Sermon for 5/29/16 Galatians 1:1-12

The secretary opened the door and ushered me in, “he’ll be in briefly, Ms Marple.” I stepped into an office that looked exactly like I thought it would look. It looked just like they did in the movies. After spending hours in a tiny office next to my Pastor’s office, I was finally ready to hear the results of my psychological testing. The testing was one of several steps I needed to take before entering seminary as a candidate for ministry. I looked around the office. I had no idea what my guy would be like. I had taken 4 very different tests. And now, some guy who only knew me through these tests and and an essay I had written was about to tell me about myself. He had the typical leather couch (which I was only going to sit on…I could only imagine the number of people who had laid on that thing). He had a lot of awards and accolades all framed. He also had all of his various degrees framed. I looked closer at the name of my soon to be psychologist and then looked around for the hidden cameras. Was someone playing a joke on me? Was this guy’s name really Dr Charles Darwin??

He settled into his chair, glasses on the tip of his nose, clipboard in hand. After some niceties, he said, “so, how long do you think you’ve been a people pleaser?” I was offended. Just who did this guy think he was. I am not a people pleaser. If he just got to know me a little better, I’d get him to see what a great person I am….oh no. He was right. Often as I pray about what to preach, something sticks with me during the week. Sometimes though, I try and run from God because the readings for the week are all too convicting and hit a little too close to home. That is the case with this Galatians reading.

There are some things to keep in mind with the book of Galatians. Remember that first and foremost, it is a letter. The apostle Paul is writing a letter to the people living in Galatia. The purpose of his letter is stated at the very beginning: a reminder that Jesus Christ gave himself “for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” Apparently there are people who are already perverting that gospel message of freedom in Christ. Throughout the letter, Paul will remind them of this freedom in Christ. It might be easy for us to point to this letter and say “this was for a certain community at a certain time” but the frustration and anger expressed by Paul at the very beginning of this letter could easily be said to any of us.

“You know the good news of Jesus Christ,” Paul might write to us now. “You know that your sins have been forgiven. You know that you are loved beyond anything you could ever comprehend. You know that you have been freed from your sins and freed for service to one another. You know all this, right?” And we might answer emphatically “yes! Of course!” And Paul would say “then why do you believe things that do not give life? Why do you invest in things and people that will fail you? Why do you engage in racism, sexism, classism, and other ‘isms’ and call it ‘caring?’” And about right then would be when I would stop listening to Paul. What does he know anyway?

It’s not easy to live in this world. People are mean. If you don’t believe me, ask our teenagers. Bullying is no longer done just face to face. It is done online and via text. And it is cruel. So the temptation is people please is great. We have all bought into the idea of people pleasing, it doesn’t matter our age. For teens, it’s the desire to have a lot of likes on a Facebook status, or a lot of hearts on an Instagram picture. I actually read an article earlier this week that teens will pull a picture off of Instagram if it doesn’t get enough likes (the magic number seems to be around 60). For ladies of a certain age, we can easily get pulled into the “mommy wars.” These are conversations around whether or not you will have children, the number of children you should have, and then how you will raise those children. Are you going to breastfeed? Are you going to co-sleep? Are you going to use cloth diapers? Are you going to make your own organic baby food out of food you raise yourself? Are you going to homeschool? All of these questions are asked of women especially as a gauge. How do I measure up to other women and am I doing something wrong? If you’re on the receiving end of these questions, it can really make you feel inferior.

For men, the pressure seems to still be to have a model-like body with rock-hard chiseled abs while still being the breadwinner for your family yet also having time to do something like brew your own beer or chop your own wood for your sustainable home. And for some reason, if you (male, female, young, old, whatever) do you not fit into the box that society has created for you, life can be a living hell. Ask the thousands of people who commit suicide every year just so they can escape the bullying. And so we buy into people pleasing. If we can just be all things to all people then maybe we’ll have friends and this world will be a little less lonely. We do stupid things, say stupid things, wear stupid things, and pretend to be anything less than what God created us to be just in the hope that people will like us. What we are left with at the end of the day is a shell of ourselves that has worked tirelessly to make everyone happy; everyone except for ourselves that is.

Who are you? I’m not asking who people say you are; I’m asking who you are. Do you claim your baptismal identity? Or do you downplay your label as “Christian” because it’s not cool. Do you fear what would happen if people found out the “real you?” Life is too short to live a lie. Life is too short to spend it pleasing anyone but yourself and God. God has freed you from the sin of worshipping the idol of approval. In baptism, God already approved of us. I’m not saying that life will be easy; we all know that’s not the truth. The Gospel is that we were given Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that we may never know the pain of sin and death. The Gospel is not be who others think you should be and God will love you. God loves you just the way you are because God created you. And when God created you, it was in God’s image.

I’m a lot of things people don’t like. I’m a woman in ministry, which alone gives some people a coronary. I’m a working mom. I’m tattooed and know/use a lot of 4 letter words. I will soon be the breadwinner for our family. I’m plus sized. My list of sins grows daily. But none of that defines me. I am first and foremost a child of God. So are you. That is your core identity. Anyone who tries to tell you anything other than that is just doing Satan’s work. You were worth dying for. Let that sink in for a moment. You were worth dying for. Don’t let anyone convince you that you need more worth and never let anyone attempt to steal or belittle your worth. People will try and tell you ways to improve who God created you to be. This isn’t the gospel. This is hot air.

The Gospel, for you, brothers and sisters, is this: you are loved. You are forgiven. You are called and claimed by a God who loves you no matter the labels you put on yourselves or the labels others have tried to saddle you with. Quit wasting your time trying to please people who either want to dim your light or who will ultimately try to make you into something you’re not. This not caring what people think is going to take time. We’re going to need food for the journey. We’re going to need friends who remind us of who we really are. We’re going to need to remember who has claimed us as his own. We’re going to need to remember our baptisms. We’re going to need to remember that no matter what we hear, grace tells another story. The cross tells another story. The empty tomb tells another story.  

Sermon for 5/22/16 John 16:12-15

This past week I was in Atlanta for the annual Festival of Homiletics. Homiletics is just a fancy word for preaching. I was at a festival and celebration of preaching. It is jokingly called “Woodstock for preachers.” It is wonderful to sit in a pew and worship at a service I didn’t plan, sing hymns I didn’t pick out, and hear sermons I didn’t write. At the same time, it’s like drinking out of a firehose. Or to put it even better, it’s like eating at a buffet and you keep eating despite the fact that you’ve had to let out your pants, made more room at the table, and call for a wheelbarrow to take you out…but the food is so good!!! That’s what it was like for me. I heard voices I don’t normally get to hear. I got to hear voices from various denominations, people of various races, preachers of varied sexualities, and even a preacher that was differently abled. I heard familiar texts preached in new ways. I heard unfamiliar texts actually preached, inspiring me to maybe someday tackle those same texts. Most importantly, I was reminded (multiple times) of a God who forgives me and loves me. This was, in all ways possible, continuing education.

I don’t know how many of you have to do continuing education for your jobs, but as a Pastor it is expected that I engage in ongoing continuing education. Continuing education is important to me because despite what you may believe (or, even better, what I may believe) I actually do not know it all. I need to always be willing to listen to new voices, read new voices, engage in conversations that are difficult, and be willing to change my mind. None of this happens without God’s urging and the Holy Spirit interpreting and intervening. Today’s reading, to me at least, sounds like Jesus is encouraging the disciples to engage in some continuing education.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” I have to believe that there was one disciple present that either said or thought “what does he mean?!? I can handle it! Come on….tell me!” And when Jesus speaks to the disciples and says “I still have many things to say to you” what he is also saying is “you’ve got a lot still left to learn.” Let us not forget that the messages given to the disciples weren’t just for the disciples of Jesus’ time, they were for the disciples of all times, in all places, in all ages. So, this means you and me, brothers and sisters. Jesus is telling us “you’ve got a lot still left to learn.” Now, depending on our lot in life, we may interpret that statement with enthusiasm or with skepticism. It could be “YES! I get to learn more!” or it could be (sarcasm) “joy! I get to learn more.” And sure, Jesus could have told the disciples (and us) everything all at one time, but would we have listened? We hear it, but do we listen? I think we have all had times in our lives where we’ve heard someone say something, including God, and we don’t listen. We get that proverbial “in one ear and out the other” thing going on. So perhaps, just perhaps Jesus actually knew what he was talking about when he said that there is more for us to hear and learn, but we just can’t bear them right now. Jesus knew the disciples (and us) needed to be “primed” for learning.

When God speaks to us, God doesn’t always come as a booming voice from the sky. God’s voice isn’t always surrounded by claps of thunder, flashing neon lights, or even an introduction. When God speaks to us, it’s usually in ways we don’t expect, through people we don’t expect, and in times we don’t expect. Even more, when God speaks to us, it’s usually in ways we don’t like, through people we don’t like, and in times we don’t like. God often does God’s best work through the most unexpected ways; and often those ways can make us uncomfortable. This is usually because we’ve placed our own expectations onto God, and so we expect God or maybe even anticipate God acting one way. And instead, God acts whatever way God so chooses. God refuses to be placed in a box.

And so it is that when we finally do hear and listen to the word of God, it comes in many forms through many people. What do we do when God speaks to us through people we may not want to listen to? What happens when God speaks to us in ways we don’t like? What do we do when God speaks to us at a time that isn’t real convenient for us? Now, don’t get me wrong, God loves us, dearly. But do you really think God cares about our expectations? Do you really think that when God starts to move and send the Holy Spirit down on us that it’s going to stop just because it’s not a real convenient time for us? Friends, the Bible is full of stories of people who fought with God, tried to deny God, tried to redirect God, even those who ran from God. I’m going to ruin the end of all of those stories for you: God won.

When God speaks to us (notice I didn’t say “if,” but “when”) it is because God believes we are prepared to listen, learn, digest, and bear the news that God has for us. And trust me when I tell you that should you choose not to listen the first time, God will keep repeating the message until you do. I jokingly tell people that God telling me to go to seminary was like being hit over the head with the Holy Spirit 2×4. God will get out the 2×4 for you if that’s what it takes. But again, God sometimes chooses to speak to us in ways and through people we’d rather not listen to. And we’re missing out on hearing from God just because we firmly believe that the people we don’t like, God must not like them either. Listen friends, if the God that you have constructed in your own mind hates the same people that you do, then you can go ahead and safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image and not the other way around. (loosely based on Anne Lamott quote) How many of you have heard the story of Baalam and his talking donkey? If not, look it up, it’s Numbers 22:21-39.

Baalam and his donkey are on their way Moab, God was upset about this but Baalam was going anyway. Since Baalam wasn’t listening to God, the Lord sent down the Holy Spirit, opened the mouth of the donkey and out came the voice of the Lord. And trust me when I tell you this, if God can speak through a donkey to Baalam, God can certainly use someone you would label as an ass to speak to you. Including me. We need to hear other voices than our own. We need to hear other voices than the ones around us. Believe it or not, you need to hear other voices than mine! Read other pastor’s sermons or listen to them. Read books by authors you wouldn’t normally read so that you can maybe hear God in a new way.

God will speak to you. God will speak to you through God, through Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, through whatever ways are necessary. God will speak to you because God loves you. And because we have a God of second chances, God will continue to speak to you until you listen. You’re never too old to learn. The disciples needed some continuing education, and so do we. God has many things still to say to us. You never know who is going to be the one to be the voice of God to you. And the flip side is this: God just might use you to speak to someone else!  Continuing education starts at this table, and school is in session!

Sermon for 5/1/16 John 14:23-29

As I was out and about this week, I had the honor of having lunch with one of your fellow church attendees. I won’t call this person out because I don’t have permission to. But, as we were about to part ways, they said to me “pastor, we really like coming to church. You should see/hear us on the way there.” And I’m sure they sound like any normal family preparing to come to church. It’s a conversation that is probably something like this “are you going to wear that? Hurry up! Stop touching your sister/brother. Where is the offering envelope? Where did you put my coffee?!?” Then they continued, “but as soon as we enter church and get settled into the pew, it’s like a calm comes over us.” It’s peace, I thought.

And it got me to wondering how many of you experience that same peace when you enter this place. There’s chaos all around you and then you sit down, inhale, and ahh….. peace.  It’s an hour of your week that you can focus, center, and just be. Now, I’m not going to kid myself that 100% of you come in here 100% of the time and pay 100% attention. I know that it doesn’t happen. You may open the checkbook to write your offering and notice that it’s been a while since that bad boy has been balanced. Great sermon activity! You may start to have your mind drift to a big work or school project, only to come back and ask yourself “when did it become time for communion?!?” Or maybe you get that familiar buzz from your cell phone and see it’s a text message from a friend, sending you pictures from the golf course, wondering where you are. Whatever it may be, there are a lot of things to distract us in this place and what does Jesus want for us? Peace.

It may seem strange that we are in the season of Easter but we still get a reading from right before Jesus was arrested, tried, and hung. And 2 pretty amazing things are said by Jesus: that an advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be accompanying the disciples and us, and then, Jesus bids them and us peace. Before Jesus leaves the disciples and us, he promises that we will always have him accompanying us, walking with us, dwelling with us through the Holy Spirit and that what he wants for us is peace. Now, last week, the gist of what we talked about was love. And now, peace. I think Jesus had a theme in mind.

I have said before that the God we serve is a God of radical love and hospitality. Today’s Gospel further proves that. Now, I’m about to say something that might rile up some feathers or cause a raised eyebrow or two, so I’m warning you, okay? We serve a God who doesn’t have time or even the slightest bit of interest in excuses, hate, rhetoric, and bs that we sometimes give God as to why we can’t love one another or why we don’t wish for peace on one another. God, through Jesus Christ, gave us 2 commandments: love one another and peace be with you. How hard is that, right? But we’re human, so it feels impossible at times.

Peace be with you. It seems simple enough. We say it several times throughout the service. But have you ever taken the time to think about what this sentence means? Let’s break it down. Peace means a “state of tranquility or quiet…freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions…harmony in personal relationships.” (Webster’s) Can you imagine instead of saying “peace be with you” we said “a state of tranquility or quiet be with you.” We might as well say “a vacation be with you.” Peace be with you. Another way of saying that is “may harmony dwell in you” or how about “quiet accompany you.” And when you think about it that way, it’s kind of, well…..peaceful.

It’s also completely against so much of what is going on in this world today. Why do you think the authorities wanted to kill Jesus? Jesus was bringing a message of peace, equality, preferential treatment of the poor, and all authority on heaven and earth belonging to God. It didn’t go over well. The Roman empire wanted anything but peace. They wanted power, prestige, status, and domination. None of that comes when there’s peace. And in case you haven’t been watching the news, paying attention to political commercials, reading newspapers, or perhaps you’ve just come out of a coma, we’re in the middle of a season of electing a new president. It has been anything but peaceful.

Here’s the difficulty with following Christ, we can’t say “peace be with you” and/or “Jesus loves you” without knowing, believing and declaring that this peace and love is for all people, without exception. That thought alone should simultaneously give you peace and make you mad. Because we all have someone in our lives that either doesn’t bring us peace or we think doesn’t deserve peace. It’s almost like we want to hoard Christ’s peace for ourselves. The other struggle we may have is that perhaps you don’t believe that when we say “peace be with you” that it really is for you. Perhaps your life is anything but quiet, tranquil, or free from disturbances. As a mom to a toddler tornado the idea of peace is almost laughable.

Maybe that is what makes this statement so unbelieveable to you, the idea that you deserve peace. If you go back and read the creation story in Genesis, as God creates everything, he calls it good. That is, except for one thing. God calls the Sabbath day, a day of rest, “holy.” We hear in the 23rd Psalm that God makes us to lie in green pastures, beside still waters and our cup overflows. Friends, this only comes from allowing peace into our lives. Just as Jesus was about to leave his friends, his followers, and us, he says “peace I leave with you.” We will not be forgotten, we will not be abandoned, we will not be left to our own devices, and we certainly will not be left to suffer. Jesus has left us with his peace. And what have we done with it? What have you done with the peace that Jesus has offered you?

Have you ignored the peace? Maybe you’ve taken that peace for granted. Perhaps you’ve been judgemental of Jesus’ peace, wanting to decide who gets some and who doesn’t. The kingdom does not and will not work like that, friends. The promise of Jesus’ peace isn’t just for you, and believe it or not, that’s good news. “Peace I leave with you” is a promise to all people, in all lands, in all times and spaces. We receive Jesus’ peace whether we like it or not; we actually can’t refuse it. But we certainly can (and often do) ignore it. If we desire to start paying attention to what the Holy Spirit is doing in this place then we need to settle into a place of peace.

So, take a deep breath, and as you exhale whisper “peace.” Now do it again. And again. And then when you come up for communion, I want you hear the words “given for you” and “shed for you” but I want you to interpret them as “peace be with you.” Your sins are forgiven. Peace be with you. You are okay just the way you are. Peace be with you. You will not be judged by God the same way you judge yourself. Peace be with you. You are enough. Peace be with you. You are loved. Peace be with you.