Things I want my daughter to know (or, things I want to teach my daughter)

I’ve read a few blogs, articles, etc… lately that highlight a list of things that mothers/fathers/caregivers want to teach the small ones in their lives. I, however, have not found a list that would work for me as I think and pray about what I want to teach my darling daughter Ellen. I’ve had this list kicking around in my head for a while. It’s not perfect, and it might not be complete, but it’s what I have for now.

1) Please make God the most important thing in your life. God should even be more important than your father and I. That said…

2) There may come a time where you question God’s existence. That’s okay (and quite normal). And with that said…

3) I am a Pastor. I am your mother. I may not be able to do both at the same time for you. If you need Pastoral guidance, we will find you a pastor (or hey, call either one of your Godfathers–they’re both pastors!)

4) I will celebrate your achievements. While at the same time…

5) I will encourage you to be a gracious loser. Too many in my generation don’t want their children to fail. That’s not me. Life is full of failures and disappointments. While I don’t want you to lose, it’s going to happen. And by the way, I refuse to reward you for every single little thing you do.

6) I will encourage you to read versus watching television. I will encourage you to experience things versus reading about them. I will encourage you to teach others about what you experience and read.

7) You will be celebrated for who you are: smart, funny, charming, a woman of God, the gem of your father’s eye and your mother’s mischievous little goof. That said…

8) You ARE NOT whatever number is on your pants, shirt, shoes, etc. Society will fight fiercely to tell you differently. Don’t listen to them. Do whatever you must to block out the voices that tell you that you need to be smarter, skinnier, taller, shorter, etc… Because God created you to be the most amazing you. You are enough. Tell yourself this over and over and over.

9) I hope to instill in you an appreciation of all kinds of music. This doesn’t mean you have to love all of it, but I hope you appreciate it.

10) You will respect your elders. You will address those older than you and those in authority as ma’am or sir. You will say please and thank you. You will genuinely apologize when it is needed. You will have a firm handshake and look people in the eye.

11) I encourage you to stay up on current events. Sadly, too many people these days can tell you all about what Snooki did last night but have no idea of current global issues. You may really hate riding in the back of the car while your father and I listen to NPR, but you will become more informed because of it.

12) Please register to vote and make it a habit to do so. I promise that until you are old enough to vote, you can accompany your father or me into the voting booth as we participate in the democratic process.

13) You will be in trouble less if you tell me/us the truth the first time.

14) If there comes a time when you’ve had too much to drink and you’re not able to drive home, call your father or me. We will come and get you–no questions asked.

15) Someone is going to break your heart. Again, I don’t want it to happen. We’ll figure out how to handle it when the time comes.

16) I hope to model for you on how to be a loyal friend.

17) While being Bearcats have brought your father and I a great deal of joy, we want you to choose a college that will fit you best.

18) Oh yeah, I’d like you to go to college.

19) We prayed for you. We waited for you. We wanted you. You were worth waiting for. Remember that as you get older and the pressure increases in dating situations.

20) You were named after some amazing people. Know where you came from so you can know where you’re going. Continue reading

Sermon for February 23, 2014: Matthew 5:38-48

Let’s imagine for just a moment that you are transported to some amazing place you’ve never been before. After some research you find out that the name of this place is “we-know-nothing-about-Jesus-Ville.” I’m sure it exists somewhere and the population is more than just 1, trust me. There are people who exist that want to know more about Jesus and we just may be the lucky ones who get to tell them about Christ some day. So what would you say? What would you say when asked “who is this Jesus and what exactly do Christians believe?” Would you quote Bible verses? Would you start in with the Apostles’ Creed? Maybe you wouldn’t tell someone what Christians believe, you would show them by caring for those on the margins. Would you mention this verse? If someone didn’t know what Christ was all about, would you tell them that loving our enemies is part of our call as disciples? Or would you leave that part out? It’s messy, confusing, and uncomfortable at best. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” sounds good in theory. When you try and apply it, its actually quite difficult and may take a lifetime.
I struggle with this. I struggle with this every day. I don’t completely blame my ethnic heritage, or my family, or my upbringing, but a combination of many things and maybe even a little bit of stuff I still don’t understand at my fairly young age. See, I was raised with the attitude that “blood is thicker than mud” which means that family comes first. I was also raised that if anyone messes with my family, you mess with me. This has, at times, carried over to my friendships. I am fiercely loyal, which isn’t a bad thing. But, again, you mess with my friends, and you mess with me. My Italian blood sometimes gets the best of me and I get wrapped up in getting revenge. It’s not a healthy cycle, but I know I do it. Since starting seminary, I have tried to make it more of a practice to pray for my enemy. If you haven’t prayed for your enemies lately, I recommend it; it’s quite freeing! Loving my enemy is a bit harder. That doesn’t make any sense. But, there are very few things in the kingdom of Christ that make sense.
Have I mentioned how much I struggle with this? I don’t like loving my enemy. It’s much easier to dislike my enemy. Because by disliking my enemy, I’m proving a point! I don’t know what my point is, but I’m proving it! Maybe if I love my enemy it feels like I’m saying “you’re right, I’m wrong” and I hate admitting I’m wrong. Maybe if I love my enemy I will have a change of heart and my enemy will become my friend. Lord knows, I don’t need any more friends. I hope you are starting to see how ridiculous this is getting. But, if Christ tells us to love our enemies then I guess that’s what I’ll do. And doing what Christ tells me to do makes me feel good. So, love my enemies makes me feel good. Who doesn’t like feeling good? End of story, end of sermon. Easy enough, right?
Friends, you should know by now that when Christ is involved, nothing is as easy as it first seems. So, let’s get a little uncomfortable, shall we? What is interesting, is that I have always read this text as I am the one doing the loving. I am the one doing the loving. I am doing such a noble thing–loving my enemies and all. I am doing what Christ has called me to do. It’s all about me and what amazing and wonderful things I am doing. But, here’s where the sand gets in our swimsuits, if you will…what if we’re the ones receiving the loving? What if we are someone’s enemy? Ouch. Let that sink in for just a moment. What if you are someone’s enemy. You may not know if you are or not, but what if you are. And now, the person who considered you an enemy now loves you.
I don’t know if this makes anyone else uncomfortable, but it sure does make me uncomfortable. I don’t like the idea of being loved by my enemy. Because if we’re going to be honest, okay, if I’m going to be honest, I have a hard enough time loving myself, let alone someone else loving me. And here’s the thing, if I have a hard time loving my enemies, it makes me uncomfortable to think my enemies are okay loving me. And it should be noted that if you love your enemies or vice versa, that doesn’t mean that you have condoned what they have done, but that the ill will you feel towards them or even the ill will that they feel towards you no longer has the power.
Or what about this, just in case you weren’t uncomfortable enough. What if your enemy isn’t a person. What if your enemy is a thing? It’s almost a little too easy to hate an enemy. We can picture this person. But what if your enemy is something that doesn’t have a face but it sure enough has a name. What if your enemy is cancer? Or Alzheimers? Or what if your enemy comes in the form of alcohol or drugs? Maybe your enemy is depression. What if your enemy is self doubt? Heck, perhaps your enemy is an old friend named “stress.” It’s easy to hate all of those things, right? I have a list of faceless enemies as long as my arm. Demons I battle every single day. And now, NOW Lord, you’re asking me to love my enemy? I don’t want to love my self doubt. I don’t want to love my body issues. I don’t want to love my issues with mental health. I didn’t love the cancer that attacked my grandfather. I didn’t love emphysema that slowly took my grandmothers life. I’m pretty sure I hate the drugs that have affected too many members of my family. Love is about the last thing I want to do with any of these things. Yet, Christ has the audacity to ask me to do just that. And I don’t want to. And here’s the harsh fact and reality: sometimes it just feels better to hate or dislike something than it does to love something. And because I’m a follower of Christ, the fact that it’s easier for me to hate than it is for me to love makes me really uncomfortable–which I guess is a good sign.
But do you understand how obnoxious this is? Are you starting to understand how preposterous it is that Christ asks us to love our enemy? How can we even start to do that? So many times I’ve tried to love my enemy, no matter what that may be and I fail. Time and time again, I fail. And it hurts. Because as much as I say to myself “I’m a good person! I’m a follower of Christ! I love and welcome everyone!” when it comes down to it, I find myself slipping back into old habits of hating my enemy. And I visit that dark spot in my heart all over again and it’s a little too comfortable. Christ challenges us to a life that is difficult. If being a disciple were easy, everyone would do it, friends. But, a life of discipleship isn’t easy and this is the life that Christ calls us to.
Christ is our example. On the cross, Christ could have very easily turned his head towards his executioners and declared his loathing or hate for them. But what does he do instead? “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” We already belong to Christ. We became Christ’s the day we were washed clean in the waters of baptism. Your place in the kingdom does not hinge on whether or not we love our enemy and our place in the kingdom does not hinge on whether or not we’re successful in loving our enemy. Because here’s the thing: we’re not going to be successful. Our sinful self will always get in the way.
So, what is the good news in all of this, friends? How can I possibly love a person or thing that has made my life hell? I don’t know. It’s a struggle. I try. I turn to God and pray that my heart be softened. And then I start over again–trying to love my enemy. I do this because Christ loves me. Christ loves me, which is a miracle when you think about it. A miracle because the way I treat other Christians, heck, just the way I treat other human beings is enough that I should be considered an enemy of God. But that’s just not the way God works, is it? Thanks be to God.

Sermon for 2/9/14; Matthew 5:13-20

As I made my meals this week, I thought a lot about this text. I love to cook. I am, what you might call, a “foodie.” I love watching Food Network. I love paging through cookbooks like they are actual books. I love food magazines; especially when recipes are featured along with pictures. I’m on Pinterest–don’t worry if you don’t know what that is. It’s an internet site. Most of the things on my site have to do with food. In case you can’t tell by my svelte physique, I love food! I think I love cooking so much because there’s a freedom in experimenting. There’s a joy in putting in a little bit of this added with a dash of that and voila! you have an instant saliva factory running in your mouth because the dish is so amazing. The downfall of my cooking is that when I experiment, I often don’t write down the recipes–my bits, pinches, and dashes, so I will fail to recreate this dish of amazing whatever. I think I also like cooking because it’s a form of hospitality and I love making people feel welcomed and loved.

Any good cook will tell you that in order for your dish to be fantastic, you must taste and season as you go. So mix, mix, mix, taste. Add this or that. Taste again. Mix, stir, blend, taste. And on and on until perfection is reached. Ah! So as I was cooking this week, I added my pepper (fresh ground) and salt (kosher) and thought about this text. You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. I wondered and thought a lot this week about how my life would be different without light or salt.

I am grateful for texts like these that challenge the way I think about Jesus. I love texts like these that challenge the way I think about the world. I love texts like these that challenge the way I think about myself. In seminary, we used to call it “wrestling with the text” and I did that a lot this past week. I am going to invite you into this wrestling match this week, friends. I want this text to challenge you just as it challenged me. I want you to leave here today feeling frustrated and rejuvenated all at the same time.

I want to start by telling you some good news. Let’s take a look at verses 13 and 14 again. “You are the salt of the earth” and then in 14 “You are the light of the world.” You are already these things. Jesus doesn’t say here “you are like the salt of the earth” or “if you want to inherit the kingdom, you must be the light of the world.” He said “you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world.” This is part of our baptismal identity. So, next time you’re getting your resume ready, make sure you put “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” as your identifying features.

But here’s where the wrestling starts. In verse 15, Jesus tells us “no one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.” When we were baptized, we, or our parents, or our baptismal sponsors, were presented with a lit candle. And these words were said “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Our light has already been lit. We don’t have to do anything–it’s already been done for us. But Jesus tells us, don’t hide that lit lamp under a bushel. Great! But what in the world does that mean?

What Jesus is asking us and telling us is that our light is already lit, but what is it that we do to make it dimmer? What are our “bushel baskets” in life? The light of Christ is in us–what do we do to dim this light? And yes, whether you know it or not, there are things that we do, words we say, actions we take, that dim the light of Christ in our lives. We will call these words and actions “bushel baskets.” Here’s where it’s going to get real–let’s name some of these baskets. The light of Christ is shining in me–but I speak negatively about God’s creation–that’s me. I’ve stood in front of the mirror too many times and said I hate the way this looks, or I wish this was smaller. Bushel basket.

I’ve tried to power through too many things by myself. I am hard headed (in case you didn’t know that) and too often like to think I can handle everything by myself and end up tired, sick, or worse. When I don’t take care of God’s creation–that’s me–well, there’s another bushel basket. There are times when I know I’m not living fully into who God created me to be. I often think “I wish I could do this” or “it would be nice if I could do _____ as good as that person or this person” and darn it, if I don’t keep trying to cover up that light of Christ. Because the thing is, God created me to be the best me possible. God didn’t create me to be the best Chris, or Ray, or Mili, or whomever I can be. God created me to be the best Jealaine I can be. What are your bushel baskets, brothers and sisters? What words do you say or what actions do you take that creates the bushel baskets in your lives?

Do you have unresolved anger that you’re holding onto? Bushel basket. Do you have an addiction that has a strong hold of you (and I don’t just mean drugs or alcohol, I mean mundane things too. Like that morning coffee, your weekly lotto ticket, that show you just can’t bear to miss, your favorite football or baseball team)? Bushel basket. I know what you’re thinking, “now Pastor, you’re getting a little too personal, perhaps you should mind your own business.” Alright, as long as I’m on a slippery slope, let’s look at the bushel baskets we have as a congregation.

Do we suffer from “WNDITWB?” You know, we’ve never done it that way before? That’s a bushel basket. I once heard the former Bishop of the ELCA, Mark Hanson, state that the biggest disease that we fight in the ELCA is nostalgia. Do we suffer from nostalgia? How often might we wish or might we even say “I wish church was the way it used to be. I wish all of the Sunday school rooms were used. I wish the pews were full. I wish we needed more than one service like we used to have.” Nostalgia is a bushel basket and I dare say, it’s a poisonous bushel basket. See nostalgia keeps us from moving forward in God’s mission. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we have bushel baskets all around us that stop Christ’s light from shining as brightly as it possibly could. I guess the question we need to ask ourselves is are we going to be people who dwell in the darkness, or are we going to be people who dance in the light? Are we going to be Good Friday people or are we going to be Easter Sunday, empty tomb people?  I did promise a challenge this week, didn’t I?

Now this is the question: what can we do about these bushel baskets? What can we do so that the light of Christ shines brighter? Good news: by coming here every week (or so) you’ve already removed one bushel basket. See, God did not design us to be alone. We are created to be in community; so it’s good for us to be together. When we partake of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we are saying that we will not let those bushel baskets cover our light because God, through Christ on the cross, ultimately has all the power. We remember our baptismal identities: washed, loved, and forgiven. There is nothing, absolutely nothing we can do to ever erase those identities from us. Ever.

Look friends, there will be times in our lives when we put those bushel baskets over our light, but you know what–that light still shines. Christ never abandons us. Christ never gives up on us. We are salt. We are light. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. Don’t try to dim that which Christ has already lit. Let us pray for one another this week as we continue to wrestle with this, continue to recognize the bushel baskets in our lives, and pray that God help us remove them.


Sermon for February 2, 2014; Matthew 5:1-12 (The Beatitudes)

How many of you have heard the saying “blessed to be a blessing?” Maybe you’ve heard “too blessed to be stressed.” I’ve also heard that “stressed” is just “desserts” spelled backwards. I like that logic. I know many of you know todays Gospel. We’ve heard it before. Maybe for you, it’s passage that brings joy or comfort. Whatever the case may be, this is the start of Jesus’ ministry. Our lectionary, that is, the readings that we hear every Sunday, are going to bring us a lot of readings from Matthew this year. Some of them may be difficult to comprehend. There may be times when I come back and reference this scripture from today. Let these verses, these beatitudes, serve as a benchmark.

See, this is the first thing that we hear Jesus say after he has spent some time in the wilderness–where he was tempted. Jesus is essentially saying “this is what this ministry is going to be all about.” And with that, what Jesus also says is “this ministry isn’t going to be about what you think it should be about.” Jesus does what Jesus is known to do best–he takes what is expected and turns it upside down. And here’s the other thing: this is not a prescription for living. Jesus doesn’t say “in order to inherit the kingdom of heaven, you have to be poor, meek, mournful, hungry, etc…”

But what Jesus does talk about is being blessed. When was the last time you were blessed? Do you even know what it feels like? When was the last time you got something for nothing? Honestly, I think receiving blessings makes us uncomfortable. We often don’t know what to say and it can feel awkward. And if we’re going to be honest, having someone “bless” us makes us feel like we need to somehow repay that person. Or, it makes us skeptical. For example, if someone you know said “I am going to give you $500 because you’ve been a blessing to me” what is our first reaction? “What’s the catch” or “now what” maybe even “what did I do to deserve this?” And even if we were to take the money as a gift–as it was intended, it seems we are always waiting for that other shoe to fall. I’ve fallen victim to the thinking of “well, I’m not going to spend it because he/she might want it back.”

What is it in us that makes us think or believe we don’t deserve a gift? I have problems accepting gifts. Chris will verify that when it comes to buying things, I hate buying for myself the most. Unlike the common stereotype, I am a woman who doesn’t necessarily desire to shop for herself. Chris usually has to talk me into buying something for myself. When I do, it’s usually something that I’ve found on the clearance rack. What is it, friends?!? Trying to figure out why I cannot, for the life of me, receive a gift graciously plagues me. Please tell me I’m not alone with these troubles.

But the thing is, I’ve been blessed. I’ve been blessed too many times to count. In fact, I am so blessed that when someone says “oh I’m lucky” I usually correct them and say “no. You’re blessed.” I don’t have to look outside my own home to see 2 of my greatest blessings in Chris and Ellen. God has trusted me with the hearts of these two people and that is a blessing. Then I can literally look around my home and see the blessings: I have heat in a year when the price of LP is frightfully high. I have a refrigerator full of food on a day when we’re collecting for those who go without. I can turn on the faucet and not only do I get water, but it’s warm or cold on demand and it’s clean. I’ve never had to make the decision between medication and something else. By all definitions, I’ve been blessed. The fact that we can gather in this place, week after week, and freely worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ without our government or higher authority telling us otherwise makes us all blessed.

In reality though, what does it mean to be blessed? My dear friend James said it best (I think he would be amused that I am quoting him in a sermon). He said that being blessed means saying “everything is okay–even though nothing is okay.”  And perhaps that’s just a little of what Jesus is saying here. “I know not everything in your life is great, okay, or even near perfect, but in my death and resurrection, you will be blessed.” And here’s the other thing: what we may consider a blessing may not be a blessing in the sense that Jesus speaks about here. I mean, I doubt any of you would rejoice in being poor in spirit. I would struggle to call that a blessing.

That’s what’s crazy about Jesus though. He takes your perception of reality and says “let me challenge that for you.” With these words Jesus is about to embark on the idea that following him means radical hospitality, loving the outcast, nurturing the sick, and willing to submit to an idea that the most important person in your life isn’t you, it’s God. Look friends, this is a difficult way of life, I know. It’s easy to say that God is the most important part of my life, but when I look at my daily habits and rituals, I know that’s not true. When I speak poorly about those whom God calls blessed, I know it’s not true. When I look at a problem or tragedy in the world and think “I wonder who is going to take care of that” I know that I am most concerned about myself and not about what God is doing.

But today friends, today, you are going to receive a blessing, a gift. You did nothing to earn it. You cannot repay it. In fact, when you receive this gift, you will hear the words “for you” not once but twice. Because the body of Christ is given for you. And the blood of Christ was shed for you. It is an amazing gift. Someone gave their life for you. Someone thought you were worth dying for. That, brothers and sisters, is a blessing. Accept this blessing and everything that it means. Don’t deny the love that Christ wants to give to you in this meal. That is exactly what is happening: this is a love letter from Jesus to us. Take it, eat it, let it penetrate your soul. It is a blessing. And you are blessed.

I don’t always like to bring different versions of the Bible into worship, but this passage was beautifully captured by The Message and I want to share the words with you so that perhaps you will think about these beatitudes a little differently:

“ When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

Brothers and sisters, we are blessed. Let us never forget what a gift this is. Thanks be to God!