Sermon for 1996 class reunion (based on John 11)

(Just a note that this sermon was written for the context of my 20 year high school reunion. It was part church service, part memorial service. Out of my graduating class of 339, we have already lost around 20 or so classmates).

 

“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’  Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’  She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” (John 11:17-27, NRSV)

 

My apologies to those of you for whom this may be a strange and disturbing look. Often when I tell people that I am a pastor and they knew me in college or high school, they usually back up. “But JV I knew you back when!” Yes, I’m well aware of that. And we’re not gonna tell anyone about those times.

 

We come together this morning to praise the one who has sustained us for 20 years since the last time we all gathered. We also come to remember and celebrate the lives of those who are not with us. And I am not afraid to speak the truth as you all know, we are all too incredibly young to have lost as many classmates as we have. As we say the names and recall the faces, the reasons are as varied as the people. Some taken too soon because of accidents, some by their own hand and demons, and some by the horrible “C word” cancer.

 

And for every name, there was at least one person in this world for whom that person was their world. It is important for us to remember, while all of the names may not be familiar to us, they were familiar to someone. At holiday or family gatherings there is a hole. At children’s activities or important events, there is a missed absence. In times like this when we think back to fun memories and maybe even the troubles, we notice who among us is missing.

 

It is also natural to feel a bit of guilt. We can easily fall into the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve categories. We also may wonder if there’s something we have the power to control to prevent death. My brothers and sisters, take heart and know that none of the deaths we marked today were your fault. We might wonder had we invited Amy to come with us which she have been in a car accident? Maybe we should have been more purposeful in reaching out to Shawn or Andrea to help them walk as they battled their demons. Or we may lament the fact that cancer took Holly or Shelly and there still is no cure in a country that has the resources to find them. And so, while I will not tell you how to feel, if you are feeling that guilt, that’s fine. But do not stay there. We call to mind the good times, the times filled with joy and light, the times that may get you through your own dark days. Unfortunately, “death” is too familiar a word for so many of us. It has snuck its way into our vernacular more times than we care to admit. Maybe you do not just mourn our classmates, perhaps you have had the unfortunate task of burying a spouse or partner or child. The pain endured is difficult on your best days, crippling on the worst. The good news is however, my brothers and sisters, death is not the final story.  The ending for us is not death. It never has been and it never will be.

 

By the time Jesus had arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. And Lazarus was dead dead. He was all the way dead. Not “oh isn’t that cute he sleeping.” But dead. All of the friends and relatives had already come to visit, the casseroles had already been eaten, flowers would’ve already started to die, and people had most likely already started to go on with their lives. But Martha, in the midst of all of her grief, was not prepared to welcome Jesus into her home without saying something. Martha as well as her sister Mary knew what Jesus was capable of. And sol Martha, in the midst of her grief, most likely through ugly tears, yelled at Jesus. This was not a sweet demure womanly thing to do. But, by this point in time, Martha really did not care. Martha was grieving and, quite frankly, pissed off. She needed to take that anger out on someone. So she did what most of us probably would’ve done. She yelled at Jesus.“Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died”. Now we must understand that Jesus was not a casual visitor to the home. Jesus loved Lazarus. Although we are not told in this reading, Jesus was most likely quite upset that his friend Lazarus had died. After all, like us, Jesus was fully human. This means he had a full range of fully human emotions. That includes all of the emotions that normally a company death. Grief, anger, confusion, denial, everything that Mary and Martha had been experiencing already for four days, was very real to Jesus.

 

As Jesus approaches the home, Martha does not even wait for him to arrive at the door. She runs out to meet him. Most likely already yelling at him as she goes. “Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died!” I wonder how many of us find ourselves questioning ourselves in similar situations. Had I been where ever my friend may not have died. Had I invited them over, faught for more treatments, called them when I was thinking about them, they may not have died. I’m sorry to tell you my friends, but none of us are powerful enough to stop death. None of us had the power or ability to stop death when it came for our classmates.

 

But just like graduation was not the end of our stories, death also is not the end of our stories. The hope of the resurrection is for all of us, friends. I want to make sure you heard me loud and clear, the hope and promise of the resurrection is for all of us. And here is something you may not hear very often especially from people in my profession. It is completely OK if you doubt what I just told you. Make sure you hear me again. As far as your faith life goes, it is appropriate, natural, maybe even a little expected, to have doubt. What is comforting to me even in the times of my own doubt and yes there are some, is that the God I serve keeps promises. And God’s faithfulness to me is stronger than my doubt of His existence.

 

Here is something else I want you to know. God loves you. God loves you more than you ever will know and more than you ever can imagine. It does not matter if you are in church every single Sunday, or the last time you’re in church was 20 years ago. God loves you. And God loves you despite anything you may have done that you continue to beat yourself up over it. God loves you despite the ways you may have fallen short. God loves you even in moments of darkness and uncertainty. And why? Why can this be true? How is this even possible?

 

I know that God loves me because of Jesus. I know God loves me because He saw me and considered me worth dying for. I know God loves me because even in the times of my own darkness and doubt I have come out on the other side, strengthened. I know God loves me because even on the days I cannot even love myself, God looks at me and says “you are amazing!” And God looks at you the same way my brothers and sisters.

 

And do I know any of this for sure? Nope. I don’t know anything for sure when it comes to faith and God. But what I do know is that a life without God, at least for me, is too dark to imagine. In a world where the rhetoric of hate is quite strong dare I say even popular, I need to believe that something is better than this. God has a plan for you and for me. I hope you are able to trust in that, even if you are a type-A personality like me. Trusting God can be so maddening and so rewarding all at the same time. And even if you’re not at that place in your life yet, know that God loves you anyway and still protects you and has plans for you.

 

My brothers and sisters, my friend, my classmates, all of you are part of my story. You are part of one another’s stories. I am honored to have been here with you today to share a small part of our life’s journey together. I will keep all of you in my heart and in my prayers. May God protect you, watch over you, guide you, and love you, until our paths cross again. Which, for the record, cannot be soon enough. May God continue to bless you and may you continue to remember how much not only I love you but God loves you as well. Amen.

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Sermon for 9/18/16 Luke 16:1-13

If you thought to yourself “well….that sounds like a confusing story, I don’t quite understand it all, thank goodness Pastor is here to explain it to me” have I got some good news for you! I don’t understand it either. I thought about the various things I could say to you off and on all week long. I knew I didn’t want to talk about money. It’s not because I’m afraid to talk about money. And it certainly isn’t because this text doesn’t talk about money, it does obviously. I didn’t necessarily want to focus solely on money this week because it’s not as easy as saying “worship God, don’t worship your money.” Money is a complex issue and means something different for everyone. Instead what I want to talk about today is self care. Stick with me, I promise it’ll all come together. I also want to talk about self care because I’m horrible with self care.

There are endless magazine articles, books, webinars, etc…on how to have the perfect balance in your life. Maybe it’s the work-home balance, the friends and family balance, whatever 2 forces you want to pit against one another, it’s always about balance. There is a misnomer that indeed, we can have it all! While at the same time we look at others around us, look at how they live their lives, and wonder “how do they do it all?” Really, can we all just agree to give up on the idea that we all have balance in our lives? Can we just give up the facade that we all have our shit together and just be honest with one another? Because the truth is this: the idea of balance exists to make us feel horrible.

There is no way that balance can exist in our lives because the focus of our attention changes day to day, maybe even minute by minute. Think about it like this: if you have 3 buckets that you are trying to fill with water and one springs a leak, are you going to keep trying to fill the other 2 up or are you going to stop and fix the leak? So let’s just stop pretending we have it all together or that balance is a good thing. There are people, tasks, and events in our lives that are just going to get more attention to others, that’s as simple as it is. Can we all just agree that we are going to stop trying to attain the unattainable goal of balance in our lives?

Now, please understand, I’m not advocating for chaos in our lives, but be willing to be flexible to have a little give and take. See, in today’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t chastizing the wealthy, although I can understand how it sounds like that. Instead, Jesus is calling our attentions to our loyalities. Jesus is calling attention, yes, to God, but also to whatever loyalties we have that draw us away from God and turn our attention elsewhere. Jesus is calling our attention to the ways that we spend our time, efforts, energy, and yes, money being creatures that God did NOT create us to be. When we’re not fully living into who God created us to be, we’re not being good to ourselves. And when we’re not being good to ourselves, we’re not being good to God. Let me be clear, being good to yourself, engaging in self care, is not a sacrifice or self serving; it does not make you a martyr. As strange as it sounds, being good to yourself points to the saving work of God and it may even give others hope of salvation.

Stick with me here, and follow closely, okay. When you take time to care for yourself, to feed yourself mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, you are, in an essence, stating that you actually cannot do it all. When you rest or care for yourself, you allow others to see that they don’t need you. People are able to accomplish things without you because they are relying on God (instead of you). I once was asked a very simple question: “why Jesus?” The question basically was “why do you need/want Jesus in your life?” And the best answer I could come up with at the time (and I still believe it) is “because I cannot save myself.” When you take the time to care for yourself, you are a living, breathing example of God’s salvation. If we could save ourselves, we wouldn’t need Jesus, that’s for sure.

Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters. So, we cannot serve God and money. We cannot serve our job and our family. We cannot serve our boss and our hobbies. We cannot serve the desire to sleep and technology. Balance is a fallacy of human desires. When you try to serve anything but God, you will feel empty. And so God calls us to rest; to partipate in self-care. God calls us to sabbath. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with taking a break. Perhaps when we start to feel “off kilter” (so to speak) it’s because we’ve been working so hard to balance everything and that’s impossible. Brothers and sisters, there is only one savior and we are not him. There is only one who gives life, and we’re not him. There is only way to salvation, and it’s not through us.

And here’s the amazing thing, when we finally give in to God’s call to rest, the thing that God does is hospitality and comfort. God feeds us, washes us, clothes us (with mercy), allows us to rest, and ultimately, loves us. Don’t be afraid to say “no” every once in a while. And if someone says “why can’t you….” do whatever it is. Speak about God. Speak to God. Tell others “I’m going to rest. God is calling me to do that and that is what I am going to do because my salvation, and yours, is not up to me.” Will this be easy? Nope. Being busy and trying to balance everything is the American way. Will it be worth it? Totally. Think about the 23rd psalm: “he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.” It’s not “he leads me beside chaos and ball-juggling, he challenges me to keep going….” No. God invites us to a life of calm and rest. Let’s do away with the myth of balance and just serve the one who found that balance meant two arms outstretched and feed crudely balanced and nailed. We can’t save ourselves, friends. Let the scales tip in favor of God.

Sermon for 9/11/16 Luke 15:1-10

It was one of those uncommonly warm days in March. It was sunny, the temperatures were starting to rise, spring was teasing us. Being the optimist I am, I wore sandals that day to allow my toes to get some fresh air. I was in my last semester and returned home after a hard class and was looking forward to relaxing. I removed my sandals at the door (as we always did), answered the call of mother nature, washed my hands, and then collapsed on the couch. I started to wring my hands, which were sore from hours of typing important papers, and that’s when I felt it. My main diamond on my wedding band was no longer there. The entire diamond and setting (brackets and all) had broken off. I had just washed my hands. I pictured it floating, halfway to the Mississippi River by that point. I called out to Chris between hyperventilating. Logically, he assured me that it would be okay and that my diamond would be found. We got up and started looking for it all around. And then, bare feet and all, I stepped on it. I was so relieved. The tears started to flow.

I hope none of you have had to go through this, but I think we can all relate to that stomach churning, rug pulled out from underneath you feeling that comes with losing something priceless. It feels, at times, as if time stops and almost moves in slow motion as the disbelief threatens to envelop us. And so it may be easy for us to understand why our parables today have stood the test of time. The stories of the 1 lost sheep and 1 lost coin may have confused Jesus’ company of listeners. After all, who leaves 99 sheep to go look for 1? Who spends all night sweeping and cleaning the house just to look for one coin? For those of you that farm, would you spend hours on end looking for just 1 lost cow or 1 lost hog? How many of you would spend hours on end searching for a dollar bill? However, how many of you have ever felt lost and you wish, maybe even prayed for someone to “find” you?

Our place in these stories today isn’t as the one who finds things, that’s God’s job. Our place in these parables are the ones who are lost. You certainly don’t have to raise your hands or anything, but I wonder how many of us have felt lost in our faith life. You go through the routine of coming to church, but you’re a little unsure why. Being lost comes with denial, questioning,and doubt. The denial may sound something like self-justification. “I’m not lost, I’m exploring!” You may even insist that you want to be lost. We may deny the existence of God and even if we do acknowledge that there is a God, we might wonder if God even cares about little ol’ us. Denial also allows us to play a victim role. If we play the victim then we never have to take responsibility for anything that happens to us. It’s not my fault that I am separated from God. It’s not my fault that God doesn’t care about me. And denial may also mean denying that you’re lost at all; it’s everyone else that is lost. A crisis of faith can bring forth a lot of denial.

If you haven’t ever been in denial over a faith crisis, perhaps you’ve questioned your faith, or rather, God’s faithfulness to you. We may feel like God has forgotten about us. Does God even hear my prayers anymore? Our mind can play tricks on us and convince us that we’re not even worth finding; why would God look for me? Or we wonder if anyone even notices we’re missing. We are a community of faith, we are created to be in relationship with one another, when someone is missing, we notice. If you have noticed someone missing from worship or other church functions, don’t wait for me to reach out, call them yourself. Wrapped up in this doubt is our core identity. If God doesn’t find me then what does that say about me? Who am I, then? Sometimes that doubt comes from the darkness and depths of sin. Sin is a very real presence in our lives. If you cannot forgive yourselves for your transgressions,  you may wonder how God can. That sin causes us to be lost from God. We drift, further and further, yet never out of reach.

This questioning can also look a lot like guilt. We carry the guilt of broken relationships, sin, failure, and incomplete whatever’s with us at all times. Eventually, we might ask ourselves “how did I get here?” I don’t know if you’ve ever had (what I call) a “mirror” conversation. That moment when you look at yourself and you wonder “what happened to her/him?” There’s a lot of blame that you either place on yourself or others and once again, God feels far away, maybe even non-existent. These times of darkness, of wilderness and wandering, of doubting God and God’s love for you are terrible for our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I hope you’ve never had such a time, but I fear that this “lost-ness” is all too familiar to too many of us.

It is not lost on me that 15 years ago this day, our country experienced one of its greatest tragedies to date. Most of us remember where we were or what we were doing. I was at work at Harrah’s Casino in North Kansas City and the first person I called was my dad. I remember watching the news at night and hearing about the beacons that the firefighters wore. These were alarms that sent out occasional beeps to let rescuers know the location of a downed firefighter. I cannot imagine how eerie it must have been to be at ground zero, hearing all these beacons and nothing else. To know that the life attached to that beacon was gone. Whether you know it or not, you also have a beacon.

There is a story that is often heard about Father Mychal Judge who was a Roman Catholic chaplain for the FDNY. Father Judge rushed down to the World Trade Center that morning upon hearing the news. He stood in the lobby of the North Tower, blessing firefighters, hearing their last confession, and anointing them with holy water or oil. Whether it is true or not, I don’t know. But there are stories that those firefighters that had been anointed were easily spotted in the rubble because the light reflected off the cross that had been placed on their foreheads by Father Judge. I’d like to believe this story is true.

We all have that same beacon: the cross on our forehead. This is what allows God to find us. And when we are found, we also find redemption, peace, affirmation of our worth and identity, peace, and comfort. When we are found, we are fed and washed. When we are fed, we are brought back into community and back into right relationship with God. And here’s the thing: no matter how lost you are, God will find you. You are worth finding. To God, you’re not just another person. To God, you are beloved. Remember that on the third day what was presumed lost was raised again. When we are in a dark place, the light of Christ that shines through us is what allows us to be found.

My friends, if you are feeling a little lost, a little forgotten, a little like you’re wandering with no direction, or like God maybe doesn’t care about you, take heart. You are the one coin. You are the one sheep. You are worth finding. You are God’s, God will find you, claim you, love you, redeem you, and once again declare you as beloved. So peace, my fellow lost ones, peace and comfort in knowing that help in the form of grace and God’s love is coming. To you. To me. To all of us.  

Sermon for 9/4/16 Luke 14:25-33

It’s readings like these when we hear about hating your family, carrying your cross, and giving up all possessions that when I say “the Gospel of the Lord” and you all respond with “thanks be to God” I want to say “really?!?” Do you really mean it when you say “thanks be to God I am being asked to turn from my family, carry my cross, and give up everything I own! This discipleship thing was just made super easy, Jesus! Why didn’t you say that’s what I needed to do in the first place!?” I think a better response for today’s reading would have sounded like this “the Gospel of the Lord” followed by “oooookkkkkaaaayyyyy……..”

I think anytime the Gospel talks about sacrificing things, giving things up, or selling all your stuff we all get a little nervous. We might prepare ourselves for a large heaping spoonful of guilt. Pastor is going to guilt you into opening up your wallet a little larger, loosening those purse strings, and make you feel guilty for owning whatever it is you own that you think I should make you feel guilty for. I’m not going to do that at all. See, this text convicts me as much as it might convict you. I don’t stand up here and preach to you. I stand up here and preach to us. I need to hear these messages as much as I need to deliver them. What this scripture is telling us today is this: being a disciple is hard, probably the hardest thing that you will do. It isn’t for everyone, yet it is demanded of everyone. How will we all rise to the challenge?

Let’s set the scene a little bit. The first sentence tells us a lot right away. There were large crowds following Jesus. They might not have known where they were headed, but Jesus did. Jesus knew he was headed to Jerusalem and that waiting for him there was a trial and ultimately, his death. This was not your average road trip. It was as if Jesus was saying “look, it’s fine and good that you want to follow me and be my disciples, but do you understand what you’ve really gotten yourselves into?” Being a disciple is going to be like swimming upstream. Being a disciple means that the most important priority in your life must be Jesus. Being a disciple means leaving behind all relationships, possessions, and self-identifiers that will call to you, maybe even discourage you from being a disciple. Discipleship is more than just being a responsible, nice, giving human being. This is a complete and total emptying out of self. Part of our call, then, perhaps, is acknowledging that doing what Jesus expects of us is challenging, and, at times, scary.

Following Jesus and claiming the title of “Christian” should actually be a little less popular than it actually is. I know that I tend to only claim the title when it is convenient for me to do so. Show up and help build a habitat house? Yep, count me, the “good Christian” in to help! Visit a known criminal who committed the most heinous crime known to humanity while he or she is serving a life sentence? Uh….I don’t know. Donate items to our food pantry? Totally, the “good Christian” does that! Stop and give a buck or 2 to those people who stand on the corners in Davenport? Ugh….can’t those people get a job? Open the door for an elderly person using a walker? Sure! The “good Christian disciple does that.” Tell someone at Wal-Mart that they have a trail of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe? No way! That’s just funny.

The problem, my brothers and sisters, is that when we were baptized, we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. This means that our identity, which is grounded in the promises of baptism, cannot be removed. All of the baptized members of the body of Christ share in Christ’s cross and his resurrection. The journey of discipleship starts and ends at the waters of baptism and shapes (or at least should shape) how we see the world. In those waters, Christ claimed us which means that despite our greatest temptation to only claim Christ as the center of our world when it is convenient for us, we are always the center of Christ’s world.

Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. It’s not the popular thing to do. It’s countercultural. Some might even say it’s practically un-American. How far are you willing to go to proclaim your allegiance to Christ? Are you willing to sever relationships that make it difficult for you to do so? Are you willing to carry the cross and suffer the criticism that accompanies that? Are you willing to give up some of your material possessions that can easily become the center of your worship instead of God becoming the center of your worship? This is all countercultural because we live in a time when who we know, what we own, who we are, what we do, where we live, all define who we are or at least define how others think of us. When, in reality, the only thing that actually defines us is the cross on our foreheads.

Again, I don’t know about you, but everytime I set out to consciously do a better job of being a disciple, of putting Christ first in my life, of spending “quality time” with God, I fail: repeatedly. I am too quick to judge. I want the world to operate the way I think it should (verses the way that God may think it needs to be). I too often only worry about myself and forget that others have needs as well. I try and shed the image of “Christian” even the image of “Pastor” when it may mean that I’ll be judged and I’ll lose a friend or maybe even opportunities. Even with this sermon I erased sentences I wrote out of fear that they were too harsh and you all wouldn’t respect me any more. How ridiculous is all of that? But, I think we all do it. We all fall to the temptation of being “Christian when convenient.”

Where is the good news in all of this? Well, first off, we don’t serve a “Christ of convenience.” We serve an “all the time Christ.” This means no matter how many times we may fail at our attempts to be disciples, at the root of the call to be disciples is the invitation into an intimate, life-giving relationship with God in Christ. This dedication and obedience to God isn’t just a blind following; it requires dedication, asking and wrestling with hard questions, and the deepening of our faith. But, discipleship also includes salvation. That, my brothers and sisters, is the good news in this challenge to be disciples. God, who claimed us in baptism, will also claim us in death. We should take the call to discipleship seriously. The cost of discipleship is great; it cost Jesus his life. But from that death comes our life and freedom. From the cross poured out forgiveness and mercy. His flesh was torn for love. Those thorns pierced his head and nails pierced his hands, all for you. Our freedom was purchased with the blood of one man. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “The call to discipleship is a gift of grace and that call is inseparable from grace.” (Cost of Discipleship, 55) The call comes with grace and grace comes with a call to discipleship. Thanks be to God that despite our temptation and active participation in being Christians of convenience, that we serve a God that is a God of love and second chances all the time, not just when it’s convenient.