Sermon for 2/28/18 Mark 8:31-38

Thanks to the way my brain works, sometimes I think about what happens in the Bible that we don’t get to read about. That’s where my mind went at first this week. I pictured Peter pulling his friend Jesus aside and saying “hey Jesus! Cool it with the talk of your death and stuff, okay?” And Jesus responding “get behind me, Satan” and then poor Peter moping off. I then pictured Peter passing another disciple on the road or something and that other disciple, we’ll say it was Andrew or John saying “why are you upset, Peter?” And Peter saying “it’s nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.” And the other disciple saying “oh. Okay… Well, I gotta go talk to Jesus about something.” Peter would respond with “yeah…I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

We don’t often get “fiesty Jesus” in our Gospel stories, but that’s exactly what happens today. Jesus is letting Peter, all of the rest of the disciples, and us know what it actually is going to mean to be a disciple. And it’s not easy. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I wonder if it was then that the disciples and all who were gathered listening to Jesus finally started to realize the life that they had agreed to and the life that they had been called to. For Jesus to say “take up your cross” wasn’t some kind of code word or phrase. The cross was a well known tool of torture and death. For Jesus, it would mean death. We have the gift of foreknowledge so we know that Jesus’ death isn’t the end of the story. The cross for Jesus and for us meant death AND resurrection.

Jesus always knew this was going to be his legacy. So he knew that taking up his cross meant doing what he had always done: preaching, teaching, siding with those who are marginalized, healing, and feeding. But, all of that is what ultimately got him arrested and hung on a cross. And in a way, the disciples knew. After all, Jesus just a few verses before our reading today asks Peter “who do you say I am?” And Peter answered “You are the Messiah.” (8.29) What did Peter think that meant? What does it mean for us? For us to claim Christ as the Messiah means that we claim our identity as disciples. And our identity as disciples means it is more than just saying we’re Christians. Being a Christian isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. Jesus challenges us to take up our cross and follow him.

What does that mean for us? Jesus tells the crowd “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Does Jesus mean we literally have to die for him and for the work of the Gospel and the work of ushering in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven? In some cases, that has happened. But the death that Jesus is most likely speaking of here is the death of our selfishness, the death of our self interest, the death of the idea that being a Christian is easy. Because we know, many of us can speak of it first hand, that just because we wear the label of “Christian” and just because we may try and move and be in the world as Christians, does not make us immune to pain, troubles, heartache, and even death. Being Christian is not an easy ticket or way out.

For us, losing our lives means making a confession as to what we believe and then living like it. If, like Peter, we confess that Jesus is the Messiah then that means everything we do and say points to that fact. It means we have to be willing to take on the evil forces of this world that scream and compete for our attention when they tell us that Jesus doesn’t matter and that this world is cold and has no room for love. When we know that’s not true. We know that’s not true because we’ve experienced the greatest love of all in the form of Christ on the cross. But, and here’s the catch, it’s one thing to say that Jesus’ love changes the world. It’s totally different to act like it really does.

For us to take up our cross means to live in the promises of baptism every single day. To read scripture, pray, come to the table, work for justice in the world, and renounce the devil and all the forces that deny God. That’s what saves us. Not our works. Not our actions. Not our hopeful or feeble attempts. God’s grace alone saves us. Anytime we take our gaze off the cross, we have “traded the death and resurrection of Jesus with a more convenient and acceptable means of imagining what it means to follow Jesus” (K Lewis). Perhaps it is time for you and for me to answer the question for ourselves of “who do you say that I am?” Because as soon as we can answer that, we can start to recognize the times when we’re picking up our cross to follow Jesus or if we’re picking up stones to throw at Jesus.

To take up our cross means to examine, study, and emulate Christ’s sacrificial love. This is love given without expecting anything in return. And this is love received without expecting reciprocation. The greatest weapon on earth is love. And the greatest love comes from God through Jesus Christ. Nothing is stronger than that. So by picking up our cross, we’re agreeing to love the world even when the love doesn’t want to love us back. When we pick up the cross, we aim to love those whose only desire is to quiet our message. When we pick up our cross, we hope to love those who think they’re unloveable. When we love others like Christ did, it is not at the cost of ourselves. We don’t aim to put ourselves in harm’s way or open ourselves up to abusive situations. When we love like Christ did, we open ourselves up to opportunities to love.

And, maybe most importantly, when we pick up our cross, we leave this place living like we believe the benediction is true. The benediction is the last thing we say before we exit these doors. Right now it is “marked with the cross of Christ, go forth to love and serve the Lord” and we say?? (thanks be to God.) Yes! Thanks be to God that we get to do this! Thanks be to God that God has created us to love one another and the world! Thanks be to God that God goes with us when we do this seemingly impossible work. And thanks be to God we can come here week after week and be refreshed and renewed to then be sent out once again into the world to love. Jesus is inviting us, encouraging us, maybe even daring us to pick up our crosses and follow him. It’s all too easy to say no. But, it’s more rewarding to pick up that cross and start loving the world. Living fully into your baptismal promises, may you leave this place full of the love of God and powered by the Holy Spirit so that all who you encounter know that you belong to Christ.

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Sermon for 2/18/18 Mark 1:9-15 Lent 1

Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness isn’t exactly an unfamiliar story to many. You may have heard variations of it over the years. But it is in Mark’s telling of the Gospel that we get today that has the least amount of details. Here’s what we know: Jesus had been baptized and immediately driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Here’s what you need to know about the wilderness. This isn’t wilderness like Denali National Park or someplace in the Colorado Rockies. This is wilderness like a desert. Like the area between Lincoln, Nebraska and the Colorado border (if you’ve made that drive). The wilderness in this story is stark, barren, full of uncertainty, and temptations. We don’t get a lot of details in this story. We know Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, he was tempted by Satan, he was with wild beasts, and angels waited on him. That’s it. That’s all we know. We don’t know the ways that Jesus handled Satan. We can assume he did handle Satan because we hear more of the Gospel story.

But, often when we are in the wilderness, we may not know how to handle it. We may not know what to do or say. When Satan tempts us in the wilderness, we may cave to those temptations. And the wilderness looks like a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And when you’re in the midst of your own wilderness, directions seem few and far between. Christ has called me this moment and this time to speak truth. I am called to speak truth even if it isn’t popular and even if my voice shakes. My beloved, we are in a time of wilderness. And Satan has taken on the form of the powers in this country refusing to do anything about gun control.

Before you turn off your ears, I am begging you to hear me. I am not anti-gun. I know many of you in these pews own guns. I fully support your right to do that. I have made the decision that I will never own one. But, that doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t. I am not anti-gun. However, it is time for us to get serious about how someone can own a gun and who can own a gun. How many of our children must die before we get serious about this? We will be in a wilderness until we repent. We will be in the wilderness until we can turn our hearts from worshipping guns to worshipping God.

We don’t know how Jesus handled the wilderness in Mark’s Gospel. But we know that Satan was nothing to be messed with. After all, when Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus when Jesus spoke of his own death, Jesus looked at his disciple and said “get behind me Satan!” (Mk 8:33) The trouble with not knowing the details of how Jesus handled the wilderness is that we are left to our own devices to fill in the blanks. And the temptation may be to give ourselves more credit and abilities when it comes to fighting Satan or the wilderness. We now find ourselves in the wilderness. We’ve been in this wilderness since April 20, 1999 when we first heard of a place called “Columbine High School.” And it seems no matter what we do, nothing changes and we stay in the wilderness.

We certainly aren’t Jesus, we know that. But, and I don’t know about you, I know I don’t want to stay in the wilderness for the rest of my life. Jesus didn’t even stay in the wilderness. The wilderness is not a life-giving place. Part of what can help us start to escape the wilderness is what we talk about a lot during Lent: repentance. But, repentance cannot happen without confession. We can’t hurry this process. Sometimes confession is less about us speaking of the ways we failed and more about listening to the ways we failed through the words from other people. Confession is about being honest. Confession is about exposing our failures not only to other people but to God as well.

Too often when tragedies like this happen, we talk around one another. We talk over one another. But we rarely engage in conversation with one another. Instead of having difficult conversations, we just hop online and try to one up one another with articles, statistics, and engage in “I’m right, let me tell you why you’re wrong” conversations. And instead of throwing our hands up in the air, what might it look like for us, for the church to model hard conversations? We can model these conversations because Jesus in the midst of these conversations promising that relationship built on accompaniment. What would it look like to have a cup of coffee with one another and talk about those difficult topics and find the places where we can agree. Talking together and trying to find a solution has to be much more productive than “thoughts and prayers.”

What might change if we engaged in these conversations looking to learn from one another rather than prove one another wrong? I want to hear your story, what you’re passionate about, and why you believe what you believe. And, in exchange, I want you to hear my story, what I’m passionate about, and why I believe what I believe. And then, together, we can confess the ways we have failed to see one another as full and amazing creations of God. And together we can repent from our previous ways and work towards finding common ground centered in Christ. We don’t have to stay in the wilderness. Christ is our key out of the wilderness. Worship centered on Christ, living surrounded and centered on Christ, and conversations centered on Christ are our keys. Thoughts and prayers will not help us escape the wilderness. Looking Satan and all of his lies right in the eyes and repenting, turning to Christ is the only thing that can help us escape.

We may think we can’t change anything. The government seems so big and we are just but one person. But we have something that seems to be forgotten about at times: we’ve got Jesus. Jesus’ baptism shows us things can change. Jesus’ temptation shows us things can change. Jesus’ ministry shows us things can change. And most importantly, the resurrection shows us that things can and do change. If we truly believe that God’s kingdom is also God’s kin-dom, then yes, things can change. Thoughts and prayers are fantastic. Prayer and action is what we’re called to as disciples. Yes, these acts of violence are terrible and seem almost too big to take on. Let’s show that big problem our big God. Satan will tempt us not to leave the wilderness. Well, get behind me, Satan. I’m ready to answer the call God has on my life, the call God has had on all our lives since baptism. Let’s start these hard conversations here and now. Conversations are much easier to have than prayer vigils. It starts today.

Ash Wednesday 2018; Matthew 6:1-6; 16-21

We come fully prepared, or so we think

Privately prepared for this public outing

Fasting on our mind, alms prepared, personal piety on lockdown

Oil is on our heads, our faces are washed. We are ready.

And then you meet us here, Lord

All of the preparations in the world can’t

Measure up to that face to face moment.

You see us. You see the real us, the real me.

The me you’ve loved from first splash to now.

You see what we’re trying to hide with all of these

Preparations

You see our secrets

You see our shame

We knew we couldn’t hide. But we tried.

You find us. You seek us out

Have mercy on us

We tremble in fear and are knocked to our knees

Humbled, but not humiliated

Thankful. Prayerful. Remorseful.

We thought we were prepared.

But in prayer, you find us.

In the meal, you find us.

In the darkness, you find us.

You always find us, Lord.

Sin is a disruption to our daily lives.

We can’t escape it by ourselves.

You are the only thing to set us free with your cross shaped key

We have failed in the ways you have called us.

We were silent in the face of injustice.

We were complacent in times of persecution

We were frozen when the moment needed movement.

We weren’t who you created us to be.

We desire to do good and fail.

We desire to love and instead judge.

We desire to serve and instead become self serving.

Forgive us. We beg of you, forgive us Lord.

We follow you from death to life

And our life now has meaning.

The only bags we need are the ones you fill with mercy

Grace

And love

The next 40 days we will hear of your travels,

Of your healing

Of your teaching, preaching, and learning.

And we will hear of your entry into Jerusalem

Shouts of “Hosanna in the highest!”

Will quickly escalate into

“Crucify him”

Our voices carry, but we’ll deny like Peter

We’ll say it wasn’t us but then the cock will crow

And yet

Yet

You meet us here.

In all of our brokenness

In all of our lost promises

In all of our failed attempts at love.

You meet us here.

And somehow. Some way

We are reminded

That we are yours.

That we’ve always been yours

That we will always be yours

You rescue us from ourselves

You save us from our sin

You remind us that we belong to you

You have marked us with the cross

And sealed us with the Holy Spirit

We are dust

And to dust we shall return

 

Sermon for 2/11/18 Mark 9:2-9 Transfiguration

In my experience, I don’t know that I have found a human emotion that more people try to avoid or that more people dislike as much as fear. I don’t know what it is about fear. Fear actually keeps us safe. But, I think we often run from fear because if people see us afraid, they might then see us as weak. And I also find that fear and pain go hand in hand. Fear and pain are two things that I find people want to avoid. And we often go through several hoops in order to avoid pain and fear. Society tells us that we need to be happy, successful, thin, rich, and on and on. In order to be what society tells us we need to be, we often run from pain and from fear. We look to mask whatever is imperfect with us in order to highlight the “believed” perfect and show that to the world.

Author Glennon Doyle Melton talks about living with fear and living with pain. She says that we often are looking for the easy button of life. Do you all remember the Staples commercial where they push that big red button and say “that was easy!” And for us, she says, we look for the easy button in order to escape or avoid fear or pain. And the easy button can be anything: food, booze, drugs, sex, the internet, gossip, and on and on. But, she proposes that instead of pushing our easy buttons that we need to be better at sitting in our pain and sitting with our fears. We try and outrun it all, but instead, we need to take up residence in pain and fear and see what they have to teach us.

And I mention this as Peter expresses a common human emotion of fear. And instead of expressing his fear (scripture says “they were terrified”) he proposes to Jesus that they just need to stay on that mountain. Peter even says let’s not only stay here, let’s live here. On this mountaintop. He was afraid and didn’t know what else to say. Instead of facing his fear, Peter wants an easy button. And the easy button, so to speak, comes in the form of God and God’s declaration. God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” What? That’s an easy button? Yes. Follow me here.

Fear is part of our lives. Pain is part of our lives. We cannot avoid it. We may try. But there is no human made “easy button.” The only easy button in our lives is the cross. And in order to fully experience the cross we must fully experience fear and pain. On this day, Transfiguration, my proposal beloveds, is that we allow ourselves to be transformed and transfigured by pain and fear. What do pain and fear have to teach us? Jesus wasn’t one to run from pain and fear. He could have stayed on the top of that mountain. But instead, he came down the mountain into a valley where he would be met, eventually, but the people who would arrest and crucify him.

And I know what you may be thinking “of course Jesus didn’t run from pain and fear….he’s Jesus.” Right. I get it. But part of our call to be disciples as I’ve been talking about week after week is to not only point to Jesus but follow him as well. It’s easy for us to talk about Jesus. It might even be easy to point to Jesus and the ways that he moves and acts throughout this world. But to literally follow Jesus is scary. Our fear takes hold and gets the best of us and then we go looking for those man-made easy buttons.

Jesus goes to places we don’t like to even think about going. Jesus goes to disease infested, war torn, s-hole countries (as President Trump would say) that we’d rather not think exist. But he goes there because the promise that God has made to all of humanity is that we will not be abandoned by God. And so God sends us Jesus. If Jesus descended into hell, you can bet that going places that other people would rather forget probably seems like a cakewalk. And I’m not proposing that we need to all pack our bags and go on a mission trip. I mean that following Jesus is something that can start small. Anytime you may find yourself thinking or expressing the feeling of “I can’t go there” or “I can’t talk to them because it would just break my heart” then that is exactly where you need to be. Because that is exactly where Jesus is. We may want to avoid pain and fear but that is exactly where Christ normally hangs out.

When God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” God is telling us that EVERYTHING that Jesus has told us and will tell us about his life, death, and resurrection is true. And if that is true, my beloveds, then the pain and fear we may feel not only is real, but we’re not alone. And the pain and fear we go through will vanish in death thanks to God’s saving action on the cross. Beautiful Miss Shelby is going to get baptized today. And in baptism we never promise a life without pain and fear. Of course, we don’t want that for her. But it will happen. But in baptism we are promised a life where Jesus is going to be with us every single step of the way. No matter what.

I hope that Shelby will learn and I pray that all of us can learn that instead of reaching for the “easy button,” instead of being tempted to do whatever it is we need to do to escape pain and fear, that we instead remember that in our pain and in our fear is where Christ tends to be. In our pain and in our fear is usually where we learn the most. In our pain and in our fear is where we find out who we are and whose we are. We too often are like Peter: desiring to be comfortable, set up shop, and avoid not only pain and fear, but those dark valleys. But if we somehow are able to avoid those, are we really living the life that God intended for us? We don’t go searching out fear and pain, but it is out there.

For some reason, we may also think that in order to be people of God that coming to church means coming “cleaned up.” When we come to God’s house we certainly cannot be filled with pain and fear. People don’t like to see that. We must come neat, put together, and with the appearance that all is fine and good. But if we believe that Christ truly is present in this place, and I really hope we believe that, then why would we not come as we are even if that means coming full of pain and fear? If Christ is going to meet us here, Christ will meet us in our pain and in our fear even if no one else does. Many of us work really hard to present masks of ourselves to the world, pretending to be perfect. But I am sure that Christ would prefer us to be present over perfect. Christ would prefer us to be flawed over fake.

Shelby’s transfiguration starts today. She will be transfigured into a child of God. And for you, my dearests, be reminded that your transfiguration started long ago at these waters as well. God met you here and continues to walk with you. It is okay to fear. It is okay to have pain. Our God is a God who suffered on a cross. There’s no pain that compares to that. That suffering erases ours. If you’re looking for an easy button, you’ll find it in the cross.

Sermon for 2/4/18 Mark 1:29-39

Many of you may recall that in my first year or so here, I had a few hospital stays. I was quite sick. Thanks to a super-bug that will not die, I caught something called “clostridium difficile” also known as c-diff. It is basically an overabundance of bad bacteria in your gut and colon. I will spare you all the symptoms, but if someone who is older or who already has a weakened immune system catches c-diff, they could die. It is very common after antibiotic use and among those who have been hospitalized or in a long term care facility. My best guess is that I caught it by doing nursing home and hospital visits. It can live on elevator buttons, bed rails, door knobs, and on and on. And the awesome (sarcastic) news is that plain old hand sanitizer does not kill it. So, I got c-diff not once, not twice, but three times within an 18 month period. And it was awful.

I had an appointment with a specialist in Iowa City (a GI) to see about an operation that could maybe get rid of it. It’s a transplant of sorts. Although again, I will spare you the details. The doctor looked at me, looked at my chart and said “you’re not a good candidate for this.” And I immediately broke down crying. If I wasn’t a good candidate, who was? The other awful thing about c-diff is that immediately I was made to feel like a leper. People coming to visit me had to wear a gown, gloves, and a mask. The nurse had a disposable stethoscope that was kept in my room for only use on me; same with a blood pressure cuff. I was also made to feel incredibly dirty. I got asked multiple times if I washed my hands after using the restroom and on and on. I desperately wanted healing.

When I finally did get better, all I wanted to do was make sure no one else would have to go through what I went through. In many ways, I became a c-diff evangelist. Maybe you can relate to this, but with healing comes power. If you have been healed from anything: the flu, a broken bone, no signs of cancer, and on and on, you know the power that can come from healing. You know the power that can come with feeling like you have your life back. And if you have experienced this kind of healing, you also know that you may see life a little differently.

I think that is what happened with Simon’s mother-in-law. There are so many jokes that a  reader might be tempted to make with this. There are mother-in-law or father-in-law jokes and/or horror stories. On top of that, we are told that upon being healed, Simon’s mother-in-law began to serve Jesus and all of the disciples that were present. Ha-ha. How funny, a woman started serving all the men. Ha-ha. Yeah…nope. Her serving them had nothing to do with her status in life or her gender. Although we are not told so explicitly, it is very likely that Simon’s mother-in-law was widowed. So she is a single woman who, up until now, had been very sick. She had been, according to Jewish law and customs, most likely unclean. Simon’s mother-in-law serving those around her is not the present day equivalent of “get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich, woman.”  Simon’s mother-in-law does not serve because she has to. She serves because the love of God that she has experienced through her healing is too much to keep to herself. She serves because this is what it looks like to be a disciple. Simon’s mother-in-law is a beautiful example of what it looks like to follow Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t heal people just to heal them. It’s not like he’s a traveling magician going from town to town leaving healed people in his midst with no reaction. No. The Gospel of Mark starts with this phrase “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And it ends with Jesus sending out all of his disciples to share the good news. And the good news is that the Kingdom of God is here. It’s not some far off idea. It’s not some concept that will happen “someday.” The Kingdom of God is in the here and now. And we, my beloved, we all have a roll in the Kingdom of God. Simon’s mother-in-law didn’t get up and serve as a way of thanking Jesus. We know better than that. Jesus heals people that have no way of paying him. Jesus walks with people who will only go so far. Jesus paid the price without any expectation of being paid back. Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as yet more proof that the Kingdom of God is in the here and now and. And her response looks a lot like what Jesus himself does: she serves just as he did.

When you have been a recipient of God’s healing or God’s grace, it’s hard not to want to serve others, or at least tell others what you have experienced. And before you tell me “oh Pastor, I don’t know. I haven’t had that kind of healing or that kind of grace” I am going to tell you to stop right there. Because you have experienced it. Maybe you didn’t know you experienced it, but you did. You experience it all the time when you come to this table, arms outstretched, hands hungering to be filled. You experience it when you either are baptized or remember your own baptism. We get to see God’s grace in action when water and the Holy Spirit come together. And how can we not leave this place and serve others and tell them the good news.

“Disciple” isn’t just a term for 12 guys who served Jesus. We are all disciples. Part of being part of the body of Christ is being a disciple. Our call is to look for stories of the resurrection in everyday living. I don’t mean actual resurrection from the dead, but stories of people getting another chance at life. And then, THEN, when we do hear those stories or experience those stories, we tell others about it as proof of the continuation of the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Is it easy? Not always. We don’t like people’s judgement that comes with proclaiming our discipleship title with pride. We may get nervous we don’t have the right words. We may wonder if what we really saw was a resurrection story or just dumb luck. But none of that mattered to Simon’s mother-in-law and it shouldn’t matter to us. She was healed and she started serving.

We have been healed. And so we start serving. We serve by caring for one another, by caring for the least of these around us, by caring for our world, and what is going on around us. And there are some, I know, who long for healing. Who have been begging God to be healed and nothing comes of it. Christ still heals in death, y’all. And then the promise of the resurrection becomes real for those who have died. In our baptisms and in this meal, we have been healed, if only a little bit. The Kingdom of God is in the here and now and God needs disciples. We have been healed and now it’s our turn to start serving or continue serving. The good news isn’t spread by itself, my beloved. God is calling us and has created us to serve. We live in a hurting and broken world. Now that we have been healed, it is on us to serve as Christ did. It is on us to declare hope for all. It is on us to start serving our neighbor, our friends, and everyone in need. The Kingdom of God is here and now and God’s grace is flowing through us and out of us. We’ve got plenty to share, so let’s get started.