Sermon for 2/22/15 Psalm 25:1-10

Normally I preach on the Gospel, but this week I want to reference the psalm because the Spirit really stirred some things up with this psalm. I think the psalms often get overlooked in scripture and I haven’t quite figured out why that is. Perhaps it’s the structure of the psalm; it looks like poetry and that can be offputting. Maybe its just that the psalms, for similar reasons to other stories in the Bible can be confusing and overwhelming. I personally, however, love the psalms. The psalms have given me words when I want to express my love for God and my limited vocabulary just won’t do it justice. The psalms have given me words when I want to express my anger to God and I feel that my colorful language is disrespectful. The psalms have given me words when I am in deep grief and I can’t even think straight to form a coherent prayer. I would tell anyone who desires to memorize Bible verses to start with the psalms. They are quite multi-purpose.

The psalms are also in our hymnal. They are meant to be sung. This is why (in case you were wondering) the page numbers for the psalms are not printed. The psalms are considered the first 150 hymns. I commend them to you for further reading or perhaps reading them again.

Lent is a fantastic time to be reminded of this psalm. We should talk about repentance all the time, but it seems that we talk about it in Lent just a bit more. To repent means to “turn around.” The idea of repentance means that we should turn from our sin and turn towards God. Of course, repentance is always easier than it sounds. I am only speaking for myself here, of course, but I find that as soon as I repent I find myself doing something else that separates me from God. This is what sin is, friends. Anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God. Remember, we are the ones that put up these barriers. God never causes us to sin, it’s all on us. God is not the one tempting you with another piece of chocolate, with another beverage, with behavior that is less than stellar, or with relationships that are not life giving. It’s all on us. It’s on us, then to turn and confess our failings to God and receive forgiveness and grace upon grace.

I think, then, that the first two(ish) verses of this psalm are great to think about when it comes to repentance. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust…” Right there. That’s where I want to stop (yes already). I think if this were our only confession to God, our only proclamation to God, our only plea to God, it might be enough. But, it also might be a challenge. The challenge comes in that when we are baptized in Christ Jesus, when the Holy Spirit comes down to us, when God says “yes, this one here–the one that’s all wet?? This one’s mine too!” never in the baptism to we hear the words “you are completely God’s except for this one small part here–you’re responsible for that part.”

When we are brought to the waters of baptism, we are brought with an understanding either by our parents, our godparents, or us, that our lives are not our own. If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord. But still, it is tempting, ever so tempting, to say “to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul…..”except for this part here. And that part there. And just ignore this part here. It’s like inviting someone over to your home and you really really want them to be there and then you say “but ignore the mess.”

God wants our mess. God wants every single part of our mess. And here’s the thing, whether we’re willing to give God our mess or not, God is already quite aware of the messes in our lives. God is already quite aware of the messes we’ve been drug into and the messes in which we’ve drug ourselves. God already knows so there’s no sense in trying to only give parts of us up to God. We cannot close the door on portions of our soul (like we can with our homes) and say “don’t worry about what’s behind that door, God, nothing you need to see there!” If we cannot trust God with our souls, who can we trust? We do ourselves no good trying to hold on to any part of us. I have seen what happens when we try and fix us ourselves and we end up making bigger messes. It ain’t pretty. So often we want to say “to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul but please be gentle.” The Lord is gentle. Again, I think the temptation is to approach God with trepidation and trembling as if we’re going to say something that is either going to surprise or shock God.

God already knows what we have done (or not done) so anything you tell God isn’t going to be a shock. Seriously, if we had an actual back and forth conversation with God it would probably sound like this:

Me “Ummmmm God, I did this thing that I’m not too proud of. So, to you I lift up my soul. Please, have mercy.”

God “What did you do, my child.” And then we would confess to what we did that separated ourselves from God. And God would respond “Oh that?? Yeah, I knew that already.”

The same goes for trusting in God. It’s easy for us to say that we trust in God but how often do our actions show that is not the truth. We don’t need “insurance” with God. I once heard this comedian say that insurance is “just in case stuff happens” stuff. There is no need to have insurance just in case God doesn’t come through for us. There’s no need for insurance just in case God doesn’t forgive us. There’s no need for insurance just in case God’s plan doesn’t pan out. Because the thing is that God always will come through for us. God will always forgive us. God’s plan will always pan out. Now, does that mean it’s the same as our plans, our dreams, our futures we had in mind? Nope. But it most likely better than anything we could have ever imagined.

Trusting in God means doing it with 100% of our bodies 100% of the time. I know this isn’t easy. Trusting in God means letting go of the idea that we are in charge. Trusting in God means letting go of the idea that we think we know better for ourselves than God does. Trusting in God means just letting go. And that is scary. But we’re talking about a God who loves us, brothers and sisters. We are talking about a God who loves us without abandon. Whose love can’t even be measured or comprehended because it’s just that amazing! When will we figure out that God isn’t out to punish us or make us suffer? When will we figure out that God already knows our secrets and our fears so there’s no need to hide anything from God? When will we figure out that when we try and rule our lives ourselves that we end up with a mess that Satan helped us to create?

Lifting our souls, our entire souls to God takes work. Trusting God completely takes work. But, it’s all on us. We have to get over our fear that God is somehow going to let us down. We have to get over our fear that we are going to somehow disappoint God. As we travel towards the cross, brothers and sisters, as we reflect on God and God’s saving and redeeming action in Jesus Christ, we remember that Jesus gave himself completely in death so that we may have life completely.

If you’re up for a challenge, friends, perhaps the prayer you can pray over the next 40 days or so is this psalm. But pray it like this: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. My entire soul. I trust you God, completely. Yes, I’m serious. Yes, I need your help doing this. Help me to repent from anything else.” Amen.

Ash Wednesday 2015

I struggled to write my Ash Wednesday sermon. A combination of things contributed to this struggle. l have been overly tired and emotional the last week or so. Ellen is at an age where she demands a lot of attention. She requests and requires a lot of my time–something I haven’t had a lot of lately. The normal household duties of laundry, grocery shopping, light cleaning, and what not that need to get done that just aren’t. The stress of things not getting completed in my daily and weekly schedule is getting to me. And now…I have to talk about death. I have to be reminded of my own mortality and it is my call to remind you of yours. And here’s the thing, I just don’t want to.

I have been talking about and immersed in too much death lately. First there was the funeral for Margie Schoening which was nice. I always think that “nice” is a weird way to describe a funeral. And then Augie’s death and funeral which affected so many not only in this congregation but in this county. And I have been dealing with a lot of metaphorical death lately too. I have colleagues who are having to let die ideas related to ministry and that’s always sad. I have friends who are on the verge of letting their marriage die and that’s just heartbreaking. And although this seems kind of mundane, one of my favorite shows has a storyline in which the family dog is going to die. And after I saw that, I just couldn’t handle any more death.

So forgive me, my brothers and sisters, for not wanting to talk about death. Forgive me for not wanting to remind you of your own mortality and forgive me, Lord, for not wanting to talk about mine. It’s not that I think we are immortal but it’s just that instead of the hard hand of the law reminding me that we’re all going to die in one way or another, I need the soft embracing hug of the gospel telling me that it’s going to be okay.

Sometimes I feel about Lent the same way I feel about Valentine’s Day. I’m not a huge fan of Valentine’s Day. Not because I don’t like chocolate, flowers, cards, special nights out, or any of that other stuff that normally goes along with Valentine’s Day. I don’t like Valentine’s Day because I am vehemently opposed to there being one designated day to tell that special person or special people in your life that you love them and care for them. It’s a ridiculously schemed up marketing idea from the geniuses at Hallmark. At least, that’s how I feel. So I feel the same way about Lent. We don’t need 1 day to remind us that we are mortal. We certainly don’t need 40 days to remind us that we’re going to die and that our own sin caused Jesus great pain and suffering. Hallmark has really missed the boat on Ash Wednesday and Lent cards. I bet that would be an uplifting department to work for!

We don’t need the reminder because death surrounds us all the time. If we aren’t dealing with it immediately (within our own families) we can hear about the death of a friend’s loved one. Or we hear about that high school classmate that passed away (thanks to Facebook). And when all else fails, we can hear about death on the news every single night. We can hear about the 21 Coptic Christians who were the recent victims of ISIL’s continuing terrorist reign. Or we might hear about young children who died thanks to the ebola crisis in Africa (that’s still ongoing, by the way) or children who die of measles because vaccines are a choice in this country. We don’t hear, but SHOULD hear about the hundreds of American citizens who die every day because they are without food or adequate shelter. We don’t hear, but SHOULD hear about the dozens of people who die everyday waiting for organ transplants. But, sadly, we hear about death too much and we’ve almost become immune to the shock of it.

So forgive me if I’m borderline angry that I have to not only proclaim to you but hear it for myself that death is a very real thing. Forgive me for being angry because I already know. I don’t want to be reminded. I’d rather have that cross drawn on my forehead and be told “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Or maybe I’d rather be told “you’re forgiven even when you can’t forgive yourself.” Hearing “God loves you, completely and totally and death is not the last word.” But no, we’ll hear “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Dust. The stuff that gathers on my coffee tables and dresser tops. Dust. The stuff that stops other stuff from shining brighter. Dust. The stuff that dirties up other stuff. Awesome. So if I’m dust does that mean that I put a damper on things or dirty things up? I’m feeling better already!

Yet here we are. Faced with another Ash Wednesday. Faced with our own mortality. Faced with a journey that will ultimately lead to the cross. Perhaps that’s where our focus should be: the cross. Because in the cross the message that we hear is “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.” When they nailed his hands and feet to those boards with every drive of the hammer we should hear “you’re forgiven even when you can’t forgive yourself.” And when Jesus breathes his last breath and gives up his spirit what we should hear is “Gove loves you, completely and totally and death is not the last word.”

If we are dust, brothers and sisters, we are dust on the road to the cross. If we are dust, we are dust on the bottoms of the disciples feet as they go from town to town trying to spread the good news. If we are dust, then we are the dust that clouds up from Jesus robe as people try and cling to him, hoping to be healed. If we are dust, we are the thin veil that Peter tries to hide behind as he betrays Jesus. If we are dust, then we are in the midst that greets the morning of the third day and an empty tomb. God made us out of dust. God makes beautiful things out of the dust. We are dust. And to dust we shall return.   

Funeral sermon for August “Augie” Petersen

So often when I am allowed the privilege to sit and be with a family who is mourning, I often only ask one question that gets the conversation rolling and then I just sit and listen. It’s part therapy, part sermon help (honestly). And the question I asked the Petersen family was like others I had asked before: tell me about Augie. I’ve known Augie for the last year or so, but I wanted to know the Augie they knew. And as I have been processing through my own grief for a member of this congregation that I loved, I thought how I wanted to describe Augie. And as I sat in my staircase of the home I live in, crying, I looked up and saw this [put up vase]. This is exactly what it looks like: flowers (from Dollar General, Augie would later tell me) in a used wine bottle.

See, as pastor of this wonderful congregation, I have the awesome responsibility of being the resident and caretaker of the home next door. And although the parsonage isn’t our home, per say, my husband and I treat it like it is our home. And the first time I toured the parsonage, every room had an Augie touch; I know this because I was told it. “Augie thought we needed an extra light there, so he put one there….. Augie made that shelf there …. Augie did this and Augie did that.” The entire time all I kept thinking was “who is this Augie guy?!?” And as we climbed the staircase to the second floor we stopped about halfway up. The staircase is curved, wooden and beautiful. My tour guide pointed out a space in the wall between a bedroom and the stairs to the attic. The space was about 6 inches or so. And in the space, was this flower arrangement. “Augie thought we needed a little something there” I was told. And it’s been there ever since. So when I think about Augie, I think about how he made everything and everyone better. He made things more beautiful. He took spaces, places, and people that other people would ignore or dismiss and he would give it attention; genuine attention.

Augie never stopped moving. At all. There was always something to be done, something to be planted, something to be trimmed, something to be weeded, something to be fixed, something to be fed, someone to teach, something to haul, something to mend, something to paint (or not), something to dig, to tend, to mow, to water, to bail, to build… there was always something to do. And if, by some miracle, he ran out of things to do, he could always refer back to his “to-do” list. Most days, Augie rose before Jesus most mornings and didn’t stop moving until late at night. After moving into town, he would show up at the farm by 5:30 or so, often, literally, running from place to place. When I asked about Augie’s parenting style and who was the disciplinarian, the kids all looked confused–not because they were perfect angels but because they were always too busy to get into trouble. And if you weren’t working or if you weren’t doing the jobs on your Augie-written list, you might get the infamous Augie whistle.

Even after he moved to town, farming never really left his blood; I don’t know that it really leaves anyone who farms. So he kept busy with gardening either in his own yard or the garden of a family member. He was, in all ways, an honorary master gardener. He would go to Theisen’s and take the plants that were 75-90% off, practically dead, and take them home and nurse them back to life. He made things better. He made things beautiful. If, for some reason, you didn’t know Augie, he wouldn’t have had it that way for long. He never knew a stranger. He made friends while sitting on a bench at the state fair all the way to the checkout lane at Lowe’s in Texas. Often telemarketers would have to hang up him (after, of course, giving a weather and crop report).

He never complained, no matter how things got. Stage 4 bone cancer isn’t anything to mess with. The pain that Augie was in, especially his last few days, were quite evident in his face. But when you asked “how are you feeling” it was always “oh…pretty good.” He was a stubborn German. He was an avid canasta card shark, awesome story embellisher, funny with names or a quip here and there, and could have been a wheaties poster boy. He liked to do things his own way and while he wasn’t always detailed oriented, he kept trying. And if you caught Augie on the morning that a new load of cattle came in, you might have thought that he was greeting Jesus himself.

I could go on and on about his love for Earlene. A blind date turned into years of wedded bliss, 5 children, memories to last a lifetime, and a dedication of two people to one another that took the vows of “in sickness and in health” seriously. Augie was by Earlene’s side when she was sick, playing the role of nursemaid and finally getting a taste of what it takes to upkeep a household and many of you probably saw Earlene care for Augie as he declined in these last few weeks. And while some of us may say “what extraordinary care” really, it was just they way they both are. He made everything around him better and more beautiful. He made me better. He made us all better.

Just like everything else, Augie’s faith was something he was in to completely–100%. There was hardly a Sunday that I didn’t see him, sitting in that last pew in the back. He loved listening to the music but didn’t sing himself. He was a big fan of the Gaither singers and the Petersen family singers, however. At family gatherings he was the one always leading prayer. He wasn’t one to sit with an open Bible, reading, and having devotions. But, he always enjoyed hearing the recording from the congregation where Brice works and he would read my sermons as he no longer could make it to church. There was never any doubt that Augie knew what the future held for him. Many times in the last few months he would say “I’m ready to go home.” Or “I’m ready for the Lord to come and get me.” And often he would say “I’m talking with my Lord” and it didn’t matter where he was, he knew he could talk with “his Lord” and that “his Lord” was listening. It seems appropriate that, fueled by the Holy Spirit, one of the last things he did was sing a few lines from “I Know that My Redeemer Lives.” If that’s not a witness to God’s love and grace not only for Augie, but for us all, I don’t know what is.

The Lord prepared a place for Augie and he has prepared a place for me and for you. The promise made in the waters of baptism are just as real for Augie today as they were 80 years ago. It did kind of feel like he crammed 100 years into his 80 years of living, but God was with him through every step. Augie was loved. That seems like an understatement. And although it’s hard to imagine, the best way to talk about God’s love is to talk about Augie’s love. Think of the love that you had for him or that he had for you. Do you feel that? Do you feel the warmth in your heart thinking about Augie? The feeling that you get is just a fraction of how God feels about you! See, for all the bad stuff in the world, for all the cancer, for all the suffering, for all of the death, there is one solution: Jesus Christ. And nothing can ever separate us from the love of Christ–nothing, ever. Not even death. And while it’s true that there is a time for everything, God knows when our time will be for everything. God’s time is different from our time because God always has our best interest at heart. We wanted more time; we wanted more laughs; we wanted more forgotten or made up names; we wanted less pain; we wanted another chance to say “I love you” even if that isn’t like us. What we get instead is a promise. We get the promise of a resurrection given by Jesus himself on the cross. We get the promise of the forgiveness of our sins. We get the promise that our life in this world will be nothing compared to our lives in the world to come. And we get the promise that we will see our loved ones again in the land of milk and honey. Heaven awaits, friends. For you and for me.

Now, I should probably end this sermon. We have a million and one things to do today.

Sermon for 2/15/15 Mark 9:2-9 Transfiguration

note bene: a major pillar of the congregation I serve, August “Augie” Petersen passed away this past week after a 2 year battle with stage 4 bone cancer. Augie was not only a member, but so are several of his family members. Everyone loved Augie and this death has hit the congregation hard. His passing was on my mind as I wrote my sermon this past week.

Mountaintop experiences are strange things, really. I’ve had a few myself and no matter how hard I try and make sense of them, usually they end up not making sense and I just rely on God instead (as I always should). That’s what’s happening in today’s reading: a mountaintop experience. Let’s back up a little bit. Maybe I should first define what I’m talking about as far as a “mountaintop experience.” We’ve all had one. In our reading today, the disciples are having one–literally. They literally travel to the top of the mountain. They went up there at the request of Jesus to pray and be alone. Then, some pretty crazy stuff happened at the top of the mountain. They saw Jesus change. They heard voices. Jesus glowed. Seriously….crazy stuff.

Usually with mountaintop experiences, they are life changing. I’ve had mountaintop experiences where I don’t want to come down from the mountain because things are so amazing at the mountaintop. I’ve also not wanted to come down from the mountaintop because I don’t want to face the “real world” waiting for me at the bottom. What inevitably follows a mountaintop experience is a valley and those can be tough to negotiate. I’ve been to 3 National Youth Gatherings with the ELCA (similar to what I’m taking our 4 youth to this summer) and that was a total mountaintop experience. I didn’t want to leave our locations because I was feeling so filled with the Holy Spirit and I didn’t want that to end. When I graduated from college and seminary, I felt like those were mountaintop experiences. When we finally realized we were pregnant with Ellen was a mountaintop experience. I hope you can see what I’m getting at and I hope you’re able to recognize a few mountaintop experiences in your own life.

I had a mountaintop experience this past week but with a different twist. See, I didn’t want to come back down from the mountain because I knew I would have to face reality and reality looked really ugly. Monday I was honored to sit around a big conference table at the West Wing nursing home as the Petersen family gathered to talk about Augie’s future. We sat in semi-comfortable board chairs that swivel waiting for the unknown. Farmers, for the record, prefer the chairs in combines and tractors to fancy gold boardroom chairs. The hospice social worker walked in and talked us through what hospice does. I was there to take notes, and be a support to the Petersen family. By the time the meeting was done, the decision had been made to place Augie into Hospice Care. And there it was–a mountaintop experience. I led the family in prayer and we got up to leave.

But I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to move out of my chair. I didn’t want to exit the room. I knew the Holy Spirit was in that room; I had felt it. I didn’t want to come down from the mountain into a valley where the idea that Augie and Hospice resided. I knew what that valley meant–death. So I know how Peter felt when he wanted to stay on that mountaintop with Jesus. “Let us make three dwellings” Peter says enthusiastically. “Let’s stay in this room–in these fancy chairs. We could stay here for a while. We could order pizza. Happy Joe’s isn’t that far away.” That’s what I thought but, of course, I didn’t say it. I got up and I left. Descending down the mountaintop I knew that I was headed down into a valley.

I felt something. I had felt something Holy and I wanted to hang onto it with every fiber of my being. I wanted to claw and grasp at it and claim it all as mine. The holiness that I encountered felt so good. It felt wonderful because it made me feel naive. Normally naive is a bad thing. But as long as I stayed in that room, on that mountaintop, I could pretend that I lived in the world where death doesn’t exist. Because even as someone with a lot of schooling and as someone who has read the Bible, and as someone who is supposed to be some sort of “religion expert” sometimes death still doesn’t make sense. And I knew that’s what was waiting for me in the valley.

I didn’t want to leave that mountaintop. I had a semi-transformative experience myself. I didn’t want to enter the valley of figurative and literal death. But I did, obviously. I entered into the valley, walked down the mountain just like those disciples. Except instead of Jesus telling us not to tell anyone, it’s almost as if we get a different message: go, and tell everyone what you’ve seen and heard. And if the darkness of the valley doesn’t seem like the most perfect place to talk about Jesus or to tell others about Jesus or to experience Jesus it actually is. The reason to talk about Jesus in the valley is because he’s already there when we come down from the mountaintop. He’s waiting for us, to comfort us, to be the light in a dark place. Christ does some of his best work in the valley.

It’s okay to be on the mountaintop. It’s an awesome thing to experience the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s work. But we eventually have to come back down from the mountain. I had to leave that boardroom. Whatever mountaintop experience you’ve had, you’ve also had to leave behind. What is good for us to remember is that Christ walks down that mountain with us. Christ is in the valley with us. Christ is always transforming us. And sure, you can try and avoid leaving the mountain but that means avoiding the risen Christ. It means avoiding seeing light in the valley. Avoiding the risen Christ means not being able to taste and see forgiveness in not only yourself but those around you. The way of Christ is the only way. But here’s the thing: “you can’t confess Jesus is the way unless you’re willing to confess you’re lost.” (John Caputo)

So, people of Christ, welcome. If you’re on the mountaintop, then welcome. If you’re on you’re way down the mountain, then welcome. If you’re in the valley, welcome. Welcome to the land of the lost. Welcome to the place where nothing, including death, makes sense. Nothing makes sense, that is, but Jesus. Jesus is the only thing that makes sense. And really, that’s pretty much the only thing we need to make sense.

Visiting the “First Holy Church of Hy-Vee”

I love grocery stores. I have always loved grocery stores. I don’t know why. Perhaps it comes from watching too much “Supermarket Sweep” (a game show) in the late 80’s/early 90’s with my sister. Maybe because I live in a country where I always have my choice of food, it’s clean, it’s processed, it’s okay for me to eat. So, of course, I love Hy-Vee. Hy-Vee is our local grocery store. It’s a mid west institution (similar to H.E.B., Trader Joe’s, and Food Emporium in other parts of the country). It’s based out of Des Moines and has been part of my life for some time. Even in high school I worked at Hy-Vee. Besides my beloved United Market Street grocery store in Wichita Falls, TX, I love this place. You may think I’m weird or whatever, but I love grocery stores. Deal with it.

So, I like to frequent our Hy-Vee. They have recently done some remodeling. It looks pretty amazing. They now have this awesome Hy-Vee Market Cafe which is basically a sit down restaurant. Anyone visiting the Cafe can order off a menu or bring in food from the smaller venues (Italian, Chinese, fried chicken, salad bar, etc…) and have a sit and eat.

I usually have breakfast at the Hy-Vee before I go to therapy. (Going to therapy is a totally different blog post for a totally different time). I think I’m becoming a regular there because my awesome waitress, Nikki (shout out to Nikki) usually greets me with a smile, and a casual greeting “hey Pastor! Coffee?” I answer back “yep” as I get settled into my seat. Nikki knows that I don’t want cream with my coffee. She knows I like my hash browns extra crispy. She knows I don’t want butter on my toast. It’s a weird relationship. Nikki knows a lot about my eating habits; she knows I’m a pastor; she knows I like to read; she knows I have a husband and a child. I know she works at Hy-Vee and is dealing with some family issues.

I watch Nikki go about her work with the regulars. I am amused by the dance that happens. Older, retired men (usually men) come in and take their seats, ready to discuss the issues of the day (luckily, it seems, FOX News is on–what seems like–every station!) She knows all of them by name, and they all know her. “Want a cup for your coffee, Stan, or did you bring your own today” Nikki asks as another regular shuffles in. He removes his VFW cap (it seems this is part of the “uniform” for a lot of the regulars). The regulars are sassy with Nikki and she gives it back. And it hits me….

What is the difference between gathering at church every Sunday and gathering at the Hy-Vee Market Cafe every day (or even every week)? It would be easy to say “Jesus” and just leave the argument at that. But really, Jesus doesn’t just show up in churches (thank goodness). And other people might say “it’s communion.” And so I say what makes the hashbrowns and coffee that this group of men share any less Holy than the bread and wine we drink on a Sunday. Maybe someone would say “but we have fellowship at church–we are in a relationship with one another.” Yep–and so are the folks that gather at the First Holy Church of Hy-Vee.

So, what is the difference? Is there a difference? Is the gathering of friends old and new, over coffee and eats, any different than the gathering of friends (old and new) over bread and singing? Some might say “at Hy-Vee there’s no preaching” and trust me, after eavesdropping (purposely and accidentally) there’s some hard core “preaching” that goes on between these folks gathered at Hy-Vee.

And maybe instead of trying hard to find the differences between these gathering places, we highlight and lift up the similarities. Why can’t Jesus be at the Hy-Vee? Why can’t he be present in coffee and hash browns? We’re often quick to limit Jesus to where we’d like him the most: all to ourselves and in our own time. We want Jesus on Sunday for one hour a day in our church. But again, Jesus doesn’t work like that (again, thank goodness). Jesus is going to show up where, when, and how Jesus so chooses.

So yes, Jesus will show up on Sunday at your church (and every church for that matter). But Jesus is also going to show up at the grocery store; and at the bar; and at the post office; and at the bank; and while you’re pumping gas (I think you get the point). Maybe that’s what I’ve affirmed by my breakfast at Hy-Vee with coffee by Nikki and conversation with the “older man” crew: Jesus really is everywhere. Trying to limit the whereabouts of Jesus is nothing but a test of your patience.

Part of my operating theology (the idea that is core to my belief in God) is the scripture from Matthew 28:18-20 “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'” This is often called “the Great Commission.” And I take it very seriously. The most important word for me in this scripture is “Go.” Not “sit and wait for people to come to you” or anything of the sort. Go! Go to the places where Christ’s people are and encounter them (and thus, the risen Christ). 

Yes, something amazing and special happens in church. We gather, we confess, we are forgiven, we hear the Word read, proclaimed, and sung. We offer, we eat and then we are sent. There is a rhythm to our gathering. But, it’s not enough to encounter Christ in worship and then expect him to stay there. It’s to us to follow Christ out into the world, attempting to spread the good news and doing work for the good in his name. So, be on the lookout for Christ next time you’re out.

I hear he likes to hang out at Hy-Vee.

Sermon for 2/8/15 Mark 1:29-39

I was pretty excited about my sermon last week and then Mother Nature decided to make a very loud entrance into our neck of the woods. I don’t want to repeat much of what I had written for last week, but I do want to reiterate some points.

The Gospel of Mark tends to move very quickly in its actions. Many things in Mark happen “immediately.” Mark is also what I like to call the “Readers Digest” version of the Gospels. We don’t get a lot of details. It’s not super frilly. So the details that we do have and the stories that we do have are even that more important. Last weeks reading (that you would have heard) told a story of a man possessed by demons. This week we get another story of healing. I think it is crucial that we notice that some of the first things that Jesus is doing in his ministry is healing people. The healing that happens in this week’s reading is a bit more controversial because Jesus heals a woman.

At the time of Jesus, women were second class citizens and seen as property. Simon’s mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. In our current day context, a fever may not seem like that big of a deal. Most of us would take some tylenol or ibuprofen, try and stay hydrated, and maybe crawl back into bed. A fever doesn’t have the same death sentence it used to. In fact my own mother used to tell me (when I was sick) “it’s good you have a fever dear, that means your illness is leaving your body.” I don’t know if there is any scientific proof of this, but it made me feel better and maybe it made my mom feel better too.

Already in this first chapter of Mark, we’re learning about this Jesus character that will die on the cross for us. He heals a woman from a fever. Again, while that may not seem a big deal to us anymore, by doing this, Jesus enters into 2 taboos: he actually touches someone who is sick (what if she was contagious?!?) and he actually touches a woman! It’s clear we’re encountering the rebel Jesus! I’m a fan of rebel Jesus.

What I want to talk about and what I want to invite you to think about today is healing. Could Jesus had offered Simon’s mother-in-law some kind of elixir and said “here, drink this and you will be better?” Of course he could have, this was the same Jesus that turned water into wine. If he wanted to heal people with potions and elixirs he could! But what he did instead was touch her. He healed her with touch. He didn’t just throw something at her and hoped that it would work. No, Jesus gave her what she needed and most likely what she wanted.

I have a theory about us, friends, myself included. When we are in need of healing, we are so very hesitant to ask for it because asking for healing means making ourselves vulnerable. Asking for healing means asking for help. Asking for healing means bearing our scars to one another and to ourselves. And asking for healing means risking the shame that we think will come with others knowing our secrets.

I’m not talking about “basic” healing needs: the common cold, a flu, a broken arm, etc… The normal things we see a doctor about. The kind of healing that I am talking about takes time, takes work, takes energy, and most importantly, it takes vulnerability. And if there’s one thing I am quite certain about, it’s that we are quite stubborn when it comes to vulnerability. The kind of healing I’m talking about starts at the foot of the cross and can only be accomplished when it is Jesus in complete control of the lives we finally choose to surrender. It’s healing that is (honestly) really scary but totally worth it.

We live in what I call a “get rich quick” society. I use that term a lot even when it has nothing to do with money. When people get sick, they often want a “get rich quick” idea: pills, a liquid, a perscription, whatever will get me better in 5-7 days so I can function again. Want to see better? Get lasik! Want to be thinner? Drink this magic shake, take these pills, do this exercise for only 30 days and lose 50 pounds! Want to look younger? Use this cream, get these injections, use this make-up, get this procedure done! Are you understanding what I’m getting at?

So much of what is ailing us cannot be fixed with pills, or procedures, or diets, or creams, or even with the right pair of jeans. So much of what needs to be healed cannot be seen (and often we don’t let it be seen). We spend so much time trying to fix our outside to hide what needs to be healed on the inside. Loneliness, isolation, confusion, anger, distrust, and unbelief cannot be fixed with a pill. Can you imagine if you went to your doctor and said “doctor, I’m quite mad at my sibling/spouse/friend/etc… and I’m not ready or able to forgive them, but I also need to move on. What can you give me?” Seriously, if you do this, invite me along to your appointment because I want to see the look on the doctor’s face. This type of healing, friends, can only be done by Christ and it is going to take time and vulnerability.

When our sins are forgiven (every single moment of every single day, by the way) Christ is freeing us from the power of our sin. We are freed from the sin that has control over our lives. In turn, we are then freed for service to Christ and to one another in Christ’s name. You cannot begin to heal and you cannot begin to be freed from your sin until you actually believe that you are forgiven. Grace is not wasted on you. I want to make sure you hear that message loud and clear because it is powerful. Grace is not wasted on you.

But it’s not enough to be healed. We can’t keep this grace to ourselves. You’ve probably heard of the concept of “pay it forward.” The concept is someone does something nice for you so you in turn do something nice for someone else. Except the thing is with God’s grace, we don’t deserve it, we don’t earn it, but we most certainly need it. Once we have received that grace, its to us to go and be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. That means when someone is hurting, someone is in pain, let’s not be so quick to spring to action with a band-aid when what people really need is Christ.

And we should do the same thing with ourselves. We want to be healed and we want to be healed quickly. But sometimes what we really need is to turn to Christ. No pill, no cream, no diet will fix some of the things that really ail you. I am having my helpers pass out a little something for all of you to take home today. Place this in your wallet, or your car, or somewhere where you may see it. It’s a band-aid with a cross on it. I am giving you this because I want you to remember where healing comes from. When your soul hurts, when your heart feels broken, when your spirit is being challenged, when darkness is too much, when the demons are speaking too loudly, don’t reach for a band aid, don’t reach for a pill or elixir, travel to the foot of the cross and start with Christ.

With Christ, we can be healed. Yes, there are times when medication is great–even life saving! But for other ills, we need to have the saving touch of Christ. This means we must be willing to make ourselves vulnerable. This means we must be willing to show others our scars. This means we have to admit where we have fallen short and sinned. And it means we must believe with every fiber of our being that we are forgiven. And that, yes, grace is for us. Grace is for you. And, it is never ever wasted on you.

Sermon for 2/1/15 Mark 1:21-28

** a brief note: due to weather, this sermon was not actually delivered. We cancelled church thanks to a blizzard**

You may not have realized it, but the majority of this year we will be hearing from the Gospel of Mark. I like this Gospel for several reasons: it’s short, it gets right to the point, and it’s concise. This Gospel also moves quickly (figuratively and literally). You’ll notice that everything in Mark happens “immediately.” And so while other Gospels may give us more details to the story, maybe more build up to the story, or maybe even more dialogue, Mark cuts right to the chase. It’s the “reader’s digest version” if you will.

So already this week in chapter 1, we get the story of Jesus teaching and casting out demons. And I love that both of these things happen so early on in the Gospel of Mark because what this states early on is that this guy, this Jesus, is someone different and things are going to be different when he is around. As I used to hear a lot in the south, it’s as if someone is saying “put your boots on, parter, because it’s going to be a heck of a ride.”

I think it can be difficult for us to sometimes wrap our minds around the concept of demons. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about demons in the American culture. The only experience most of us have had with demons is in watching either Poltergeist or Exorcist. But Native American religious beliefs as well as Voodoo both address the concept of demons. When we speak of demons, I think many times that we think of either the devil, of evil, or perhaps of a spirit that is just not right (maybe mean). But today, I want to think more about what it means to be possessed by a demon; I want to broaden our definition of “demon.”

I have demons inside of me. I am going to bet that you have demons inside of you too. Sometimes we realize it, sometimes we don’t. Now, I am not talking about some kind of cartoon-like character that possesses my mind, body, or soul. I’m talking about demons that are a little harder to name. I’m talking about demons that are a little harder to grasp. I am talking about demons that often are accompanied by their very good friend, shame. What it boils down to is this: demons are what keep us from a fuller, more complete relationship with God.

Let’s name it, shall we? Let’s just get it out in the open. I feel like Mark today–let’s just cut right to the chase. Let’s name some of the demons we either battle with ourselves, our family members battle or our friends battle. Stress, mental illness, depression, eating disorders, alcohol, abuse of all kinds, disease, drugs, any kind of addiction, infidelity, and we could go on and on with this list. Do you fight one of these demons? Do you fight maybe more than one of these demons? What is your demon? What is your secret that you keep so guarded that not even your closest friend, not even your spouse may know? What keeps you from having a fuller relationship with Christ? Do you know what it is?

Now can you imagine if I said, “alright now, friends, we’re all going to take turns standing up and sharing our demons. There will be no more secrets here. The demons have no power in this place.” How quickly would you head for the door (maybe never to come back)? I have shared some of my demons with you in the past. I do this not because I want or need your pity. I share some of my own struggles with you because I want you to know that you are not alone and that my struggles, my demons, have no power over me. None. I can say that easily today. Will I be able to say that tomorrow? I don’t know. But, for today, my demons have no power over me. I am not defined by demons.

Here’s what I love about this text for today. Jesus was quick to banish the demons. He could have easily said “hey….it’s too bad that you’re possessed by demons. Wish I could do something about that.” How often do we do that? We may see those around us struggling. Maybe we wish we could do something. Maybe we’d like to do something but don’t know where to start. Or maybe, (and perhaps too often) we look the other way our of our own embarrassment or shame. Think about the demons you have; think about the demons that your friends or family members have; are you quick to be their advocate or are you quick to be their adversary? What about your own demons? Do you embrace them as part of your life instead of the definition of your life? Yes, I have depression. And yes, I have anxiety. But I am not depression and anxiety. And yes, I eat probably entirely too much. But I am not the number that I see on the scale.

Do you understand what I am saying? You may have your demons, but they are not you. And even better, this isn’t what Christ wants for you. It should tell us something that one of the first things that Christ accomplishes in his ministry is casting out demons. Christ meets this man with an unclean spirit and instead of leaving him like that, he brings him into fuller life. Christ meets a man who is burdened, who is suffering, who isn’t whole. That’s not the kind of life Christ wants for him. That’s not the kind of life Christ wants for us. And so, Christ does what he does—he heals the man.

And I get it. It’s easy for me to say “Christ doesn’t want you to battle your demons. Christ wants more for you” and at the same time give you no solutions. Let me start by reassuring you that whatever demons you are fighting is not Christ testing your loyalty. It’s Satan fighting for your alliance. Whatever demons you battle is not and cannot ever be your “cross to bear.” Because there is only one messiah who died on the cross and last time I checked, none of us are Jesus. God didn’t screw up when you were being made. It’s not like wires got crossed and oops! you have depression. God didn’t and doesn’t screw up.

The only thing that can and should define you is this: God’s love for you. If that’s not enough, if the demons are particularly strong, remember your other defining “labels”: called, claimed, washed, forgiven, fed, and grace-filled. There is medical help, if you need it. And there’s no shame in asking for help, getting help, or receiving help. Christ doesn’t want you to fight these demons. And if you are fighting demons, know this: you’re not fighting them alone. For as many people as are gathered here today, there are just as many, if not more, demons among us. Some are known and some are so secret, so sheltered, maybe we don’t even know them. But again, know this: this isn’t the desire that Christ has for you. This isn’t the life Christ wants for you.

Christ is calling you into something better. Christ walks with you in your darkest hours. Christ is with you when the demons start to get overpowering. Christ is with you when you feel like you’re drowning. Christ is with you when it seems like all you get is dead end after dead end. Christ is with you when enough is enough and rock bottom is hit. I am not giving you the advice to “pick yourself up by your bootstraps and dust yourself off” but what I am telling you is that you are not alone. You are meant for so much more. You, my friends, are beloved. You, my friends, are valued. And you, my friends, belong to Christ. No demon will ever be able to overcome the claim that Christ has on you.

You need not surrender yourself to your demons. The only thing you need to surrender to is the healing and redeeming power of Christ.