Sermon for 10/26/14 (Reformation/Confirmation Sunday) John 8:31-36

What a spectacular day! Caleb, Katelyn, and Karlee have worked really hard to get here today. They had a very untraditional Confirmation class by having Pastor Engstrom and then myself teaching. But, they learned a lot and I think we had some fun along the way too. We learned that there is no difference between a snowmobile and a snow machine (just like there’s no difference between a snow blower and a snow thrower). We learned that Katelyn loves her neon colors and Karlee helped us to figure out whether or not donut holes bounce. In the midst of all this fun, we talked about faith. We may have done it in some unconventional methods, but we talked about faith.

If you have not taken the time to read the faith statements of these young people, please do. Caleb, Katelyn, and Karlee all managed to accomplish something that I think most of us would find difficult: to write a statement of faith. I mean, really, could you do it? Given the chance to respond to the question “why do you believe what you believe?” most of us would probably stop and stutter and struggle to answer. Here are some other questions I asked them to think and pray about (although not necessarily answer) “what does God’s grace mean to you?” “What does it mean that Christ died on the cross for you?” “Does being forgiven by God change the way you interact with the world around you? If so, how?” “Why is having a good faith foundation important to the rest of your life?” These are difficult questions to answer and let’s not forget that these young people are 14 and 15 years old. Did you have any idea what your faith meant at 14 or 15?

Last night we celebrated these three young people with a lovely dinner at Rastrelli’s and I expressed something then that I will share again now. So often, people lament that the church is dying. Attendance is down, giving is down, churches are in conversation about how they can afford pastors, some churches talk about consolidating with other churches, some churches make the difficult decision to close their doors. The lament is real. However, after working with these three and as I continue to work with our confirmation class that we have now, I am convinced that the church is not dying–at least not here. In fact, this church is thriving and honestly, I think, on the verge of another Reformation.

That’s how this whole party got started anyway, right? Our buddy, Martin Luther, I like to call him Marty, was studying to be a Monk. The more he studied, the more uncomfortable he became with the structure of the church and the interpretation of scripture. Marty didn’t set out start a revolution or a reformation for that matter. He just wanted to bring to light the places where he thought church was incorrect in its teachings. And so, as the story goes, he wrote his list of issues, 95 of them as a matter of fact, and nailed them to the church door. The rest, as they say, is history. But, I’d like to believe that because Marty truly believed that he was free in Christ, that he had been set free by the cross, that nothing, not even challenging the system he was a part of, could ever take that freedom away.

I think it’s hard for us, as Americans, to talk about freedom of a Christian and separate it from the freedom of politics and Constitutional freedom. Our Constitutional freedom encourages us to vote in the upcoming election. Our Christian freedom encourages us to research the candidates and issues so that we may best be informed who stands on the side of justice and righteousness. Our Constitutional freedom gives us the right to keep and bear arms; our Christian freedom begs us to keep asking how those same firearms are used in unjust ways and in places that should be holy (like mosques or temples) or safe (like schools). Our Constitutional freedom provides for families and individuals who struggle to make ends meet; our Christian freedom calls us to provide for families and individuals who make just enough money to be outside the guidelines of “helping” yet still go hungry, naked, and cold.

Because we are freed in Christ, we are freed for the opportunity to serve one another in Christ’s name, we are freed to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, we are freed to go and “make disciples of all nations”, we are free to respond to the call that Christ has on our lives. Because we are freed in Christ, we are also freed for the opportunity to dream, to imagine, to envision, to explore, and to hope. I hope you’ve been asked this question before: what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? So often we think about that question in regards to personal failures. If I knew I couldn’t fail, I would lose weight and keep it off. If I knew I couldn’t fail, I’d try my hand at cooking different ethnic dishes. If I knew I couldn’t fail, I’d moonlight as a writer who’s also a world-class wine expert.

It would be good of us, as we celebrate Reformation, to ask the same question of our church. As we have three young people hungry to help us move into the future, what would we, as a church, do if we knew we couldn’t fail? Would we be willing to have Katelyn sing more of those songs she hears Joel listening to on KLove? Would we take our Sunday school classes down to Karlee’s calves as a way of talking about stewardship of land and animals? Would we encourage Caleb to host a COD tournament here because we want young people to see that the church can be a place for them too?

Reformation wasn’t a one time event, friends. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are constantly being reformed. With bread and wine, body and blood, we are being fed and reformed. In the waters of baptism, we were reformed. When we affirm that baptism, as we did today, we are reformed. Every time we are forgiven for our sins, we are reformed. Reformation happens daily therefor freedom happens daily.

Jesus didn’t realize the call on his life and so he decided to stay where he was, hoping people would come to him to heard the good news and be healed. Nope. Jesus listened to that still, small, voice that reformed him and us. Jesus listened all the way to the cross. In that cross comes freedom. And yes, I know that it may not be comfortable and yes, it may not be the way that we’ve “always done things before” but that freedom requires and enables us to form and reform ourselves and others around us.

What would you have us, as a church, do if you knew we couldn’t fail? In what ways do we need reforming? In what ways is our freedom nudging us towards new horizons? You may have an idea in your head and immediately, a little voice says “but what if… “ or “how much…” or “it’ll never…” and that is the voice of fear. See, the opposite of freedom is fear. Fear can paralyze us and lead to a stagnant church that has long forgotten about forming or even reforming for that matter. Fear turns our “what if’s” into “no ways.” Fear turns our “maybes” into “never.” Fear turns our hope into hopelessness. Fear turns these young people (and many more like them) away from the church, never to be seen again unless they need married, buried, or splashed.

It is time to stop being paralyzed by fear. It is time to be prepared to be reformed. It is time to open our hearts and minds to Christ, the one who reforms us daily into beloved children. A mighty fortress is our God, right? Not “a wimpy pup tent is our God…we think.” There is no better occasion in the church than this one to start asking how we are reforming and how we are being reformed. Through faith alone, by grace alone, we cannot fail.

Sermon for 10/19/14 Matthew 22:15-22

It is often said that in mixed company there are certain topics that are not “suitable” for conversation. Usually it’s the big four: money, politics, religion, and sex. Luckily for us, we’re going to cover 3 out of the 4 today. I’m all for going against the grain and talking about things that society thinks we shouldn’t. What if I asked you to turn to the person closest to you (that’s not related) and asked you to share with them the balance of your bank account? Or what if, when it came time for the offering, I asked you to hand your checkbook or wallet over to the person close to you and allow them to decide your offering for today. As long as we’re making one another pretty uncomfortable here, how would you feel if I asked you to tell someone what you paid for your car, or the balance on your credit card, or even your yearly salary (if you have one). What if you had to bring a friend from church into the voting booth with you? What if I met you at your polling place and went into the booth with you? (I know what you’re thinking “Pastor’s hitting it pretty hard pretty early….now might be a good time to go to the bathroom.”)

Sometimes I wish that Jesus’ stories and parables were in a nice, neat little package that ended “and what Jesus meant when he said this was….” But that never seems to be the case, does it? Just like his listeners in this parable, we might be left a little awe-struck, confused, curious, or maybe even mad. What does this mean, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s.” Once again, the Pharisees, in an attempt to basically frame Jesus (so they can arrest him and ultimately crucify him) are left with (I’m guessing) a lot of questions and not enough answers.

During this particular time period, Jews were taxed for a lot of things. There was a temple tax, land taxes, customs taxes, and on and on. The tax in question in today’s reading is an interesting one because it was the tax that the Jews were forced to pay their oppressors. An imperial tax (as the one in today’s reading) was a tax that paid to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. Basically, it would be like being bullied, and then paying the bully to support him or her in bullying classes so that they can learn to be a better bully. Got it?

The Pharisees take the opportunity to ask Jesus what he thinks of such a tax. In Jesus’ typical style he doesn’t outright answer them. He asks to see the coin used to pay the tax and asks whose face is on the coin. Which, of course, got me to thinking about our own money. Our money has pictures of our deceased forefathers and is emblazoned with the phrase “In God We Trust.” Our money is an oxymoron, really. What Jesus told the Pharisees is just as prevalent today as it was in ancient Jerusalem. Give to the government the things that belong to the government and give to God the things that belong to God. You will notice that not once did Jesus say “and keep a little for yourself.”

What I am about to tell you, friends, may be an equal mix between shocking and not at all surprising. All that you own, all that you have, all that you are, everything that you says is “yours” actually belongs to God. Every square foot of your home, every possession in your closets, every vehicle in your garage (or machine shed or quonset), every last single penny you have to your name belongs to God. Before you start to form the argument in your head that I might just be wrong about this, let me give you some examples.

The nights I put Ellen to bed, I trace the sign of the cross on her forehead as a reminder to her of her baptism. But it’s a reminder to me that she ultimately belongs to God. I didn’t make her, God did. Every month when I open my student loan bill (and groan a little) I remind myself that God gave me the knowledge I needed at the university level, God provided in ways I still don’t understand while we were in seminary and I am quick to thank God for the opportunity to study and be in school because there are others in this world that are literally dying for that right and privilege. Everything that is in my fridge belongs to God. The milk came from a cow that was cared for by someone like you and that cow was created by God. My bread came from fields of Kansas wheat, carefully cultivated by farmers just like us, on land that was created by God. When I start my car up in the morning, I give thanks to God for the gas that allows it to run. This is gas (which is partially corn) grown by you, combined in machines that also belong to God.

Everything we have, everything we are, it all belongs to God. This kind of thinking isn’t easy and honestly, it’s not what we’re used to (it’s not “natural”). It’s MY stuff. It’s MY car, MY house, MY kids, MY money! But really, it’s not. I have never seen a Brinks truck pull up behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you, right? I saw this great poster on the internet somewhere this past week and it read “when all the trees are cut down, when all the animals are dead, when all the waters are poisoned, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover that you cannot eat money.” That has been with me all week.

I’m not an expert in this kind of thing, I still get wrapped up in the “mine mine mine” attitude. Sometimes I buy something because I think “I deserve it” instead of remembering that God provided the funds for me to buy whatever it is that I am wanting. Not too long ago a colleague shared that she had done something that changed her perception of money and served as a small reminder of what it means to be a good steward of everything God gives us. She took out her debit card and with a sharpie, she drew a cross on the corner. Every time she takes it out of her wallet, she is reminded of who is providing for what she is buying. This could be an interesting exercise. Draw a cross on your debit card, your credit cards, your check book, your wallet, your front door, your fridge door, your car door, your combine door, and on and on and on.

In our baptism, we were claimed by God. That cross on our foreheads is a reminder to us and to all who see us that we belong to God. We are so much more than the total in our bank account, or the labels on our clothes, or the number of bushels in storage, and we are so much more than lies we have bought into that make us believe that we alone are not enough. We are so much more than all of that. We were made by God, in the image of God, marked with the cross of Christ, and claimed by God for all eternity. No matter what, we are first and foremost beloved children of God. That mark on your forehead, that identity, that is worth more than all the riches of the world combined. The meal that we are about to eat is so amazing, it could be served in the best 5 star restaurants in the world, but instead it’s free.

Not my table, but God’s. Not my church, but God’s. Not my people, but God’s. Not my life, but God’s.

Being surprised by grace

I try to live my life by a standard of grace, not perfection. Many times, often, okay…almost daily I fail at this.

I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God gives to ALL of God’s people grace upon grace upon grace. This is my operating theology and I will talk until I am blue in the face to get others to understand or believe this. It is so important to me that you understand that nothing, absolutely positively nothing, NOTHING (just in case I didn’t make it clear enough before) will ever or can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (see Romans 8:38-39 if you don’t believe me). And I will use my last dying breath to proclaim this good news to anyone who would listen, I, for some reason, struggle to believe it actually applies to me. I TOTALLY believe it applies to you. I feel like in the book of life I have an asterisk by my name or something. Now that you have a little background….

My most fantastic health care plan (insurance provider) increased their rates for the upcoming year. Although it may seem reasonable, an increase of 11% caused me a lot of stress. I spent the majority of this past Monday researching plans, finding comparison tables, carefully crafting my argument (in my head) as to why we should select the same plan, and almost drowning in general worry. I was preparing all of this information for presentation to my church council. On top of a raise in rates for insurance of 11%, our local synod has also suggested a 2.5% increase in base pay for clergy within our synod. Overall, this was going to be an increase of just over $2500 for pay and insurance combined.

You should know (if you didn’t already) that I am quickly coming up on my first year anniversary as a Pastor. My first year as an official rostered leader. This would also be my first time negotiating my own salary and my own benefits. By the time Monday night came around I had worked myself into a full-blown panic/anxiety attack complete with: hyperventilation, an ulcer flair up, a migraine, and ugly crying (if you don’t know what ugly crying is–just watch a Lifetime movie–they do a lot of that there).

Tuesday’s council meeting quickly approached and I was nervous. I didn’t eat dinner. 1) because I was nervous and 2) have you ever tried to eat with a cute toddler attached to your legs, arms, or other body parts? Eventually it became time for the discussion. I rationally explained all the numbers, suggested (more like requested) the plan we go with, and prepared myself. I was ready for all the discussion, all the objections, all the questions of plan A versus plan B. Bring it!

The discussion was minimal.
The explanations were non-existent.
There were no objections.

The council president said “I move we just go ahead and have Pastor continue with the same plan she had last year.” And it passed with no objections. And then I cried.

Like openly wept.
(I’m still tearing up thinking about it)

After I composed myself (I think there were some who weren’t quite for sure how to handle the crying Pastor)I said, “I was just so nervous about this conversation. I was prepared for this to not go well.” And without hesitation another council member said

“This conversation would be a lot different if we didn’t love you.”

*BAM.* Grace.

In that moment,in that brief moment, I felt it. I felt what I so desperately try to get others to understand. God will provide. If you allow yourself to be loved, you will be surprised by the results. This conversation was about so much more than insurance, and salary, and numbers. It was about grace I wasn’t expecting.

How often do we expect God to send down God’s judgement on us and instead, we are surprised by grace and love?
How often are we even scared to approach God because we may think we already know God’s reaction and then we get surprised, even get off kilter, by grace?

My church council didn’t set out to show me grace. But, they did. I am so grateful they did.

Sermon for 10/12/14 Matthew 22:1-14

If you have ever been married and gone through with all of the “traditional” regalia that goes along with a wedding, you know how truly stressful this so called “blessed event” can really be. I always tell couples that if they don’t think about eloping to Vegas at least once before the wedding then they are probably not doing it right. There are a lot of details to remember, there are the obnoxious amount of people you have to invite, and then there’s the food. I always joke with Chris that the next time I get married that I am going to elope. Granted, I don’t plan on getting married again, so that won’t be a problem. Of course, our wedding was no exception. We had hundreds on the guest list. We had carefully picked out cake flavors, the menu, the bar menu, and had several of my nannie’s friends (and my own family) making over 200 dozen Italian cookies. We worked on a seating chart for hours (because this person can’t sit at the same table as this person) and in the middle of it all, we had to retreat to our basement because there was a tornado. My most vivid dream as we got closer and closer to the wedding was that all of my family and all of our guests were not only late to the wedding but they all showed up wearing cut off jean shorts and raggedy t-shirts. I woke up furious. A wedding is stressful, to say the least. We want always seem to want a group of imperfect people to pull off a perfect occasion. This rarely, if ever, happens.

I think that sometimes my job as a pastor is to give you permission to be a theologian of the cross. Now, before you start giving me strange looks, a theologian of the cross is what I hope all of us can be. We point to the cross, as Martin Luther would say, as the only source of who God is and how God acts. The opposite of this is being a theologian of glory. That idea puts more emphasis on human abilities and human reason. And sometimes, we say that as a theologian of the cross, we need to call something what it is. So, since we should all aim to be theologians of the cross, let’s call this Gospel text today what it is: weird and disturbing. I want to give you permission to argue with the Bible. That doesn’t mean that we think what is written here is wrong, but it is good for us sometimes to say “that makes me uncomfortable” or “that seems a little extreme” or even “that would never happen in our time.” The Bible is a living, breathing, document, friends. It begs for us to interact with it. Think about reading the Bible as having coffee or tea with a trusted and dear friend. If you disagree, say so. This text is strange and disturbing!

In a way, I can understand what the king said or does, right? He planned a big party and he wanted this banquet hall full. And I think that part of what makes this reading so challenging is that we may see ourselves in many places throughout this story. Do you see yourself as the king, throwing the big party and then disappointed when the people you hoped would come, the people you invited to come, didn’t show up? Or maybe you see yourself as the people who were supposed to come to the party but didn’t. We get busy, it’s a fact of life, something may have come up. Maybe you wanted to go to the party or maybe you just wanted a quiet night at home; either way, you didn’t go to the party. Perhaps you see yourself as the people invited the second time around. Maybe you are that person that showed up dressed inappropriately. Remind me to tell you all about the first time I met Chris’ parents and I was so embarrassed because of what I was wearing.

In some ways, I think this text today is about judgement. We may judge the king for what he does. We may judge the guests who were invited for not coming in the first place (I mean, you probably did RSVP, after all) and we may also judge them for being so violent. We may judge those who were out in the street and got invited. Why would you want to go? You weren’t good enough to go the first time. Maybe we’re judging the person who didn’t know how to dress for a wedding. Or maybe, just maybe, this text makes us uncomfortable because we all have been in a place where we have been the ones being judged.

We worry: what if we’re not the ones invited? What if someone finds out I’m not who I am trying so hard to portray myself to be? What does it mean to be worthy of a call? What if there is a party going on and I am left out? What if we’re the ones that have shown up to the wedding (or wherever) and we’re wearing the wrong clothes? Or what if we say the wrong thing? Or what if we get seen talking to the wrong person? What if we’re the ones that are thrown out of the party? Or what if, dare we even say it, what if the final banquet table is set and as we look around we notice that there is not enough room for us–in fact, it doesn’t even look like we’ve been invited.

There are a few things in this text today that should offer us comfort. First of all, everyone is invited. Now, not everyone stays in the story, but everyone is invited. God invites all of us, in one way or another, to a fuller life in God. And the good news for all of us is that we will never be kicked out of God’s kingdom for what we have done or not done. In our baptism, we were clothed in Christ. You may not realize it, but you’re already wearing the most fabulous garment ever–Christ!

God calls us into a new reality. God calls us into a place where the waters wash away our sins and forgiveness is plentiful. God calls us to a banquet table so beautiful our eyes can hardly believe it. God calls us into life and it is life abundant. God calls us into a new reality where justice and mercy prevail and no one will ever be left out. No one. And that is good news and that may also be news that makes us nervous. Because if no one is left out, that really means no one. That means we may dine with those whom we dislike. That means we may come to the font and be washed in the same waters that splashed our enemies. That means our place in the kingdom is next to and equal to those whom we think shouldn’t be there.

Brothers and sisters, our Psalm today, that Psalm that brings us so much comfort in so many times has an interesting first line that we should dwell upon: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” If the Lord is our shepherd and provides us with everything we could ever possibly need, are we going to trust that shepherd, or are we going to be quick to jump up and say, “well, actually Lord…it should really be this way….” God calls us into a new reality where all our needs are met, where we are given abundant life, where forgiveness and mercy are highways to reconciliation, where we will want for nothing. It’s a party you already RSVP’d to through your baptismal waters and through the promises made. This new reality, this abundant life, all of it that God calls us to, we’ve already said “yes.” It’d be kind of ridiculous for us to say no and not show up to take the challenge now.

Is it going to be comfortable? Well, not all the time. Is it going to be a challenge? Perhaps. But, when you are being fed on the body of the one who gave himself up for you so that you wouldn’t have to suffer even a millisecond, almost everything seems possible. God loves you, friends. The judgement that you feel has been cast on you is there because you placed it on yourself. God has already forgiven you for whatever you can’t forgive yourself for. Your life is not destined to end with a cross–that’s already been done. Your life is destined to end with an invitation. Come, be washed. Come, be fed. Come, be loved. There is no catch.

Sermon for 10/5/14 Matthew 21:33-46

This is an interesting and a bit of a violent text to have on a Sunday when we are celebrating the harvest. Such as it is, the occasion to gather, give thanks to God, and to joyously come together to once again mark the relationships we have formed is always lovely. When I speak of relationships, of course I mean the relationships that we form with one another. But, I also mean the relationships we have formed with the other congregations as we once again participate in the Food Resource Bank program. And I also want to celebrate, or perhaps lament, the relationship that so many of you have to the land.

So many of you know that farming has not always been in my vocabulary. I learned a lot on internship and all of you have been so gracious to teach me more and more every day. There are still occasions when I see a piece of equipment in a field and I just gawk and say “I wonder what that thing does.” And if I were to try and explain whatever I saw to you I’m almost positive I would sound a bit silly—but I’d be willing to take the risk anyway. All of this to say I also want to celebrate today the relationship that all of us have to the land. And ALL of us have a relationship to the land whether we farm it or not. This year, so far, seems to be a pretty okay year. I know many of you still have corn or beans in the field; but from what I’ve heard so far, things are looking okay. We might have a celebration year. But I also know that there have been many years where it hasn’t been great and the lament is hearty.

Our ties to the land are much stronger than many people realize. Before becoming a pastor and learning the language of farming I would drive past corn fields having no idea what all that corn was used for and why was it so brown? Wouldn’t you want to pick it while it was still green? It’s dead now, right? And I thought things like “what do you mean those are soybeans and not weeds?” I fear, my brothers and sisters, that our society is moving further and further away from knowing where their food comes from and we are moving further and further away from knowing how the American farmer really (seriously) keeps this country moving forward.

People, I’m sure, might be surprised to know that as they drive past those corn fields that the ethanol used to help fill up their car started as corn. That the soda they are drinking started out as corn. That the burger they are munching on was probably a cow that ate corn. All while driving past fields upon fields of beautiful stalks that beckon for us, for all of us to listen. Listen as the corn tells us the story of how, year after year after year, it provides not only for this community but also for families and communities world wide.

Our Gospel today tells us “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” I highly doubt that as any of you prepare to fire up your combines and grain carts that you think “well, here I go…collecting the fruits of the kingdom.” However, the relationship that we have to the land, to other congregations, and to the FRB program certainly produces the fruits of the kingdom. Micah 6:8 tells us “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” When we use crops, time, and money to train those in Honduras, Guatemala, Uruguay, the Congo, Kenya, Cambodia, Nepal, and many many other places around the globe we are doing exactly what the Lord has commanded us to do.

While a cart full of grain may not look like fruits of the kingdom to you, it looks like a sustainable well watering system to someone in Guatemala. A cart full of grain may not look like fruits of the kingdom, but to someone in Honduras, it’s seeds that produce much better in that environment. Those grain carts may not look like a lot to the average human eye, but to those who benefit from the FRB program, it means life, an opportunity to feed their families and the village around them, and ultimately, it may mean freedom. All of what we might normally take for granted as Americans is gifted to others in the gift of beans and corn.

The work of being a disciple, the work of being Christ to others in the world isn’t always easy. The work of being Christ and sharing God’s message to others in the world isn’t always comfortable either. However, when you take something that you already love, like farming, and combine it with helping others, how much easier is that Gospel to spread? In the gifts of the FRB program the message that we are sending to others is the same message that God sends us: you are not forgotten about. You are worth something. I love you. I care for you. Thanks for trusting me as we walk through this together. All of these words, all of these sayings are things that God says to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I love you. You are not forgotten about. You are worth something. I care for you. Trust me as we walk through this together.

And while it may seem like nothing to you, when we give the gift of water, grain, machinery, experience or time to those in other countries through the FRB program what we are saying is the same thing to those in need. My brother, my sister: you are not forgotten about. I care for you. This is easier when we go about this together!

Friends, all of us are engaged in kingdom work. You don’t have to be a farmer to bring about God’s kingdom in the here and now. The fruits of the kingdom are as easily given in meals, time, donation, listening, and advocating as they are given in the gift of grain. As of right now, we only have one planet to live on. I give thanks to God for all of you who steward the land as a gift from God. I give thanks to God for all of you who support those who are good stewards of the land. I give thanks to God the ecumenical work that reminds us not only are we tied to the land but we are tied to one another. Most of all, I give thanks to God who created this land and saw fit to call it “good.”