Sermon for 9/24/17 Matthew 20:1-16

I was born in 1978. Now, before some of you roll your eyes and call me a kid, I am very well aware of how old or young I am, depending on how you look at it. I am 39. I grew up before there were 200 channels. I knew life before the internet. I still know how to use a card catalogue. I loved Scholastic Book Order day. I spent way too many hours playing a game called “Oregon Trail” where I almost always died of dysentery. But, I am still trying to figure out if it was my generation that ruined trophies for everyone. Is it my generation that demanded trophies for everyone or is it the generation after mine? Trust me, I am sure my generation has been blamed for this at least once. I hear it often after the phrase “you know what’s wrong with people your age…”

But I argue that this idea of giving everyone a trophy started long before my generation. Our Gospel today is a version of the idea that everyone gets a trophy. Maybe you never thought of it like that. And here’s what’s really maddening about this reading today. It’s the way it starts out “…the kingdom of heaven is like…” Wait! What? The kingdom of heaven is like everyone getting a trophy?!? That hardly seems fair. The kingdom of heaven is like everyone getting paid the same amount even though some worked for 12 hours and some worked for 30 minutes. Everyone gets the same reward. Well….that should be enough to make ya mad.

We don’t work like that, right? Even the idea of the “American dream” runs counter-intuitive to that idea. We work hard, we earn money, we are able to achieve all of our dreams. It would be maddening to spend a lifetime working hard, paying taxes, saving, and working our way up the corporate ladder in order to buy the house of our dreams just to move in next door to someone who said “oh my house? It was just given to me.” That kind of thing could lead to anger. Human justice is certainly not the same as God’s justice. And human definition of fairness certainly isn’t the same as God’s definition of fairness.

As much as we want to talk about other generations being or feeling entitled, if we’re really honest, we all can be a little entitled every once in awhile. We prefer justice that benefits us, our families, or our friends. We only claim that things are unfair when we are the victims of the unfair actions or words. We desire to be the beneficiaries of fairness and justice, but everyone else is just out of luck. It is possible that we even, at times, believe that fairness and justice is our right. We deserve justice and fairness. We demand justice and fairness. It’s as if we, at times, believe that justice and fairness are the same as oxygen or water. It’s just given to us, on demand, at all times. But while we’re busy drinking and breathing, people around us are dying of thirst and can’t breathe. Do we notice?

The workers that the landowner hired all wanted to work. They all showed up to work. They all had the ability to work. It’s not like the workers who showed up at the end of the day had spent the majority of the day in bed or avoiding work. It is very likely that the people left to be hired at the end of the day were the people who needed it the most: the disabled, the poor, women, those who wouldn’t be as strong, the blind, and the lame. And the landowner paid them the same as he paid those whom he hired first thing in the morning. His excuse? It’s my money. I’ll do with it as I will. I’ll be honest, if I were one of those workers that had been laboring in the vineyard since before sunrise, I would be angry. I would be whatever it is when someone is more than angry. And then, the landowner has the audacity to ask the workers if they are envious because he is so generous. Envy wasn’t quite the word we were looking for there, Chief.

The kingdom of heaven is like getting what you don’t deserve. The kingdom of heaven is also like watching those you know don’t deserve anything get the same reward as you. My beloved, this is so maddening, isn’t it? Human justice makes sense to us. It is a construct that we have invented. God’s justice makes no sense to us. In a weird way, this is good news. Yes, justice and living in a just world or just kingdom can lead to anger. But anger isn’t the same as mistrust. Just because we may be angry with God does not mean that we don’t trust God. At the same time, justice and living in a just world or just kingdom can also be a relief.

If it is God’s justice and justification that makes us right, then it is not on us to be perfect. It is not on us to attempt to even clean up the mess we made from our own sins. God justifies us. What this means is that it is God who makes us right and whole. Nothing we can do will ever be able to achieve that. God’s justice saves us. When the owner hired the laborers, he agreed to pay them “the usual daily wage.” In that time, a daily wage was enough for one person to buy some bread. It was enough to literally buy daily bread. And isn’t this what we pray every time we pray the Lord’s prayer? God’s justice provides us with daily bread, and nothing more and nothing less. God’s justice also guarantees that we will be equal in God’s kingdom.

Today, we will get a small glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. There are few places on this earth where we are all equal. But, when we come to the waters of baptism, whether we come as a baby, like Hawk, or we come as adults, we are surrendering to the idea that we will be at the mercy of God’s justice and grace. We are washed clean and reminded that there is nothing we can do to earn our way out of this world. And in death, the other time we are all equal, God’s mercy comes full circle. God’s kingdom is like being claimed by God in the waters of baptism: no matter what your name is, no matter who your parents are, no matter what your bank account says, no matter your skin color, no matter your gender, all get the same name in those waters: justified child of God. God’s kingdom is like a communion table: no matter who you are, when you hold your hands out, you are fed a feast of forgiveness and love. God’s kingdom is like the foot of the cross where everyone is humbled and equal because all are on their knees.

The unfortunate and maddening news today, beloved, is that we don’t get a say in God’s mercy and justice, we just get to be active participants. And the good news and redemptive news today, beloved, is that we don’t get a say in God’s mercy and justice, we just get to be active participants.

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Sermon for 9/17/17 John 10:22-30

**nb: This was the 125th anniversary of the congregation I pastor**

A lot of you have noticed that I like to keep my fingernails long. I have had long nails for as long as I can remember. One of the things I do to spoil and treat myself is regular manicures. I recently changed the method of manicure and that has caused a lot of my nails to break. Meh. They’ll grow back. But, it wasn’t until I broke one all the way down to the quick did I realize how much I use my hands on a daily basis. I type, hold Ellen’s hand, pet Sasha, unload the dishwasher, open the mail, hold Chris’ hand…the list could go on and on. Then I thought about what some of you might do with your hands on a daily basis: rock babies, help an elderly parent take their medication, feed your animals, drive a load to ADM, quilt, bake, comfort others, and that list could go on and on as well.

And then I thought about what hands have done in this place through God’s people over the last 125 years. There was the literal moving of this church from over by the cemetery to where we sit now. Then the digging to build the narthex was done by so many of your ancestors. Renovations were done by people with the last names of Petersen and Mommsen to name a few. Many of you have brought your babies to this font to be baptized and held in the hands of pastors who now are part of our communion of saints. So many of you have shaken hands as you greet people gathered for your family confirmation, wedding, or funeral. And of course, so many of your hands helped to renovate the house I am proud to call our home. It’s really amazing to think about how the people of God, acting as God’s hands and feet in this world, have made a difference just in this place.

This passage from John is often used on what is known as “good shepherd” Sunday. This comes from the quote from Jesus in 10:27 “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I love that idea. It’s comforting to me, and to you, I hope, to think of Jesus as a shepherd. Jesus, the one who guides us, shelters us, and takes care of us. But, what really inspired my thinking this week was the sentence that followed. “I will give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Part of me wants to say “do you hear the good news in this? Okay great. Sermon over. Amen…” But I won’t.

Over the last 125 years one thing has remained the same: we have always been in God’s grip. God has a hold of us so very tightly and nothing has ever or will ever change that. It has been God’s hand all along hold us, nudging us, maybe even pushing us towards God’s will for us. God’s hands have been in and among us all along. Through times of great joy and in times of great sorrow, God has had us in the palm of God’s hand. Nothing has ever gotten in the way of that. And if you’ve been around these parts long enough, or have had family members that have been here for a while, you might be able to recall a time when you can say clearly and without a doubt “God’s hands were all over that!” And maybe, yes, there are times when you can recall wondering if God had a clue what was happening in this place.

Perhaps part of the good news for us is that feeling God and being held by God is never on us. What I mean is that God holds on to us, not the other way around. It is never us holding onto God. So, often I picture God holding my hand like a tender parent would but other times, I picture God picking me up by the back of my neck like a disobedient kitten. Even in the times of our disbelief, God still has a hold of us. During the times when we wonder if God is even listening, I think that is when God tightens the grip. And when Jesus says that no one will snatch us out of God’s hand what that really means is that not one person and not one thing can ever take us away from God.

Evil forces have a way of finding us, don’t they. Sometimes we call these evil forces “good intentions” and sometimes they are more appropriately called “sin.” We may not trust that God has a hold of us. We intervene in our human ways that ultimately lead to human error. We may think that we know better than God so even though God is pointing us one way, we look and say “this way seems easier, better, or way more fun!” And we stray. God offers us life and protection and love but instead we turn to power, money, and self interests to comfort us. All of those things ultimately let us down. But no matter what, nothing removes us from God’s hand, not even death. Not an actual death or a metaphorical death can remove us from God’s hand. And remember, from death comes a resurrection and new life and whose hand do you think is doing all of that?

There was a time when every Sunday School room in this church was filled with children and there were months when keeping the lights on was in question. God has been with us every single step of the way. It is only by the grace of God that we have been a cornerstone of this community for 125 years and only by the grace of God that we will continue to do ministry in this area for another 125. What has been the same since the doors of this church opened will continue to be the same until Christ comes again: we gather as the people of God, to hear the Word of God, to feast on the body and blood of God, and then we are sent out to be and show Christ to other people in a hurting world. Nothing has changed that and nothing will. What is comforting about church is that some things never change. What is maddening about church is that some things never change. But through it all, God’s hands have been in, among, and around all of us. What gives me hope and joy this day, my beloved, is that God will continue to move in this place. Long after you and I are gone. Long after stories of us are gone. God’s hands will be guiding this place and God’s people to usher in God’s kingdom to this world.

Sermon for 9/10/17 Matthew 18:15-20

I tried everything I could to come up with something to say this week. I thought about different stories from my life I could share. I read articles. I read blog posts. I listened to podcasts. I tried praying about this text. But, as my own self-imposed deadline drew closer and closer, I realized I had nothing. I wasn’t surprised by this, quite honestly. It’s been a week. This isn’t an excuse, it’s my reality. I think it’s important that you see me as human. What I mean by that is that I am not some kind of like rock-star super-species that can handle everything that life throws at me. I hurt. I cry. I experience joy and pain; laughter and sorrow; ups and downs, just like the rest of you. Sometimes I turn to God and lean on God so heavily that I think God might just tip over. Sometimes I ignore God altogether and then get angry with God. God can handle that, trust me. This was a week where a lot was poured out of me and not a lot went back in. We took care of Evelyn Mohr’s funeral on Thursday and then I had a double funeral yesterday of Cathy and Bill Winchester. In addition to that, we put our eldest dog, Bailey to sleep on Tuesday. All of this on top of the normal every day stresses of life. Like I said, it’s been a week.

And sometimes I have weeks like this and I put on my “happy worship” face and come here, lead worship, give you the body and blood of Christ, declare forgiveness of your sins, sing and rejoice, and then go home and collapse, still feeling bleh. In seminary we called that “fake it til’ you make it.” I imagine some of you do it to. Maybe you’re not having a great day, week, month, or even a great year. And yet, you show up here, week after week, faking it the whole time, waiting for something to happen. And what are we waiting for? I think at the root of all people, we desire genuine relationships, right? I hope all of you have a sweatpants friend. That’s what I call it. This is your friend that you can show up to their house in sweatpants, no make up, hair a mess, and they’re going to welcome you in, no questions asked because they look exactly the same.

We should have more sweatpants relationships in the church. But instead, we spend time and money prettying ourselves up to come to a place where we declare to love and worship a God who knows us, the real us, and yet we present the covered up us. We present the “us” that has everything together. We present the “us” that is “great! How are you?” We present the “us” that has perfect children, a perfect marriage, perfect teeth, clothes, hair, and an offering to boot! And what do we do as soon as we leave this place? We go home, take off our costumes, and get into sweatpants! So today, I am showing up. I am showing up, just as I am and with no apologies. This is how God made me. God loves me when I am dressed like this or if I am in sweatpants. But, most importantly, I wanted to show up. And I thank you today for showing up. I am sure many of you had other things you could be doing right now, including sleep if you wanted. But you showed up.

I showed up because of the promise given to us in verse 20 today “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” So I came today to be with you because I knew that when we gathered, Jesus would be here. And Jesus is here. Not because of anything I have said or done, but because we are the people of God gathered AS the people of God. Therefore, Jesus is here. Sometimes, we just need that reminder. We show up, just as we are, broken sinners, yet at the same time, real people, with real problems, with no real solutions. The only solution that seems to make any sense whatsoever is to come together as the people of God and remind one another that Jesus is here, in our midst, in our presence.

And Jesus didn’t show up because we look good, or because we’ve got it all figured out, or because it’s 9:00am on a Sunday. Jesus showed up because that’s what he does. We serve a God who promises to show up through Jesus Christ and God will never let us down. Sometimes as Christians, I think we think that we can’t show up until we have all the answers. We don’t want to show up and not know what to say, what to do, or how to do whatever it is we’re supposed to do when we show up. I think that’s why when we do gather as the body of Christ during times of sorrow, we often just stick with the “script.” The script is “I’m very sorry to hear about your loss” and we bring a pan of bars or something. Then we offer this: “call me if you need anything.” And in times of crisis, we know we need stuff, we just don’t know what it is and at the same time, we’ll be damned if we’re going to ask for it.

What we need, my beloved, is to just show up. Show up even though we don’t know what to say, do, ask, or act. Show up. Because when we show up as people of God on behalf of the body of Christ, Christ is already there in the midst of that. It doesn’t matter if we show up in a church or in a bar. When we show up for one another, Christ is there. And what that looks like from a practical standpoint is this: showing up and making, creating, and holding space for others to experience Christ. We don’t have to have the answers, don’t you see? Christ is already here or wherever among us. So instead of showing up all shiny and pretty and promising that things will get better, what if we showed up as our real selves and said “I dunno. But I know Christ is here.” I think what God desires is for us to be real, to be genuine, and to show up. Can we trust that God is amazing enough to give us what we need when we need it when we show up to just show up? Or are we going to sit back and wait until the right time because we don’t know what to say or do and really the message that we are sending is “I don’t trust you, God.”

Can we just admit that the world has enough shiny fake people in it? Aren’t you tired of putting on an act? Don’t you get tired of pretending that everything is okay? Shouldn’t church be the one place that you can show up without apology and people are just glad you showed up? If we desire to be a place of welcome, which I think we do, then let’s be genuine about that. There’s a huge difference in “well…I guess you showed up” (while looking someone up and down) and “at least you showed up!” Now, please don’t get all up in arms with me thinking that I am suggesting that we become the sweatpants church. I don’t care what you wear, I am just glad you are here. The world needs more places where people feel comfortable and welcomed, just as they are, knowing that they will be listened to and loved. And we don’t have to have all the answers or resources. We just show up. And we keep showing up over and over and over again because we know that when 2 or 3 people are gathered in God’s name, God is already there in the midst of them, creating something holy. And God knows what the world needs more than anything right now is more places where people can just show up and be and experience the holy. Maybe this is our call, beloveds. Our call is to show up, point to Christ, and create space to experience holy hospitality. Thanks for showing up today. I’m glad I did.