Sermon for 11/25/18 John 18:33-37 Christ the King

One thing I have noticed in the last few years is a decline and almost loss of civility. And maybe it is not the loss of civility that I am noticing, but perhaps just the polarization of society around us. The areas of black and white thinking our growing on the areas of gray keep shrinking day after day. Which is unfortunate, because so much of Christianity is a gray area. We must be citizens of the law while living by grace. We wrestle with the call of social justice while at the same time continuing to come face-to-face with dwindling resources. We hear Jesus  call us to move in the world as disciples, but at times, if we are honest, that task alone feel very overwhelming. And so, here we are on Christ the King Sunday. In years past, I’ve preached on what it means to confess that Jesus is King. I wrestle with that confession because if Jesus is king then that means so many other things in my life are not. But let’s take all of this one step further. If we believe that Jesus is King, and we do, then that means we are also confessing to kingdom living. This, my beloved, is where I really struggle.

I believe there is a difference between confessing that Jesus is king and kingdom living. We do one with our lips, however we do the other with her whole being. If we’re going to be honest, it is difficult living in a black and white society while also trying to be kingdom dwellers. There is something to be said about black and white living. Opinions are cut and dry, you know where everyone stands, and it is very easy to tell who your friends and enemies are. In this time of great divide and tumult, the attitude seems to be “if you are not with me, you are against me.” We have all but lost the ability to be in disagreement with one another and still live together.

The challenge of kingdom living is this: it is kingdom living. And Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Which also means that if our eyes, hearts, and minds are focused on God’s kingdom and living as if we are serious about bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth then we will constantly bump up against the ways of this world. While we can live in two worlds: this one and God’s, it is ultimately the the grace, mercy, and love of God’s kingdom that will dominate. This may all sound fine and good, but it really is a challenge, this kingdom living stuff. On the surface, it may not seem like it. After all, we’re Christians. If our hearts are pure and true and we put Jesus as first in our lives, how hard can kingdom living be? I propose, my beloveds, that kingdom living is risky, challenging, and can lead to great loneliness. Because once again, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and so kingdom living isn’t of this world either.

What makes it so challenging? Let me give you some examples of living in this world versus living in God’s kingdom. Living in this world, the message is protect at all costs. Build a wall. Kingdom living says all are welcome, no exceptions. This worlds message is that we should fear the unknown no matter if the unknown is circumstances or people. Kingdom living encourages us to welcomes the unknown because we know the Holy Spirit specializes in the unknown. This world says that you must take care of yourself, be concerned about what is best for you, and if you’re having a difficult time, well then, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Kingdom living expectations state that when my neighbor is well, I am well. Kingdom living says that if my neighbor struggles, I struggle. And if our neighbor(s) are struggling or having a difficult time, kingdom living encourages accompaniment and tending for those around us with less.

Perhaps you can see, my beloved, how kingdom living would be challenging. Honestly it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is opposite of everything we usually know. Kingdom living is difficult. Kingdom living should be a comfort. Instead, most times, it convicts us. Kingdom living is full of grace. However, we often interpret it as nothing but the law. Kingdom living is full of promise. However, we often interpret it as constraining and inhibiting. Because kingdom living may lose us relationships; people may not understand why we do what we do when we’re trying to bring God’s kingdom here on earth. And instead of attempting to comprehend what we’re doing, it’s easier to just leave us behind and live by the rules of this world. What are we willing to lose in order to be kingdom dwellers?

Maybe the question shouldn’t be what are we willing to lose, but are we willing to lose in order to be citizens of the kingdom? That question should cause us to pause and really evaluate if we actually want to be citizens of the kingdom. We quickly forget that Jesus was a citizen of the kingdom and he was crucified for it. Are we willing to usher in the kingdom even when that means following Jesus all the way to the cross? Remember, Jesus came so that everyone who believes in him may never perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Part of kingdom living is that promise of eternal life. It would seem almost foolish to not be kingdom dwellers. But our old friend, sin, gets the best of us every single time. Are we willing to let go of what we think makes and builds a kingdom and instead focus on the truth of what builds a kingdom: Christ and Christ alone. And despite our best intentions, we end up desiring to live in God’s kingdom while fully living in this kingdom. We may think we’re being successful, claiming to be kingdom dwellers while all the while, living by the rules, laws, and expectations of this world. But Christ knows.

Christ knows and grants us citizenship in God’s kingdom anyway. Our place in God’s kingdom is secure despite ourselves. This has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God and the love of God given to us through Jesus Christ. God is loving. God is merciful. God is full of grace. God is everything this world is not. Our bodies, our minds, maybe even our actions may belong to this world. But, God laid claim on our hearts and souls before we were even born. God granted us kingdom citizenship while we were still in the womb. The promise of God’s kingdom is this: it is not of this world. That, my beloved, is certainly good news. To be freed from the troubles of this world is most certainly a gift from God and of God. Kingdom living is freedom living. And one day, by God’s grace alone, we will all be freed.

Sermon for 11/18/18 Mark 13:1-8

As many of you know, my mother was a teacher as I was growing up. So, she had her summers free, or as free as teachers normally have (I know you all work hard during the summer). When she wasn’t planning, writing, testing, and on and on, she would prepare to do her favorite thing with us kids: camping. We tent camped all around Missouri. We spent the days fishing, swimming, or doing local touristy stuff and spent the evenings sitting around a fire. We even once learned how to call owls. One thing we knew we could always count on was a comfy and safe place to lay our heads at the end of the night. One summer evening the air was just right for some adventure. The park ranger came around and over his loud speaker was announcing that we were under a “tornado watch/warning.” To this day we still talk about how confused we were. So, we decided to get out of the tent and head to safer shelter. When you’re from the Midwest, you can just feel a storm in your bones and we felt it! Mom was out of the tent, followed by Jon, then it was Jayna’s turn. Now, Jayna has a great fear of storms. As she was trying to get out of the tent, a huge clap of thunder and lightning struck. She practically jumped out of her skin and tried to fall back into the tent. Except she couldn’t. Her hair, a huge chunk of it, was stuck in the tent zipper. Another huge clap of thunder and lightning struck and she practically pulled her hair out herself. We joked that we found hair in the zipper for many camping trips to follow. We made it to the shelter (which was just a bathroom) in time for the tornado to touchdown. Our Chevy Astro van rocked in the wind. When it was all over, the rain guard on our tent was gone along with other odds and ends, but the tent was okay. So much for feeling safe and secure.

However, I find that we humans do this a lot. We put a lot of hope in structures that, with the right forces, can be destroyed. After all, most of us have lived in the Midwest for a good portion of our lives. We know how quickly tornadoes or flood waters can take over what we might have thought was untouchable. Our siblings in California are seeing all too well the destructive power of fire. Those in the paths of hurricanes know the force of water and wind. We don’t necessarily need these reminders of the power of Mother Nature and the realization that nothing is permanent, but it is humbling when we get these reminders. We don’t have to be betrayed by Mother Nature to realize this. So many are betrayed by their bodies. It could be a new cancer diagnosis, a life-long battle with an illness, or maybe the darkness of dementia; our bodies have a way of reminding us that nothing is permanent.

This isn’t a new struggle. We hear the disciples today marveling at the temple structure. What large stones and what large buildings. It’s almost as if you can hear the disciples say “nothing could ever happen to this!” The disciples were putting their faith, giving too much credit to a man-made structure. Jesus quickly let them in on a little secret. Not only will the temple fall, but the world is going to experience apocalyptic like occurrences. I mean, I don’t know that there is a different (or better) way to talk about wars, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, and famines. Then, Jesus said, this is but the beginning! The beginning! Rough stuff, Jesus. But we’re not all that different from the disciples, you and I. There is something to be said about the power that lies behind bigger, stronger, larger. And when the things around us fail, we turn to confrontational language to describe it. Have you ever noticed that?

When your body starts to betray you, you fight cancer. When an illness has wracked your body for years, you’re in a battle. We go to war against those weeds. When we’ve been hit, we talk about rebuilding bigger and stronger than before. Even when other people betray us, we may be tempted to say they don’t exist to me anymore or the darker they’re dead to me. There is one underlying tie that all of these ideas have in common: power. We want to be more powerful than the forces and situations that surround us. And when we’re reminded that we aren’t (thanks to a storm, illness, or broken relationship) we retaliate and use language of power and domination. This cycle goes on and on.

But the powerful will fall. This goes for buildings, structures, governmental systems, and people. The question is, will we notice? We have a lot of forces of nature and forces of power competing for our attention. Perhaps we’ll be too worried about large bodies of power failing to notice small moments of might: the widow giving her last few coins or a Jewish teacher being crucified. But how in the world can these small acts measure up to the rest of the world’s greatness? We’re so busy admiring false power and fearing false power that we may miss true power. We’re so busy and preoccupied with trying to be better and stronger and bigger that we may miss small acts of love, mercy, and kindness. We should know by now that anything we give power to and any of the powerful structures and forces we admire will fail us. Every time.

Despite our temptation to give space and time to power, Jesus comes for us and to us anyway. Jesus was surrounded by power in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and yet he still offered up his humble body as a sacrifice for me and for you. And the world may not have noticed this powerful testament of love, but we have. That alone should and does make a difference for all of us. There is nothing that God will not do to make sure we are not out of reach of the love that God has for each and every one of us. God is relentless. This love, this is what will be the thing that is stronger, bigger, bolder, better. This is the force that is stronger than nature. This is the antidote to so many of the world’s hurts. The love of God is more powerful than any storm, earthquake, fire, diagnosis, illness, or human relationship. This love is powerful, unforgiving, and comforting. God has not given up on us. Even in the times it may feel like it thanks to whatever powers may be, God will not abandon us. Even in the moments where our admiration may get the best of us and we say “look…what large stones” God, through Jesus Christ, still comes to us, always, in love to free us from ourselves.

Sermon for 11/11/18 Mark 12:38-44

As a quick side note before I dive into the text today, I must admit that reading this scripture standing in front of all of you makes me very self conscious. This passage always does that to me. Because as I’m reading it, I realize that I am portraying the exact person described. “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces” (Mk 12:38). It then goes on to say that these scribes also say long prayers. And here I am, wearing a long robe and rambling on and on. It’s a little disarming. Here’s what else makes me uncomfortable: as a “scribe” I rely on whatever offering you place in the plates of this temple. Me and my family would not be able to survive without your offering. Yet in next week’s reading, Jesus is going to tell us all about how the temple will be destroyed and we shouldn’t invest in the temple. All of this to say, friends, that I struggle with this reading and so this week I am going to invite you into the struggles with me.

I want to put you at ease (hopefully) by telling you that this will not be a stewardship sermon. The widow that gave her last two coins should not be lifted up as an example of faithful giving. This happens all too often. Scribes like me will say “this woman gave her all and so should you.” But, that isn’t going to happen today. Now, I may talk about her actions and I may talk about stewardship, but the point will not be to shame you into increasing your giving. Because the truth about this reading is this: it is likely that most, if not all of us, will never actually give everything we have. I mean, if we’re being honest, it’s just not going to happen. All of us have bills, and groceries, and life that has to be paid for. We may certainly be faithful people, but we are not “Jesus is just gonna drop groceries out of the sky” kind of people.

I have a theory about something. And, I’ll be honest, it might ruffle a few feathers. So, I’d be happy to be proven wrong. But, here is my theory. We (that is, citizens of this country) prefer not to speak, associate with, or maybe even help those who are in poverty for fear that it is contagious. Am I wrong? Perhaps we don’t like to talk about poverty because many of us are so close to becoming part of that statistic. Many are one paycheck or (sadly) one medical emergency away from being poor. Poverty is out there lurking and so if we just don’t associate with it, it won’t happen to us. We just finished with an election (thank God. I was ready for those commercials to be over). But, it might be good for us to remember the things our politicians promised especially when it comes to helping those in poverty. The poor should not be lifted up as charity cases to only be forgotten about once an election is over.

When the woman came to the temple came to give every last coin she had, people should have been angry. Was she shamed into giving her last few coins? Didn’t those gathered around realize that they contributed to her poverty? They were all compliant in a system that almost guaranteed that she would never be rich. Heck, the system guaranteed that she would never NOT be poor; forget about being rich. You may have heard me say this before, but I believe it needs to be said again: we don’t have broken people, we have broken systems. Time and time again we can pull up news stories or even share personal stories of the system failing the people not the people failing the system.

Do we have a gun control problem in this country or do we have a mental health problem? Are our Veterans not getting adequate care or do we have hoops in place that are almost impossible to jump through in order to get care? Do people really choose to stay receiving government help in the form of food stamps, welfare, and other programs or do we make it almost impossible for people to earn a living wage? These are just a few examples of some of the conversations we have around poverty. So often we blame the person in poverty when really we should be angry at the system that placed them there. We should be angry that for the majority of African American males there is a school to prison pipeline. We should get angry that in some inner-cities it is easier to buy cigarettes and lottery tickets than it is to buy fresh produce. We should get really angry that someone who busts their behind 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job still has to use government assistance.

But, we don’t get angry because then we’d recognize poverty. And if we recognize poverty, then we might catch it. But Jesus is so good and not letting us forget the poor. Jesus has warned his listeners before that the rich will have to face God’s judgement. And the judgement comes not because they are rich, but because they hoarded their riches. The widow who gave her all wasn’t a hero, she was a victim. Jesus wasn’t the kind of teacher who desired a widow with nothing to give in the first place to give everything she had to a temple that would be destroyed in few days. Yet when we see her, we struggle in that thin place between pity and empathy.

God sees her. Even when we don’t, God does. Not only that, God sees us and through us. God sees our half-hearted attempts to help the poor with the hopes that we don’t catch what they’ve got. God sees us as we contribute to systems that will keep the poor poor. Maybe what should scare us is this widow’s might (m-i-g-h-t). Because she has nothing, literally. But what she does have is faith. So much faith, in fact, that she gives all she has knowing that she will have to rely on God and a system that has failed her up to this point. That, my beloved, is faith. That kind of faith is awesome and frightening at the same time. It’s awesome because I wish I had it but it’s frightening because despite my desire, I still run away from it.

This widow does what Jesus has been calling us to do for quite some time: give our whole lives to discipleship and service. Many of us are not capable of that. But, thanks be to God, our Lord God through Jesus Christ is capable. Jesus gave his life, literally. And when Jesus gave his life, it came with a promise. The promise is that none will suffer in God’s kingdom. There will be no poverty in the kingdom of God. Better yet, those who had to suffer in life will be given seats of honor and glory in God’s kingdom. This is good news for people like the widow, and I pray it is certainly good news for us. We aren’t able to give our whole lives. We know that. Sin stops us from doing that. But we confess and proclaim a savior who did and continues to give his whole life so that we may be free from suffering. We are surrounded by broken systems. But, people who live under the law continue to believe in and maybe even contribute to broken systems. We are a people of grace. We are a people of mercy. We are a people showered in love and forgiveness. We no longer need to put our hope in broken systems. We have a God whose might (m-i-g-h-t) is stronger than any system and stronger than any oppression. We serve a God that promises systems of oppression will be crushed, flipped upside down, and destroyed. All will be made free. No matter what burdens you, all will be made free.

Sermon for 11/4/18 John 11:32-44 All Saints Day

I find it strange that death is something we all have in common and yet we still struggle to find the words to speak about it. If you’ve stood in that receiving line at a visitation for a loved one, you’ve probably heard the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” more than you care to. Yet, when we’re on the other side of that receiving line, we say the same thing. Can you imagine if we had the anger and frustration of Mary and Martha? When people say to us “I’m sorry for your loss” we responded “if Jesus had been here, our brother would not have died.” Our gospel story for today is one of my favorites for a few reasons. It speaks and supports very clearly that we have a God who keeps promises. We also have a savior who is stronger than death. And lastly, this story is so full of the raw human emotions we don’t always get in these stories; even Jesus himself is emotional.

It is challenging for me, even, at times to find the words to express my grief and lament about death as I wish I could. After all, I am someone who has been called to speak the promises of the resurrection life. And I really do believe in the promise of the resurrection. I believe that we all will be raised on the last day. Nonetheless, when I am personally touched by grief and death, I find words difficult. I think of my friend and fellow Pastor, Benjamin Ahles-Iverson who died way to young from cancer earlier this year. I think of my friend and college classmate Brian Hopf who also passed from cancer. And as I come ever closer to being with you all for (almost) 5 years, I think of those that I buried this past year. The longer I am here, the harder it gets. And I have a story for almost every single saint remembered this day. And if I don’t have a story for them, I have a story about their family or the way their legacy has lived on. So even for me, a trained professional, a trained theologian, there are times that death literally and figuratively stinks.

I also think that there are several who have experienced deaths that are not as traditional. Perhaps you changed jobs, lost your job, or retired and now your wrestling with the death of what once was. Maybe you had a child move out and go to college; that brings with it its own sense of loss. Others of you may have ended relationships whether romantic or friendships and with that comes a sense of grief and loss. Or perhaps you are just grieving the loss of civility in our communities. Whatever the situation may be, we seem to be surrounded by death and yes, it stinks. “Lord if you had been here….”

Mary, in her great lament, throws herself at the feet of Jesus, and in all of her grief basically yells at him. “Lord if you had been here.” I think all of us, on some level, can relate to this kind of grief. This is the kind of grief that finally slaps us in the face when we realize we actually cannot stop death. Mary, having nothing but love for her brother, would have done anything to have saved him. She couldn’t. But, her faith made her realize and recognize that Jesus could. But he wasn’t there when Lazarus died. And death came. Death came and settled in and had stayed for 4 days already when Jesus arrived. Mary had already surrendered to the idea that death would have the final say. Now, as Christians we know that’s not true. We know that death is not the end of our story. Yet, we still operate and talk sometimes as if it is the end of our story.

All too often we give death way more power than it deserves. This is not to say that we should ignore death. It is, after all, a fact of life. Death will happen to all of us at some point in time. But, we allow death to suck the air out of our lives. It consumes us in so many ways. I think we all know people who are alive but not really living. The more power we give to death, the more it will take from us. Let me say that again. The more power we give to death, the more it will take from us. Death, in all ways possible, robs us from life and from living. When we give death as much power as we do, we are forced to ask ourselves which God we worship: the God of life, hope, and resurrection, or a god of death, destruction, and the ends of our stories.

When we give death power, it sucks everything out of us, like I said. And sometimes, it even robs us of words. As I said before, words often fail us when death occurs. But one of the ways we continue to be stronger than death is to speak of our loved ones, the saints  that surround us. I have talked to too many people that want their loved ones remembered. Even if we just say their names, that would be enough. As we mark All Saints day today, maybe that’s the best we can hope for. We can hope that people pause for a moment, no matter how brief, and remember how much our dearly departed were loved. How much they are still loved! It doesn’t matter if your loved one has been gone for just a few months, or it’s been years, you still love them. And what a gift it would be for someone else to recognize that as well! Because the truth is this: death is awful and terrible and it stinks (in our story today, it literally stinks). Even if your loved one had been ill for sometime and death, in a weird way, was welcomed, it is still terrible and awful. Someone we love is no longer physically with us and the pain of that loss is very real. At the same time, death is also part of our reality.

We recognize the loss of our loved ones. We will pause and remember them. There also seems to be a fear that somehow, we will forget about those who have passed. But that won’t happen. But it is to us, as Christians, to speak the truth about death. Death is very painful. Death is very real. Death causes great anger, heartache, and suffering. Even when death is the answer to prayer, our hearts break and we weep and mourn. And for Christians, we must also speak another truth about death: it’s not the end. We can’t skip over death, but we have confidence that it is not the end. As I’ve said before, we cannot be Easter people without being Good Friday people as well.

Jesus proved he was stronger than death with three words: “Lazarus, come out.” We prove we are stronger than death every single time we show up here to worship. We prove that we still believe in something stronger than death even when society tells us we shouldn’t. We sing praises to God; words that are stronger than death. We eat the body and blood of Jesus; a meal that is stronger than death. And we proclaim the tomb empty on the third day and shout “alleluias!” to a world that would rather keep us quiet. Death may be part of our reality, my beloved, but it will never be part of our finality. We live in the hope that death never has the final word. For the saints who have gone before us we believe this, and we believe it for ourselves. Even when the words fail us in our grief, God’s actions, which always speak louder than words, will comfort us.