Sermon for 3/22/15 John 12:20-33

I was in the last few weeks of my internship at St. John Lutheran Church in Sumner, Iowa and looking forward to the end. It wasn’t that it had been a terrible year; it had been a fantastic year that had and continues to shape my ministry. But, it had been a long year. My supervisor and dear friend had lost both of his parents in the span of about a month or so. We had two people commit suicide right around Holy Week. It was just a challenging year in the life of that church. I had set some goals for myself that didn’t necessarily relate to ministry. I wanted to milk cows, drive a combine, and learn how to play chess. I still don’t know how to play chess, but I got the others done.

The members of St. John, probably much like all of you, always liked to see the city girl in awkward situations that made “normal farm folk” laugh. I didn’t know what I was in for when my phone rang one afternoon and Brenda was on the other line. “Hey, we’re gonna do chickens tomorrow. Do you want to be out here around 9?” Having gotten to know Brenda and her family, I knew that “do chickens” meant that it was chicken processing day. So, the city girl got prepared and went out to “do chickens.” I learned a lot that day, and I’ll spare you the details of some of it, but one of the things that still makes me giggle is that when it was time for lunch, we had sloppy joes. “We don’t eat chicken on processing day” said Brenda. I understood why. I had seen my fair share that day.

“We wish to see Jesus” said the Greeks. I don’t know that the Greeks really understood their request. It was kind of like wanting to know where my eggs and fresh chickens came from but then knowing and seeing too much. It’s like the old saying that you often times don’t want to see or know how the sausage gets made. At the same time, I think we also have that desire: to see Jesus. I saw this quote this past week and I just can’t get it out of my head. “Has Jesus become wallpaper in our churches? We assume his presence but have stopped seeing his action and naming his name.” Ouch.

How in the world can Jesus be like wallpaper? Well, it’s as if we know he is there, but we forget to really notice it. Then usually we don’t do anything with, about, or for Jesus until we really need him; our “just in case Jesus.” Or this might also be known as the “break in case of emergency Jesus.” Jesus becomes like wallpaper when our focus goes away from the cross and towards something else that we spend our time and energy on. It’s as if we manage to treat Jesus as if he is some kind of second hand citizen. “Sure, Jesus is here” we may say “but, I still can’t believe what Pastor so-and-so did.” Or we might say “of course we worship the crucified and resurrected Christ but have you seen our new such-and-such?” And our eyes turn from the cross over and over and over. As a coach would say “we take our eyes off the ball.”

Often when we say “we wish to see Jesus” what we really want to see is a Jesus that is formed in our image, and not the other way around. What we really want to see is a Jesus who rescues us when we’ve gotten in over our heads. What we really want to see is a Jesus we can talk to when we or loved ones have serious health issues. What we really want to see is a Jesus who we lean on in the time of national tragedy. What we don’t want is the Jesus who is going to hold us accountable for being an advocate for those who have less. What we don’t  want to see is the Jesus who says “where were you when my people were hungry?” What we don’t want to see is the Jesus who says “I’m still waiting to hear a confession of the sin we both know you committed.” What we don’t want to see is the Jesus who is going to convict us to our very core and make us question everything we believe but for the good.

We definitely don’t want to see the Jesus who will point to our sinful ways and ask “why?” We don’t want to see the Jesus who sits patient but only for so long as our churches continue to look inward instead of out. And trust me, we don’t want to see the Jesus that catches us saying “what can Christ do for me” instead of the other way around. See the problem is, friends, is that what we really want to see is the Easter morning, resurrected, “see, I told you so” Jesus. But we can’t see that Jesus without seeing the beaten, bruised, spit on, crucified Jesus.

When we want to say “we wish to see Jesus” we can’t specify the amount we want to see or what realm of life he was in that we’d like to see, or even how or when we’d like to see him. We get Jesus, just as he is, all of him for all of us. But to say something daring like “we wish to see Jesus” means that we have to face reality. Wishing to see Jesus is like my experience with the chickens or (pardon me) learning how sausage is made. You can’t unsee it. The thing is, being a disciple, as Christ calls us to be, means proclaiming that we are resurrection people. However, we can’t be resurrection people without also being crucifixion people. And all too often we want to skip over the bloody, gory, parts of the crucifixion and skip right to the resurrection. But that’s not the way it works. We cannot have one without the other.

When we desire to see Jesus (and to see him more than just wallpaper on our churches) it means coming face to face with the cross and the reason for the cross. Jesus died on that cross so that you could be and are set free from your sins. At the same time, our sins is what caused his death. He died so that we might live. And so while it may be hard, difficult, maybe even close to impossible to look at what we did to our savior on the cross, we have no choice. When we want to see Jesus, we have to look at the cross. And when we look at that cross, we have to see suffering. When we look at the cross, we see humanity suffering and crying out so that we may never ever have to suffer. When we look at the cross, we see blood poured out and tears mixed with sweat, but upon closer look, it looks like forgiveness. Before we are quick to shout with acclamation “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” let us not forget that those shouts were quickly followed by angry yells of “crucify him!”

I hope we all desire to see Jesus. And I pray we all desire to know Jesus, to feel him acting in our lives, to proclaim him to all that will listen, and to love him deeper than anything else. But when we express a desire to see Jesus, we can’t shy away. We can’t turn our heads in shame for what we did to him on that cross. Seeing Jesus means seeing all of Jesus. The desire to see Jesus also cannot be a desire we save just for the times in our lives when things aren’t going so well. I pray that we train our eyes and hearts to see Jesus in all ways and in all days. And I pray that when we desire to look at Jesus or to see Jesus that we look in the eyes and at the faces of those around us. To proclaim “we wish to see Jesus” is bold and daring. But don’t shield your eyes; don’t look away. The love you will see and experience, even if that love is coming from a cross, is overwhelming, powerful, and life giving.

Sermon for 3/15/15 John 3:14-21

What happens if you enter a room that you know has a cockroach (or 2) in it and you turn on the light? (they scatter) When you watch a movie with a “criminal overtone” to it, where or when do the bad guys usually do their work? (in the dark) And yet not all darkness is bad and not all light is good. Though we hear probably one of the most familiar pieces of scripture today (which is John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”) what I want to focus on today is versus 19-21. So let me read those again “‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’”

I think that we often separate the world into definites that leave us no room to wiggle and we end up painting ourselves into corners. We seem to be either yes or no; either black or white; either up or down; either right or wrong; either left or right. I think you get the point. The challenging part of being a Lutheran, and moreover, being a Christian, is that we sometimes live in the gray. And the gray can be muddy, unclear, and at times, frustrating. I’ve heard people, almost aggravated say “but how can we be both a sinner and a saint? And how can we be 100% both? Isn’t it more like 50/50? No. We are 100% saint and 100% sinner, 100% of the time. It’s a fantastic, muddy, gray life to lead. And it’s our life.

At the same time, we often say that we are people of the light, we are people of the resurrection, we are Easter people. So it may be easy to think that we are people of the light and those people are people of the dark. But, of course, we know that’s not always the case. Again, like I said, the darkness isn’t always a bad thing. When I go to the movies, I want to watch the movie in the dark. When a migraine hits, get me my medicine, a dark room, and silence. I enjoy my sleep, so of course we have room darkening shades and curtains in our bedroom and Ellen’s as well. Find me a dark night with just a sprinkling of stars and a campfire and I am a happy girl. There are times when the darkness can be good.

The light is also a good thing. Most likely, one of the first things you may do when you enter a room is turn on the light. When we are baptized, we are given a light and told “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” And now that we are getting closer to summer and our days are getting longer, I know many of you are anxious (like me) to get outside and soak up some vitamin D instead of having to take it in pill form. Most of us probably associate the idea of Jesus with light and brightness. In fact, I am guessing that most of us envision heaven as a place of amazing light and glory and hell as a place that is very dark. We even sometimes talk about emotions using light and dark. I’ve heard people say “I’m just in a dark place right now” or I’ve heard people say to other people “you’re glowing” or “you just seem so full of light.” There are plenty of examples in our culture of how we use light and dark.

I want to make it clear that I am not making a judgement as to whether or not being in light or dark is a good or bad thing. If you are having a “dark” day or week, I am not judging you. I feel its also important, as we continue to struggle with race relations in this country, that being dark or light is not a negative trait. We should continue to look at one another’s character and not physical attributes.

But the truth is that more times than not, evil lives in the darkness. And we can describe evil however we like. Some of you may describe evil as the actual Devil. Some of you may describe evil as sin. Some of you may describe evil as the demons that you battle on a daily or semi-daily basis. Whatever and however you describe it, I think we all have a picture in our minds when I say that evil usually lives in the darkness.

I once either heard a story or saw a movie (or something) that talked about getting bitten by a snake. And the idea was that if you got bitten by a snake that you would need to suck the venom out yourself in order to live…or something like that. When we allow the light of Christ to be shown in us, shown to us, and shown through us, we are allowing the venom to disappear. Cockroaches scatter in the light, right? When we have those forces that oppose Christ, no matter what they may look like in our lives, in our homes, or even in this church, the best thing we can do is to shine a light on what is going on. Evil cannot survive in the light; it’s like a Gremlin.

And when I speak of light and dark, I’m not just talking about the actual physical light we shine on things. We can portray lightness and darkness with our actions and our voices as well. If you’ve ever been somewhere (not just church) and you’ve said “well, I really shouldn’t tell you this, but…” and you’re speaking of another person, you’ve dimmed the light of Christ than shines through you. If you have the means (monetarily, physically, spiritually, or emotionally) to assist someone in some way but don’t because you believe the lie that “God only helps those who help themselves” then you diminish Christ’s light that shines through you. Even well intentioned phrases or actions can dim the light of Christ. We never set out to dim that light, but it happens because sin always gets in the way.

I think it’s often tempting to let the darkness win. Darkness, as I said, isn’t all bad. But, it’s easy to get comfortable there. It’s not easy to use the light that Christ gave us to shine it on things like injustice, poverty, hunger, homelessness, hate, discrimination, and the list could go on and on and on. But, it’s not enough to sit idle with our light and just keep it to ourselves. Christ, the ultimate light, gave himself for us so that we may have life and have it abundantly. Christ faced the ultimate darkness: death, and then rose again in triumphant glory. His light forever shines. We are freed from our sin and we are freed for service to one another. Service to one another means shining our light onto others and into those dark places so that darkness does not get the last word.

Everytime you eat and drink bread and wine, every time you remind yourself of your baptism, every time you turn from sin and turn towards Christ to hear forgiveness, every time you humble yourself and realize you can’t do this alone, every single time you find yourself at the foot of the cross, the darkness loses its power and the light of Christ is allowed to shine a bit more.

I pray for a time when darkness and evil no longer have power. I pray that Christ’s reign on earth, as we pray, your kingdom come, will be known to all. I pray that every tongue and nation will declare that Jesus is Lord and will do so without ceasing. I pray that even at the grave we will cry out for all to hear that there is a light in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. But until then, “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Sermon for 3/8/15 John 2:13-22

It is believed that the average woman wears a size 14 and the average man wears a size 44. Marilyn Monroe was said to have been a size 12. I think I have about 3-4 sizes of clothing in my closet. I have found that talking about clothing size is a bit of a taboo in our society–at least among women. I can’t speak for you gentlemen. We don’t necessarily volunteer that information to just anyone. If someone asked for my shirt size my first reaction would probably be “why do you ask” and not to just blurt out a number. I don’t know why this is such a taboo. I think that as we think about our bodies we associate so many numbers with our bodies: our weight, our clothing size, our height, our cholesterol, our shoe size, and on and on and on. There are several ways that we get measured in regards to our bodies and it can become clear to us, almost instantly, whether we “measure up” or not.

I think it’s interesting to think about the theology of the body. I don’t know how it is in other countries, but there is a standard of beauty in the American culture that is almost unattainable. And many times, people go to extremes to try and measure up to the standard that has been set. We use pills, liquids, extreme exercise, and even torture our bodies to get closer to perfection. Did you know that almost 24 million people in the US suffer from an eating disorder? Here’s what’s scary: 42% of 1-3 grade girls desires to be thinner and 81% of 10 year olds are scared of being fat. Do you think this is the way God intended for us to love ourselves and our bodies?

If you google “How to become anorexic” you will get 17 million hits. I have my own love/hate relationship with my body and with food. I was placed on my first diet when I was at an age too young to remember. I was probably 10, if I was older it wasn’t by much. It was back when Weight Watchers was a diet primarily made up of fish and bland, overcooked vegetables. I sat in the church basement at meetings sandwiched between one overweight, frumpy woman or another. I didn’t know why I was there, but that I had to go. I hated every minute of it. I hated every minute of sitting at the table being forced to eat my “diet” food while my thinner, more beautiful sister and athletic brother ate whatever they chose. I still hate brussel sprouts to this day because of this time in my life. This isn’t the way that God intended for us to love ourselves and our bodies.

What does any of this discussion about bodies have to do with our Gospel reading for today? I am so glad you’re curious about that question. We hear a familiar story, one that appears several times in our Bible, about Jesus entering the temple, overturning some tables, and chastising those for selling. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” he says. Well, those in attendance were a little upset that this Jesus character had stopped them from making money. They questioned him, of course, “what sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus challenges them by saying “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Now, we have the advantage of knowing that Jesus isn’t actually speaking about the physical temple he is standing in. We know that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried and on the third day he rose again–all to forgive our sins and so that we may have life eternal.

The Gospel of John tells us today that Jesus was “speaking of the temple of his body.” A temple. What an interesting way to describe his body; what an interesting way to describe our bodies. I found a few quotes about our bodies as a temple that I kind of enjoy. “If my body is a temple, then I live in a megachurch.” Or “if our bodies are a temple, then why not decorate the walls?” I don’t know what you think of when you hear the word “temple” but for me, it’s a grandiose idea of a huge, beautiful, sanctuary, covered in gold, beautiful linens, vibrant colors and artwork, plush carpets, and a place where I’d love to go, stay, and just soak in the beauty of it all. Now, when I think about my body, that is not how I would describe it. Would you use any of those words to describe yourself?

If you didn’t know it by now, our God is a radical God. Seriously. God wanted to show God’s people an obnoxious amount of love. God gave us Jesus; and God gave us Jesus in the form of a human. Jesus took on human flesh and bone; Jesus became a temple. God could have chosen to have Jesus dwell in a fish, or a lion, or even a plant of some kind. But instead, God chose to have Jesus dwell in human form. God put all of that love into something that looks like us.

And, when the time came, Jesus took his temple, his body, and made it a sacrifice. Jesus, who though he was in the form of a human, was 100% human AND 100% devine, took on flesh and also took on sin. Because he was human, he faced a cruel death. Nails pierced his skin–his very human skin. Swords pierced his side and human blood poured out. And this love, this love made flesh, was all for us. Jesus suffered, died, and was buried, taking on all of our sin so that we may have life eternal. Jesus’ temple, his body, was destroyed, so that our bodies may live.

The last thing I want to do, brothers and sisters, is participate in body-shaming. So, please hear me clearly: you are beautiful. God created you and fashioned you in the image of God. You’re amazing. No matter what you think of your body, God thought that you were worth dying for and so God sent us Jesus. I want you to look at your hands. You have beautiful hands. Those hands might have held babies, kneaded bread, delivered a calf, lifted hay bales, held the hand of someone who was sick, grasped the steering wheel that drove you into another adventure. Your hands are amazing and beautiful, they were created by God.

Now look towards your feet. Most of you, I am assuming, can’t see your feet since you’re wearing shoes, but you know what your feet look like. Your feet are your base. It doesn’t matter if you’re still young and use your feet to run, or if you’re a bit unsteady and need some help to your feet. Your feet have carried you your entire life. Isaiah 52:7 says “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” You have beautiful feet. Even if you are physically unable to use your feet, you still have beautiful feet.

I want you to look at the hands of the person next to you or near you. Now imagine this: those are the hands of Christ. Those hands belong to a temple. I know it may seem like they are the hands of someone you’ve known for a while, but those hands belong to God. Those hands do God’s work. Those hands proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom for all people in Christ’s name. Those hands help, heal, fix, mend, and love. We look at one another differently when we look at our neighbor as a member of the body of Christ. When we hurt one another, we are hurting Christ and when we inflict pain on ourselves, we are hurting Christ.

God loves you, brothers and sisters. God loves you so much that God gave us Jesus in human form and as a sacrifice for our sins. Jesus took on human form; a beautiful human form to suffer, die, and be resurrected. And God created you: a beautiful form to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to all who will listen and to be loved. God declared that we should love our enemies. And so, perhaps it’s best if we start with ourselves.

Sermon for 3/1/15 Mark 8:31-38

Often times when we hear the Gospel reading, we sometimes hear something that comes from the middle of a story or conversation. That is a bit like what is happening today. The first thing we hear is “then he began to teach them…” and so we might ask “what was Jesus doing before this?” So, I want to give you a bit of background to tuck away as we talk about today’s Gospel. Our reading today comes on the heels of Jesus asking his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” And the disciples offer all kinds of responses only for Jesus to then ask them “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds with “You are the Messiah.” That’s where we pick up our reading for today.

When we confess that Jesus is the Messiah what does that mean? So often we use these “church” words like Messiah and then when we’re pushed to define further what we mean or what we’re talking about we struggle. It’s like when people say “describe the color blue” and we say “well, you know, it’s the color of the sky….it’s blue…” and we take for granted that everyone knows what we’re talking about. So when we confess that Jesus is Lord or that Jesus is Messiah we can’t assume that everyone knows what we are talking about. We can’t assume that we know what we’re talking about.

I have said before that I believe that core to our faith is the command to leave this place and be Christ’s hands and feet to the world. It is our calling as Christians to spread the Gospel, to spread the good news. But the problem often comes in that we sometimes don’t have the language to do that. So if you were to approach someone and tell them “Jesus is the Messiah” and they were to respond with “that’s great—what does it mean?” Would you have any idea what to say? And I’m not pointing fingers just at you, friends, because I struggle with this myself. I use a lot of “churchy” words that don’t get translated very well to people who aren’t familiar with church  (and honestly, sometimes they don’t get translated very well to people who are familiar with church).

When we think about what it means to say that “Jesus is the Messiah” or that “Jesus is Lord”, even that “Jesus is King,” the connotation is that this is a position of power. Jesus is ruler, head of all, all knowing, all seeing, in all places at all times. We even sing about it. There’s a hymn that proclaims “Jesus shall reign wherever the sun does its successive journeys run; his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.” That about covers it, right? Jesus is Lord means that Jesus will have dominion over all the earth. What is wrong shall be made right. What is unjust will be made just. The poor will have riches, the hungry will be fed, the naked will be clothed, the sick will be healed…it all sounds really really good.

And then all of the sudden it’s like Jesus becomes his own infomercial where they say “but wait…there’s more.” Except Jesus says “But wait….there’s a catch.” And Jesus proceeds to tell them how he, the son of Man, must undergo “great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” That doesn’t sound majestic or regal at all. That sounds terrible and nothing like what someone who has been called “the Messiah” should have to endure. Maybe, just maybe Christ’s job, Christ’s task is to challenge all of those around him, the disciples and us alike, to rethink how we know the world. Christ challenges us to examine what we claim to be “normal” or the “status quo” because Christ is anything but normal or the status quo.

Christ then challenges his disciples by saying “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Now, I don’t know how you hear this, but the way I hear it, Jesus is really horrible at invitations. This invitation to follow Christ is not appealing at all! And as if this invitation couldn’t get any more awkward, Jesus then says “for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Where do I sign up, Jesus? This kind of life sounds fantastic!! Where can I sign up to deny myself and lose my life?

I think the challenge for us today is to examine what it would mean to deny ourselves and to lose our life for Christ’s sake. We can sometimes hear “take up your cross” in a few ways that are not helpful for our conversation. I’ve heard it used when talking about/to abuse victims when they have been told that enduring the abuse was their cross to bear. I’ve also heard it used in blase ways like “I have to go to work today. I guess that’s just  my cross to bear.” No. No it’s not. Neither one of these things are helpful in thinking about what Christ did for us. Being abused is never anyone’s cross to bear.

To deny ourselves doesn’t mean that we lose our identity, it doesn’t mean that we become a doormat for others to step on and take advantage of. I think to deny ourselves means that we are willing to admit that we are helpless without Christ. To deny ourselves means coming face to face with our shortcomings and sins. To give up our life in order that it may be saved means that we trust we cannot go through life alone. It means that we understand, know, and claim that Christ is Lord and that we are most definitely not. To give up our lives means that when we wake every morning, we thank God that we are given breath to fill our lungs, that we thank God for a roof over our heads, enough food for the day, and clean water to drink. And to give up our lives means that we advocate on behalf of those who live without such daily essentials. To give up our lives means that instead of pointing to ourselves as the ones who make things happen, we point to the one who actually does make things happen. When you allow yourself to die in order that you may have life, it’s not about literally dying, it’s about your character. It’s about letting the sinful, selfish you die so that a grateful, forgiven you may rise. And this happens every single day.

This life is difficult, friends. We may think that being a disciple is easy but it’s anything but that. We hear today what is required of us and it’s almost enough to turn away and say “this Christian life thing, this Christian living thing–it just isn’t for me.” Almost. We know that the risk is worth the reward. And when we fail or when we need support, when we need help, we are able to lean on one another, the body of Christ, and more importantly on Christ himself. Christ, who provides everything we need when we need it, will provide when our battles get to be intense and when we are unsure if we are fit or strong enough to continue giving up our lives. Christ is the one taking up the cross. Christ is the one giving up his life and dying so that we may have life. And Christ will be the one who rises three days later proclaiming that death is never the final word.

To proclaim Christ is the Messiah may mean regality but we are shown that it certainly doesn’t come to mean that. Because a king, a messiah would have never been crucified. A messiah certainly would have never stooped so low as to give up his own life for his friends and followers. But our messiah did. It’s not the kind of Christ we think we want. But, it certainly is the kind of Christ we need.