Sermon for 10/25/15 Mark 10:46-52 Reformation/Confirmation

The average cost of seminary (or at least my seminary) is $16,000 a year. This is before scholarships and not figuring in the cost of rent, books, insurance, and other things one needs for seminary. Seminary, if you’re going to be a Pastor, takes 4 years on average. This means that before any kind of assistance, a Master of Divinity degree would cost someone over $60,000. Why am I sharing this with you? Because it would be good for us as a church to start saving up now to help our 5 confirmation students in the future when they answer God’s call to serve God’s church. Now, we may laugh at that, but it could be a real possibility. I say that confidently as I’ve gotten to know these 5 young people over the last two years.

As I read each of their faith statements (which you should do as well) I was amazed. I was inspired. And, I was scared. I was scared because these 5 could put me out of a job. In the last two years, we’ve laughed, we’ve prayed, we’ve debated, we’ve questioned, we’ve learned, and I have loved. I love these 5 with a Christ-like love and I love them with a great deal of admiration. It hasn’t always been Bible reading, scripture memorizing, Ten Commandments loving fun. We’ve had our fair share of a little goofing around too. I will admit that most of it has come at the cost of Nate Lange. We’ve kidded him about his old-man slippers, his colorful socks (which Sam also wore), we had a great debate over whether or not donut holes would bounce, and I think he still is positive about the location of the Dollar Store. We’ve all attended the gun show more than once, and we’ve played our fair share of sardines. In the midst of all of it, we have grown to love God, we’ve grown in our faith (me included), and we’ve grown to love and respect one another.

It’s so interesting that on a day like today we have a story about blindness. On a day when we will celebrate these 5 young people and their faith journey, we hear about blindness. On a day when we mark the start of Martin Luther’s Reformation, we hear about blindness. On a day when we will loudly (and proudly) sing “a mighty fortress is our God..” we hear about blindness. Bartimaeus was a blind beggar. He was socially an outcast. He was forgotten about. He was left, literally, on the side of the road, relying on the kindness of strangers or anyone for that matter. And when he hears Jesus coming, he doesn’t cry out for a cure, he just cries “have mercy on me.” It’s only after Jesus calls to have him come near that Bartimaeus requests to see again.

Blindness is a common theme in Biblical stories. Most of the time, these stories were told not to highlight the plight of literal blind people, but as a metaphor to those who were blind to the things going on around them. This illness was not eradicated with Jesus. I think we sometimes choose to be blind because we can fake innocence or we can fake knowledge. How long will we be blind to the fact that there’s been a rash of church burnings in St. Louis and all of them happen to be African American churches? How long will we be blind to the problems meth causes in our community? How long will we be blind to an unjust judicial system that puts African Americans behind bars at double, almost triple the rate of whites? And how long will we be blind to the young people in our congregations that hunger to serve God and we desire to stick them in a box and say “thanks to your age, you can only do this…”

Jesus doesn’t care about the age or gender of those who want to serve and follow him. He cares about one thing: their faith. Just as we hear today, Bartimaeus’ faith made him well. It wasn’t because he was male, it wasn’t because he was a beggar, it wasn’t because he was on the side of the road, it wasn’t because he was the son of Timaeus, it was only because of his faith that he was made well. We shouldn’t look at these young people and put restrictions on them. We shouldn’t say “but Taylor is a girl, and Jarrett is differently abled, and Nate is too busy with sports, and Sam is too quiet, and Mason is from Camanche…” Instead, we should look at these 5 young people and admire their faith. We should emulate their faith. We need to stop putting our own expectations on our young people and instead trust that God is at work in them just as much as God is at work in any of us. Their faith may not look like yours, and that’s okay.

Next year, we will celebrate a milestone: 500 years since Martin Luther’s reformation. But, we don’t need a special occasion to reform. We don’t need a big event to start changing our thinking. The time is now. The occasion is now. If you aren’t impressed by these young person’s faith statements, I don’t know what is going to impress you. Can you imagine what would have happened to Jesus had he been stopped in his ministry just due to his age, gender, or abilities? People of God, open your eyes. These young people are hungry. Let’s not stop feeding them after today.  

Sermon for 10/18/15 Mark 10:35-45

** this was a Sunday when the congregation I serve celebrated Harvest as well as an ongoing relationship with the Foods Resource Bank**

In 2014, the Foods Resource Bank program reached a milestone: they reached more than 1 million people through their sustainable food security programs. And this year, we have reached a milestone. This church has been involved with FRB for 10 years now. 10 years of doing what comes naturally to so many of you, farming, and using our harvest to benefit others. 10 years of accompaniment and a constant promise to people we may have never met that we know that they exist and to us, they matter. I have the privilege of never being hungry (obviously). I’ve never gone without a meal. I’ve never had to sacrifice what I might have eaten just so Ellen could eat. I have no idea what it means to live without food. But for 795 million people worldwide food insecurity is a real issue. 1 in 3 people worldwide lack access to clean and safe drinking water. ⅓ of the population lives without access to a toilet and more people have mobile phones than toilets.

Those are sobering statistics. And you may wonder why it matters, why any of it matters? It matters because when you see someone combining beans or corn, or when we plant beans or corn, it may not mean anything to us. After all, it’s what we do. But to a farmer in Guatemala, it means that he will finally be able to not only grow crops that feed his family but he’ll be able to sell some of them too, curbing the cycle of poverty. For us, it’s big green (or red) machines and trips to ADM, but for a citizen of the Congo, it’s a new well that brings the promise of water to help his oxyn. For those whom we partner with through FRB and Lutheran World Relief, we are, believe it or not, the hands and feet of Jesus. The burden, my friends, has never been easy or light. But, the burden has also never felt so joyful.

Who do you serve or who will you serve? The idea of service, I think, is quite foreign to those of us in the west. We no longer live in a society where we keep slaves (but don’t kid yourself, humans are still bought and sold in this country–but that’s another topic for another day). We are a colony of do-it-yourselfers. We are hard working. And the description I hear of people, especially people from the midwest over and over again is that we’re “shirt off our backs” kind of people. And, if you’re anything like me, you certainly don’t want help, you’re not going to take help, and you’ll be the first to help someone else. We’re independent. This, of course, isn’t all bad. But there are times when we might just think that we serve only ourselves.

Westerners, not us, of course, tend to get into this mindset of “take care of #1”; meaning that we should take care of ourselves first before we take care of anyone else. This thought carries over as we discuss things like health care, legalization status, Veteran’s benefits, and basic civil rights. More than once I have heard or seen arguments that basically boil down to one thought: “taking care of our own.” As the political scene heats up, you hear this a lot, especially when it comes to the process to become a documented citizen of this country. I’ve heard people say “people who are not from this country shouldn’t get health benefits before our Vets. We need to take care of our own.” Or I hear troubling statements like “those (fill in ethnic group here) are coming in here in and taking our jobs when we have our own people living on the street.”

There are many things wrong with statements like these and usually discussing them turns into an all out shouting match. And as people of Christ, it is easy, sadly all too easy, to find ourselves either saying these exact statements or agreeing with people who do. After all, if we don’t look out for ourselves, who will? And it’s not until you have been forced to rely on help from other people that you begin to understand what it means to follow someone who is a servant. When God sent us Jesus, God did not send us an emperor, a dictator, or some evil overlord. God sent us a servant. And in the time of the Roman empire, in the time when power, prestige, and being in authority was a matter of life or death, we were sent a slave. We were sent Jesus. And so it is that a discussion between James and John once again leads Jesus to foretell his death.  

See, James and John think that Jesus is headed to greatness and they are, understandably so, looking out for themselves. They rush to Jesus’ side, begging to be on a seat of power when Jesus comes in glory. And the other disciples, understandable so, are ticked because…well…they probably were all thinking “why didn’t I ask first?” And Jesus knows what will happen to him. Jesus knows his journey takes him only one place: to the cross. And even though the disciples have heard Jesus say as much before, they still don’t understand his fate. Don’t kid yourselves, my friends. Denial is a strong and powerful coping mechanism. The disciples didn’t understand what it meant to drink from the cup or be baptized like Jesus. The disciples didn’t understand that it meant death.

Honestly, I don’t think we understand that either. Doing what is right in the name of Christ will cost us greatly. We may lose family members, friends, or even employment. But, when we start to respond to the world the way that Christ actually would respond, our end reward will be great. Many of you may not know that underneath the FRB logo there’s this little tag-line of sorts that says “a Christian response to world hunger.” A Christian response to world hunger is to empower, teach, and accompany. A Christian response to lack of clean drinking water is advocacy, education, and yes, accompaniment. A Christian response to illegal immigration starts with education. When a parent believes that putting their child on a make-shift boat to travel across dangerous waters, not knowing if he or she will arrive safely is actually safer than staying in his or her own home country, something is wrong. A Christian response is not the popular response. It also may not be the easiest response.

I hope and pray that when you come here every week, you come to be fed and not to cross something off your list of to-do’s for the week. I hope you come to be inspired, to be anxiously sent out in service to one another and maybe, just maybe, you leave this place peeved at me because I struck a nerve. Maybe this week’s nerve is the realization that we cannot serve God and ourselves at the same time. The only way to eternal life is through God. Forget what how the news makes you view this world. Forget how your upbringing makes you view this world. Forget, just for once, how your prejudices influence how you see this world. How does Christ see this world? In a world and a society built around being first, we should take pride in being last.

Sermon for 10/11/15 Mark 10:17-31

The month of July in 2007 was crazy for me and Chris. We decided to move to our new home in Texas before our wedding and honeymoon. We were going to move most of our things into our new apartment and then travel back to Kansas City for our wedding. For future reference, don’t get married, honeymoon, and move all in one month. We had just pulled up the door of our U-Haul and were maybe 20 minutes into unloading our stuff when there was a knock at the door. “Oh good,” we thought “more help.” It was our neighbors and they were introducing themselves. And after about 2 minutes of conversation with these (basically) strangers, they said something that people in Texas say a lot “have you dedicated your life to Jesus, our Lord and Savior? Are you saved?” Now, believe it or not, there are a lot of Lutherans in Texas, just not in our part where we were living. They continued “we’d love to have you come along with us to First Baptist.” And my husband, being more quick than I was at the time said “that’s okay, we have a church. We’re part of the 10% of Lutherans that live in this town.” And after that, our neighbors left without even lifting a box.

The wording with questions like the one we were asked by our neighbors isn’t foreign. Most of us know or have encountered someone that has asked us about our faith or our assuredness of our afterlife. These are often well meaning people but really, they are just working super hard to push camels through needles. We all like black and white questions and answers. The problem with that is that as Lutherans we deal with the gray and that can be messy and confusing for some people, especially those who believe that we can do anything to insure our afterlife. We live in a society filled with laws afterall. We stop on red and go on green. There are directions on how to cook your favorite recipe or put together a bookshelf from Wal-Mart. And so can we blame the rich man for wanting to know what he must do in order to “inherit eternal life”? It’s as if he’s checking off his list. He states he’s kept all of the commandments of “‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”

As if he’s some kind of super-human, he responds to Jesus by telling him that not only has he kept these commandments, he’s kept them since his youth. What kind of human was this that he was perfect for that long? But if you look at the man’s initial question, you might realize that what he asks is part of the problem. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” My brothers and sisters, the problem isn’t his ego necessarily, it’s the fact that we cannot do anything to inherit eternal life. We live by grace through faith and not by works. (By the way, if someone asks you what it means to be a Lutheran, you can tell them that). This is where being comfortable living in the gray areas comes in handy. We live in a society and in a time that believes greatly in the law. We believe in this for that. After all, we also believe that if you work hard enough in your job you will be rewarded either with a paycheck, a bonus, or a good harvest.

In fact, if you think about it, a good majority of our life’s work is just that: works. We work at our job, you may work at parenting (I know I do), you may work in your relationships, you work to keep your house clean, the laundry done, meals made. You may even have to work to figure out how to get your electronics to work. So it seems all too logical for our faith to be based on works as well. But again, this is that gray area. And it can be uncomfortable for some people. To know our afterlife is completely out of hands can be frightening. But it can also be super comforting. No matter how much we mess up, our eternity is not in our hands. Thanks be to God. But, that doesn’t stop us from trying. We just can’t help ourselves.

As you can see, I’ve got a ladder set up here today. I will admit that I’ve seen another Pastor do this before, but it has stayed with me for over 10 years, so that tells me something. At the very top, I’ve labeled that step “God.” So that can be God, heaven, or eternal life. Because we’re used to working for pretty much everything, we start to think about our faith and eternal life the same way. We may start asking ourselves or God what we must do to inherit eternal life. Remember, we can’t do anything. It’s only because of God’s love, mercy, and grace that we even live day to day, let alone eternally. But, it’s as if we can’t help ourselves. Maybe we get ideas from people around us. We start to “study” people who we think are “holy” and we think “if I can do more of the stuff that person does, I’ll certainly ensure eternal life.”

So, we set out on a journey of failure (we don’t know that it’s going to fail, but it will). And we start treating our faith life as if it’s this ladder. We need to take certain steps in order to work our way up to God. Which, again, is not how any of this works. We start to do things that we think will set us on the right trajectory. We read our Bible every day (step up). We start volunteering at the food pantry (step up). We serve on church council (step up). It’s about right now that we start to feel pretty good about ourselves and our work. And then, wouldn’t you know it, someone cuts us off in traffic and we say some things about that person that more than break the 8th commandment (back down 3 steps). We’ll just start the journey again. But, I’m going to do it right this time and not screw up. I start by dedicating an hour a day to prayer and silence (step up). I write my congress people about issues that Jesus would care about: hungry people, refugees, affordable health care (step up). I even sign up to teach classes at the local prison (step up). And then wouldn’t you know it, the opportunity came to help do crafts with a group of awesome people who are differently abled and instead I chose to stand in line for the new iPhone (that is, after all, my god). And I fall again.

This cycle continues until we get frustrated and we blame God (because we certainly aren’t to blame). “God just seems distant” we tell people. Or perhaps we blame the people around us. Maybe we even blame the pastor. We certainly never place the blame on ourselves because it can’t possibly be us. But the thing is brothers and sisters we can’t do anything to save ourselves. We need a savior and God sent us Jesus. We will always fall to sin. Always. It doesn’t matter if we start out with the best of intentions or even if it’s not a “major” sin, we will always fall to sin. Our eternal life is not up to us. Maybe we should act as if it is but believe that it’s not. Either way, there is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life. Nothing. This is why we have Jesus. This is why we have the cross. This is why we have grace.

Now this doesn’t mean we just get off easy. Please don’t think “there’s nothing I can do, so I might as well sin boldly!” Bring it on, sin! No. Remember that God’s grace is a gift. And our response to that gift is service to one another. We are freed from sin and freed for service. It’s as if it feels so good to be forgiven, loved, and set free that we can’t even help ourselves! We don’t help one another in order to be saved; we help one another because we are already saved. So if someone ever asks you if you have proclaimed Jesus as your Lord and Savior, the best response is “no. But, he already claimed me as his own sinner in need of redeeming through the cross.” Then stand back and watch them try and figure out what step of the ladder that is. And rest assured knowing that your eternity isn’t in your hands. And that, brothers and sisters, is most certainly good news.