Sermon for 5/25/14; John 14:15-21

Too many times in my life have I walked away from something knowing I had no right to have been through and survived what I had just witnessed or had gone through. I’m not necessarily talking about life and death experiences, but they certainly have changed me. How can I explain, for instance, the time when my family was all gathered at my parents home in Liberty, Missouri to celebrate the college graduation of my brother and sister and we turned on the weather channel only to see that we were under a tornado warning. Like logical midwesterners, we didn’t immediately go to the basement to protect ourselves, no; we went outside to the deck. (This was, of course, after we made sure that grandma—and the beer—were safe in the basement). We faced the direction of the storm and watched the clouds roll as if the sky had an angry stomach. We could see the front of the storm coming closer and closer. And then it happened. A thin, dark funnel dropped from the sky. There it was. The tornado the weather people had predicted but we didn’t want to believe because when is a weather person ever right?

We watched the tornado drop down out of the clouds and we all took off running to the basement, where we should have been in the first place. We took cover and waited, and prayed. From what we could tell, the tornado had dropped out of the clouds, touched down, picked back up over our house, and touched back down a few miles later hitting the college campus in our town. We found pieces of mail in our yard from addresses more than 40 miles away. A set of car keys were later found in the yard and we have no idea who they belonged to. Strange enough, this wasn’t the first tornado I had escaped. It wasn’t the first time I walked away from something I had no business walking away from. A terrible car accident where I was rear-ended, broken bones, times in college I’m not even going to talk about, and more personal battles with infertility and depression. Too many times I’ve come out on the other side wondering how I made it through not only unscathed, but stronger.

Brothers and sisters, I know I’m not the only one who has these experiences. I know that if I were able to take the time to talk with all of you one on one today, all of you have a story of how you came through a situation you had no earthly business getting through. We usually then incorporate that lovely gift called “hindsight.” We employ hindsight and say things like “it was then that I knew God was with me” or “I now know why I did this or that instead of the other thing I was supposed to do.” I’m hoping you know what I’m talking about. But, I’d like to propose that starting today, instead of calling it “hindsight” we call it what it really was and is: the Holy Spirit.

We don’t talk about the Holy Spirit much. It’s not easy to explain. We can talk about God the Father, because we know what a parent should be despite any good or bad examples we may have in our own personal lives. We can talk about God the Son, because by default, if we can talk about parental relationships, we can talk about relationships with offspring–despite maybe not having any ourselves. And then we come to God the Holy Spirit. And people struggle, myself included, to talk about what God the Holy Spirit is. “Well, you know….it’s the Holy Spirit.” It reminds me of being lectured to in school that I wasn’t to use an the actual word to define the word itself. But, that’s what we find ourself doing with the Holy Spirit. You know…it’s the Holy Spirit. You know what the Holy Spirit is. And then we just smile and nod and leave it at that.

The Holy Spirit is just as crucial to our understanding about God as the Father and the Son are. If you think of it like a 3 legged stool, without the Holy Spirit, the stool will fall over. The same goes for us. It’s time we start recognizing the Holy Spirit at work in our lives when it happens. The Holy Spirit saves your behind when your behind really should be in a sling shot. The Holy Spirit is, as we hear in today’s Gospel of John, our advocate. Do you understand what a powerful concept that is? An advocate is someone or something who is working in your best interest. Someone who may want to protect you. An advocate wants the best for you. I want to compare it to a human relationship that we may have, but even that would fall short. I could say that the Holy Spirit is like your oldest and dearest friend, but that’s not good enough. I could say that the Holy Spirit is like a mother or father figure who want to embrace you in loving arms, but even still, that is not enough. I cannot find the words to describe the Holy Spirit in terms that we are used to because our human relationships will, inevitably, always fail us in one way or another. God does not, will not, can not fail us. Ever.

No matter how many times we may fail God, God will never fail us. The amazing thing about Easter is that the tomb is empty! Christ is risen indeed, alleluia! But, that’s not enough, brothers and sisters. It’s not enough for us to stand at the empty tomb and be amazed. It’s not enough to stand there, mouths agape, wondering where the risen Christ went and what we should do now. The Holy Spirit is the one that nudges us, pushes us, pulls us, whatever it may take, from the empty tomb to the streets. It is the Holy Spirit that embodies us with the ability to tell anyone who will hear and anyone who will listen “have you heard the good news of the empty tomb? Of a Christ who died and was raised?”

I think if we’re going to be truthful with ourselves, we don’t like to talk about the Holy Spirit and the things that the Holy Spirit will do in our lives because it scares us. The Holy Spirit is our advocate and companion, yes, but the Holy Spirit will also push us into places we’re not comfortable going; into dealing with people we don’t like; into service in where no one else will go; all this in the name of the crucified and risen Christ which is good news for all people. The Holy Spirit is the advocate, yes, but she is also the provoker. The one who stirs up the pot. Because it’s not enough for us to stand at the empty tomb, we need to run into town telling those we see. We need to bring people to the table, prepared to feed them. We need to show people to the font, ready to wash them. And we need to open our arms to people, ready, prepared, and willing to love them–even when no one else besides God will!

It is time, brothers and sisters, it is time for us to have those moments we know so well. Those moments when we think “we shouldn’t have walked out of here whole” but then when we look at the company we kept in those moments, when we look at the paths we trod in those moments, when we look at the service done in those moments in Jesus’ name, we know it was only then that the Holy Spirit was at work. God didn’t send us the advocate so that we may sit around and rest on our laurels, wearing the badge of “Christian” as if it is our right and others must work for it. God sent us the advocate, the Holy Spirit to stir us up, give us a gentle nudge, or kick us squarely in our pants–whatever it will take to further God’s kingdom. Because God doesn’t send us to the comfortable places; God sends us to the places where we have no business being so that God’s glory will not only be seen through us but by us. Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia). Now stop standing at that empty tomb and get moving.

 

Sermon for 5/18/14; John 14:1-14

I try not not watch a lot of television. Now don’t be mistaken. There are those shows that I just can’t miss (thank goodness for a DVR). But the majority of the time in our house, if I am in control of the remote, the TV is on the Food Network. It’s safe for Ellen and mommy likes it too. I consider that a win/win. One thing I try and avoid (especially if Ellen is in the room) is television news stations like Fox, CNN, Headline News, MSNBC, you know the type. Often times there seems to be some sort of debate happening on these television channels that pit one person against another and they are usually people in the extremes. So many times (because it makes for good television watching to watch people verbally insult one another) people on these channels are debating hot button issues: gun rights, immigration, health care, women’s rights, race, the economy. whatever it may be. The goal of the debate, of course, is to make the other person look less intelligent, or at least that seems to be what the goal is. Eventually one person will get frustrated with the other and inevitably the “ultimate” (quotes inforced) insult is this one “well, you’re just wanting to play God!” How many of you have heard this before?

“You’re just wanting to play God,” as if playing God is even an option for any of us. The English language, for how vast it is, really falls short at very crucial points in time. When we play, it’s usually a game, or a trick, or some sort of light hearted activity. I highly doubt that playing God, if at all possible, would be or should be a light hearted activity. But still, that verbiage is used, thrown around without much thought, “you’re just wanting to play God.”  And really what the other person is saying is this “you’re trying to decide what is best for me or someone I love or about a topic I’m quite passionate about and I think that’s just wrong.” It is the verbal equivalent of sticking your tongue out at someone.

Today we hear from what is commonly called “Jesus’ farewell discourse.” Jesus is gathered with his disciples and this is the last time they will hear from him before he makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on his way to the cross. Jesus is trying to do the best he can to prepare his disciples for his death. It’s no easy task. Jesus tells us something that has become a keystone or a cornerstone in what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He says (verse 6 and 7) “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me. If you know me, you will know my father also.”

I think we hear this and think “I know Jesus, so I will know God according to what Jesus is saying here.” That’s good news, isn’t it? We will get to know God. Now go in peace, serve the Lord, right? Oh friends, you know I cannot let us off the hook that easily. There’s a great movie called “Bruce Almighty” with Jim Carrey (if you’ve not seen it, I recommend it) where Bruce, played by Jim Carrey is a little down on his luck and a bit angry with God. So God, played by Morgan Freeman, of course, challenges Bruce to see if he can do his job–if he can be God for a while. Bruce finds out that it is harder than it seems. But it does raise an interesting question of would we want to do God’s job if given the opportunity.

We may be quick to say “no way, I don’t want that responsibility” but then we are surrounded by a lot of noise that would seem to point towards there being only one way or only one right way to God. There seems to be the threat of hell for all kinds of things these days. If you can think of any “hot-button” sin, there would probably be at least one person, if not a group of people that would tell you whoever has engaged in that sin, whatever it may be, will be going straight to hell. Pro-life, pro-choice, illegal, gay, divorced, mixed-race marriage, non-christians, children born out of wedlock, all of these are examples of people who are “going to hell” (emphasis on the quotes). They aren’t following the Lord’s way. Let’s do each other all a favor here, folks. Let’s remember that there is only one God and we are not that one God. In order to get to God people do not need to nor should they be expected to go through us. Furthermore, it would be good for us to practice a little humility as Christians once in a while and open ourselves to the possibility that even though our friends or family may attend a different church they too know the way.

Jesus doesn’t say “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” for all those who declare themselves to be Lutheran. He also doesn’t say “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” unless you’ve been divorced, or unless you are a democrat or a republican, or unless you’re undocumented. Friends, the reason why we would never want to “play God” is because we would be bound to get it wrong each and every time. And honestly, if we were actually able to “play God” the people whom we let into the kingdom might make us uncomfortable. Because when Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” what he means is that he is not a wall builder, but a gatekeeper and a bridge builder.

And if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we don’t deserve to go to the Father (through Jesus) more than anyone else. If we don’t want to allow people access to God through Jesus Christ for this sin or that sin or for whatever reasons we may find, then we don’t deserve access ourselves. Friends, Christ called us to be fishers of people, but too often we want to be keepers of the aquarium*.  God is not ours to keep in a box to ourselves. God is not ours to control. If you find that perhaps God seems to be agreeing with your political, social, or economic views a little too often, most likely you’re not worshipping God, you’re worshipping yourself.

Last week I talked about what it might look like to live life abundantly in Christ. Part of this abundance is having peace in knowing that though we may take different roads or paths, if we ultimately go through Jesus, follow Jesus, listen to Jesus, and serve like Jesus, we are going the right way. Will we run into people we don’t like along the road? Yep. Will we encounter circumstances that seem unfair along the way? Yep. But along our journey Jesus invites us into the waters, to the table, into fellowship with one another. Take and eat, take and drink; “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

No one gets to “play God.” This is a relief and good news for you, for me, for those whom we love, for those whom we find difficult to love, for those who care for us and for those who have difficulty caring for us. There is only one way to God–and that is through Jesus. Don’t set up roadblocks where God has built a bridge. Don’t play God when God doesn’t have an interest in “playing”– only in loving.

*= quote attributed to Louis Schueddig, Episcopal Media Center

Sermon for 5/11/14 John 10:1-10

I’ve been amazed watching car load after car load and arm load after arm load of stuff be taken downstairs for the ladies church basement sale. I walked through the tables the other night after they started setting up and long after the confirmation students had left just looking at all the goodies. It was just me and all that stuff. And for me, that’s what it is–just stuff. But every piece of clothing down there tells a story. Every dish was a vessel for a meal. Every toy was handled by small hands that now have moved on to carrying heavy books. Every book whisked the reader away to lands far away to adventures unknown or untold. Everything downstairs with a pricetag on it tells a story if you listen closely enough.

What really took me back was that everything downstairs meant something to someone at some point in time in their lives. And to me, it’s just stuff. I have no attachment to things downstairs. Nothing downstairs could bring me abundant life. But, at one point in time, the items downstairs did bring joy, happiness, satisfaction, relaxation, a meal, or even yes, abundant life to its owner. Then I go through my own home, looking at the stuff we’ve accumulated in the almost 10 years of marriage. There seems to be an interesting method to our madness of what gets put on display versus what gets relegated to the attic or basement. Having a small child also really puts things into perspective as to what is important versus what isn’t so important any more.

What used to bring me abundant life is now but a hobby or long forgotten about. My definition of what I thought could bring me abundant life has changed with age and responsibilities. I like to play a game and I am sure many of you have played before called “what if we win the lottery.” Now I will tell you that playing this game is best done when you’ve actually purchased a ticket and the odds of getting struck by lightning 5 times in a row is greater than actually winning. But there’s always a chance, I’m sure. So, Chris and I venture into our little dreamland of what it might be like to be bazillionaires.

We’d pay off student loans, we’d make significant donations to the charities and causes we’re passionate about, we’d save for Ellen’s college education, we’d make sure our parents and families all get a little something, and maybe, just maybe, I’d let Chris finally get that boat that he pesters me about all the time. But even if we did win the lottery, even if we’d finally be able to do all the stuff we only dream about, would we really then have abundant life? I’m sure you’ve all heard those stories of people who win the lottery and as it turns out, they’re more miserable than before they won the lottery.  So what is it, then, that would allow us to live a life and live it abundantly?

Perhaps it’s good if we talk about defining living life abundantly. By living life abundantly I mean more than surviving; it’s thriving. By living life abundantly we aren’t just the status quo; we’re living in joy. It’s flourishing, cup overflowing, song in our hearts, a spring in our steps, unexplainable happiness that weaves itself in and out of our daily lives. Is that kind of life even possible? It is possible–but probably not in the way we think it’s possible and probably not in the way we keep trying to make it happen.

In the never ending attempt to make ourselves happy and to live an abundant life we may work jobs we don’t even like, work during hours that are inhumane, we may surround ourselves with people that are a strain on our time and other relationships, we may just be living life like hamsters constantly spinning on wheels going nowhere. We are so hungry to have the next best thing, to be the next best thing, to eat the next best thing, to drink the next best thing, that we are living lives that constantly have us chasing dreams that turn into nothing. We live lives that seem empty unless we have this thing, that thing,  or even worse–if we have that thing that our neighbor or friends have that we must have. We get swept up in the envy cycle, friends, and it is vicious.

What might it look like to have life and have it abundantly when we don’t talk in terms of stuff? To have an abundant life to the bullied middle schooler means no longer having to face their bully. To have an abundant life to the battered woman means that she now has safe shelter for herself and her children far away from her abuser. To have an abundant life for the addict means being clean, having a sponsor, attending meetings, and knowing that the demons that once had power over him no longer exist. What would it mean for you to have life and to have it abundantly if you suddenly no longer had your stuff?

Life in Christ is abundant life. Jesus’ definition of abundance has nothing to do with stuff, or keeping up with the Jones’. Life abundant in Christ means being in the darkness and still having light. Life abundant in Christ means a soul stained with sin gets washed clean with baptismal waters. Life abundant in Christ means a humble meal of bread and wine leaves you fuller than any feast you can imagine. Life abundant in Christ means dying to our old sinful selves and being raised new every day. It means that the death on the cross was by us AND for us. Life abundant in Christ means an empty tomb.

There are so many things in this world that want to rob us of life and Christ not only offers us life but offers it to us in abundance. The crazy thing is, there is no catch. It’s not a limited time offer. There are not limited quantities. Who ever desires this abundant life may have it in Christ. The life that Christ offers us is a response to everything around us that is life sucking. The promise of salvation brings us forgiveness and abundant life. This news is so good for you and for me that why would we want to keep it for ourselves?

You must know people around you that are not living abundant lives. Some people are not living their lives in Christ by choice, but others are imprisoned to their circumstances. When we are promised this abundant life in Christ, it is on us to demand and fight so that all of God’s people can have a fair chance at whatever will give them abundant life. This means that we end bullying. This means that we make sure children are no longer sold for their bodies. This means that we make sure that clean water is not a privilege. This means that we help to break down borders, walls, and checkpoints wherever they are placed in the way of justice. This list could go on and on and on.

Claiming and living into life abundantly in Christ is yours to have. You can’t buy it. You can’t earn it. None of us certainly deserve it. But it’s ours to have. It starts with the promises made in water and in word and continues until our final day when God calls us to complete our baptismal journeys. Jesus didn’t come so we could have stuff. Jesus came so that we may have life and have it abundantly.

Sermon for 5/4/14; Luke 24:13-35

I know this may seem like an odd question, but why do you come to church? Some of you are here week after week (and if you aren’t, I didn’t say that to make you feel guilty). Maybe you don’t give that question much thought. It is good for us to ponder though. So, why do you do it? Do you come for the fellowship and relationships you have with those around you? Do you come for the music? Do you come because “that’s what you’ve always done?” Tell me your reasons. Now here’s a strange question; why do people not come to church? I want to hear all the reasons you’ve used and all the reasons you’ve heard. So, speak up.

I heard an interesting story once. I have a friend whose father was a life-long alcoholic. He was clean then he wasn’t, he was sober, then he wasn’t. Finally, something just clicked and he’s been sober for years. One of the most important things he does, as far as he is concerned, is attend AA meetings. I asked my friend “has your dad connected with a church he likes?” And I was surprised to hear the answer. “He says AA is his church.”
“Why is that” I asked?

“He didn’t like being around people who didn’t make room for his brokenness and imperfection.”

I shook my head in agreement and in disappointment. I want the church to be a place where people who are broken and bruised can come and just be; no expectations, no false sense of self, no ego competitions, just a place to rest and be. Part of the reason I stayed away from the church for so long was that I felt like there wasn’t a place for me and the questions I had. I wanted honest conversation surrounding shame, self doubt, feminists in the church; I had questions about the Bible, questions about the liturgy, questions about the priesthood. And all I felt was guilt that I couldn’t ask those questions because either 1) I thought maybe I should already know the answers or 2) I felt like I might be shamed for asking them in the first place. I had hoped the church I was at might be the place for me to turn, and it wasn’t. Instead, I spent too many years lost, fumbling, and mad at God for no apparent reason.

Part of our Easter celebration (which is still continuing, by the way) should be the voicing of things that caused us to lose hope on Good Friday. In today’s story we accompany the disciples on the road to Emmaus. The disciples are still in mourning over their friend Jesus and are unaware that they are being accompanied by the risen Lord. They talk to who they assume is a stranger in their midst and say something very interesting. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” In this time of great loss, not only are the disciples mourning their friend Jesus, but they are also mourning lost hope.

If I am going to be honest, I think that sometimes those of us in church leadership don’t do the best job of talking about losing hope or lost hope. It’s all too easy for us to point to the resurrected Christ and say “see….that makes everything better!” And while the resurrected Christ certainly gives us a hope of salvation and a hope for a life to come, it may not be the words and comfort we need when we either lose hope or start to lose hope. The church needs to be a place where people can come with their scars and not feel like they have to cover them up.

“We had hoped…” is a small, 3 word phrase that is so powerful and carries so much weight that its almost daunting to even say it. Because often times, the phrase “we had hoped” is our equivalent of a Good Friday. Of a death; a death of a dream, a death of a wish, a death of that last chance; even an actual death. We had hoped to start a family sooner than we did. We had hoped that we wouldn’t need medical assistance.

You hear this phrase other places too. “We had hoped that the chemo would work this time.” Or “we had hoped that they would go to rehab.” Maybe “we had hoped that grandma would take our offer to move in with us instead of the nursing home.” Perhaps it’s just a simple “we had hoped that things would be different.” What gets wrapped up in that phrase is grief, hurt, loss, anger, maybe even guilt and shame. “We had hoped….” And it makes me frustrated when that phrase gets completed like this “we had hoped that we would be welcomed in this church.” Now, it’s only fair that I pause here to say that when I say “this church” I’m not necessarily talking about Elvira Zion. When I say “this church” I mean any church where God’s people are gathered in God’s name.

Too many times we hear “all are welcome” but as it turns out, that’s not the truth. What we really mean to say is “all are welcome as long as you look like us, think like us, talk like us, and believe what we do.” What is ironic is that I’ve often heard “we had hoped that the church attendance would increase by now” in the same breath that I hear people say “did you see so-and-so at church? I’m a little surprised they showed up!”

Being God’s church isn’t easy, friends. Being a place where sinners and saints are gathered isn’t easy. Being God’s hands and feet in the world isn’t easy. Wearing our identification of baptised and claimed isn’t easy. Belonging to God means going into the world to places where we are going to encounter the mantra of “we had hoped” over and over and over again. We aren’t in this world to fix people. It is almost impossible to fix systems that are years past fixing status. Belonging to God and declaring God for a broken world means acknowledging the hurt, disappointment, guilt, shame, and loss that surrounds a lifetime full of “we had hoped” and loving all at the same time.

Being God’s church means acknowledging that yes, people of God’s church hurt one another. Being God’s church means acknowledging that people fall short of expectations. Being God’s church means acknowledging that yes, even the pastor is imperfect. Being the church means acknowledging that but still gathering together weekly to hear the good news that the brokenness does not last forever. Being the church means that we see one another’s scars and say “hey, mine looks like that too–let’s walk through this crappy situation together.” Being the church means not being afraid to admit when hope is lost and to mourn that hope.

If you have come here today and you feel like you have to put on a false face, or if you feel like you have to put on an act, or if you feel like you don’t belong here, let me assure you that this is the place for you. We are surrounded by a Christ who finds us on our roads when we have lost hope. We are loved by a Christ who says “yes, put your fingers in my hands and your hands in my sides.” We are embraced by a Christ who says “I know you had hoped and I weep with you.”

The church, if anything, should be a place where the rooms we have for brokenness and imperfection looks more like a mansion. And hear this. Even if you are scared to show your scars. Even if you are scared to remove your mask. Even if you’re not too sure that you can even udder the phrase “we had hoped” for fear that someone will knock you down. Know that Christ knows. Christ knows of your lost hopes. Christ knows of your lost dreams. Christ knows of your disappointment. And Christ will encounter you, on the road, at this font, and at this table. We shall see him in the breaking of the bread.