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.  

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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.

Sermon for 10/1/17 Matthew 21:23-32

I have found that when times are difficult either globally or nationally, there seems to be an uptick in evangelism. It’s not always the most healthy evangelism, but evangelism nonetheless. This usually presents itself in the form of well meaning pictures of flags waving, bald eagles flying, kids with their hands over their hearts, and other types of photo stock images with the words “bring Jesus back into our schools” or “make Christ the cornerstone of your lives.” It can also be presented by well meaning (or maybe not so well meaning) well known evangelical pastors being interviewed on television (they never interview pastors like me) saying things like “now is the time for people to let Jesus into their hearts” and other such things. Part of me agrees. I wonder how this country and world would look if we actually took to heart the things that Jesus spoke about, taught about, and preached about. But, part of me disagrees. We humans are so full of ourselves to think we even have the slightest bit of power that would be able to keep Jesus out of any place.

Today’s reading in Matthew asks some questions directly of Jesus. The authorities are, as usual, trying to set up Jesus to fail. They are already trying to catch him in the act, so to speak, so that they can start to build the case against him. These questions they are asking is what ultimately leads to his crucifixion. And this little game of cat and mouse goes on and on for chapters upon chapters in all of our gospel stories. Jesus always gives the authority just enough to confuse them and just enough to encourage them to come back and ask more questions. So the questions asked of Jesus in today’s readings are “by what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” And really what the chief priests and elders are asking is “Jesus, who are you?” and “by what authority do you preach, teach, and lead?” I want to argue that when the elders and chief priests ask these questions, what they are also asking (its implied) is “so what does that mean for me?”

As Christians, we often claim Jesus when Jesus looks, thinks, speaks, or acts like us. We are comfortable when the messiah does things or says things that can benefit us and/or the people we love. Yet too often we mess this up and get this wrong. We like to decide who is in and who is out and when we start to draw lines in the sand, we often place ourselves on the side of the persecuted instead of the one doing the persecution. Author Anne Lamott says “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” The questions of “who are you” and “by what authority” weren’t just questions that the chief priests and elders asked, they are questions we still should be asking of Jesus and ourselves today.

And as we ask those questions, it naturally leads to another question (or, at least it does in my opinion) of “why does that matter?” When we speak of who Jesus is for us and why we believe what we believe, the question that seems to get us stuck is that “why does it matter?” When we proclaim that Jesus is Lord, what does that mean for us and our lives? For me, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord means trusting in God completely and totally and if I am going to be honest, that is really frightening. If we are going to proclaim that Jesus is Lord then that means nothing else, absolutely nothing else, can serve in that capacity. This means that power, money, time, status, nothing else is Lord. But, oh how often do we make those things our lord. How often do we bow to the pressures of money, power, time, status, and what not? How often are we pledging our allegiance to the things that during Jesus’ time would be considered the empire?

When was the last time you thought about what Jesus means for you? And I don’t mean that in a hypothetical, passing thought kind of way. I mean when you think about the role that Jesus plays in your life, how does that shape every single thing in your life? And are you projecting your own expectations onto Jesus, or are you gladly taking on Jesus’ expectations of you? Those are two very different questions, my beloved. Why or how is your life different because of Jesus? Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace. That grace is a gift and it changes our lives. Yet we do everything in our power to deny that because we don’t think we’re worthy of God’s grace or love. Maybe we are scared to think about who we are and what it means for us to declare that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace.

So maybe what you need to hear today is this, my beloved. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that nothing and no one has ever or will ever be forgotten. This includes you. If you feel abandoned, forgotten, lonely, forsaken, that is simply evil trying its best to whisper unworthiness in your ear. Because God’s grace doesn’t forget anyone. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that love is a lavish commodity that never runs out. This means that you can be, will be, and are a recipient of God’s obnoxious love. It doesn’t matter how you feel about yourself, or what society tells you that you should feel about yourself, God loves you, all of you, more than you can ever know. Jesus showed us that love by emptying himself on the cross. When the empire wanted Jesus to prove who he was, he did exactly that by loving the world with no exceptions.

Maybe what you need to hear today, my friends, is that declaring Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that your suffering has not gone unnoticed. Your times of hardship have not been spent alone. Your darkness has not been without a small amount of light from Christ. Your tears have been counted. Your sleepless nights have been tallied. When it feels like the world has given up on you, Jesus is still there, right by your side, because there is no place that is too dark or too desolate for God.

When we are clear about who Jesus is for us, we can also be clear about who Jesus is for the world. Because if we declare that Jesus is Lord of all, we must mean all. If we declare that Jesus is love, we must mean that all are loved. If we declare that Jesus is forgiveness incarnate, then that forgiveness is for all people. And that kind of love and forgiveness is messy and it isn’t easy and thank God, it’s not up to us. In a time when governments show authority with money, military power, and, God forbid, nuclear power, it is strange and even counter-cultural to proclaim that we love and serve a God whose power comes in the form of a cross. We love and serve a God who instead of stockpiling love and forgiveness, passes it out like candy at a parade. We love and serve a God whose power comes from death and resurrection. So sure, we always need more Jesus in this world. But we need Jesus that denied the empire, not bowed down to it. We need the Jesus that shows preferential treatment to the poor, not the Jesus we’ve created in our minds that favors the rich. We need the Jesus who opens the doors of heaven to tax collectors and prostitutes first before any of us self-proclaimed self-righteous are allowed to enter. Most importantly, we need the Jesus with love for everyone; a love that is wholly unfair and yet, a holy relief.

Sermon for 9/24/17 Matthew 20:1-16

I was born in 1978. Now, before some of you roll your eyes and call me a kid, I am very well aware of how old or young I am, depending on how you look at it. I am 39. I grew up before there were 200 channels. I knew life before the internet. I still know how to use a card catalogue. I loved Scholastic Book Order day. I spent way too many hours playing a game called “Oregon Trail” where I almost always died of dysentery. But, I am still trying to figure out if it was my generation that ruined trophies for everyone. Is it my generation that demanded trophies for everyone or is it the generation after mine? Trust me, I am sure my generation has been blamed for this at least once. I hear it often after the phrase “you know what’s wrong with people your age…”

But I argue that this idea of giving everyone a trophy started long before my generation. Our Gospel today is a version of the idea that everyone gets a trophy. Maybe you never thought of it like that. And here’s what’s really maddening about this reading today. It’s the way it starts out “…the kingdom of heaven is like…” Wait! What? The kingdom of heaven is like everyone getting a trophy?!? That hardly seems fair. The kingdom of heaven is like everyone getting paid the same amount even though some worked for 12 hours and some worked for 30 minutes. Everyone gets the same reward. Well….that should be enough to make ya mad.

We don’t work like that, right? Even the idea of the “American dream” runs counter-intuitive to that idea. We work hard, we earn money, we are able to achieve all of our dreams. It would be maddening to spend a lifetime working hard, paying taxes, saving, and working our way up the corporate ladder in order to buy the house of our dreams just to move in next door to someone who said “oh my house? It was just given to me.” That kind of thing could lead to anger. Human justice is certainly not the same as God’s justice. And human definition of fairness certainly isn’t the same as God’s definition of fairness.

As much as we want to talk about other generations being or feeling entitled, if we’re really honest, we all can be a little entitled every once in awhile. We prefer justice that benefits us, our families, or our friends. We only claim that things are unfair when we are the victims of the unfair actions or words. We desire to be the beneficiaries of fairness and justice, but everyone else is just out of luck. It is possible that we even, at times, believe that fairness and justice is our right. We deserve justice and fairness. We demand justice and fairness. It’s as if we, at times, believe that justice and fairness are the same as oxygen or water. It’s just given to us, on demand, at all times. But while we’re busy drinking and breathing, people around us are dying of thirst and can’t breathe. Do we notice?

The workers that the landowner hired all wanted to work. They all showed up to work. They all had the ability to work. It’s not like the workers who showed up at the end of the day had spent the majority of the day in bed or avoiding work. It is very likely that the people left to be hired at the end of the day were the people who needed it the most: the disabled, the poor, women, those who wouldn’t be as strong, the blind, and the lame. And the landowner paid them the same as he paid those whom he hired first thing in the morning. His excuse? It’s my money. I’ll do with it as I will. I’ll be honest, if I were one of those workers that had been laboring in the vineyard since before sunrise, I would be angry. I would be whatever it is when someone is more than angry. And then, the landowner has the audacity to ask the workers if they are envious because he is so generous. Envy wasn’t quite the word we were looking for there, Chief.

The kingdom of heaven is like getting what you don’t deserve. The kingdom of heaven is also like watching those you know don’t deserve anything get the same reward as you. My beloved, this is so maddening, isn’t it? Human justice makes sense to us. It is a construct that we have invented. God’s justice makes no sense to us. In a weird way, this is good news. Yes, justice and living in a just world or just kingdom can lead to anger. But anger isn’t the same as mistrust. Just because we may be angry with God does not mean that we don’t trust God. At the same time, justice and living in a just world or just kingdom can also be a relief.

If it is God’s justice and justification that makes us right, then it is not on us to be perfect. It is not on us to attempt to even clean up the mess we made from our own sins. God justifies us. What this means is that it is God who makes us right and whole. Nothing we can do will ever be able to achieve that. God’s justice saves us. When the owner hired the laborers, he agreed to pay them “the usual daily wage.” In that time, a daily wage was enough for one person to buy some bread. It was enough to literally buy daily bread. And isn’t this what we pray every time we pray the Lord’s prayer? God’s justice provides us with daily bread, and nothing more and nothing less. God’s justice also guarantees that we will be equal in God’s kingdom.

Today, we will get a small glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. There are few places on this earth where we are all equal. But, when we come to the waters of baptism, whether we come as a baby, like Hawk, or we come as adults, we are surrendering to the idea that we will be at the mercy of God’s justice and grace. We are washed clean and reminded that there is nothing we can do to earn our way out of this world. And in death, the other time we are all equal, God’s mercy comes full circle. God’s kingdom is like being claimed by God in the waters of baptism: no matter what your name is, no matter who your parents are, no matter what your bank account says, no matter your skin color, no matter your gender, all get the same name in those waters: justified child of God. God’s kingdom is like a communion table: no matter who you are, when you hold your hands out, you are fed a feast of forgiveness and love. God’s kingdom is like the foot of the cross where everyone is humbled and equal because all are on their knees.

The unfortunate and maddening news today, beloved, is that we don’t get a say in God’s mercy and justice, we just get to be active participants. And the good news and redemptive news today, beloved, is that we don’t get a say in God’s mercy and justice, we just get to be active participants.

Sermon for 9/17/17 John 10:22-30

**nb: This was the 125th anniversary of the congregation I pastor**

A lot of you have noticed that I like to keep my fingernails long. I have had long nails for as long as I can remember. One of the things I do to spoil and treat myself is regular manicures. I recently changed the method of manicure and that has caused a lot of my nails to break. Meh. They’ll grow back. But, it wasn’t until I broke one all the way down to the quick did I realize how much I use my hands on a daily basis. I type, hold Ellen’s hand, pet Sasha, unload the dishwasher, open the mail, hold Chris’ hand…the list could go on and on. Then I thought about what some of you might do with your hands on a daily basis: rock babies, help an elderly parent take their medication, feed your animals, drive a load to ADM, quilt, bake, comfort others, and that list could go on and on as well.

And then I thought about what hands have done in this place through God’s people over the last 125 years. There was the literal moving of this church from over by the cemetery to where we sit now. Then the digging to build the narthex was done by so many of your ancestors. Renovations were done by people with the last names of Petersen and Mommsen to name a few. Many of you have brought your babies to this font to be baptized and held in the hands of pastors who now are part of our communion of saints. So many of you have shaken hands as you greet people gathered for your family confirmation, wedding, or funeral. And of course, so many of your hands helped to renovate the house I am proud to call our home. It’s really amazing to think about how the people of God, acting as God’s hands and feet in this world, have made a difference just in this place.

This passage from John is often used on what is known as “good shepherd” Sunday. This comes from the quote from Jesus in 10:27 “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I love that idea. It’s comforting to me, and to you, I hope, to think of Jesus as a shepherd. Jesus, the one who guides us, shelters us, and takes care of us. But, what really inspired my thinking this week was the sentence that followed. “I will give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Part of me wants to say “do you hear the good news in this? Okay great. Sermon over. Amen…” But I won’t.

Over the last 125 years one thing has remained the same: we have always been in God’s grip. God has a hold of us so very tightly and nothing has ever or will ever change that. It has been God’s hand all along hold us, nudging us, maybe even pushing us towards God’s will for us. God’s hands have been in and among us all along. Through times of great joy and in times of great sorrow, God has had us in the palm of God’s hand. Nothing has ever gotten in the way of that. And if you’ve been around these parts long enough, or have had family members that have been here for a while, you might be able to recall a time when you can say clearly and without a doubt “God’s hands were all over that!” And maybe, yes, there are times when you can recall wondering if God had a clue what was happening in this place.

Perhaps part of the good news for us is that feeling God and being held by God is never on us. What I mean is that God holds on to us, not the other way around. It is never us holding onto God. So, often I picture God holding my hand like a tender parent would but other times, I picture God picking me up by the back of my neck like a disobedient kitten. Even in the times of our disbelief, God still has a hold of us. During the times when we wonder if God is even listening, I think that is when God tightens the grip. And when Jesus says that no one will snatch us out of God’s hand what that really means is that not one person and not one thing can ever take us away from God.

Evil forces have a way of finding us, don’t they. Sometimes we call these evil forces “good intentions” and sometimes they are more appropriately called “sin.” We may not trust that God has a hold of us. We intervene in our human ways that ultimately lead to human error. We may think that we know better than God so even though God is pointing us one way, we look and say “this way seems easier, better, or way more fun!” And we stray. God offers us life and protection and love but instead we turn to power, money, and self interests to comfort us. All of those things ultimately let us down. But no matter what, nothing removes us from God’s hand, not even death. Not an actual death or a metaphorical death can remove us from God’s hand. And remember, from death comes a resurrection and new life and whose hand do you think is doing all of that?

There was a time when every Sunday School room in this church was filled with children and there were months when keeping the lights on was in question. God has been with us every single step of the way. It is only by the grace of God that we have been a cornerstone of this community for 125 years and only by the grace of God that we will continue to do ministry in this area for another 125. What has been the same since the doors of this church opened will continue to be the same until Christ comes again: we gather as the people of God, to hear the Word of God, to feast on the body and blood of God, and then we are sent out to be and show Christ to other people in a hurting world. Nothing has changed that and nothing will. What is comforting about church is that some things never change. What is maddening about church is that some things never change. But through it all, God’s hands have been in, among, and around all of us. What gives me hope and joy this day, my beloved, is that God will continue to move in this place. Long after you and I are gone. Long after stories of us are gone. God’s hands will be guiding this place and God’s people to usher in God’s kingdom to this world.

Sermon for 9/10/17 Matthew 18:15-20

I tried everything I could to come up with something to say this week. I thought about different stories from my life I could share. I read articles. I read blog posts. I listened to podcasts. I tried praying about this text. But, as my own self-imposed deadline drew closer and closer, I realized I had nothing. I wasn’t surprised by this, quite honestly. It’s been a week. This isn’t an excuse, it’s my reality. I think it’s important that you see me as human. What I mean by that is that I am not some kind of like rock-star super-species that can handle everything that life throws at me. I hurt. I cry. I experience joy and pain; laughter and sorrow; ups and downs, just like the rest of you. Sometimes I turn to God and lean on God so heavily that I think God might just tip over. Sometimes I ignore God altogether and then get angry with God. God can handle that, trust me. This was a week where a lot was poured out of me and not a lot went back in. We took care of Evelyn Mohr’s funeral on Thursday and then I had a double funeral yesterday of Cathy and Bill Winchester. In addition to that, we put our eldest dog, Bailey to sleep on Tuesday. All of this on top of the normal every day stresses of life. Like I said, it’s been a week.

And sometimes I have weeks like this and I put on my “happy worship” face and come here, lead worship, give you the body and blood of Christ, declare forgiveness of your sins, sing and rejoice, and then go home and collapse, still feeling bleh. In seminary we called that “fake it til’ you make it.” I imagine some of you do it to. Maybe you’re not having a great day, week, month, or even a great year. And yet, you show up here, week after week, faking it the whole time, waiting for something to happen. And what are we waiting for? I think at the root of all people, we desire genuine relationships, right? I hope all of you have a sweatpants friend. That’s what I call it. This is your friend that you can show up to their house in sweatpants, no make up, hair a mess, and they’re going to welcome you in, no questions asked because they look exactly the same.

We should have more sweatpants relationships in the church. But instead, we spend time and money prettying ourselves up to come to a place where we declare to love and worship a God who knows us, the real us, and yet we present the covered up us. We present the “us” that has everything together. We present the “us” that is “great! How are you?” We present the “us” that has perfect children, a perfect marriage, perfect teeth, clothes, hair, and an offering to boot! And what do we do as soon as we leave this place? We go home, take off our costumes, and get into sweatpants! So today, I am showing up. I am showing up, just as I am and with no apologies. This is how God made me. God loves me when I am dressed like this or if I am in sweatpants. But, most importantly, I wanted to show up. And I thank you today for showing up. I am sure many of you had other things you could be doing right now, including sleep if you wanted. But you showed up.

I showed up because of the promise given to us in verse 20 today “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” So I came today to be with you because I knew that when we gathered, Jesus would be here. And Jesus is here. Not because of anything I have said or done, but because we are the people of God gathered AS the people of God. Therefore, Jesus is here. Sometimes, we just need that reminder. We show up, just as we are, broken sinners, yet at the same time, real people, with real problems, with no real solutions. The only solution that seems to make any sense whatsoever is to come together as the people of God and remind one another that Jesus is here, in our midst, in our presence.

And Jesus didn’t show up because we look good, or because we’ve got it all figured out, or because it’s 9:00am on a Sunday. Jesus showed up because that’s what he does. We serve a God who promises to show up through Jesus Christ and God will never let us down. Sometimes as Christians, I think we think that we can’t show up until we have all the answers. We don’t want to show up and not know what to say, what to do, or how to do whatever it is we’re supposed to do when we show up. I think that’s why when we do gather as the body of Christ during times of sorrow, we often just stick with the “script.” The script is “I’m very sorry to hear about your loss” and we bring a pan of bars or something. Then we offer this: “call me if you need anything.” And in times of crisis, we know we need stuff, we just don’t know what it is and at the same time, we’ll be damned if we’re going to ask for it.

What we need, my beloved, is to just show up. Show up even though we don’t know what to say, do, ask, or act. Show up. Because when we show up as people of God on behalf of the body of Christ, Christ is already there in the midst of that. It doesn’t matter if we show up in a church or in a bar. When we show up for one another, Christ is there. And what that looks like from a practical standpoint is this: showing up and making, creating, and holding space for others to experience Christ. We don’t have to have the answers, don’t you see? Christ is already here or wherever among us. So instead of showing up all shiny and pretty and promising that things will get better, what if we showed up as our real selves and said “I dunno. But I know Christ is here.” I think what God desires is for us to be real, to be genuine, and to show up. Can we trust that God is amazing enough to give us what we need when we need it when we show up to just show up? Or are we going to sit back and wait until the right time because we don’t know what to say or do and really the message that we are sending is “I don’t trust you, God.”

Can we just admit that the world has enough shiny fake people in it? Aren’t you tired of putting on an act? Don’t you get tired of pretending that everything is okay? Shouldn’t church be the one place that you can show up without apology and people are just glad you showed up? If we desire to be a place of welcome, which I think we do, then let’s be genuine about that. There’s a huge difference in “well…I guess you showed up” (while looking someone up and down) and “at least you showed up!” Now, please don’t get all up in arms with me thinking that I am suggesting that we become the sweatpants church. I don’t care what you wear, I am just glad you are here. The world needs more places where people feel comfortable and welcomed, just as they are, knowing that they will be listened to and loved. And we don’t have to have all the answers or resources. We just show up. And we keep showing up over and over and over again because we know that when 2 or 3 people are gathered in God’s name, God is already there in the midst of them, creating something holy. And God knows what the world needs more than anything right now is more places where people can just show up and be and experience the holy. Maybe this is our call, beloveds. Our call is to show up, point to Christ, and create space to experience holy hospitality. Thanks for showing up today. I’m glad I did.

Sermon for 8/27/17 Matthew 16:13-20

I believe I have spoken of my time as a hospital chaplain during the summer of 2008 quite often. I spent the summer at Heartland Hospital in Saint Joseph, Missouri. I was born in St. Joe and the site, while far from Dubuque, was close to my parents. Serving a stint of clinical pastoral education, or CPE is a requirement of the ELCA. The summer is spent more focusing on the chaplain and leader to be than the actual patient. And paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. When the paperwork is done, then you verbally process in the group and usually, at least once, someone will say “and how do you feel about that?” Part of our assignment was to record ourselves preaching in a local context. I was blessed to have the opportunity to do some pulpit supply at a cute Presbyterian church in Oregon, Missouri.

The day came to watch my video and be critiqued by my colleagues. I spent the summer serving with another ELCA Lutheran, Rich; a Methodist woman, Denise; and the craziest Mennonite I’d ever met, Bob. Sitting in that day wasn’t my supervisor, Jackie, but instead the head of the spiritual care department, Sally. Sally was a straight shooter and didn’t mince words. My sermon was finished, everyone had their say. And then Sally looked me straight in the eyes and said “Jealaine? What is your theology? What do you believe about God? Who is God for you?” Now forgive me if you’ve heard me tell this story before. So, with one whole year of theological training under my belt I said “I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God gives God’s love and grace to all people.” And Sally looked me once again and without a single tone of apology said “I think you’re full of crap” (except her word wasn’t ‘crap’). “I’m sorry?!” I replied. She said “I don’t believe you.” Just who does this woman think she is? She doesn’t know anything about me. She continued “I don’t believe you because you don’t believe it. If you don’t believe that God’s love and grace is for you, no one is going to believe it is for them.” That was a Holy Spirit 2×4 moment for me. God hit me over the head hard with that 2×4!

I think of that often when I read this scripture. I think about who I say God is and who Jesus is. And today I want you to be challenged and think about that question for yourself. If and when Jesus were to ask you “who do you say I am” how are you going to respond? Our first inclination may be to respond with “well, as a Lutheran… “ or “I read in the Bible” or even (and maybe even worse yet “Pastor has taught us….” No. No. No. I want to know who you say God is. I don’t want a repeated theology that you have memorized that you only kind of believe or only kind of understand. What do you believe?

Maybe you feel like you don’t have the “right words” to express your faith. You heard what I believe. I still believe that. I spent four years and a lot of money in seminary and that is still the foundation of my faith and who I say Jesus Christ, son of God is for me. I want to emphasize the for me part. Just because that’s my faith statement, doesn’t mean it has to be yours. As I was preparing to go to seminary, my home pastor, Pastor Ernie Barr of Faith Lutheran in Wichita Falls, Texas said to me “if you ever feel overwhelmed or lost, just remember ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’” Who do you say Jesus is?

See, now is the time, my dearests. Now is the time for us to be bold and daring. Now is the time for us to have a bit of Peter in us. See, there were lots of people surrounding Jesus that day. Anyone could have stepped forward to answer Jesus’ question. But it was Peter who was brave and bold enough to step forward and share his answer. And Peter doesn’t give a five minute explanation of the Trinity. He doesn’t recount what he read in some scholarly journal somewhere. He doesn’t say “well, so and so said…” No. He said simply “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And for Peter, that changes everything. He was bold and daring but also personal. Peter spoke of how he knew Jesus through his encounters with him. Not as some far off, distant, unreachable God. But as Jesus, the very Messiah walking with him day after day.

Who do you say God is? Maybe the ugly truth is this: we don’t want to answer. If we answer that question truthfully with what we believe, it could alter how we see everything else in our lives. See, who we say Jesus is for us individually should and does color the way we see the entire world. And maybe, maybe we don’t want to change our opinions about certain people, places, institutions, or ideas. Once you figure out who Jesus is for you and you’re bold and declare that, then it just may affect the way you operate within your world.

My example of God loving all people through Jesus Christ doesn’t allow me to look at my neighbor, no matter who my neighbor is, and hate them. I may not agree with my neighbor, but I don’t hate them. Because God loves them. Here’s where my faith challenges me: if I believe that God really does love everyone, how does that affect the way I look at white supremacy groups, or Westboro Baptist Church members, or even those on death row? Does God love them too? But Fox News, or CNN, or Time Magazine, or Twitter or whoever tells me so many ways to feel about “those people.” At the end of the day, my faith calls me to look at the world through the lens of the cross and my own faith statement.

Who do you say Jesus is? Are we waiting for the right time to answer that question? Are we waiting to be asked? Are we waiting until our faith is challenged? Are we waiting for a situation that affects us directly? We are in perilous times, my beloved. We cannot wait to declare who Jesus is for us. People’s lives are at stake. The church cannot afford to be silent. Quite honestly, we’ve been silent for too long. We’ve wanted to keep calm, collect all the facts, weigh all of our options, and not rock the boat too much. We worship a man who could calm the waters. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to rock the boat. It’s time to stop being “Lutheran/Minnesota nice” and start being bold.

Being this bold isn’t easy. When you make a declaration of who Jesus is for you, you might receive some push back. Stand firm. This is your theology. That means it doesn’t have to be everyone’s theology. At the same time, if someone says “this is who I say Jesus is” then believe them. Just because their statement may not sound like yours doesn’t mean it is wrong. But, stating who Jesus is for you isn’t enough. You must then start to see the world through that statement and point out injustice or when the world disagrees with your statement. If your statement of faith is one of God’s love for the world, then you can’t be in favor of people protesting with torches and signs while thinking that Colin Kapernick kneeling for the National Anthem is disrespectful. If you say that Jesus is God loving the world, then you can’t be okay with our black brothers and sisters dying in the streets. If your statement of faith is that God loves the world, then you shouldn’t blink an eye when someone identifies themselves as trans, queer, blue, purple, left handed, or depressed or whatever. Because God loves the world is your faith statement, so that’s what that looks like in action. Are you starting to see how this isn’t always easy?

We’re gonna mess it up. Yes, it’s our own faith statement, but we’re still going to mess it up. We may not always see the world through the lenses of what we believe. We may not even believe it for ourselves some day. I still struggle. There are days when my depression demons are loud, really loud, and I don’t believe for one minute that God’s love and grace are for me. And then I remember that we serve a God of second, third, fourth…chances. So, I confess to God for those I have hurt (including myself) and beg another chance. And wouldn’t you know, God has always presented me with another chance to see the world as my faith grows. But while our words are important, our actions and the ways we live our lives is also crucial in pointing to who we believe Jesus is for us. If we love God, and say that we believe God loves us, then our actions will show it. We will show that God loves through our care for the homeless, the hungry, the ignored, the uninsured, the undocumented, the forgotten, the dying, the smelly, sinful, addicted, and the hurting. But none of this can happen until you know what you are going to say when Jesus calls on you and asks “but, who do you say I am” and you answer with boldness and without too much thought because it’s written on your heart. And then your response are your actions in God’s world. Be bold, my beloved. Who do you say Jesus is?