Sermon for 7/23/17 “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”

Finally, finally finally! In this fourth week of the sermon series I finally found a hymn writer that feels like a normal human being. Edward Mote wrote today’s hymn focus “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.” And unlike the other hymn writers we’ve talked about so far, he was an average guy. He wasn’t a genius; he didn’t write thousands of hymns; he doesn’t have a super tragic back story. Edward Mote: solid normal guy. But, he still wrote one of the best loved hymns and so I guess that makes him a little above average. Edward Mote was born in 1797 in England. His parents were people I probably would enjoy hanging out with; they owned a pub. They were working parents before there were such a thing. Because of their work schedules and busy lives keeping up with the business, Edward was often left to his own devices.

In his home, there wasn’t a scriptural or church upbringing of any kind. Edward was even quoted once as saying “so ignorant was I that I did not know that there was a God.” His parents connected him with a local cabinetmaker. And so, he became an apprentice to the senior cabinetmaker. It was the senior cabinetmaker that took Edward to a service with a preacher by the name of John Hyatt; and at age 15, Edward took an interest in Christianity. He spent the majority of his time in cabinet making but tried to stay involved in ministry in various ways. At age 55, Edward finally entered into full time ministry. (This is a wonderful example that you’re never too old.) He became the pastor of a Baptist church where he served for 20 years.

Edward said “One morning it came into my mind as I went to labour, to write a hymn on the ‘Gracious Experience of a Christian.’ As I went up to Holburn I had the chorus…” The story continues that Edward went to see some church members. The wife of a particular couple was very ill. The husband informed Pastor Mote that it was customary in their home to mark Sunday with prayer, Bible reading, and hymn singing. When it was time for the hymn singing, Edward pulled the lyrics out of his pocket and it was there that our hymn was sung for the first time. The verses of the hymn were a comfort to the ill woman and her grieving husband. From that experience, Edward was inspired to write additional verses.

The chorus most likely is inspired by Matthew 7:25-27 “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” It also could have been inspired by Luke 6:47-49 “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.* But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’”

This hymn doesn’t mess around at all. Right from the first few words, we get the sense of what the hymn will be about. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” If that’s not a bold statement of faith, I don’t know what is. We do attempt to build our hope on other things, though, don’t we? We place our hope in things that cannot and will not ever give life. Hebrews 11:1-3 says “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” Or, we could refer to Romans 5: 2b-5 “and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

But, sin, that tricky evil familiar force, tempts us to place our trust in anything and everything that isn’t Christ. We may call it other things, but at the end of the day, it’s sin. Instead of placing our hope in Christ, we place it in stability in our jobs, in our lives, in our families, and sometimes we even try to place our hope in the stability of our country. But despite calling it stability, it is sinking sand. We place our hope in ourselves (which is always dangerous). We worry about number one or may believe that we are invincible. Then something happens that shakes us to our core and we find that placing hope in ourselves is sinking sand.

We place our hope in our family and friends. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would hope that you place hope in the ones you love. But, they can’t be the foundation of your hope and faith. Because as much as we love our family and friends, they will, someday, eventually, let us down. And we are reminded once again that those relationships, though fruitful, are still built on sinking sand. There are so many things that surround us daily that we put all of our chips behind, we go “all in” on that particular relationship, job, even material good that we think we can hope in. Eventually, the sinking sand kicks in and we are left disappointed.

God, the source of our life, the source of our hope, the source of our salvation, the source of love, mercy, justice, and peace, will never disappoint us. God is anything but sinking sand. As I said last week, God is always faithful. Even when we try and put our hope into other things, God is always faithful. Now, we may not always understand God’s ways (and I know that can be maddening for some of you). But, we trust that God’s ways are higher than our ways; God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).  Even in the moments when we can’t see God or feel God, we “rest on his unchanging grace.” Our anchor is safely secured into God. God has a hold of us and not the other way around. God never lets go.

I’ve spoke of this before, but it needs to be repeated. I think so many of us are hungry for something certain. We desire something we know to be 100% true. In an era of “fake news” we need something that we know, without a doubt, is a certain thing. We need that certainty for the times when we don’t know if anything is certain. We need a solid foundation. And no matter how much we go searching for it, it’s already here. We don’t have to buy it. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t even deserve it. The certainty, of course, is Jesus Christ. “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” Christ is our foundation. Christ is what we can be certain of. Christ is the force that will never fail us and never disappoint us. Christ is the force that will never give way to something else. And Christ will never yield to sin. Christ already looked sin in the face and responded with a cross. Build your hope on Christ, brothers and sisters. Everything else is sinking sand.

Sermon for 7/16/17 “Great is thy Faithfulness”

I’ve decided I need to stop doing this sermon series. Granted, that is a joke, but studying these hymn writers have done nothing for my ego. Last week we heard about Fanny Crosby who was blind and wrote 8000 hymns. This week, we will learn about Thomas Chisholm. His story sounds like something out of a book. He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1866. While he did attend school, it wasn’t a great education (as compared to current day). And by age 16, he was himself a teacher. At age 21, he became the associate editor of his hometown newspaper. But, it was in 1893, at the age of 27, that he experienced his first revival meeting. This was most likely a traditional tent revival as you imagine it. He heard and experienced the preaching of Methodist evangelist (yes there is such a thing), Henry Clay Morrison. And Thomas immediately wanted to start into ministry. So yes, Lutherans, one of your favorite hymns was written by a Methodist.

But, sadly enough, due to health issues, Thomas only got to serve a short amount of time in one call before he had to retire from the ministry. His heart for ministry was very much still present, but his health would not allow the rigors required to be a pastor. So he did the next logical thing, moved his family to Indiana and then New Jersey where he started selling insurance. And yes, it was during that time when Thomas wrote our hymn for today. He wrote around 1200 poems and hymns total. Several of them were published in Christian weekly or monthly magazines like “Sunday School Times,” and “Moody Monthly.”

Thomas was quoted once as saying “my income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.” Later, he explained his hymn lyric writing in this manner “I have sought to be true to the Word, and to avoid flippant and catchy titles and treatments. I have greatly desired that each hymn or poem might have some definite message to the hearts for whom it was written.” When “Great is Thy Faithfulness” was introduced by Billy Graham crusades in England in 1954, it took off.

The refrain is possibly inspired by Lamentations 3:22-23. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” And oh my goodness, is this ever a promise I need to hear. This promise of God’s faithfulness to me, despite my unfaithfulness to God, is what allows me to inhale and exhale day after day. It is only because of God’s faithfulness that I am who I am. It is only because of God’s faithfulness that I am not mired down by sin and suffering. It is only because of God’s faithfulness to me day after day, morning after morning, that I am fed, forgiven, and set free. And it is only by God’s faithfulness and God’s faithfulness alone that any of us have come this far! (Amen? Amen!)

I love the second verse as much as the first. I think part of what I love about this verse is the personification of the seasons and stars. Isaiah 55 says “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” I love the idea of nature singing and even clapping the praises of God. Perhaps that is part of what Thomas was trying to capture in verse 2. All of the seasons: summer, winter, springtime, and harvest (did you catch that farmers? Not fall…but harvest), and all celestial beings: sun, moon and stars will join together with everything in nature to provide abundant witness to God’s faithfulness, mercy, and love. As if it’s not enough for us to praise God; but everything that God has created and continues to create also praises God. And why not? It’s not like humans are God’s only creation. God created everything that is around us. We were designed to live in harmony and have dominion over creation. So why shouldn’t the seasons, and the stars, and even the tiniest little caterpillar sing of God’s faithfulness?

Many times in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, the word that is used for faithfulness is similar or related to the word for truth. So think about the hymn this way “great is God’s truthfulness” or even “great is God’s truth.” And what is God’s truth? I think we are often afraid to ask that question. I have spoken with many people or been witness to several conversations where people genuinely worry about their salvation. There are often expressions of doubt and regret. We humans are so very good at forgiving one another and believing that God really does forgive. But we struggle with believing that the same forgiveness that God gives others is really for us too. We struggle to even forgive ourselves.

I think the truth I long to hear, maybe the truth that we all long to hear is that we are forgiven. We are loved. And yes, even that thing that we’re struggling to forgive ourselves for,God already forgave us for that. “Pardon for sin and a peace that” endures. Pardon: the act of forgiving. Not only are we loved, it’s like we have our own little cheering section in our corner. God is that force that encourages us, that enables us to go out into a world that is hurting and declare “you! You there that thinks that they are living in darkness? That darkness is no match for God.” Maybe you need to hear that too, my beloveds. The darkness you experience, whatever that darkness may look like, is no match for God.

We know all too well that sin is a very real force in this world. Sin disguises itself in many different ways. But we remember that it is God that is faithful. It isn’t money that is faithful. It isn’t power that is faithful. It isn’t the price of corn or beans that is faithful. It isn’t our jobs that are faithful. Sadly, it isn’t even our friends or family that are faithful. It is God and God alone that is faithful. No matter how many times we may be faithful to something else, and we do it over and over and over again, brothers and sisters, we are faithful to so many other things other than God. No matter how many times we try and move our faith elsewhere, God’s faithfulness to us remains.

Do you want a certainty in this world? Do you want something that you can count on? Do you want something you know to be 100% true 100% of the time? God and God alone is faithful. Always. To the end of time, end of story. And not only does God have blessings for you today, there are 10,000 more blessings waiting where those came from. God’s faithfulness is so good. We may have worries (and I know we do), we all may have troubles (and that could be a bit of an understatement) but the one constant, the one thing that remains so true no matter what is God. God is the only thing that never changes. Great is thy faithfulness. Thanks be to God, great is thy faithfulness.  

Sermon for 7/9/17 “Blessed Assurance”

Should you ever start to feel really good about the amount of work you have accomplished in your life thus far, you can perhaps, take a moment to reflect on Fanny Crosby. Ms. Crosby wrote the lyrics to “Blessed Assurance.” That alone is pretty impressive. However, she also wrote around 8,000 other gospel hymns. Additionally she also wrote around 1000 or so non-religious songs, 4 books of poetry and 2 autobiographies. She also was blind for almost her entire 95 years of life. I don’t know about you, but I now feel like I’ve done nothing with my life! The other hymn that many of you love that was written by Crosby? “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.”

Fanny was born in 1820 just north of New York City. At only six months old, she caught a cold (as newborns do) that traveled to her eyes. At that time, medicine wasn’t as advanced as it is now, obviously. The antidote that doctors chose was a mustard plaster. Fanny claimed that it was the mustard plaster that caused her blindness but doctors that studied her medical history after she died think it might have been a genetic condition. Early in her life she attended a Presbyterian church. It was there that her faith started to develop. She started to memorize five chapters of the Bible per week. She enrolled in the New York Institute for the Blind where she learned how to play the piano, the organ, harp, and guitar in addition to becoming a very good soprano singer.  

Considering the time and her gender, Fanny was a bit of a trailblazer. In 1843 she was the first woman to ever address the United States Senate. She was advocating for the support of education for the blind. It was 30 years later, in 1873 that Fanny wrote “Blessed Assurance.” She had already written the words and when visiting her friend and frequent collaborator, Phoebe Knapp, played a melody that she had just composed. “What do you think the tune says” Phoebe asked Fanny? And without hesitation, Fanny said “blessed assurance; Jesus is mine.” Remember that Fanny had practically memorized the bible. For her, the words to “Blessed Assurance” were a reflection of her own faith life as it was expressed by Paul in Philippians 1:21 “for to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”

Let’s take a look at these most awesome lyrics. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” That could be a statement of faith or of relief when you think about it. Hear from Hebrews 10 “and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscious and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” It’s good for us to remember that last part: “he who has promised is faithful.” Meaning that God is faithful. Our faithfulness has nothing to do with this. And as much as I enjoy this hymn, it can prove to be troublesome at times. It’s not the “blessed assurance” part that bothers me, but the “Jesus is mine” part. Jesus is mine mine mine…as if I alone can lay claim to the Savior of the world.

But there are some who desire to do this, right? There are some Christians who want to know if you have a close and personal relationship with Jesus. Have you professed Jesus as your Lord and Savior? This decision theology puts the power in our hands which is always troublesome. We know that there is nothing we can do to “get closer” to God through Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter how much we profess or how many “conversion” experiences we have, God is already as close to us as God possibly can be on this side of heaven. There’s nothing we can do or not do to change this.

Additionally, we don’t and can’t “own” Jesus. Jesus can be all things to all people and thankfully (or maybe unfortunately) we don’t have a say over any of that. It can be wonderful to sing this. It can be a comfort. When we’re having not so great days or when we’re going through rough times, it can be really comforting to sing “blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” But what may be troubling is that anyone can sing these words. Those for whom we’d rather limit God’s love through Jesus Christ also sing these words.

When we sing “o what a foretaste of glory divine” we sing of our afterlife, yes. But we can also experience a foretaste before death. We even sing about that as well. We sing about a “foretaste of the feast to come.” This is what we celebrate in communion. When we receive communion, it is but a small taste of the feast that we will have with Christ in our death. When we splash Piper today, we will be reminded that God is with us daily, another foretaste of the feast to come. In our baptism, all of us have been purchased by God; all of us belong to God.

Then, think about the chorus. “This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long…” It doesn’t matter what you think your story is, this is your story. Your story isn’t one of failure, or “shouldda couldda wouldda.” Your story isn’t even what other people wish it were. Your story is that you have been purchased by God. You are God’s. To God you belong and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about that. When that is your story, why wouldn’t you want to sing it for as long as you possibly can? We are filled with God’s goodness and lost in God’s love. How comforting is that thought? For me, personally, that is a very blessed assurance. Echoes of mercy; meaning there’s enough mercy that God has given us that it actually can echo.

When you have those moments of doubt, when you have those moments of darkness, when you have those moments of uncertainty, or even when you have those moments when you wonder if God has forgotten about you perhaps these words will bring you some comfort. You are an heir of salvation, a beneficiary, a inheritor of salvation. God has purchased you with the blood of Jesus. When the rapture happens, angels will come down in love that sounds like whispers. You are filled with God’s goodness. And God’s love is so amazing and so wonderful that you are able to get lost in it. Blessed assurance, Jesus is yours; and more importantly, you belong to Jesus. There’s no way to change that. There’s no way to undo that. There’s nothing that will come between you and that love. In a world that’s hungry for certainties, in a time where people long for definite answers, in a climate where people are so quickly divided, what a gift it is to proclaim and declare some most definite assurance. Blessed assurance.

Sermon for 7/2/17 Amazing Grace

Today we start a month-long sermon series on the history and theological background for some of your favorite hymns and mine. I don’t think there’s a better place to start than Amazing Grace. After all, I’ve said more than once that I am the wretch that the song speaks of. I know for many of you, Amazing Grace ranks up there as one of your favorite hymns as well. It was published in 1779 and written by John Newton. And it was semi-autobiographical in nature so that might start to give you a taste of Newton’s life. His mother died when he was young of tuberculosis. His father worked as a shipping merchant so John’s upbringing was left to a stepmother and boarding schools. He joined his dad at age 11. As he aged, he was employed by several different ships often being asked to leave because of his insubordination and vulgar language. He literally cursed like a sailor.

He was on board the ship, the Greyhound, when a terrible storm struck. This was the start of John’s “come to Jesus” conversion. This wasn’t a simple rainstorm. This was a storm of epic proportions. I doubt Hollywood could even make this stuff up. The wind had taken the sails, ripped wood off the side of the boat, and thrown men overboard. John was responsible for manually working the pumps in the hopes of keeping the ship going. But, he did this for 11 days. Finally, he was just too tired to keep pumping, so he was tied to the helm of the ship and hoped to keep it afloat and on course. I would imagine that an experience like that gives one an opportunity to think about God. The story goes that he even begged for God to have mercy on him and the remaining men on the ship.

Upon landing safely, his conversion to Christianity started. He was comforted by Luke 11:13 “if you then, who are evil, know who to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Still, like so many of us, he began to question if he was even worthy of God’s love. But he slowly started to develop his faith and eventually became a pastor. He often would write a hymn to accompany his Sunday night lectures and sermons. It was in that context that he wrote Amazing Grace. He drew inspiration from King David in 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God; you have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come. You regard me as someone of high rank, O Lord God!” The other thing that is important to remember or know is that John Newton spent part of his time at sea as a slave merchant. Once he became a rector, he spoke out against slavery. One of his congregation members was a member of parliament and instrumental in abolishing slavery, thanks to being influenced by his pastor.

For Christians, for Lutherans, this hymn is more than just a hymn. This is a way of life. After all, one of the hallmarks of our theology is that we live by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 says “for grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” We are saved by grace. We cannot be saved from ourselves by ourselves. If and when someone asks me “why do you need God?” or “why do you need Jesus?” And my answer is always “because I cannot save myself.” Luther said “knowledge of original sin is a necessity. For we cannot know the magnitude of Christ’s grace unless we first recognize our malady” (AP 117:33). This is why we always open our worship time together confessing our sins to God. It is only after we’re aware of our sins that we are ready to accept the grace that God has waiting for us.

So, what makes grace so amazing (other than the fact that it saves us from ourselves)? Once again, we turn to scripture. Romans 5:8-10 “but God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Did you hear the good news in this scripture, my beloveds? “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Christ didn’t die for us once we got our stuff together, once we prayed so many times, once we gave so much money…instead, Christ died while we still were sinners.

God’s love changes us. That’s probably a given. I hope you hear me say something like that and you think “duh Pastor! Of course God’s love changes us!” But do you believe it? Sin has the tendency to make us blind. We are blind to God’s love, we are blind to God’s mercy, and we are blind to God’s grace. That’s what makes God’s grace so amazing; we can be completely blind, we can be completely unaware and yet God’s grace allows us to see. “Was blind but now I see” is more than just an afterthought. It is a statement and true testament to God’s goodness.

The verses all tell a story. The verses all speak to the ways that God’s grace infiltrates our lives on a minute by minute basis. However, the words we have today weren’t the original words that John Newton wrote. The fifth verse was a later addition. The two verses you may not be familiar with are these: “Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.” And “the earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine, but God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.”

Grace teaches us to simultaneously fear God and yet somehow also relieves us from our fears. Grace has a way of showing us the truth of life, the messy stuff the ugly parts of our lives, and still says “but yet….” For me, that’s what grace is all about. It’s as if God is saying to me and to all of us “but yet…” But yet, God still loves you. But yet, God still forgives you. But yet, God still provides for you. But yet, God still feeds you. But yet…and maybe that’s where the idea of grace upon grace comes from. It is more than we ever need and certainly more than we ever deserve.

The last few weeks I’ve talked about being a disciple and the difficulties that life entails. Newton’s words spoke to this as well: “through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” We’ve all been through a lot. We all have stories we could share. We all have instances in our lives that we could look back on and claim “I got through only by the grace of God.” We will continue to survive by grace through faith. We will continue to breath by grace. We will continue to live solely by grace. And, when the time comes, when our journey on this earth is complete, it is by God’s grace alone that we will be welcomed into heaven. It is by God’s grace alone that we will continue to know God’s love after death. And it is because of God’s grace alone that we will continue to praise God, even if we do it for 10,000 years or more.

Sermon for 6/25/17 Matthew 10:24-39

So, what would it take? What would be your bottom line, non-negotiable, end of the line situation that would cause you to just walk away from a friend or family member. What would it take for you to cut ties completely? Some of you, unfortunately, have answered that question already in your lifetime. It’s an uncomfortable question to think about. And maybe you may not be able to answer it until you’re in the thick of a situation. And maybe the answer is different depending on the person you’re dealing with. Is it easier to walk away from a friend than from a child? Probably. What would it take? What if your child was stealing from you to support a drug habit? What if your child was an abusive marriage but refused to leave? What if your spouse was involved in nefarious activities? What would it take? Or maybe it doesn’t have to be that dramatic. Maybe when you finally get the courage to speak truth to a situation it makes it easier to walk away.

See, I think part of what Jesus calls us to do as disciples is to speak the truth. We are called to shine the light of Christ into the dark places of the world. We are called to fight for justice, peace, and mercy. We are the ones that need to point to the cross and say “Jesus didn’t die for this” or “this is exactly what Jesus died for!” But here’s the dangerous part about speaking the truth: it’s not always popular. It’s not always easy. It’s not always fun. It, in fact, could get you killed. We are truth tellers, though, my beloved, this is what Christ has called us to do. But telling the truth isn’t appealing. It’s not something we’re good at, church. It’s not sexy. And, ultimately, telling the truth requires change and, in fact, might bring chaos or crisis.

Jesus is warning his disciples (and us) that as we go out into the world to share his news, to share his message, we aren’t always going to be received well. We’re not going to always be given the hero’s welcome. Because if we’re serious about ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth, we’re going to ruffle some feathers (at the least) and lose friends and family members (at the most). We’re not the gatekeepers of the kingdom of heaven, we’re simply the signs that point the way. At the same time, we are to call attention to those who are yielding power and terror instead of peace. And as difficult as this may be, perhaps we need to start by telling the truth to ourselves.

We have been called by Christ in our baptism. This discipleship stuff isn’t easy. If we’re going to share the good news of Christ, if we’re going to point to God and God’s kingdom, we may need to confess either to one another, to God, even if only to ourselves how we block that from happening. Because, it’s too easy to look at other people and say “they need to be better Christians” without realizing that that the same could be said of us. What might it look like, then, to speak the truth to ourselves. What might our confession to God and one another sound like?

Perhaps we might speak of the way we’ve turned from injustices in the world with the excuse of “I can’t do anything” or “the problem seems so big.” Or, worse yet, maybe we’ve seen what others call “injustice” and instead victim blame. When we see hunger in the world do we point out the injustice of food distribution and cost or do we look at the hungry and say “maybe you shouldn’t have a cell phone then.” When we hear of a gay or lesbian sibling being turned away from the communion table do we welcome them at ours or say “well…if you hadn’t flaunted it…” Or if we’re going to really truth tell then instead of offering prayers and conversation, we take a look at the systematic racism that’s in place that would cause a member of this denomination to walk into a historically black church and kill 9 African American brothers and sisters.

Speaking for what Jesus stood for and what Jesus believed and then admitting you do the same is risky. But the cross has made us truth tellers, my beloveds. And sometimes people don’t like to hear the truth. If you start to truth tell enough, people might distance themselves from you. People may stop calling, texting, unfriend you on Facebook, or even “forget” to invite you to the next family gathering. Truth telling means that you may be seen as a wet blanket and that’s a risk you have to be willing to take. Because following Jesus means taking things like systematic racism, classism, injustice, hunger, poverty, and abuse seriously. And yes, Jesus came to bring peace, but peace doesn’t come out of nowhere. Peace usually comes after conflict.

Truth telling means that we are willing to risk it all, but our reward is great. Our place in Jesus’ family is secure. It doesn’t matter who denies us on this earth, Jesus claims us. But, let’s not get too cocky. We aren’t the Gospel authority. Let’s not get too pious and demand that it’s our way or the highway. As cheesy as it may sound, those bracelets that everyone used to wear back in the day “what would Jesus do” actually is a good question to ask ourselves. Sometimes doing what Jesus would do is really unpopular, really controversial, and maybe, even a little political.

What would Jesus do at the heinous death of our neighbors, the Glasz family? Prayers and lament are good, yes. But perhaps we get angry and contact our elected officials because it’s easier to buy fireworks in this state than it is to find an open bed in a mental health care unit. We could shake our heads at a growing methamphetamine and cocaine issue or advocate for actual drug rehabilitation instead of relying on the prison system to do it. The prison system, which by the way, is a for-profit institution: the more people behind bars, the more money these private companies make. You could be angry that Planned Parenthood and abortions are even an option, or we could have real discussions around rape culture and affordable health care in this country. Because what Jesus would do would ensure that the hungry never go hungry, no matter the cost. And Jesus would make sure that the prisoners know they are valued, even behind bars. And Jesus would flip tables in temples if that meant that we start taking mental health care seriously in this country. And Jesus would work to create communities and cultures where people feel safe and secure and not like they need guns to defend themselves; we’ve got to stop shooting each other, y’all. But Jesus can’t do this alone and that is why we must speak the truth.

We must be the ones that speak the truth to systems of oppression. We must be the ones to speak the truth to historically accepted segregation. We must be the ones to speak truth to sexism. We must be the ones to speak truth even if our voice shakes. Because here’s the thing: if the Gospel we tell isn’t good news to and for the poor, the sick, the old, the disabled, women, people of color, the undocumented, the underemployed, the underinsured, the underfed, the unnoticed, the unpopular, the most forgotten, and anyone who isn’t heterosexual, then it isn’t good news and it’s not the gospel!

What are you willing to risk, my brothers and sisters? What are you willing to lose so that those who need to hear the good news will hear it? What are you willing to sacrifice so that whatever Jesus would have done actually gets done? Are you willing to lose friends? Are you willing to lose family? Are you willing to cross enemy lines and make someone you call an enemy an ally? Are you willing to walk through dark valleys? Are you willing to look death in the face and declare “not today, Satan. Death doesn’t have the last word.” Discipleship isn’t for the faint of heart. Discipleship isn’t easy. Discipleship requires truth telling. I invite you to start that truth telling with yourself: Christ I’m not worthy to be your disciple. Wash me clean, forgive my sins, then equip me to do your work. Remind me that when people abandon me that you never will. Death lives in the darkness. Truth shines a light on the darkness. Be truth tellers, brothers and sisters. Even if your voice shakes, be truth tellers.

Sermon for 6/18/17 Matthew 9:35-10:8

I absolutely love what I do. There is no doubt in my mind that I am supposed to be a pastor. God created me to do this. I love you, I love this church, I love the people of God. But, at the same time, this is a job. Yes, it’s a calling, but it’s also a job. Like any other job, I have those days where I wonder if I am making any difference. I wonder if I should be going about ministry in another way. I wonder if this thing (my mic) is even on. On those days, when I’m having a not so great day, I go back and read my letter of call. Every person that serves in a called capacity within our church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America receives a letter of call. It is specific to the place that they are serving. So, my letter of call right now, has our church name on it. When and if I ever take a new call, I will get a new letter.

Here is what my letter of call says: “We call you to exercise among us the ministry of Word and Sacrament which God has established and which the Holy Spirit empowers: To preach and teach the Word of God in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; to administer Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead us in worship; to proclaim the forgiveness of sins; to provide pastoral care; to speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed; to encourage persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel; to impart knowledge of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its wider ministry; to endeavor to increase support given by our congregation to the work of our whole church; to equip us for witness and service; and guide us in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed.”

Phew! That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? There was one short phrase in today’s Gospel that got me thinking about this letter of call. In verse 7, Jesus says to the disciples “as you go, proclaim the good news…” Did you notice some pretty specific verbs in that command? “As you go…” Matthew’s Gospel speaks a lot about evangelism. This is one of those moments. For Jesus, evangelism was an ongoing activity, not a passive hope. Let me repeat that again, our greatest teacher, our Lord and Savior, the man who came to earth and died on a cross for sinners like me and you believed that evangelism was an ongoing activity, not a passive hope. So much of what I am called to do can be traced back to evangelism. This made me wonder what it might look like for all of us, each and every one of us to have a letter of call.

Maybe upon baptism and/or even upon confirmation, you’d be handed a letter similar to mine that laid out what was expected of you as a follower of Jesus Christ. Would your letter lay out what you’ve been doing all along in regards to evangelism or do you think it might push you outside of your boundaries just a little bit? That is what God does, you know? Challenge us. “As you go” into the field, into the grocery store, to the doctor, into the classroom, to the gym, from this place, into the world… “proclaim the good news.” See my beloved brothers and sisters, no matter what we may think, we’re not peddling a unique product here. It’s not like we know something and have something the rest of the world doesn’t. People aren’t going to come out of the woodwork just to come here, to us, to find out about Jesus Christ. We need to spread the good news with our words, our actions, and our feet. Evangelism doesn’t happen when we refuse to move off our duffs.  

I often think that evangelism has a bad name. We think about those people on street corners yelling about the end times coming or yelling terribly jugemental things. Or we might think about those door to door evangelists that want to know if we’ve found Jesus (once again…had no idea he was missing). Of course, there’s also the television evangelists. So I completely understand why when I mention the word “evangelism” people want to coil up in a ball and stay right in their comfy pews. Sometimes people say “evangelism” with about as much enthusiasm as when they say “root canal!” So, if you had a letter of call what might that entail? The wonderful thing about evangelism is that you can tailor it to fit what you do. Here’s a simple example of what that might look like: when someone says “hey! I know you’re a church going person and a believer, my grandma could really use some prayers.” You could respond “of course, let’s pray right now” instead of just saying “sure, I’ll pray for her.”

People don’t learn about Christ by mistake. Your faith was formed and continues to grow from others sharing their faith (this is called “evangelism”). You can share your faith and help others to grow in theirs. Evangelism doesn’t have to be standing on street corners yelling, going door to door, or even on tv; but, it does require movement, it requires action. And I understand that it is difficult, and I understand that it may be uncomfortable, and I understand that you might be labeled one of those “crazy Christians” but friends, this isn’t optional. Evangelism means growth; and if we’re not growing we’re dying.

So…if you had a letter of call…oh wait! You do! All of us have a letter of call. In our baptism we are given a letter of call of sorts. Today, as we baptize Hudson, he will receive his letter of call and believe it or not, his sponsors, Matt and Melissa, will make sure that he continues to remind himself of his letter of call. All of us make promises at baptism for our children or on behalf of ourselves. We promise to live among God’s faithful people, come to the word of God and the holy supper, teach or learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, and the Ten Commandments, read and study the Bible, nurture our faith life and prayer life, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. That sounds very similar to my actual letter of call. And again, at the basis of all of those promises is evangelism. The promises made for you or by you in baptism is your letter of call.

Notice as well that your letter of call mentions nothing about being still and waiting for others to come to you so that you may share your faith. In fact, many of the verbs in those promises indicate movement: “live, bring, teach, place, nurture, learn, proclaim and work” are all action words. So, “as you go” live out your faith in your words, actions, and deeds. Remember that no matter where you go, God will go with you and ahead of you to prepare your way. God will give you the words you need. God will prepare those that need to hear. And long after you share your faith story, long after you continue on moving, God will be working through the Holy Spirit so that others will be empowered to go and grow the kingdom. Your path, brothers and sisters, goes from the font, to the table, and out the door. God bless you as you go!

Sermon for 6/4/17 John 20:19-23 Pentecost

And so it came to be, that on the fourth day of the six month in the year of our Lord, twenty seventeen; when Donald Trump was president, when we were represented by Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley, along with David Loebsack; when the town of Clinton of Iowa (founded in 1857, only ten short years after the founding of Iowa) was mayored by Mark Vulich, the Holy Spirit entered into the most unlikely of places: the people of Elvira Zion. The nerve of the Holy Spirit. How dare she with her flittering and fluttering about like a wild butterfly with no cares in the world?

She came at first like an itch. Some tired to scratch but that proved futile. The more she was ignored, the more she moved. The Holy Spirit, they found out, does not like to be ignored. So she moved even more. She became energized and tried to once again stir among the people. She was swatted away like a pesky fly. She was greeted with negative blocks of “not right now” and “you certainly don’t want me, Lord.” The Holy Spirit is persistent, they would learn. She continued to swirl and now some started to feel her presence. Some called it “the winds of change” others called it “something new.” She blew into the littlest in the place, knowing they would welcome her as a friend. The Holy Spirit had long ago learned that the younger the disciple, the more willing they were to listen and believe. The Holy Spirit was seen in the youngest through their eyes, how they sparkled; through their voices singing even if off key; even through their dancing in the pews despite parents attempts to make them sit and behave. The Holy Spirit knew, the only way to behave was to respond to her. So the littlest among them danced, sang, twinkled, twirled, and dared to ask hard questions, sometimes the kinds of hard questions with no answers. The littlest among them held out their hands, hungry for bread and wine, knowing it had the power to change their lives, the Holy Spirit had told them so. They longed to splash in the baptismal waters, gobble up every last crumb of bread like it was their last, and then hold hands with other disciples singing joyfully while departing this place. And as hard as she tried, Holy Spirit could not stop the discouraging looks from parents or even those who thought children should be seen and not heard.

But, the Holy Spirit was determined. So she continued to swirl, stir, and breathe into the most unlikely of people, these country people, these farmers, these rural people, these people of big hearts and steady minds. The Holy Spirit continued to breathe into their leader: a strange one of sorts. She was quite unlikely. Not a country girl at all. Troubled with mental health, busy with a family, balancing motherhood, marriage, and a pastorate, the Holy Spirit dare not pass her over. What did it mean that the Holy Spirit stuck around this place? This place of all places? It breathed into one who normally remained quiet, sitting in the back pew, minding his or her own business, and inspired them to speak up and say “what if…” She breathed into a new one, desiring to be more involved so the Holy Spirit gave her an itch that just wouldn’t go away. The Spirit breathed into the one, normally shy and recluse, and opened his mouth to sing the praises of the one who makes us one. She breathed into the one that always blocked out God. “No time” they would say or “I can’t do that” they would cry. And yet…yet, the Holy Spirit chose her to be council president, or run a food pantry, or sit on a committee, or volunteer.

The Holy Spirit saw what was happening in this place and God was quite pleased. So, the Holy Spirit thought “perhaps I should stir and blow some more?” And the Holy Spirit started stirring more. And the Holy Spirit starting blowing more. And people started feeling that itch of change. People started feeling the need to answer God but had no idea how. People started to question this change. And instead of setting up their sails to go wherever the wind of the Spirit might blow, the people set up firm foundations, and boarded up their hearts, like those preparing for a hurricane might do to windows.

The Holy Spirit blew with one idea and encountered a boarded up heart and painted on that board were the words “no time.” And so she moved on and blew into someone else. But their heart was boarded up with words scribbled hastily that said “no money.” She picked up force, blew and stirred even more and encountered another heart, once again boarded up with denial and the words “not me.” The Holy Spirit knew she was in the right place. After all, it was God that sent her. God had a purpose and a reason for this place. Spirit just had to find the right person that would welcome her and engage in a playful, life-giving dance. Spirit was eager. So, the community offered up one of the typical people. That person who always volunteers. That reliable person. The person who wasn’t necessarily excited about the opportunity to dance, but was willing to do so anyway.

As the Holy Spirit started her waltz, it was unfamiliar to the reliable person. The steps seemed faster, or Spirit seemed to be a stronger leader. Either way, Spirit swirled like a tornado and the reliable person held on for dear life. “Maybe” thought Mr or Mrs Reliable, “the Spirit didn’t want me. Maybe it is time for someone else to listen to the Spirit.” In prayer, love, and understanding, reliable gratefully got their dance card stamped and moved aside for someone else.

The community listened and prayed, prayed and listened. They wanted Spirit to stay, desperately. They wanted Spirit to move, change, and mold them. They kept offering up reliable person after reliable person only for Spirit to swirl, twist, and turn them out. She was waiting for anything but the status quo. Finally, a voice spoke up. It was an unfamilar voice to some. It didn’t have the same cadence as all the others. The voice was from someone unlike the rest of them. The language they spoke was the same, but somehow different. Those who had already danced with the Spirit said “maybe this one, the unfamiliar one, the strange one, the new one, the one whose voice we haven’t heard, is the one Spirit is waiting for.” Spirit whirled and smiled because the unfamiliar one had been speaking all along, but the community had chosen not to listen.

And with confidence that came only from God, the unfamiliar one stepped forward, took Spirit’s hand and entered into a careful dance. After a few twists, turns, and twirls, the Spirit finally calmed and settled into the place. The Spirit settled into this place because that is what she does. And she calmed and settled when the community stopped and listened. It wasn’t what they were expecting, but it was something better. It wasn’t what they wanted, but it most certainly is what they needed. The Holy Spirit stayed, calm and settled, because that is what the Holy Spirit does when people start to listen and follow her lead. It is in that calm that we, all of us, can start the hard work of loving one another and being one in community.