Sermon for 2/26/17 Matthew 17:1-9; Transfiguration

I think Transfiguration is one of the strangest things to occur in the church year. Truth be told, there are a lot of occasions we mark in the church year that cause Pastors a lot of grief because the question is always “do I have anything new to say about this??” This happens for me (personally) at Transfiguration, Christ the King Sunday, and even (on occasion) Easter and Christmas. What can be said about these texts that will be different? What can be said that will be challenging? What can be said that will encourage all of you to leave this place anxious to serve God and one another? So maybe instead of preaching on what Transfiguration actually is (which, I might do just a bit) I want to talk more about why it matters and why you should care.

This story can be confusing to talk about anyway. It takes place on top of a mountain, which is a big hint to us listeners. This is a mountaintop experience; a high moment, a peak, that “achieved goal” feeling. Peter believes it’s a nice enough place that they should stay for a while. God affirms who Jesus is: God’s son, the beloved. Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to not be afraid after God tells them to listen to Jesus. They head back down the mountain all while Jesus tells them “let’s keep this whole thing between us until after I die and am resurrected, okay?” So, I think it’s pretty clear why that story should matter to your own personal faith life, am I right?

Transfiguration marks the last Sunday before Lent. Of course, Jesus had no idea that thousands of years later that there would be such a thing as the liturgical calendar. And that we would call the upcoming season would be called Lent; that we would mark a 40 day journey to the cross. All Jesus knew is that his life was about to take a very different turn and that he would soon be arrested Transfiguration is one of the best examples of “already but not yet.” What this means is that for us (and for the disciples) we are seeing and hearing about who Jesus is (God has claimed him as God’s son and as the beloved all while Jesus is clothed in glowing white clothes) while also knowing that God’s glory isn’t yet complete through the cross. For Jesus and the disciples something is coming. Something that strikes fear into the hearts of all good Lutherans. Something that makes us uncomfortable and squeamish. That something is change.

As much as we joke about change and how much Lutherans hate change, it happens to all of us. Change can be a good thing, right? That doesn’t mean that change isn’t scary. But, it can usher us from one point in life that is just okay to another arena of life that is better than we ever imagined. Personally, I think about the change that went from being engaged to being married. I think about the change that came from being pregnant to having Ellen. I also have fond memories of the change that came with moving here to become your pastor. All of these events were scary in their own way, but the change was not only welcomed, it was eagerly anticipated. And as much as we sometimes want change, we have to be willing to let go, which means admitting that we’ve been holding on (and maybe, for some, holding on for too long).

Change is also a strange place to be emotionally. We often find ourselves in this weird place of grieving and anticipating all at the same time. The disciples had no idea what was to come (even though Jesus had told them several times by now). Jesus knew. And we know too. If you think about today as the physical movement of the time after Epiphany into Lent, the emotions that fill that space can be unsettling too. We may want to hold on to the comfort that light brings. We know the cross is coming and we know what the cross means for our lives, but that doesn’t mean we want to hurry the process of getting there.

While change may be welcomed, it can also be really painful. Often we know that change needs to happen. Change is going to happen. “A change is gonna come” (Sam Cooke).Change often comes in a moment when we’re not ready (even if we think we are). That’s where our faith steps in. We know that change is going to happen, that it is necessary, but change is still hard to accept. We know we have to move on, but we haven’t settled everything that is in our past. We know that something better could be coming, but we just got comfortable in the place we’re in. No matter how badly we want to stay in the now, change is coming and it is going to happen whether we like it or not.

Those moments on the mountaintop didn’t happen to teach the disciples about who Jesus is and was (although that did happen). Those moments on the mountaintop didn’t happen to inspire the disciples in their ongoing work (although that may have happened as well). But Jesus was transfigured, called and claimed once more, and signaled change. That mountaintop experience signaled that change was going to happen, that it might be difficult, but most importantly, it was needed. There is no need for the crucifixion if Jesus isn’t declared the son of God, right? Which means our salvation doesn’t happen without the transfiguration.

So now instead of understanding what the transfiguration is, maybe we should wrestle with the why. That mountaintop signals a change of Jesus being just a thorn in the side of the Roman empire to being a hunted man. The mountaintop signals going from just talking about capturing and killing Jesus to actual attempts. The mountaintop also signals a change in the disciples. We see Peter go from loyalty to outright denial. The other disciples change from learning to confusion. But throughout all of this change, who and what remains the same? Jesus. Always Jesus.

Jesus was the same person before he went up the mountain and he was the same person as he came down. Jesus didn’t change. Our perception and the disciples perception of Jesus changed. Jesus didn’t change. Jesus has been clear about who he is, what he does and will do, and how he will do it. The disciples just didn’t want to hear it; maybe we don’t either. No matter what happens in our lives, the one consistent constant is Jesus. When we rejoice in change, Jesus is there. When we lament at change, Jesus is there. When we are in a time of transition and change, Jesus is there.

We can tend to navel gaze. We look inward, worry only about ourselves, panic over the not yet, play millions of scenarios in our heads, and often forget a few things. God is already present wherever we’re going. God’s plan is always much better than anything we could ever plan. God through Jesus Christ is present with us not only in times of change but also each and every moment of every day. I’m not telling you not to worry. I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t fear change. I’m not telling you that change shouldn’t make you uncomfortable. I want to remind you that change is always done in the company of Jesus and initiated by God and accompanied by the Holy Spirit. We know who Jesus is, we know what Jesus does and can do, we know how Jesus changes the world. More importantly, we know who we are in Jesus: called and claimed. The cross has already changed us and continues to change us. In the midst of change always comes comfort, love, and reassurance that Jesus is always with us, has never abandoned us, and never will.

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Sermon for 2/19/17 Matthew 5:38-48

The worst thing you can tell a perfectionist is to “be perfect.” Trust me, I speak from experience. I am a perfectionist. But, believe it or not, I actually have been working on letting go of some of my perfectionist tendencies. I have been working on a concept my therapist calls “good enough.” Maybe some of you have heard of this before? What that means is that I am trying to be happy with what most people would call perfect and allow myself a little bit of the grace I preach. I feel good about the progress I have been making. And then I read this scripture. Thanks, Jesus. As if being a disciple wasn’t challenging enough, now you want me to be perfect? Awesome! I didn’t think that God created me to have a complex, but perhaps I’m wrong. I don’t mind being a perfectionist. It drives me to work hard.

           This scripture picks up this week exactly where we left off last week. This is the last reading we will get from the Sermon on the Mount. Just as a reminder, Jesus is preaching to the disciples (and us) what I referred to as “discipleship 101.” We are learning what is expected of the disciples, what is expected of us, and ultimately, how to make new disciples. The ultimate goal that we’re working towards in Matthew’s Gospel is Matthew 28:19-20 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The end goal for Jesus isn’t resurrection. The end goal is to prepare the disciples and all of his followers to go to all the ends of the earth telling anyone that will listen through any means possible that they are loved and saved.

           Now, in case you haven’t really heard me the last few weeks, this discipleship stuff isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not easy. But, being a disciple and living in the community of believers is what makes church different from the country club. Can you imagine belonging to a golf course and one of the rules was “for every game you win, someone else in your party must win also.” Being a disciple is counter-cultural. Being a disciple laughs in the face of the question “what’s in it for me?” Being a disciple leads to death. It’s leads to Jesus’ death on the cross, of course. But it also leads to our own death. In order for the message to be about God and God’s saving actions on the cross through Jesus Christ, we have to get out of the way.

If this wasn’t difficult enough, this week Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Not only love our enemies but pray for those who would persecute us. I don’t like this idea at all. I don’t want to love my enemies and I certainly don’t want to pray for those who are out to get me. But again, being a disciple isn’t easy. Now, it should be said that this scripture isn’t a blank check for our enemies or those who would wish to do us harm. In certain contexts, this scripture has been used to encourage people in abusive relationships to stay in those relationships. That’s not what Jesus meant. Loving someone doesn’t equate to universal tolerance.

See, the love that Jesus is talking about here is “agape” love; God-like love. The word “agape” in the Greek is used to describe the love of God to and for God’s people. This isn’t person to person love. Agape love is centered in the cross. God like love means loving someone enough to tell them the truth. And sometimes the truth is “hey you’re a jerk” or “that’s not acceptable here.” Agape love is love that supports the theology of the cross. This means calling something what it is. Death can be terrible. Suffering is unacceptable. People can be jerks. But, it also means loving one another enough to hold one another accountable and to call them to the carpet. Agape love always leads to the cross where everyone is on equal ground. The difficult part of agape love is that if we’re going to give it or at least point to it, we have to be willing to accept it for ourselves. This means that we live and act like God loves us but we are also open to accepting when people call us to the carpet.

Being a disciple isn’t a one time job. It isn’t something that we can do for a few hours a day (like paperwork) and call it good. This is a life time calling. With that in mind, the idea of being perfect can be overwhelming. But, the original Greek here could be translated as “be persistent.” I like that idea much better. God does not call us as disciples to be perfect, but to be persistent. To persist in working towards ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth. The idea of persistence is to not give up. It’s also something we should work on every day. Being a disciple also takes practice and so we persist in that as well. Being persistent is to live as an example to those around us that God is still working on us too. “Because God persists, we persist” (Mary Brown via Karoline Lewis).

See, we serve a God that is nothing if not persistent. God doesn’t give up on us. God keeps working on us. God keeps molding us, shaping us, feeding us, and providing for us. We don’t mess up once and God crosses us of the “things to worry about list.” No, God is persistent. We have a God of second, third, fourth, infinity chances. God is persistent. I’ve often joked that God is the hide and seek master. We can try and hide from God for whatever reason, but God will find us. And when God finds us, it’s not to punish us, shame us, or make us suffer for whatever shortcomings we’ve had. God finds us because God is persistent and longs to love us. Again, that doesn’t mean we get a blank check to do whatever we like because God will love us. Because God is persistent, God is always working on us.

Now, more than ever, the world is hungry for words of love, mercy, and forgiveness. At the same time, people are afraid to listen for God or listen to God. They are afraid of judgement and wrath. But, God does and will speak through disciples. God speaks through us and to us. We are created to be in community and we are created to care for one another, even when the other is our enemy. God continues to be “Immanuel, God with us.” What difference might it make for you to be the one to tell someone “God doesn’t give up on you because God is persistent”? What difference does it make for you to hear that God hasn’t given up on you because God is persistent. God isn’t done with you yet. God did not create you, wash you, and redeem you only to forget you. God doesn’t feed you only to leave you hungry for more. God didn’t hang on a cross and bleed so that you would question if you are loved. God doesn’t and hasn’t given up on you, brothers and sisters, because God is persistent. And because God is persistent, so we shall be also.

 

Sermon for 2/12/17 Matthew 5:21-37

Is today one of those days you’re really glad you came to church? You’re in your peaceful place. You’re surrounded by familiar faces. You sing the familiar music. And then you hear the reading from Matthew today and I don’t blame you for thinking “wow! I don’t know how glad I am that I am at church today.” It’s too late to escape now. Readings like this can make us squirm. We (okay, maybe I) don’t always like to hear the gospel readings and Jesus’ thoughts on such topics as murder, conflict, adultery, and divorce. We don’t often like hearing about the things of which we have first-hand knowledge. I’m not saying any of you are murderers, of course. But I am guessing all of you know someone who is divorced (maybe as a result of adultery), and all of us have gone through conflict at least once. These are uncomfortable topics. Why does Jesus even bring this stuff up?

We need a bit of a clearer picture of what is going on here. Let’s refresh our memories as to the setting and surroundings of today’s Gospel reading. This is a continuation of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. He is still trying to teach his disciples what it means to follow him. This means they needed to start thinking about what it means for them personally to be a disciple, but also what it means for other people to be disciples as well, and ultimately, what it looks like to be disciples while also being in community. The disciples must have been overwhelmed by everything Jesus was telling them. If you’ve ever been in day one orientation for a new job, I have to wonder if the disciples had that same feeling.

And Jesus isn’t playing around. He brings out what we may often think of as the “heavy hitter” sins. Murder, adultery, divorce, and taking oaths (which is a strange one to bring up with the others). Jesus uses a lot of repetition in this reading. We hear him say “you have heard that it was said….” and then he goes on to talk about a commandment and he says “but I say to you…” Jesus knew that this was no longer going to be a community where everyone thought alike. Not everyone was going to be Jewish. There would be Roman soldiers and gentiles as well. The disciples are starting to get a fuller picture that they will not be disciples by themselves. They are going to be disciples with others in community.

It’s also good for us to remember that the Bible is a living, breathing document. The things we read today are just as relevant for us as they were for those first disciples. Additionally, it’s good for us to remember that God created us to live in community and to be in relationship with one another. And, as strange as it may sound, being in community, living with and for one another as disciples is a little counter cultural to the American way. We have phrases like “look out for number one” or “I’m gonna do what is best for me.” Even in religious circles you may have heard phrases like “I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior” and other language like that. But let us not forget that God has proclaimed to be Immanuel: God with us, not God with me. And what this means is that when you are a disciple (as we all are) we are responsible to one another and for one another.

When was the last time you did something and before you did it you thought “I wonder how this might reflect on my fellow disciples at Elvira Zion?” That thought doesn’t usually enter our mind. At the same time, how often might we have let one representative of a group or organization make up our minds about the entire group? (For example, having a bad experience with one wait person and so you no longer even go to that restaurant.) The face, personality, and actions you choose to show to the world can speak very loudly about who you are. But, it also speaks to the people you keep company with and are affiliated with. What that means is that everything you are, everything you do, everything you don’t do is not only a direct reflection of you, it is a direct reflection on each and every person that sits around you each Sunday. Now, if that doesn’t make you feel the weight of being a disciple, I don’t know what will.

See, God’s law (as it is spoken about in these verses) is a good thing. The law is meant to help us with our boundaries, and ultimately, help us to live a fuller life; the life God has intended for us. So, the commandment says “do not murder” but Jesus says (paraphrasing) “hey! Before it even gets to that point, don’t even have an argument with one another. And if you do, be reconciled to one another before coming to the altar.” This is why we pass the peace. We are making peace with one another before coming before God and receiving the body and blood of forgiveness. The commandment said “do not commit adultery” and Jesus says (again, paraphrasing) “don’t commit adultery, sure. But don’t even look at a woman with lust.” And why? Because living in community means valuing every member of the community. This means we look at one another as whole human beings, and not just sexual conquests. The commandment says “if you get a divorce, you need a certificate of divorce” but Jesus says (paraphrasing yet again) “stop using the law as an excuse to divorce.” And what is really at the heart of this is caring for the least around us. In Jesus’ time, women who were divorced were seen as less desirable. Men could ask for a divorce for any reason they wanted. But, many times, divorce came when a woman was barren and could not provide for a male heir. In Jesus’ time if you were a barren divorced woman, your fate wasn’t good.

What does all of this mean then for those of us who are now currently disciples (that’s all of us, by the way)? Well, the good news, first of all, is that we’re not alone in this. Being a disciple is something that is done in community with others. We can never accomplish ushering in God’s kingdom in the here and now on our own. We need help from one another to lift one another up, encourage one another, and to work with one another. And we’re going to receive a lot of pushback because society has taught us for the longest time that the only person we should watch out for is ourselves. But that isn’t what God had intended for us. Jesus is revisiting these laws as a reminder to all of us to watch out for and care for those on the margins. God’s ultimate command for all of us (besides having no other gods) is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We cannot love our neighbor if we’re only concerned about ourselves.

I know this is hard, friends. On the surface to call ourselves “disciples” seems easy, almost a badge of pride and honor. But, when we start to look at what it actually means for our lives, we realize how difficult it can be. Being a disciple means being aware of what our individual actions say about our corporate community. Being a disciple means that we are aware of, advocate for, and care about those on the margins that are often forgotten by this individualistic society. Being a disciple means being on the side of justice and mercy when those working against us are crying for the hard arm of the law. But, again, we are not alone. We have another another, fellow disciples, to help us in this journey. And we have God; who again, is Immanuel, God with us.  

Sermon for 2/5/17 Matthew 5:13-20

I spent the first part of my week at continuing education in Minneapolis Minnesota. I went to a conference to workshop a new book. The book is called she five keys for women in power and leadership. It was an empowering time. It was wonderful and affirmative to be surrounded by other women in ministry. One of the things that was talked about quite a bit is how our gender affects our call. In this current context, I have not encountered my gender being too much of an issue. My gifts, skills, or even ability to give care to you has not been questioned. However, that has not always been the situation for my colleagues. One of the best examples of what we female clergy face almost on a daily basis is our title. Often, my male colleagues will be referred to as Pastor so-and-so. However, I will not be given the same courtesy. I will be called Jealaine. Not Pastor Jealaine, just Jealaine. And it is situations like this where I have to try extra hard not to have my light diminished. This week, I want to invite you into the struggle of what it means to have your own light diminished as well as think carefully about the ways we diminish the light of those around us.

Scripture talks today about no one lighting a candle just to put it under a basket. Of course most of us remember the Sunday school song “This Little Light of Mine.” And one of the verses talks exactly about this. “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m going to let it shine.” On occasion, that verse for me has inspired me to continue to be the evangelist that God has called me to be. It causes me to laugh in the face of what it means to be a stereotypical Lutheran. We are known to be kind of quiet, we don’t want to bother anyone, and maybe, We can tend to be a little passive aggressive. So the language of hiding my light under a bushel, gives me pause and reason to remember my baptism.

Maybe upon hearing this scripture today, you remembered your baptism, or maybe recalled baptisms we have done in this setting. One of the things that we tell the newly baptized as we hand them a candle is “let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” I also think about the gospel of John. The very beginning of John when we hear that in the beginning there was the Word and the Word was God and the Word was with God and then it goes on to continue with that there is a light in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. This is also a good reminder for me that the light of Christ that is in me and in all of you can never be extinguished. It is important to remember that especially with today’s reading. You will see that even though the light is under a bushel, there is no mention of the light being extinguished. The light is hidden, or maybe even dimmer to the naked eye, but it is never extinguished.

In what ways have people tried to diminish your light? In what ways have you tried to diminish your own light? When you stop to think about these questions, the answers can be very painful. We may have to wrestle with demons we have a long kept buried. It’s not comfortable to face when we have been in positions where our power has been taken from us. When the forces of this world have attempted to diminish your light, it can be very painful. When the forces of this world have attempted to shame you into hiding your light, it can be very painful. When the forces may drive you to not want to claim your light, it can be very painful. When we allow others to diminish our light, or when we attempt to diminish our own light, we are trying to hide the incarnate God that lives in all of us.

If we take seriously the idea that God became flesh, and we should take that idea very seriously, then God lives in each one of us. That is the light that shines through us. So when our light is diminished by the world, others around us, or even ourselves, we are devaluing the God that lives in us. I have no doubt that most of us have unfortunately been victims of an attempted diminishing. Can you finish this sentence: you cannot do that, you are only (or just a)…. can you finish this sentence: since you are…. you probably can’t or don’t want to….

And when you think about filling in those blanks, I am not talking about filling it in with excuses. I am talking about filling in those blanks with the incarnate God that lives in us that makes up our humanity. This is different from saying I can’t do this I don’t have enough time. This is someone saying to us you can’t do this, you are a woman. Or you should not do this, you are over 65. When people and forces try and diminish our light, they are often trying to diminish the things about us we cannot nor would not change. And we would not change them because it is essential to whom God created us to be.

And whether we care to admit it or not, we tend to self diminish more than anything. And while I cannot speak for you, my experience has been attempting to diminish my light out of nothing but fear. I said last week that doubt feeds off of fear and fear feeds off of doubt.

At the same time, it is important to recognize when we have attempted to extinguish the light of others around us. Perhaps, it means engaging in a time of confession and forgiveness and ultimately, reconciliation. It is important to remember that the majority of us come from a place of privilege. In this country, being from a place of privilege, means that you are most likely white, middle-class, and heterosexual (and, more times than not, male). When you come from a place of privilege, it is easy, almost too easy, to diminish the light of others. It’s completely fine and acceptable to not understand someone or some thing because of a lack of education, but it’s not okay to diminish someone or some thing because you don’t agree with it.

Allow me to explain. You may say “I don’t know why those women marched” or “I don’t understand why the black lives matter movement protested by blocking traffic.” IF you express these opinions from the standpoint that you don’t understand because you haven’t taken the time to learn more, that’s fine; claim that. But, if you have learned about these movements or the people involved and yet still say “those people marching are just stupid” then you are attempting to diminish someone else’s light. You don’t have to agree with people or movements or even support them. But that doesn’t give us the right to diminish one another. Another example may be the desire to rush injustice aside. People have said to me (on occasion) “Pastor! We love you and wouldn’t treat you differently because you’re female. This stuff certainly doesn’t happen to you!” And while I appreciate that, just because you love me doesn’t mean I am universally accepted.

Recognizing that others have the light of Christ in them can be difficult, I get that. It can be difficult because once we recognize that light, we have recognized that God indeed dwells in them too. As much as we may hate to admit it, we just may not want the light of Christ to be in others; we may not want God to dwell in other people. Once we realize and see the light of Christ in others, we then must start treating them like they are loved by Christ and have God dwelling within them. This means we can no longer hate them or dislike them. See, if we hate or dislike others around us that have the light of Christ in them, that have God dwelling within them, then what does that say about us who also have the same thing? What does that say about our relationship to the divine?    

Brothers and sisters, you have the light of Christ within you. We are in a dark time. There are people who are hurting and hungry. God lives in you. Now is  not the time to be shy. Now is not the time to hide your light. And if now isn’t the time for you to shine your light, don’t you dare attempt to dim the light of others. Darkness never has the last word. “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”