Sermon for 4/24/16

Earlier this week I attended a conference of pastors who, like me, are still serving their first church. The conference (appropriately enough) is called “first call theological education.” I was required to attend the conference for the first three years of my call. I’m sad to say that this last gathering was my last time. The conference is on a 3 year rotation of topics. These include stewardship, spiritual self care, and this year’s conference topic, conflict. To prepare for the conference we were all asked to send an example of some of the conflict we have encountered during our call and how we handled it. I sat down to email my example to the computer and just sat in front of the blank computer screen for some time. Nothing. I got nothin.

Later over a meal, one of my fellow attendees said “I struggled to narrow down all of my conflict choices” through a half hearted laugh. And me, not being one to know when to always keep my mouth shut, said “I struggled to come up with just one example.” And so we had this discussion over conflict, conflict management, and resolution. Finally someone asked me “why do you think there’s been a lack of conflict at your place?” And I answered “I dunno. I just love my people, that’s all.” That was a true answer, but probably not the most helpful one. And I tell you that I love you a lot, and although I say it a lot, please know it’s true and genuine. And I love you because Christ loves me and because Christ loves you.

So in that love, I want to share something with you all. I talked with you about this a bit in my newsletter article for this month. So if you haven’t gotten your newsletter yet or haven’t read it yet, spoiler alert. Something pretty crazy has been going on here in church. Have you felt it? There’s a buzz around this place. We have new faces in the pews every week. Our population of attendees under the age of 20 is increasing. We laugh, a lot. We take forever to pass the peace. And I love it. I love every single second of it. Friends, the Holy Spirit is up to something in this place. I don’t know what it is, but I know the feeling of it is electric. And it can also be terrifying. Because when the Holy Spirit gets a hold of us one thing is for sure: it means change. And change, no matter how wonderful and good, can be scary.

And in those moments of big change, no matter if they are personal, work related, or church related, I hope we can all rest assured in one thing: God loves us. And if we’re going to be honest with one another (which I think we should be) sometimes it’s hard to love one another. Really really hard. I’ve even told family members “I love you but I really don’t like you right now.” So when we get this commandment from Jesus to love one another, it’s tempting to respond “but Jesus!! Do you know what you’re asking of me?!?” I’ve come up with a new theory is that the reason that Jesus commands that we love one another is because Jesus knows the kind of power the Holy Spirit has. He knew that once the Holy Spirit started to stir that things would get crazy and that the only way people would survive is by loving one another and spiritually hanging on to one another.

Maybe that’s what we should keep in mind as the Spirit stirs through this place. New faces will come, sadly, older faces will go, we’ll forget new names (and maybe even some old names), we’ll get some great new ideas and some not great new ideas. And in the midst of it will be excitement, enthusiasm, and pain. I’m sure all of you have heard the term “growing pains” before. I anticipate some growing pains in the future. I said this in my newsletter article, but it bears repeating. The painful and difficult truth is this: we can’t be who we used to be. But the the joyous and life-giving truth is this: we aren’t who we used to be. God is calling us into something new, something life-giving, something exciting, something that will challenge us, and encourage us to grow not only physically but spiritually as well.

But the Holy Spirit stirring in this place means nothing if we don’t love one another. At the end of the day we are who we are because Christ loves us and we love one another. Look at someone near you (not your spouse or partner) and repeat after me. “I love you because Christ loves you.” If we lost everything that surrounds us right now, the building, the pews, these candles, our hymnals, what we would have left is the love of God, the love for God, the love from God, and the love for one another. And that’s enough. We could have the fanciest, biggest, most amazing looking church in a 3 county area. We could have marble counters in the kitchen, a fully staffed nursery, a brass ensemble that plays every Sunday, and millions of dollars in the bank account. It doesn’t mean squat if we don’t love one another. And for those of you who have joined us recently who would consider yourself new or newly returned, I hope you can feel that love. A building does not a church make. It’s the people and the love that fills it.

Soon, we will get to profess that love for one of our own. We will affirm that Ryker John is a child of God. We will promise to pray for him and his parents. We will promise to teach him as he grows older of God’s love. We will promise to welcome him at the table. We will promise to love him. We will love him no matter what, because Christ loves him. And as we say these words to Ryker, we really say it as a reminder to one another as well. We promise to continue to pray for one another, support one another, teach one another, encourage one another, welcome one another at the table, and really just love one another. This is the promise given to us in baptism by Christ through the Holy Spirit. And this is the promise we make to one another.

The Holy Spirit is just getting started with us, brothers and sisters. We’ve let it in and now we get to deal with the amazing consequences. It isn’t always going to be easy or fun, but it will always be Christ filled. Hang on to the love of God and hang on to the love you have for one another. With a foundation of love, nothing can shake us!

Sermon for 4/17/16 John 10:22-30

Because of the texts for today, this day in the church year is often referred to as “Jesus, the Good Shepherd” Sunday. So, I did what was only logical, I researched sheep. I know nothing about sheep except that I often call them “sweaters waiting to happen.” I had heard that sheep are stupid or less than intelligent. My research shows that perception is wrong and that sheep are just as smart (if not a little smarter) than hogs and cattle. Take that as you will. Sheep can recognize human faces (which is pretty remarkable). They have great hearing and are actually sensitive to sound when being handled.

I also found out that humans and sheep really have a lot in common. Sheep like to congregate in groups. Relationships within the flocks are usually the closest with related sheep. Sheep also get really stressed out when they are separated from their flock or group. One other tid-bit about sheep that I found especially interesting is that they prefer to move out of the dark and into well-lit places. I thought that was not only interesting, but theological as well.

It’s kind of rare to meet someone that is a shepherd anymore. Shepherding has become almost a lost art. If you are a farmer who happens to also have sheep, I highly doubt that you call yourself a “shepherd.” Shepherds were responsible for tends, herds, feeds, and/or guards flocks of sheep. It was a well paying position but involved a lot of long hours and (I’m guessing) a lot of boredom. Interestingly enough, the word “pastor” comes from a Latin word meaning “shepherd.”

For Jesus to claim his followers as his sheep means that he is also claiming to be a shepherd. I’m guessing many (if not all) of you have probably seen a piece of artwork depicting Jesus either carrying a sheep or being surrounded by sheep. He is reinforcing the idea that he is the caretaker of those who believe in him. It is, however, an interesting conversation that gets us to that point. Jesus is in a public place after his resurrection, around the time of Hanukkah or so, and the Jews had gathered around and were kind of putting Jesus on the spot. Basically they said, “hey, we’re tired of all these miracles, all these parables, all this feeding….if you’re really the messiah, just tell us!” And in a typical Jesus answer they hear “I have told you and you aren’t listening.” Sassy Jesus.

Jesus continues by saying “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Let that sink in for just a minute. Jesus was not only talking about the followers that were literally following him at the time, but all of his believers to come. Brothers and sisters, Jesus is talking about us. We belong to Christ, we are the sheep and Jesus is the shepherd. The reminder that I hear in this resurrection promise is this: Jesus knows me. Jesus will not abandon me. Jesus will never let anyone, anything, or any force take me away from him. Jesus promises me eternal life. I don’t know about you, but for me, that is a powerful and humbling reminder.

In many ways it’s a humbling reminder because too often I want to shepherd my own life. I don’t know if that’s how you feel. The other thing that Jesus says that stops me in my tracks all the time is this “my sheep hear my voice.” How often I beg Jesus to hear his voice and everytime he speaks, I fail to listen. This is mainly because when I request Jesus to speak to me, I only want him to say the things I want to hear. I want him to justify how I feel. I want him to validate my hatred, anger, frustration, and lack of faith. Of course, Jesus doesn’t do this. And so I turn to people and things that I think will give me life and validate me and in the long run, I end up being hurt and disappointed. It is only then, only when I find myself in the pit of despair and sin that I realize Christ has been speaking to me all along. Then, I listen.

And if you’re anything like me, maybe this routine sounds too familiar. In fact, the scripture we hear on Good Friday from Isaiah says “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53.6). And yet, yet despite our tendency to go astray, despite our outright refusal to listen and instead fall into sin over and over again, despite our attempt to worship false gods and idols that we think will give life, Jesus claims us as his own. Jesus calls us his sheep. Jesus promises us eternal life. Jesus promises us his watchful eye and protection. I need that reminder on a daily basis. I need reminding of who I am and who I belong to. I need to be shepherded from darkness into light, from hunger into a feast, from death into life. I have shown myself and proven to myself over and over again that if I am left to my own devices, I will most certainly go astray and without a shepherd to herd me back in, I will die.

But because it is Jesus’ job as the shepherd to tend to us, feed us, and protect us, that’s exactly what he does. And yes, sometimes it may not feel like that. It’s hard to remember in the moment that Jesus knows what is best for us. Nonetheless, we’re brought back into the flock over and over. We are fed over and over. We are loved beyond what we deserve and certainly loved more than we can ever imagine. Maybe you need another reminder, like I do. Maybe you need to be reminded that God will never let you go. Maybe you need reminded that despite whatever shortcomings and failings we have, God always brings us back into the flock. Maybe you need reminding that life on this earth is short but we have life eternal promised to us, not because of who we are but because of whose we are. Maybe you just need reminded that you are loved and not forgotten. Jesus gives us all of that. In bread and wine and water, we are loved. In prayer, in thanksgiving, in times of trouble, we are loved. In life we are loved and in death we are loved. Brothers and sisters, my fellow sheep, we are loved.

Sermon for 4/10/16 John 21:1-19

If you’ve heard my call story, bear with me here a minute while I share the condensed version. When I graduated from college, I didn’t know I was going to be a pastor. When I married Chris, I didn’t know I was going to be a pastor. When we moved to Texas, I didn’t know I was going to be a pastor. But, when I finally stopped to listen to God, I realized God was calling me into ministry. And I was terrified and relieved at the same time. I was terrified because I felt like the most un-prepared, under qualified, unlikely Pastor type person in the history of pastors. But at the same time, I was relieved because I finally figured out what God had created me for: I had a purpose. And that felt amazing. And with that purpose came an immense amount of love. Seminary was difficult. I know it’s supposed to be hard, not everyone is cut out for this. In the midst of my seminary education, I was diagnosed with a learning disorder and battled ADHD. But not once did I regret answering God’s call.

In my dark moments, I always want to hear 2 things: I am loved and I have a purpose. And really, isn’t that what we all desire to hear? It’s amazing to hear “you have worth” and “I love you.” There are some who know what their purpose is from a very young age, like my Chris. And then, there are others, like me, who take longer to figure it out. And without a purpose, we can feel lost, forgotten, abandoned, or, even worse, not even worthy of the air we breathe. And strangely, not having love has the ability to make us feel the same way. I also think that part of our call as disciples is to 1) accept that God does love us and God does have a plan for us and to 2) help others to understand the same thing (also known as evangelism).

Let us first recall that this story is being told after the resurrection. This will be the third and final time (at least in the Gospel of John) that Jesus appears to his disciples. The disciples have returned to their original vocation or job: fishing. They had fished all night and caught nothing. Then someone from the shore called to them recommending new fishing techniques. Can you imagine? The disciples are doing something that, for them, they could do in their sleep. It’s something they are good at, or at least they were. But, they had caught nothing. So a voice comes from the shore. “Try the other side of the boat!” I’d be annoyed; who is this guy?!? They did and were surprised by the abundance. Upon returning to the shore, they realize that the advice giver is the risen Lord. Then, they have breakfast on the beach because that’s what Jesus does: he feeds us.

There are a lot of parallels between this story and one that happens right before Jesus’ crucifixion. Peter is our main character in question. Before the crucifixion remember, Peter huddled around a fire and denied Jesus three times even though he said he’d never deny Jesus. Now it’s after the crucifixion, Peter has seen Jesus two, now three times. Nothing has been said about Peter’s denial. As they are huddled over a fire once more, Jesus asks Peter if Peter loves him. Not once. Not twice. But three times. Peter felt hurt. I’m sure the hurt comes from a few places: hurt that Jesus has to ask him three times. And hurt from realizing what Jesus is doing and Peter’s own shame from denying Jesus. In some ways, I can understand why Peter would be hurt. If someone asked me if I loved them three times in a row, I would wonder what I’m doing or not doing to make myself clear.

But, in Christ’s words and actions, a lot happens. I think we first get a reminder of not only the disciples total and complete reliance on God, but ours as well. The disciples, who remember were seasoned fishermen, hadn’t caught anything ALL NIGHT. It was only when they took direction from Christ that they were successful, hauling in 153 fish. They gather again and are reminded of who Jesus is by what Jesus does: he feeds them. And then we get this questioning of Peter three times. In this, Christ is reminding Peter that he is loved (despite his earlier denial and rejection of Jesus) and that Peter has a job to do, and it’s not fishing. Jesus said to Peter, “do you love me more than these? … Do you love me?”… and one final time “Do you love me?” And with each answer, Peter gets a purpose.

“Feed my lambs, tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep” is now Peter’s purpose. In many ways, it’s ours too. I love that we get this scripture on a day when we are blessing the seeds and soil that will literally feed other people. We are feeding God’s sheep just as was directed to Peter. I have said before that God created us to be in community with one another. We need one another to encourage us, challenge us, lift us up, and support us. If we take our call to make disciples of all nations seriously (as we should) then we should also embrace the call to feed and tend to God’s sheep.

It’s not easy work; it’s thankless work, really. And sadly, many times, we get in our own way. We’ve often heard that we should “take care of our own” first. Guess what, we’re all God’s own. As you know, we can’t earn our salvation. God will not be judging us on how many people we helped. But, we will be judged on whether or not we did help. It’s easy to turn a blind eye and say “that’s not our problem.” But the problems of the world, no matter if they’re down the street or around the world, are our problems. Despite the temptation to do so, we cannot fall into the desire to “qualify” everyone that needs help. Are they legal? Are the registered? Are they American? Are they white? Are they Christian? Are they one of us? Do they speak English? The only question we should ask is “are they created by God?” And if the answer is yes, our call is to take care of them. And the answer is always yes.

We all belong to God and God has given us a job: take care of one another. Everyone longs to be loved and everyone longs for a purpose. We can give people that when we share the love of Christ and encourage all people to be who God has created them to be. Loving people, especially those who no one else wants to love involves risk. Hating people and denying people involves a greater risk including our salvation.

We also do this, of course, when we participate in Food’s Resource Bank. We are helping people to remember that they are loved and they do have a purpose. Belonging to God’s family is the most important identifier we have. We don’t have a say in who belongs and who doesn’t. Because the truth is, none of us belong. It’s by God’s grace alone that we are kept in God’s grip. Next time the opportunity arises claim God’s love and purpose for your life by sharing God’s love and purpose for someone else’s life, instead of giving God excuses, try asking God “how soon can I get started?”

Sermon for 4/3/16 John 20:19-31

I find it interesting that we get this story after Easter every year. It seems strange that after we’ve declared that Christ is risen, the tomb is empty, death doesn’t have the final word after all, that we get the story of Thomas who is filled with doubt. Let’s not forget just last week, Peter didn’t believe what the women told him so he had to go back to the empty tomb and see for himself that Christ had indeed risen. Jesus had come among the disciples, but Thomas wasn’t there. So, it’s understandable that when his friends tell him that Jesus has returned that he wants proof. A week later, the friends are gathered again when Jesus comes to them once again. And Thomas is present this time. And Jesus, knowing all that he knows, presents Thomas with his hands. Thomas just needed affirmation that his friend really did rise again after the third day just as he said he would.

Maybe that’s why you’ve come back. Maybe you’re here every Sunday (or nearly every Sunday) or maybe you’ve come back after last week because you have trouble believing it too. I love being a Pastor. I love sharing the story of God and God’s love with lots of different people. I want to make sure that everyone who is able to hear or understand will come to comprehend that God’s grace is for them too. But, I have an issue with modern Christianity. We have seemed to do away with making room for doubt. I don’t know when or how this started but it seems that the church is turning into a place where doubt and questions are no longer welcomed.

Now, that’s not necessarily the case in this particular church; I’m just speaking about churches in general. When I talk to people about why they don’t go to church or why they stopped coming to church, the general feeling is guilt and shame. But then when we dig a little deeper, sometimes the people hesitate to come to church is because they have questions, they have doubts, they have some issues and don’t feel that the church is a safe place to bring those doubts. We somehow believe that everyone who walks through the church doors already knows all the answers, is 100% strong in their faith, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the dummy that asks questions and draws attention to myself. But, of all places, church should be a place where you can come with whatever doubts you have and feel welcomed.

The kind of doubts we need to make room for aren’t just the doubts related to faith. Church must be a safe place for all doubts of all kinds. Church needs to be a place where anyone can come with doubts and be welcomed and also be assured that they’re not alone. If there’s anything we should learn from today’s story is that our God is a god that welcomes doubts and will answer not with judgement, but with peace. We serve a God that when we cry “we need proof” God holds out a hand. None of us have it all figured out, so let’s make church a place we can come and sit with our faith and our doubts and be okay with both. Maybe your doubts are faith related. Maybe you struggle to believe that a man really can come back to life after being dead for three days. I get it. Logically, it makes no sense at all. It hasn’t happened since. We’re supposed to just believe this because some book tells us that thousands of years earlier this happened? It’s okay if you doubt. The fact that you’re here is proof enough that you want to know more and that you believe enough to walk through the doors.

Maybe the kind of doubts you have are more to do with everyday life than with faith. Are there doubts at work that you’re struggling with? As many of us draw closer to planting season, it seems as if doubt is a small component of what we do. The irony that my Royals will open their season tonight and I’m talking about doubt isn’t lost on me. This is a team, after all, that many doubted year after year. Some people even think that their World Series win last year was just a fluke. Maybe you’re doubting what life has in store for you as you sit with a new diagnosis. Maybe you’re doubting our economy, our political process, our leadership, our government; with the current state of things, who can blame you? Maybe it’s more personal than that. Are you doubting your marriage?  Are you doubting your physical health? Are you doubting your mental health? Maybe you’re doubting that if anyone knew whatever secret keeps you up at night that you would still be loved. Are you doubting the image you see in the mirror? Are you doubting who God has called you to be? Maybe you or someone you know is even doubting their sexuality. Whatever your doubts may be, please hear me loud and clear: doubts do not make you a “bad” Christian, whatever that is. Doubts make you human.

God did not create us to go through life blindly. One of the places I see God acting most clearly in my own life is when I wrestle with my doubts. I am not removed from having those doubts. I had more doubts about my faith life and my call upon graduating seminary than I did entering. My classmates and I joked that going to seminary is the only place where you can graduate with more questions than answers. Remember, God’s love and faithfulness to you, to us, is not dependent on your faith and your love for God. Thomas wasn’t a horrible disciple for asking for proof that Jesus was risen; he was human! He was simply asking for what any of us would have asked for. And because we serve a loving God, he got the proof he was needing.

Doubts, my brothers and sisters, are what drives our faith. While this may sound strange, doubt makes our faith stronger. Doubt brings us back to the baptismal waters and doubt brings us back to the table over and over again. Doubt is what makes us stand at an empty grave and cry “alleluia!” Doubt is being willing to say “I don’t know what I believe, but for today, I’m here and that’s enough.” Expressing doubt isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, expressing doubt is probably one of the bravest things anyone can do. And maybe all it takes is one person to express doubt for you to finally be able to breathe and say “oh good! Me too!” So, in that light, I want to share some of my doubts with you. I’m not sharing them with you so that you can assure me that they’re not true or whatever, but again, so you’ll know you’re not alone.

I doubt I’m forgiven. I understand that I am. My brain comprehends this fact. My heart struggles with it daily. I struggle and wrestle with my mental health, which you all know. But the doubt creeps in when I wonder how long you all will be able to tolerate it before you give up on me. As most parents know, I doubt my parenting ability on an almost daily basis. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world, but Lord, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. I doubt the future. We’re on the brink of a big change at our house and I have no idea what’s in store and that drives me crazy. I doubt the future of this country. I doubt some of the relationships in my life. And yet… Yet, I come every week, and am fed. I am fed by you. I am fed by you and am fed by you watching you feed one another. I am fed by the bread and wine. I am fed by water and a promise. And, believe it or not, I am fed by doubts. Alleluia, Christ is risen! And it’s okay if you doubt that.