark. Maybe this looks like crossing the street when you see someone on the same sidewalk in the distance that you don’t like the looks of. Maybe this looks like double checking to make sure you still have your wallet or purse when you’re in the company of certain people. These are all metaphorical fences and when we do things like this in the name of safety and protection, the message that we send to other children of God is “I’m safe and okay… you however, need to be judged and vetted before I let you in.”

And the vineyard owner in today’s parable had a fence for whatever reason. But, in the end, the vineyard owner lost some of his slaves because they were murdered. He lost his own son to murder. In addition to that, he lost profit. He originally sent the slaves to collect some of the produce. This was very customary for that time. But the tenants weren’t having any of it. The vineyard owner had lost everything that was possible to lose. A fence didn’t make the difference. All the time and money to keep his investment safe did no good. Much like previous parables, we may want to see ourselves in the role of the landowner, or the slaves, maybe even the landowner’s son. We certainly don’t see ourselves like the tenants.

If we dive a little deeper into this parable, we may discover that this is more allegorical than a parable. The landowner is God. The slaves are the prophets. The landowner’s son is Jesus. The tenants is the established government. The vineyard is the kingdom of God. God trusts us to tend to the kingdom of God. And with the best intentions in our hearts, we build fences. We build fences by just flat out not being church. We build fences when we question someone’s ability to serve God based on gender alone (I get this a lot because I’m female). We build fences when we deny the validity of relationships because they are between two people of the same gender. We build fences when we give each other the “up and down” observing what one another is wearing. We build fences when we turn people away from this table for whatever reason. We build fences in the name of kingdom-keeping when really building fences destroys the kingdom of God.

I mean, if there is any place that should be without barriers, it would be the kingdom of God. We know, or at least I hope we know, that we serve a God who is all about breaking down barriers. And we build them up anyway. What do we think we’re protecting when we build walls in the kingdom of God? Who do we think we’re protecting? Do we really think that we know the kingdom better than God and so we build walls? How self centered are we? Our sin causes us to build walls and barriers in the name of safety, trust, and protection. But here’s the thing. The kingdom of God is open to all. Who are we protecting? God doesn’t need protecting. Which leads me to believe that the only people we’re protecting is ourselves. And when we start to build walls and barriers in the name of religion, we can quickly diminish from religion into cult.

I understand that the world is a scary place. 59 souls are no longer with us after that was confirmed once again this past week in Vegas. It’s tempting, and almost too easy to hold your loved ones close, lock the doors, build walls, keep to yourselves, all in the name of safety, protection, and privacy. But what ultimately keeps us safe is God. Sometimes the people we need protection from is ourselves; only God can do that. When we need the walls around our hearts broken so that we are able to fully experience the love and joy of this world, only God can do that. When we need the courage to break down the barriers that stop us from loving our neighbors and serving the world around us, only God can do that. And when we get weary from breaking down the barriers in this world that God has called us to break down and we need rest, only God can provide that.

Do “good fences make good neighbors?” Maybe. But, I’ve never been able to call on a fence for a cup of sugar or to watch my dog or water my flowers. God designed us to live and be in community. The more we fence ourselves in, the more we rob ourselves of those opportunities. There is a lot of evil in the world. That evil tempts us daily to block out everyone else, even those who wish to love us and help us. And yes, it’s smart to be on guard and be aware. But don’t do it at the cost of making yourself an island. We are called to be keepers of the kingdom, not build a fence around it. What I am proposing this day is what God has called us to do all along: take the risk of opening yourself up to love. Take the risk of loving someone else. Get to know other children of God. Break down walls of suspicion and build bridges of hope instead. Destroy walls of injustice, and help build systems of equality instead. Defeat fences made out of the “isms” of life and build life lines of love instead. This isn’t necessarily hard work, we just keep putting up walls. God will tear those down and show us our next steps.