Sermon for 3/27/16 Luke 24:1-12 Easter

I want to read the first part of the reading to you again, just the first sentence. “But, on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” (Luke 24:1) Let’s back up even further and read a few verses ahead of this one. “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.” (Luke 23:55-56) “But on the first day of the week…” And just like that we get a sense that our story is going to change. By just one little word, “but.”

It’s as if we were told “wait” or “hold on” or even “however”. This story is taking a change. The women saw Jesus laid in the tomb. They saw it with their own eyes. They then return to the tomb to prepare his body, as was the ritual. But, the stone was rolled away from the opening. But, there was no body. But, they were confused and perplexed. But, they were greeted by a messenger. But, they learned their friend, Jesus Christ was risen, just as he said. But, they didn’t see him, and yet, they believed. But they believed because they remembered his words. And they couldn’t wait to tell the others.

“But, these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe” the women. (23:11) But Peter went and saw for himself and was amazed. And had we been there that Sunday morning, had we been among those women heading for the tomb, had we been able to look in and see it empty for ourselves, our reaction might have been a confused “but….but….??” How can this be? We saw what happened to Jesus. We heard what happened to Jesus. Honestly, our logical, scientific minds might struggle to make sense of any of this at all. A man isn’t supposed to come back to life after being dead for three days. But, Jesus did.

Darkness cannot keep Christ away. Death cannot keep Christ away. The devil cannot keep Christ away. Nothing in this world can keep Christ away. And just when we thought the story was over. Just when the curtain was torn in two. Just when grief started to set in. God, through Jesus Christ, with the power of the Holy Spirit changed the story. God interjected a “but” a “wait a minute” into our story. And because of that, we are saved. Because we serve a God who keeps promises, we are saved. Alleluia, Christ is risen!

But, maybe you’re thinking there’s a catch. Certainly this Jesus, who was dead and who was raised again so that all may have eternal life, didn’t actually die for you and for me, right? Maybe you don’t think you’re forgiven. Sure, you hear the words of forgiveness. We even heard them earlier in the service. “Jesus Christ loves you and frees you from your sins by his blood.” And when you hear that do you think “yeah…everybody but me!” Because I don’t know about you, but I have a terrible time forgiving myself. I know where I have sinned. I know where I have come up short. I know where I have failed in not only not loving God but not loving myself. I fully understand and comprehend what happened to Christ on the cross. What I don’t understand is how someone can love me that much. I always want there to be a catch. I want to find the passage in the Bible that finally finally points out to me that this amazing sacrifice was for everyone except me.  

And instead, I find “but.” With the uncertainty and the confusion of the women at the tomb, my heart starts to listen; maybe yours does too. With the empty tomb and with the resurrection, with the good news that Christ is risen indeed, we might just start to believe that this act, this one amazing act is for us too. But, this is for you too. But, there are no exceptions. But, you can’t change the story! No matter how you think you’ve failed or fallen short, in the resurrection, God triumphantly proclaims, “but no!! This is for you too!”

It’s okay to be skeptical. It’s okay to struggle with this belief. Here’s the thing: your forgiveness and the amount that God loves you does not hinge on your belief! With every “but” we may give God, God answers us in return, crushing our doubt. “But, I haven’t been to church in years!” You may say. And God answers “But, I love you anyway.” Maybe you say “but I don’t know if I can believe that a dead man can come back to life. How is that even possible?!?” And God answers “but here is Jesus, crucified and resurrected for you anyway.” Maybe in a moment of vulnerability you whisper to God “but I struggle with love. I have family members I don’t talk to. Friends that I have abandoned. Relationships that have severed and ended. I don’t even know if I can love myself.” And in the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, God comforts us and says “but, this is love. This bread, this wine, is love, broken for you and shed for you.

God had the power to change the story. God sent us Jesus. While on this earth, Jesus taught, and fed, and cured, and healed, and walked, and prayed, and stood with those on the margins. He was sent to save creation. He was sent to be a king and a messiah. On the cross, people began to doubt. No king dies like that. No messiah is executed with nails. And then God changed the story. But, a king like Jesus did die for us. But, our messiah, Jesus Christ, had his blood poured out for our sins. God had the power to change the story for all who were gathered at the crucifixion, all who gathered at the tomb, and all who went out preaching and teaching in Jesus’ name. And God has the power to change your story too.

When you give yourself over to God, when you invite the Holy Spirit to stir in your life, when you believe, even if you don’t see, when you look into an empty tomb and cry “alleluia”, you are admitting to yourself and to the world that God has the power to change your life. When you think your life’s path and journey is set, God steps in and says “but…” and offers you something better and more amazing than you could have ever imagined!

Brothers and sisters in Christ, it gives me great joy to share with you that our story has been changed. Death is no longer. Our sins cannot and will not define us. Love had the final word. But, love had the final word. Alleluia! Christ is risen!!

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Sermon for 3/25/16 Good Friday Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Iniquity

I can barely see

My own sin hanging in front of me

 

A crown on his head

He’ll bleed til he’s dead

And no one will stop this tragic mess

So thousands of years later we can misuse the word “blessed”

 

They said he was crushed.

Friend that ain’t no game

With the amount that they fussed

You think someone would take the blame

 

But there he hung

Nails in his hands

Like some criminal thug

Shouts grew louder, like big game fans

 

Iniquity

My sin before me hangs

This ain’t the way it’s supposed to be

A mob gathers round, an angry gang

 

They pierce his side

They laugh and taunt

“King of the Jews” they chide

What more do they want?

 

They steal his clothes and auction them off

Sour wine on a sponge is the drink of choice

I’d be told this is how my sins were bought

I’d refuse to hear it. I wasn’t there! I had no voice

 

Like a lamb led to slaughter

His fate he knew well

Without this act our options would be hotter

Without this cross I’d be destined for hell

 

A crown of thorns? That’s not a king!

So he healed a few, cured a few, and hung out with sinners?

His reputation doesn’t deserve this ding

A king isn’t always surrounded by winners

 

Iniquity

I don’t want to see

My own sin hanging in front of me

 

He’s bruised and he’s beaten

Is this part of the plan?

Death he ain’t cheatin’

My sins paid by just one man?

 

The nails take their toll

His skin starts to break

Blood pours out from each hole

All this for our sake

 

Wounded for our transgressions

Where did justice go wrong?

Now who will hear my confession?

My sins are many, the list is long.

 

Like sheep wandering astray

We find a path and walk not led by him

Not believing in truth but in hearsay

He gasps again. It’s looking dim.

 

He ate with us, he cured our sick.

He told us parables and stories

Why did it never click?

We weren’t expecting to see perverted glory.

 

Iniquity

I refuse to see

My own sin hanging in front of me

 

How can this be God’s will, we cry

An innocent man

Sent to die

What kind of God has that kind of plan?

 

How much time has passed?

It seems like forever.

No one expected that he’d last

I guess never say never

Hanging there, the cross takes its strain

Sweat and blood mixed

He’s in so much pain

His destiny seems to be fixed

 

This is the way I need to see creation

Through this one Holy act

No matter if it causes me great frustration

Christ died for all, and that’s a fact

 

When I start to think I’m the authority

And when I start to condemn

Lord remind me of my inferiority

Remind me of my own sin

 

He prays and calls on God

The curtain tears

His head in a downward nod

He was crushed. Were our sins more than he could bear?

 

And just like that, the masses leave

Our savior still on the cross

Still emptying out what’s left to bleed

It occurs to no one to grieve this loss

 

A few remove him from the torture tool

They’ll put him in a cave

You’d have to label me a fool

If I’m to believe this is how I’m saved

 

A darkness falls over that place

Those who loved him have all up and gone

Grief doesn’t register on the face

Especially Judas, who was in the wrong

 

But the blame doesn’t rest with him alone

Look in the mirror and what do I see?

The sinner for who Christ did atone

The convictor of Christ, you see, was me

 

See I think I know the best way

So I chase false prophets and Gods

Sin tempts me and I stray

I attempt perfection and am beautifully flawed

 

He died for me and he died for you

We cannot avoid

This terrible truth

 

Iniquity

I’m finally starting to see

My own sin hanging in front of me

 

This scene is finally finished

He’s been buried, he’s gone, he’s dead

All hope is diminished

Many things are left unsaid

 

Who knew my sin had that power?

To crucify an innocent man

It causes me to cower

If I would have known, I could have ran.

 

This changes everything, don’t you see?

Maybe it’s too early to say

Maybe we should just let it be

Maybe it’s us who should pray.

 

Pray we don’t do this again

To Jesus or to any one

Including our fellow man

It doesn’t have to be a cross. It can be a gun

 

For us to commit tragedy

In the name of justice and rule

Is to forget his majesty

And make Jesus look a fool.

 

Before you go pointing fingers again

Remember this day, Christ on the cross

Who died for everyone’s sin

So that we may not know loss

 

We are all loved in God’s eyes

The transgressing sinners we continue to be

God sees through our lies

And still loves you and me

 

The cross is now bare

The task is complete

The smell of death in the air

Lingers with the sound of defeat

 

Sermon for 3/24/16 Maundy Thursday John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

I have been really surprised by one almost universal thing as I sit with families after their loved one dies. I usually ask the same question “how did your loved one show their love?” And more times than not, the answer I get is “we weren’t a real huggy-kissy kind of family….” Or “I think my mom/dad only told me they loved me about twice in my life….” And the underlying idea is that this loved one, your mom, dad, grandma or grandpa or whoever did love you, but they just never said it. More than once I’ve heard grieving families say to me “there is no doubt that he or she loved me.” I am trying to figure out if it was a generational thing or a geographical thing or what. My family and I are very huggy-kissy. It’s also part of our heritage. Italians often greet one another with kisses on the cheek.

I also think about the families that tell me, if I had just one more moment with my loved one, I would tell them how much I love them. For me, no encounter, meeting, or phone call goes by with my friends and family without me telling them how much I love them. I refuse to live with regret. We are told within the first sentence of this reading that not only does Jesus know very clearly what is going to happen to him. It says “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” The crucifixion was not a surprise. Jesus’ death wasn’t a surprise. This didn’t come out of nowhere. He had been telling his disciples for some time that he was a marked man. Granted, they didn’t want to believe him, but Jesus knew. He knew all along. And because he knew he was about to leave this world, he wanted to make sure his disciples knew one thing: how much he loved all of them.

Jesus was known as a man of action. He did more than tell the disciples he loved them, he showed them. While foot washing may seem a little strange to us, it was very common in Jesus’ time. Usually when one would enter into a home (especially for dinner) it was expected that you would wash your hands, face, and feet. But, usually it was the household slave that met you at the door with water and towel. It was also this household slave that would help to wash the feet of visitors. Maybe you can understand why the disciples were a little disturbed that Jesus would then do something that was traditionally meant for a slave. When Jesus finished, he asked the disciples “do you know what I have done to you?” I have to imagine that Jesus was more than just a bit frustrated when the disciples probably just looked at him, befuddled.

Jesus is setting an example, he tells them. Do to others what I have done to you. Jesus is encouraging his disciples, and us, really, to be of service to one another. Servants, slaves, are no greater than their masters and messengers aren’t greater than the ones who sent them. Jesus is reinforcing the idea that anyone can be of service to anyone else. ANYONE. And then, out of all of the things he could have told his disciples, he made sure they understood this act of love by telling them to love one another.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a very controversial idea. After all, we have come to know through our faith that we serve a God of love and that God showed that love through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is love. Jesus is God’s love letter to us. Maybe we’re just used to the idea that Jesus loves us. Maybe what we’re not so used to, however, is the idea that Jesus loves those around us as much as he loves us. Remember, Jesus is preparing for his death. As he is ripped away from his friends and made to carry his own execution tool, the thing he wants everyone around him to remember is that he loves them.

Friends, if you think being a Christian is an easy task, that it just comes to you by nature, then I want you to think very carefully about this commandment that Jesus is giving us. First, let’s focus on the idea that this is indeed a commandment, not a suggestion. We don’t have an option. Maybe you have no problem understanding or accepting the idea that Jesus loves you. But that’s not enough. What Jesus calls us to do is difficult to do because our sin always gets in the way. How easy this commandment would be if Jesus said “accept the love I give to you and then judge if others deserve the same love.” We seem to have this down pretty good. The call to love one another is in complete and total contradiction to almost everything we have heard this election season. Sure, there have been some bright spots, but we have seemed to enter an age in this country where we’ve forgotten this commandment.

I know most of you aren’t Christian because it’s easy. Let us not let the cross be in vain. If you are going to profess that Jesus is your savior, you must also profess that you love your neighbor. Those two things cannot be independent of one another. Being a follower of Jesus means we love people society doesn’t. Being a follower of Jesus means we love people society says we shouldn’t. Being a follower of Jesus means loving people we may disagree with. There’s a great t-shirt I’ve seen floating around the internet. On the front it says “love thy neighbor.” On the back it says “thy homeless neighbor, thy Muslim neighbor, thy Black neighbor, thy White neighbor, thy Jewish neighbor, thy Christian neighbor, thy Atheist neighbor, thy racist neighbor, thy disabled neighbor, thy addicted neighbor, thy gay neighbor, thy abusive neighbor…” I could go on and on but I think you get the point.

See, we can’t claim the cross as our salvation if we don’t claim all of it. That means loving our neighbors and admitting our sin when we can’t. It means being willing to be misunderstood and maybe even chastised. Our reward isn’t going to be felt on this earth. If we’re going to claim the title of “Christian” or “disciples” then it’s clear that we must make our motto one of love. It’s one thing to call yourself a Christian, but it’s another to act it. The challenge has been set before us, brothers and sisters. Love one another. Start with yourself. Then, be willing to have the Holy Spirit open your minds and hearts, and love one another. Love one another not expecting anything in return. Love one another without abandon. Love one another because it’s what Christ commands. Just….damn it! Love one another.

Sermon for 3/13/16 John 12:1-8

When Chris’ grandma Roth died, all of the grandkids gathered at her house hoping to find treasure. Now, everyone had their own version of treasure. Erica wanted these pudding cup things. Chris was hoping to find any signs or memories from his own mother, who is passed. I knew what I wanted. I wanted Grandma’s cast-iron skillets. I knew that she was the kind of woman that had to have at least one. So, I opened the formica cabinets one by one. I was greeted by old plates, dusty cups, outdated canned goods, and finally, three cast-iron skillets. I made sure no one else wanted them and then claimed them for myself. I wanted the cast-iron skillets for a few reasons, but the strongest reason being that I have always wanted one. To be able to get one that was already used and seasoned seemed like a big win for me.

Fast forward almost a year and I got one of the skillets out to make some lovely hamburgers. It was one of those days where it was frigid and too cold to grill. So, inside burgers it was. The burgers were letting off that lovely hamburger smell and I was getting hungry. Chris walked in the door after a long day, not knowing what I was cooking for dinner  and also not knowing how I was cooking. “Hey!” He said. He stopped and breathed in what I thought was the smell of my awesome hamburgers. And instead exhaled and said “I know this sounds weird, but it smells like the farm in here.” And I was reminded once again how powerful the sense of smell really is.

We all have those smells that take us back to certain moments in our lives or remind us of certain people in our lives. Maybe it’s the smell of gasoline, or chocolate chip cookies, or Old Spice, or maybe, like Chris, it’s the smell that an old cast-iron skillet gives off. But, it happens in an instant: scented air fills our nostrils and we are transported. I think that often we don’t give our sense of smell enough credit. But all it takes the slightest whiff and the memories are rushing back in.

Smell is a very powerful part of our Gospel reading today. The disadvantage to this written word is that we can’t see what is happening, we can’t see where everyone is sitting, we can’t watch Martha rush around trying to get dinner served, we can’t watch Mary sneak off to get perfume. The other disadvantage to reading the story is that we can’t smell what is going on in the story. We can’t smell what Martha is cooking. We can’t smell those people that are gathered there. After all, these are people that were spending a lot of time in a dusty, hot place; most likely they had an odor to them. And then there was Lazarus. Let’s not forget that the reason all of these people were gathered is because Mary and Martha were throwing a celebration party because their brother Lazarus had been raised from the dead. Mary and Martha had expressed a concern about his stench before Jesus even raised him from the dead. Lazarus most likely still smelled like death.

All of those smells are filling a small space. Just when the noses of those gathered there are on the brink of overload, a new smell enters the room: nard perfume. The strangeness of this smell is only complicated by the amount (the literal amount and then the cost amount) and the method of use of this perfume. Mary had taken down her hair, which is not something respectable women did in the company of men, put herself in a place of vulnerability, and anointed Jesus’ feet with this perfume. With her hair. When you slow down to think about it, this is a totally odd story.

While it may not seem like it, this act of Mary anointing Jesus is all about love. The smell that filled the room most likely conjured up a few thoughts. But, the strongest thought was probably death. Mary was preparing Jesus for death. Mary is Jesus’ long time friend and she is preparing him for death with an extravagant show of love. And it doesn’t sit well with those gathered, especially Judas. Judas thinks that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Now, let’s not lose sight of Judas’ real purpose here: he was only looking out for himself. He would make it a habit of stealing from the poor. He knew how much that perfume was worth and so he knew how much money could have been in his pocket.

Mary was, in her own way, a prophet. And by anointing Jesus’ feet, she had a clear message: the man being anointed was a man marked for death. And Jesus doesn’t want her to stop. Not because he is enjoying this little weird foot bath, but because Mary is speaking with her actions. She is, once again, reminding everyone gathered that Jesus is destined for a death that everyone would rather avoid. The perfume, which now fills the air with its smell, was expensive. It could have benefited many people. But instead, Mary is preparing something even more expensive, something that will benefit the entire world, something that still benefits us even to this day. God is shown through this extravagant act; God’s mercy is made real in the excess.

Shortly after being anointed, Jesus will gather his disciples one more time and feed them. He will then do as Mary has done and wash their feet and command them to love one another. He will then be arrested and marched off to his death. And as those nails are driven into his hands and feet, the costly perfume made with nard will let off its smell once more; reminding all who are gathered there to be of love and service to one another. The disciples will deny Jesus. They will avoid his gaze. Jesus will cry out on the cross and perhaps the smell of that perfume will fill his nostrils, reminding him that he is not alone after all.

The perfume was poured out for Jesus and he will be poured out for the world. A stench of death will fill the air once more. And with it, freedom from our sins. Jesus’ life was worth much more than an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. And he didn’t hesitate to give it. Mary did what she did out of love. And it reeked. Jesus did what he did out of love. And it reeked. How were we to know that the smell of death would soon be replaced by the smell of an empty tomb and our freedom over sin and death? How were we to know that the smell of death would soon be replaced with the smell of Easter morning; dew, sunshine, and confusion? The smell of blood would soon be the smell of healing. And it all reeks of love.

Sermon for 3/6/16 Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32

There are so many things we could talk about today with this familiar text. Even if you aren’t the world’s greatest Biblical scholar, when someone says “the prodigal son” you have an idea of what it means. The phrase “prodigal son” has even infiltrated our world and become so common even those who aren’t Christian probably know what it means. When LeBron James returned to Cleveland after playing in Miami for a few years, it was declared that the prodigal son was returning. When Brett Favre talked about coming out of retirement, it was thought that the prodigal son would return…and then he went to Minnesota. Hollywood loves the prodigal son story and has interpreted it many times. My favorite movie is a twist on the prodigal son story by making it the prodigal daughter: the Wizard of Oz.

If you have siblings or are around children enough, perhaps you can semi-relate to this story as well. The only thing our reading is missing today is the older brother whining and saying “but! but! That’s not fair!!” In a way he kind of does, but the father pays no attention to the older son. I think we could probably all think of a time when we have been the older child, upset at what others are getting, disturbed that we’ve put in a lot of work and time and yet someone else gets a celebration. On the flip side, however, I think we can all probably also think of a time when we’ve been the younger child, receiving more than we ever thought possible, being loved beyond our imagination, and having something given to us that we hardly deserve.

I think it’s interesting how this reading starts out today. The Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling. Grumbling!! And why were they grumbling? Because Jesus welcomed sinners. Not only that, but he ate with them! (Cue crowd gasps) Boy that Jesus has some nerve. Remember the Pharisees were still looking for reasons to arrest Jesus and put him on trial. Hanging out and eating with sinners was a pretty good one. And instead of explaining himself, Jesus tells a parable. Did the Pharisees understand it? Did anyone who was gathered there understand it? Who knows? In fact, had the Pharisees understood it, it might have actually angered them further.

It would be easy for me to say that this parable is about God’s grace and just leave it at that. But, it’s never that simple, is it? I think we often talk about God’s grace (which is a good thing) but when it comes to explaining God’s grace, we stumble a bit. We go to explain grace and we usually sound something like this “well….God’s grace is…. well, you know, grace….” Grace is just one of those things that we know it when we feel it and when we experience it. I also think we can pinpoint times in our lives when we were hungry for grace, maybe we even prayed for it. But here’s the thing about God’s grace: it should heal us, it should feed us, and it should convict us. In a way, grace should really make us mad. God’s grace doesn’t work like we think it should. Grace doesn’t work like the world works. You can’t earn grace. You can’t buy grace. You certainly always get more than you ever need and more than you ever deserve. And if you take the focus away from the grace we receive, and instead think about the grace others receive, that’s where it gets really offensive.

The older son didn’t think that his brother should get such a welcome home. The reaction the older son had is the one most of us probably have (whether we know it or not) when we see other people receiving God’s grace that we know good and well don’t deserve it. It makes no sense to us because we live in an eye-for-an-eye society. When people screw up, we want them to pay; that is, unless it is us that screws up and then we want mercy and grace. The temptation to dictate who does and does not receive God’s grace is very real. Perhaps the fear is that when it’s time for you to receive grace, there won’t be enough. Or maybe the fear is that God will change God’s mind and your grace will go to someone else. When I say it out loud like that it sounds illogical. But the fear that there will come a time when we’ve done something that even God will give up on us is very real.

God is very much like the father figure in our parable today. God loves us when we are devout, praying, fasting, giving, volunteering, and working hard in the name of God. But, God loves us when we run away from God, trying to do it all on our own. And the offensive thing about this scenario is that God loves us all the same. Think about that for a moment. God loves you as much as God loves the person you despise the most. Now, if that doesn’t hurt your brain, how about this? God loves Donald as much as he loves Hillary. God loves Ted and Marco as much as he loves Bernie. And then that same love is shown to you. Now, that’s offensive.

God’s grace is endless and plentiful. It may not look like you want it to look like, and honestly, that’s a good thing. Sometimes we’re the loyal older son who does everything God wants us to, and we receive God’s love and grace. Sometimes we’re the younger son who runs from God, only to repent and to return. And we receive God’s love and grace. No matter how many times we get lost and are found again, God’s grace is always and forever for us. No matter what arguments we may make for others not receiving grace, God will never listen. And when you think about it, that’s a good thing. Because there is most likely someone in this world that believes you shouldn’t receive God’s grace. And yet you do anyway. Prodigal or not, God welcomes us back time after time after time. God is anxious to love us and shower us with grace. God desires for us to confess and be forgiven. So what if someone else gets God’s grace? The fact that you have received God’s grace is a miracle enough. Just be offended by the grace you have received and call it good.

None of us deserve it. We all receive it. It never runs out. If that’s not amazing grace, I don’t know what is.