Sermon for 2/28/16 Luke 13:1-9

Part of the reason I love being your pastor is because you all seem to love me beyond a level of ridiculousness. You pray for me, you care for me, you call and text me, and I really feel the love, I do. You love Chris, you love Ellen, and some of you, who have met him, even love Bailey. But, I think one of the reasons that I love you as much as I do is because I have started to notice the ways that you listen to Jesus and the Holy Spirit and then share those ways with me. I refuse to be a pastor that lies because I can’t keep up the charade, it’s just too tiring. So, you know when I stand up here I am telling what I believe to be the truth. And the truth is these last few weeks have been terrible for me. There are several reasons why and I don’t want to rehash it all, but it’s been terrible. I have been in a great darkness and God has felt further away from me than ever before. I struggled because how am I supposed to convince you about God and God’s love for you when I feel like I am in a time of great wandering and wilderness?

Now, before you start worrying about me too much, please rest assured that while I may not be myself right now, I will be. This is my reminder to all of you that this is a safe place to come and be who you are, even if you’re a little unsure of who you are at this moment. This is a safe place to come and allow others to pray for you and the demons that you are battling. This is a safe place to come, be fed, be nourished, and be loved. And, today, as Andrea will find out, this is a safe place to come and be splashed.

As I struggled this week, I tried to pray, I really did. But, it was difficult. As a person of faith, the fact that it was difficult for me to pray was yet another sign that I wasn’t doing so great. The Holy Spirit began to stir. And again, this is why I love all of you. The Holy Spirit began to stir and you all listened. I got more than one phone call this week inquiring as to my well being. I got more than one text message checking on me. Someone even saw me in the grocery store and stopped me. Sometimes when God answers prayers, he answers them through other people. And you all listened to the Holy Spirit when it gave you that nudge to check on me. It was another reminder that even though I may not feel it, God is still at work on me. And even though you may not feel it, God is still at work on you.

One more year. That’s all the gardener wants. One more year. How many times have we wanted one more something, whatever it is. One more year, one more day (which, we apparently get tomorrow), one more week, or my favorite measure of time (especially because I’m a parent) one more minute (which we all know is more than an actual 60 seconds). The gardener asks, maybe even begs the landowner for one more year. One more year to get the fig tree to bear fruit. And I wondered how this parable might sound if it were God who was the gardener. And it kind of made me chuckle, especially after the last few weeks that I have had. Because then the way I read it is that God wants to cover me with literal crap to see if I grow. Thanks a lot, God. Cover me in manure and see how I do.

Now, enough of you deal with manure that I’m not going to talk about how amazing it is and can be if used properly. My knowledge on manure is slim. I know when most of you are spreading it all over your fields because, well….wind. I know better than to ask “what’s that smell?!?” And I know that if anyone is silly enough to actually ask that question, the answer is always “that’s the smell of money.” I’m still a little unsure about that one, because I’ve smelled money and it doesn’t smell like that. Nonetheless, the idea of being covered in the stuff is anything but appealing.

The man who planted the fig tree was frustrated. This was, after all, supposed to be a fruit-bearing tree. This man didn’t plant the tree for fun, he wasn’t hoping to make a bunch of fig newtons or something, this fig was to bear fruit so that the man could sell the figs and make a living. The tree was preventing him from making money. The tree, for lack of better terms, was broken. I can understand why the man wanted it cut down. I mean, he had given it 3 days. That tree had 1095 days to something and it, instead, had done nothing. In some ways, maybe we are that tree. We’re maybe feeling broken. Perhaps we are struggling to do what we’re supposed to be. Maybe we really want to do whatever we’re supposed to do but for whatever reason we just can’t. The voices around us, much like the man who planted that actual tree, are anything but supportive.

Often in Lent, we talk about repentance. A time and a chance to turn around, turn from sin, and be saved from our sinful ways. But what if instead of thinking of repentance as turning away from sin, we instead thought of it as turning towards love. Maybe Lent is the time of turning to love. Lent is the time to clear room in your heart for God. Lent is the time to be gathered into Jesus’ embrace like a mother hen (as we spoke of last week). Lent could be the time that you finally give into the idea that God really does love you and God really does want to care for you. And sometimes, that means being covered in crap. But, what I really love about this image (after praying about it for a while) is this: that even in the midst of crap, even while you’re covered in whatever you’ve gotten yourself covered in, God is working on you. God is working to make you new, God is working to make you better, God is working to bring you into a better, fuller life. God is working to make you righteous.

My brothers and sisters, I share my struggles with you so that you know you’re not alone. And even though our struggles may not be the same, we all go through them at one time or another. And I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t claim to be an expert. But, what I do know is that God never abandons us, no matter what it may feel like to us. And that yes, sometimes we get covered in crap in order for God to love us. Maybe the next time you’re outside and you smell that ever-so-familiar smell and someone is silly enough to ask “what in the world is that smell” you can respond with the even stranger response of “that’s the smell of God’s love, making all things new. Including me.”

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Sermon for 2/21/16 Luke 13:31-35

For a little over the last year, I have made it a weekly duty to keep at least one appointment. No matter what happens in my week, no matter what comes up, what occurs in my personal life or professional life, I make it a priority to see Heather once a week. We greet each other with warm smiles, get caught up, share some quick updates about our kids, and then both of us get comfy and prepare for conversation. Maybe you guessed, but Heather is my therapist. She has become my confidant, my confessor, and one of the few people in my life who speaks truth to me in a way that doesn’t sting. It’s a weird relationship, really. If we weren’t therapist and client I’m almost positive we could be close dear friends. But, we keep it professional. She has seen me cry. She has seen me angry. She has heard me say words that are not appropriate for church. And in return, she has helped me to become a little more comfortable with being vulnerable. I trust her and I’d like to think she trusts me. She’s even allowed me the honor of praying for her. She is a woman that I somehow simultaneously love and hate (in a good way that you can hate someone).

I don’t hide the fact that I have a therapist. I think more people should have a therapist. I am lucky that insurance covers my visits and even if it didn’t, I would financially figure out a way to go; that’s how important it is to me. I don’t hide the fact that I am on antidepressants for depression and anxiety. 75 milligrams of zoloft keeps me afloat for now. Between Heather, my meds, regular exercise, and diet, I stay okay most days. But as I went through my week this week, one thing led to another, and it wasn’t a great week. It culminated with me being almost paralyzed sitting in a dining room chair and calling out to Chris “I need help. I’m not okay.” We got over it. Anxiety is a tricky thing and can make us think stupid things.

When was the last time you admitted that you weren’t okay. And I don’t mean in a physical way. I mean, when was the last time you put your mask down, showed your vulnerability, and reached out to someone else to say “I’m not okay?” Exposing our souls takes courage and here’s the thing: we don’t do nearly enough of it at church. And of all places that we should feel comfortable coming completely and totally broken, it should be church. But, somewhere along the way, church moved from a place full of broken people being okay with being vulnerable and exposing hurts to one another to being no different than the country club. We now show up once a week pretending to be well, hoping to show off to one another, and, sometimes, hoping to one up one another.

Then, Jesus shows up. Jesus shows up because that’s what he always does. Jesus shows up and reminds us that he knows the “real” us. He knows the us we try and hide from other people. Jesus even knows the us we try and hide from ourselves. Jesus knows that when we walk in these doors we are broken people just putting on a show. Jesus was vulnerable and he wasn’t afraid to be courageous and walk into a situation where he was going to be even more vulnerable. The Pharisees tried to warn him.  They encouraged him to go some place else, maybe even to hide, because Herod was trying to kill him. But instead of running away, maybe even instead of putting on some kind of show that would distract Herod, he told the Pharisees that he was going to keep doing what God created him to do. He was going to be courageous, bold, daring, and vulnerable and continue casting out demons and performing cures. And the craziest thing about this Jesus was that he did this all out of love.

I think love is the most vulnerable things we can do. To love someone and to allow ourselves to be loved means that we have to drop any notion that we are perfect, that we are flawless, and that we don’t need to be loved. We know the truth, Jesus shows us that truth, and Jesus even begs to love us. Jesus wants to gather us in like a mother hen gathers her chicks. Jesus offers us security. Jesus is begging to offer us what we think the church is but instead, we prefer Herod’s version of the church which is death. Because at least with death, we can continue to be something we aren’t so that we don’t have to deal with the pain and vulnerability of being something we are. Why must we fight being what God created us to be? If Jesus is going to be the example for us of what it looks like to be brave and have courage, maybe, just maybe, we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable and follow suit.

Often in Lent, people talk about giving things up in order to focus on the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross. What would it look like, then, to give up being fake? What would it look like then, to stop pretending? If we are going to claim a God of love, as we should, then we should also claim with that 2 things: 1) that we are worthy of this love and that 2) we will accept God’s love whether we think we deserve it or not. Because, at the root of being vulnerable is the ability to admit the need for and reception of love.

There are often discussions around the fears of church dying. And here’s the thing: the longer we attempt to treat the church like a country club, the faster it will die. So if you want to keep wearing masks, pretending that everything is perfectly fine, and putting on a show like you’ve got everything together, that’s up to you. Country club memberships are expensive, but no less or more than your weekly offering. But, if you desire a place where you can finally stop the show, put down your masks, and a place where you can be vulnerable and say, out loud, “I’m not okay” and know that you’ll be loved, then perhaps the church does have a future. It’s up to us, really. God has longed to gather us in, hold us close, and love us. We need to stop fighting it. God’s mercy and grace are strong and it will find you. When it does, you’ll have no choice but to be vulnerable.

You all know I’ll never turn anyone away from the table. And pretty soon, we’ll feast on bread and wine and remember what was done for us so that we may be saved. But, this feast isn’t for perfect, mask-wearing, saints. This is a feast for vulnerable, broken, sinners who aren’t afraid to say “I’m not okay….but eating this feast is a step in the right direction.” Anyone can come to this table, arms outstretched, but you and God will know which is the real you coming forward. So who is approaching this table today? Church you or country club you? It gets real tiring real quick pretending to be something we aren’t. You, brothers and sisters, are beloved children of God. You, me, all of us, are broken sinners in need of healing. But we are still loved. We are still gathered under the wings of God’s protective love. We are still given grace upon grace. This lent, give up pretending, and start feeling the amazing and transformative power of God’s love.  

 

Sermon for 2/14/16 Luke 4:1-13

So, could you do it? Could you avoid the temptations given to Jesus just as Jesus did? We’d like to think that perhaps if we came face to face with Satan, with evil himself that we would be able to stand strong and deny all of those temptations. We’d like to think we could withstand those temptations, especially if we knew Jesus was watching or in an ironic temptation to perhaps be more like Jesus. I’d like to think that I could resist having glory and dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. I’m fairly positive I could resist worshipping Satan. But, as one whose greatest enemy is carbs, I would most likely fail in the eating stones turned to bread; especially if I was hungry. That could be a theme for a life: it was all going well until I came upon the carbs.

On the face of it, I think it’s easy to say that we resist temptation. In fact, when we baptize Teegan soon, we will all declare that we renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, that we renounce the powers of the world that rebel against God, and that we renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God. To renounce: to formally (or maybe informally) that you will no longer have or accept something, to give up something. Renounce is just one of those words we probably don’t use much outside the walls of the church. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone say “I renounce carbs!” or “I renounce french fries!” That kind of language outside the walls of the church gets you a second or third look.

But, I think we all know, perhaps a little too well, is that temptation isn’t always as obvious as Satan literally talking to us in the wilderness offering us bread, world domination, and glorious kingdoms. Perhaps if temptation were that obvious and we could actually see it coming it would be easier to say “I renounce them.” But temptation is just candy-coated evil. It tastes really good going down, but does nothing except cause indigestion and regret later on. And maybe we look at Jesus resisting those temptations and think “well, of course he could resist it, he was Jesus!” I, however, am not, and it’s just harder for me to resist temptation. It’s ironic to me, by the way, that we speak of temptation on a day when many of us will be devouring chocolates or candy hearts (which can be a temptation to many).

For me, it’s easiest to speak about temptation and my relationship with food because that is where most of my temptations happen. Do any of the rest of you have packages of Oreo cookies that actually call out your name? Maybe it’s that first beer, or second glass of wine, or third scotch and soda. Perhaps your troubles come in the form of golden arches or the king of burgers. Maybe it’s not something well known by the crowds, but something special to you. Grandma’s rolls, grandpa’s famous fudge, Aunt Jan’s smoked ribs, or whatever. For me, as I mentioned to some of you the other night, it’s Diane Petersen’s creme puff dessert, Lavonne’s dinner rolls, and Evelyn’s chocolate chip cookies. But, for you, maybe it’s not food. Perhaps temptation comes in the form of your favorite TV show, a night out with friends, shiny cars, or time with arts and crafts.

When we speak about sin, I think our minds automatically go towards the things that are or would be categorized as “bad.” I think for many of us, we hear the word “sin” and start to think “murder, adultery, theft” the big ones, right? But, let’s draw on our confirmation days for a minute. What is the first commandment? You shall have no other gods, right? And when temptation strikes, it can look very innocent, very fun, and even, on the outside, very life giving. Let us not give into the temptation (no pun intended) to replace God with other things in our life including those whom we love.

How can we avoid temptation then? Maybe the better question is how do we survive temptation? If we’re honest, we can’t avoid temptation, right? The world is filled with temptations. Even if we were to live in a cave all by ourselves, we’d find temptations. The way I see it, we have basically 2 choices: we can either give into temptation over and over again, or we can find a way to persevere through it. Now, if we’re being honest, we can’t persevere all by ourselves, right? How does the old song go “I get by with a little help from my friends.” We need to keep one another accountable. Ultimately though, we have to rely on God. Look at the first verse of our reading again today. It says “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit….”.

The passage doesn’t start off, “then Jesus, left to his own devices” or “then Jesus, surrounded by his sinful friends.” The passage starts “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit.” It is only because he is full of the Holy Spirit that he is not only able to deny the Devil, but pretty much conquer all of those temptations. Before you’re quick to say “but of course he was filled with the Holy Spirit, he was Jesus, after all” remember that all of us encounter and are filled with the Holy Spirit at least 2 times: during our baptisms and during communion. And while Jesus was human, he was also completely pure and blameless. We can’t claim the same thing. But what we can claim is that we know, encounter, and feel the Holy Spirit on (what I hope is) a daily basis. When we are feeling weak, challenged, and tempted, we should call on the Holy Spirit to help and protect us. The Spirit, after all, is our advocate. It’s another reminder that God is on our side. God doesn’t send these temptations to test our loyalty and our faith. Temptations are sent by Satan as a recruiting tool!

Remember, brothers and sisters, you’re not in this alone. You don’t have to face temptations all by yourself. You too are filled with the Holy Spirit. You too have the power to say “no” to Satan. You too can survive not only the next 40 days, but an entire lifetime of temptations. Trust in the Holy Spirit, friends. Trust that you are filled with it and trust that it will guide you in life. And trust that no matter how many times you may give into temptation, God will continue to love you beyond your wildest imagination!

Sermon for 2/7/16 Luke 9:28-36 [37-43] Transfiguration

I like listening to a comedian named Louis CK. He’s fairly smart and doesn’t always resort to using crude language to make a point. He does a short bit on our use of language and that we waste all the good important words on really unimportant things. His rant goes on to talk about how annoyed he is that someone used the word “amazing” to describe a basket of chicken wings. “What will you say when your child is born?” he wonders “You’ve already wasted the word ‘amazing’ on a basket of wings.” And it’s true. He says the same thing about the word “genius” and that it used to be in order to be called a “genius” you had to either think something no one has ever thought before or invent a number or something. But now, an extra cup holder in a car has been called “genius.” All of this got me to thinking if we are ever amazed anymore.

This, of course, got me to thinking about this week’s Gospel. We hear that after Jesus cast out the demons from a very sick child the disciples were astounded. Astounded! When was the last time you were astounded? And why in the world were the disciples astounded? They had seen Jesus do things like this before. This was Jesus’ MO, after all. He had healed lots of people before this particular person. For the disciples, it should be old hat to watch Jesus heal people. But no. Instead, they are astounded. This tells me one of 2 things: either they never grew tired of watching Jesus heal people and they were constantly astounded or they really hadn’t been paying attention all of those other times and so to see Jesus do this really was astounding. But I get the feeling that the disciples really just hadn’t been paying attention because right after this, they go on to argue about who is the greatest.

And sadly, I can’t point my finger at the disciples without also indicating myself. I am just as guilty as the disciples when it comes to be amazed or astounded by God. I take it for granted that God is acting in my life but at the same time, I fail to look for and recognize when and how God is working in my life and in the world around me. After Jesus is transfigured and after God had spoken, Jesus was found alone. Christ alone. And that thought also convicted me because if Christ alone was at the center of my life, perhaps I would be better at paying attention.

There are a lot of things fighting for our attention these days. Some of them are great (like family or friends) and some aren’t so great (like video games, sports, or even my beloved books). And I am just as guilty as breaking the first commandment as anyone. I replace Christ alone with so many other things, including myself. I make myself into my own God. When we are willing to surrender to Christ alone, many things can happen. We might be judged (we might be seen as one of those “crazy Christians” or “Bible thumpers”). When we surrender to Christ alone, we make ourselves vulnerable. And making ourselves vulnerable means giving up control and power and freedom. Because when we claim that it is Christ alone who is the center of our lives, it means that we give all of our trust to him. And when we give up power, fear has the opportunity to set in. At the same time, fear leads to hope. Fear can cripple us, but being astounded can drive us to evangelism.

When Christ is not at the center of our lives, we can easily get distracted and miss the amazing things that God is up to in our lives. I think a lot of times when we want proof of God working in our lives, we desire big, huge, really bright neon signs. But, God doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes God works through quiet whispers. We’re so busy looking at the false gods at the center of our lives or we’re distracted waiting for a “really big sign” that we miss it. How much bigger of a sign do we need than the voice of God from heaven declaring that this person really is the son of God?

The other thing that happens when Christ alone is the center of our lives, we are forced to come face to face with our own sin. This, of course, leads once again to vulnerability and vulnerability leads to a loss of power. It’s kind of a vicious cycle. But at the same time, sometimes being vulnerable leaves us with nothing but freedom. If we know we are freed in Christ, the time it takes to hide from our sin is no longer. When we come face to face with our own sin we admit that we need forgiveness, we desire forgiveness and once again, that forgiveness leads to freedom. And in that freedom we are empowered to serve our friends and neighbors in the name of Christ.

See, we get astounded by things because we haven’t been paying attention. Much like the disciples, who wouldn’t have been that astounded had they been paying attention. We’re too busy being astounded by simple small things (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) that when we actually stop to pay attention to what Christ is doing in our lives we usually wind up being, well, astounded.

As we draw closer to Lent, what is it in your life that you have placed in the center? What is the most important thing in your life? What is at the center of your life? And if it’s Christ then that’s great. But, does your faith come in second or third, maybe even tenth place? Here are some of the things I find astounding: Sunday mornings are no longer sacred. I am in a battle against televised sports, club sports, school sports, school activities, lost sleep, and work. I often tell people that I need to be in life-giving relationships. There is no relationship more life giving than the one you have with Christ. It starts at baptism and doesn’t end, not even in death.

When we are marked with those ashes on Wednesday, we will hear the words “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That is astounding! The reminder of our mortality is humbling. We are dust. We’re not our friends, our bank account, our body, our minds, our abilities, not even our families. We are dust. And out of the dust, God forms us. We are formed alone by God alone to be in service for Christ alone. As we prepare for the next 40 days that will ultimately lead us to the cross, we should be prepared to be astounded. Start looking for Christ in your lives in the small ways and the large ways. Resist the urge to put anything else at the center of your life other than Christ. Luther believed firmly in 3 things: sola scripture,  sola fidelis, and sola Christus. Scripture alone, faith alone, and Christ alone. Nothing else is life giving.