Sermon for 6/21/15 Mark 4:35-41

I have to admit, as I sat down to write my sermon this week, I was angry. I was angry and sad, and honestly, a little bit scared. For the first time in a while, praying felt useless. Church is supposed to be a safe place. After all, it is called a “sanctuary” for a reason. But on Wednesday evening, as people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church were sitting in Bible Study, talking about the word of God, a white man, who had sat with them for nearly an hour, rose and opened fire. And reloaded. 5 times. In the end, 9 people had been executed. I refused to say that they died because that’s not what happened. They were executed. A grandmother covered her 5 year old grandbaby with her own body and told her to “play dead.” No 5 year old should know how to play dead. The pastor was among those in the carnage.

Not once have I feared for my life while standing up here. Not once have I entered this place of worship and wondered “am I going to get to walk out of here today?” Not once have I wondered about the motive of a visitor. I take this all for granted. My biggest fears in being a targeted pastor come from being female, not from being white. There are still some, yes, even in the ELCA, that believe I shouldn’t be a pastor because I’m a female. But, you knew that I was female when you called me to be your pastor; and you knew that I was white; and you knew that I was a little cooky. And you took the risk and asked me here anyway, and I love you for that. However, part of my call as a pastor (not just your pastor, but as a pastor of the church of Christ) is to preach the Gospel. And sometimes, friends, that means asking difficult questions.

I don’t ask difficult questions because I have all the answers. I ask difficult questions because I too struggle with the same difficult questions. I often say that the person I write my sermon for (first and foremost) is myself. So I usually just verbally let you all in on what I’m struggling with in my head and maybe, just maybe, every once in a while, you might also say “hey, me too!” What happened in Charleston was a hate crime. It was the work of evil, even Satan himself. I’m not saying these things to make you uncomfortable, brothers and sisters. I am saying these things because when you are rooted in the cross, you sometimes need to call something what it is. This was a hate crime. The man who did this was not mentally ill. He wasn’t acting at random. He was engaging in hate. He planned the where, when, how, and possibly who. He was taught to hate. And that makes my skin crawl.

The disciples witnessed something in that boat and they were scared. They were in awe. They weren’t scared like scary movie scared, but I think they were scared because they were finally starting to realize that the future they had planned wasn’t the future they were going to get. This Jesus they had started to follow (which, by the way, the Jesus we confess to believe in and follow looked more like those who laid executed on the floor of the AME church than the shooter himself) wasn’t just an ordinary guy. This Jesus could perform miracles. He made the wind and sea obey. Things were changing. I think it was then that the disciples realized that they weren’t just going to be fishing with this Jesus guy anymore. They were faced with change and they were scared. I think we can relate on one level or another.

The disciples are facing real and difficult change. The one who makes even the wind and sea obey really is the son of God, really is immortal, really is the one who has come to make all things new. And what that meant was change. The disciples knew that they would have to change everything they thought they knew. And looking into the face of change can be scary. I’ve talked about this before. Would it be easier to sit and be comfy in our lazy boys, covered with our fluffy blanket, and drown out the world? Some days, yes. But, my friends, today is not that day. Today is the day we need to get angry. Today is the day we need to finally put our foot down and say “no more.” Today is the day we need to be more like Christ and calm the waters of hate, injustice, inequality, and bigotry. Today is the day we start taking our roles as disciples seriously. And that’s scary. Like the disciples in the boat, we might start to realize that this task isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t the task we thought we’d be ask to do as disciples. But here we are. We are standing at the crossroads as a country. We are teetering between moving forward with great gusto and understanding or moving backwards 60 years with great embarrassment and shame. And so what shall we choose?

If people of any color cannot gather in a church and be safe, then where can we be safe? Why is it okay that we live in a country where 5 year old African American children know how to play dead? Why is it okay that when the gunman is black, he’s called a “thug” and a “man” but when he’s white he’s a “troubled boy?” So, at the risk of being unpopular, at the risk of being scary, at the risk even of being hated, I want my message to be loud and clear today. What happened in Charleston is not okay. There is no spin that can make this situation okay. This was not a mental illness. People with mental illnesses do not plot and plan a massacre like this, terrorists do. What happened in Charleston was the work of Satan himself. And it is to us, fellow Christians, to point out evil when we see it.

I want to have a conversation in this church, in this city, in this county, about the value of all lives, yes, but more importantly, about black lives. Because black lives do matter. Black lives matter because our black brothers and sisters were made in the image of God, just like we were. When we kill one another, we are crucifying Jesus all over again. Being disciples of Christ means caring for one another, even when the “other” may not look like us, or talk like us, or go to the same church as us. Being disciples means being informed. Being disciples means taking small steps like telling your relative that telling that racist joke at the dinner table not only wasn’t funny, it’s not welcome. If we cry out for change we must be willing to be part of the change. And yes, change is scary.

Brothers and sisters, I don’t usually get so political in the pulpit. But, I am tired. I am tired of standing on the sidelines feeling helpless, waiting for someone else to do something. And I was reminded of the promises I made in baptism, the promises we all make in baptism. We are asked to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” This is the life that Christ has called us to. This is the life that we should start living. Be willing to be changed, make a change, and fight for change.

The news gives a lot of attention to the shooter. I refuse to say his name. Instead, hear these names: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Daniel L. Simmons, Reverend Depayne Middleton Doctor, Susie Jackson, Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr., and Reverend Clementa Pinckney.

“We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” MLK

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Sermon for 6/14/15 Mark 4:26-34

To what shall we compare the kingdom of God? We get a well known parable from Jesus today. Jesus spoke a lot in parables. We’re even told in verses 33 and 34 of Mark today “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” Why parables? Well, remember that Jesus was trying to explain to his listeners what the kingdom of God might be like. Had he not described the kingdom of God using parables, he might have just blown minds. It’s as if Jesus were telling a joke and the people laughed but in their minds they were thinking “we aren’t getting this joke…we’re just laughing to be polite.” It wasn’t until later…much later that they might have finally understood the joke. The same goes for these parables. At the time, the listeners might have thought “that’s nice Jesus” but later they would have had a “whoa!” moment. (Side note, this happens to me when I use sarcasm with people)

It is interesting today that 3 out of our 4 readings talk about trees or plants of some kind. In the first reading from Ezekiel, we hear about cedar trees. In the psalm reading we heard about palm trees and cedar trees again. And finally we hear about the noble little mustard seed and bush in our gospel reading. And that got me to thinking about roots. If you’ve picked weeds before, and I am assuming most of you have, you know how important it is to get a weed out with all of the roots in tact. I think I’ve mentioned before that growing up on our summer to-do list every single day was “pull weeds.” I am sure my father would say now that that particular chore “built character.” It really only built calluses. Anyway, I always hated it when I would pull a weed and I would hear the familiar “snap” that meant there were roots left behind. And I knew there would be another weed in that same place soon enough, mocking me.

At the same time, roots are important. I don’t know a lot about yoga. I’ve taken a few classes here and there. But, what I do know is that claiming your ground is important. Getting your footing correct is one of the most important steps. It should say something that one of the most basic poses is called a “mountain pose.” If your footing isn’t correct in yoga, you’re bound to fall on your face. If a tree doesn’t have roots, it is bound to fall down. What happens if a church doesn’t have roots? We have a lot of roots. We have some roots that are just starting to take shape, and we have roots that go miles deep. However, with most plants and shrubs, the roots cannot be seen and it’s the tree or shrub itself that needs attention or gets the praise for its beauty.

I once heard Reverend Mark Hanson, former Bishop of the ELCA say that the biggest problem that we, the ELCA are fighting is nostalgia. Let that sink in for a moment. We’ve talked about change a little bit around here. And since starting as your pastor, we’ve made some small changes. Nothing too crazy yet. You’ll notice I haven’t touched the flags or moved to weekly communion…yet. Because here’s the thing. This stuff, the stuff that we think makes “us us” doesn’t. We have strong roots. When we talk about change around here, or any church for that matter, I think people think we’re going to be chopping away at the roots when really we’re just trimming the bush or branches. It is the strong roots of anything that allow us to make those changes.

I know I am blessed with 2 parents that loved the heck out of me and my siblings. They weren’t perfect parents, by any means, just like I’m not a perfect parent. But, what they taught me was to ground myself in my family and that I would be able to withstand any storm. My roots are intertwined with those of my family. And this is what happens to us as humans. We get our roots intertwined with one another. It happens in church as well. When one of us feels week, another will hold us up. When one needs help, someone steps in. It happens with church, families, friends, work place relationships, etc… Where do you think the idea of “laying down roots” came from? That doesn’t mean that we don’t have room for more roots, or that we don’t need new roots, because we do. What it means is that our foundation is strong, no matter what.

Jesus was speaking in parables because, again, had he actually outright told his listeners what the kingdom of God was going to be like, he might have had a lot of fainting people on his hands. I think it’s important for us to have good solid roots and to have one another because the kingdom of God will not and does not look like what we think it is going to look like. In God’s kingdom, there is no such thing as classism. In God’s kingdom, there is no such thing as racism. In God’s kingdom, there is no such thing as sexism. And for some people, that may sound more like hell than like a kingdom. But I once heard that if your God starts hating the same people you do, then you’re not worshipping God, you’re worshipping yourself.

Tradition, nostalgia, routine, status quo, and staying the course can be good things. But if this is what we’ve rooted ourselves in, when the kingdom of God comes, we’re going to be turned upside down. We should always, first and and foremost, root ourselves in the saving action of the cross. That is where our grounding should be. When the cross is the center of our lives, we could have a tornado of issues swirl around us, and we’re not going to move. The kingdom of God isn’t going to be like we think it should be, it’s going to be completely different and it probably won’t make much sense. But that’s okay, the cross didn’t make a lot of sense either and that is where we have our grounding, our roots.

When you think about that old hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” that could be the mantra for our roots, right? “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” The building doesn’t make us a church. If, God forbid, this church burned down tomorrow, we would still be people of God. Our programming, while awesome and life-giving, doesn’t make us a church. Our fellowship doesn’t make us a church. What separates us from any other social or volunteer organization is our roots. We have grounded ourselves in Christ and the cross. We cling to the idea that we are saved only by Christ and by him crucified. We are intertwined with one another, knowing that we are both saint and sinner and we need one another because we need Christ. The best way to experience and see Christ is through one another.

So this week, I want to challenge you to a self examination. I want you to think and pray about where your roots lay. I want you to think about if you are rooted in tradition, routine, and ideas, or are you rooted in the cross? Is it time to grow those roots a little deeper or is it time for some pruning and pulling? I didn’t say it was going to be easy; but the deeper those roots, the richer the soil. Peace be with you as you grow and prune.

Sermon for 6/7/15 Mark 3:20-35

As I prepared to write my sermon this week, I kind of got a little bit of the giggles. Verse 25 says “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand” and for a brief moment I thought about giving a sermon pointed to all of you that live in divided houses. You know, half Hawkeye fans, half Cyclone fans. And then the Mayor decided to leave town, and honestly, I don’t care about any of that. Sorry.

I know it’s kind of hard to tell what is going on in this story today, so there’s a chance I am going to do a bit more teaching than preaching today. It’s especially strange because our Gospel text today starts literally right in the middle of a sentence. Jesus is returning home. There are so many people at his homecoming that they can’t even reach out their arms to get something to eat. Can you imagine? Now, you might think that the people of Nazareth would be excited for Jesus to come home. The local newspaper, the Nazareth Times, probably read a headline like “Local Boy Done Good, Returns Home.”

The story would read, “Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, and of course, God, will return home for a brief visit. Jesus has kept busy in his ministry thus far by spending 40 days in the wilderness where he avoided being tempted by Satan. He has surrounded himself with a group of rag-tag firshermen (among others). Many of you probably heard how he cast out an unclean spirit of a man in Capernaum, healed many, and spent some time teaching and preaching in the synagogue. Jesus said that he is looking forward to returning home, getting some of his momma’s cooking and resting (especially on the Sabbath.)” That’s how the story should have gone.

Instead, Jesus was greeted with accusations of being Satan himself. Those in town say that he has Beelzebub. A quick side note. Last week I talked about being a chaplain on the mental health unit. I had some really lovely life-giving experiences. However, not everything was rosy. I once got called “the mouthpiece of Satan” by one of the patients. That was shocking to say the least. Jesus handled being accused of being Satan way better than I did. “Welcome home, Jesus! You are a demon who casts out demons!!” Our reading today comes early on in Jesus’ ministry, but already the scribes and pharisees are looking for a reason to arrest and crucify him. “Why don’t we call him evil?” they must have whispered to one another. It didn’t gain much traction.

Jesus rebukes them, simply saying “how can evil cast out evil?” So, I know this is a very simple comparison, so forgive me. But it’s as if, while doing laundry, I say to myself “I am going to get this stain out by just staining the whole shirt.” Evil against evil makes for an unsteady foundation says Jesus. Then he goes on to say something kind of strange “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” We don’t use the word “plunder” very much anymore. But to plunder means to take goods; we might now use the “rob.” See, Jesus has already been tempted by Satan in the wilderness for 40 days and defeated him. Jesus has already defeated evil. Jesus has already tied up the strong man and taken from him what mattered most: us. By defeating evil, Jesus has freed us.

And Jesus does what he does because he is empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has stirred within him, guiding, leading, and compelling him forward. So, it is the Holy Spirit that is in him, not Satan. By calling him Beelzebub, and accusing him of evil, the scribes have committed blasphemy. I want to make that really clear. The issue here isn’t that the scribes have sinned, it’s that they have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I like this translation that is found in The Message “‘Listen to this carefully. I’m warning you. There’s nothing done or said that can’t be forgiven. But if you persist in your slanders against God’s Holy Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.’ He gave this warning because they were accusing him of being in league with Evil.”

And perhaps the Scribes were angry, or confused, or worried. We don’t know. We’re not told how the Scribes felt. But most likely, the Scribes were too busy to have noticed the good news in all of this. Because remember, God did not send us Jesus to judge. God gave us Jesus so that we may know what it is like to be loved. Jesus said, “truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.” In case you didn’t know what an amazing guy this Jesus was, in the middle of being accused of being evil, he promises to all those who are there (and remember, there were quite a few) that they will be forgiven. What kind of savior is this?

Most of us, I’m guessing, when accused of being something we’re not, would fight tooth and nail to change the perception. But our Savior Jesus, the one who marched to his death carrying his own instrument of torture, our Savior Jesus, the one who didn’t fight his execution sentence, our Savior Jesus, who stretched out his arms of forgiveness on the cross, declares that all sins are forgiven. Amidst this really strange homecoming, this is the good news. I want to make sure you hear the good news too, brothers and sisters. You are forgiven. Before you can even ask for forgiveness, you are forgiven. If you get busy berating yourself for what you think is something “stupid,” remember that you are already forgiven. Before you start to argue with God that you don’t think you deserve forgiveness, remember that none of us deserves it and that’s what makes forgiveness so amazing and yet so offensive.

This table behind me is set. It is a strange kind of homecoming as well. When we eat the body and blood, the bread and wine, we are eating and drinking forgiveness. This forgiveness has already been promised to you, is waiting for you, and will sustain you for the journey. Jesus forgives us, but also asks us to follow him. The journey to follow Jesus starts with a homecoming, with arms outstretched, with healing and forgiveness proclaimed, and with filled bellies.