Sermon for 1/27/19 Luke 4:14-21

One of the aspects of this reading that I enjoy so much is that it is very descriptive. Can’t you just see this scene as it unfolds? Jesus is a bit older by the time this story takes place. He’s a good Jewish boy who has returned home for the sabbath. And, as he probably had done so often, he went to services at the synagogue (maybe even with his mom and dad). This was pretty exciting. Word had already started to get around that Jesus, the hometown boy, was starting to make a name for himself. He stood up to read from the scroll. This wasn’t something just anyone did or could do. Remember, not a lot of people during Jesus’ time could actually read. So, he opens up the scroll and sees it is from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, after all. And he could have read anything he wanted to from the prophet Isaiah. Anything at all. But instead he chooses this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Here’s what’s interesting about what Jesus read: it doesn’t read like that. It isn’t written in that order. In fact, if you looked up in Isaiah what Jesus said in this Luke reading for today, you would find it in this order: Isaiah 61:1, Isaiah 58:6, and Isaiah 61:2. Then, Jesus rolls the scroll back up, sits down, gives the shortest sermon ever by saying “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” and then we’re done. I think it was Jesus’ version of a mic drop.

I have to think that the people in the synagogue probably just continued to stare at Jesus. They were probably giving him that “what in the world are you talking about stare.” We all have a version of that stare. Maybe it was a mix of confusion, anger, joy, and anticipation. Do those that were gathered understand what just took place? Do we? And here’s the thing, what Jesus said in his synagogue all those years ago, it still matters. And when we hear it today, it matters. What Jesus said is crucial “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And that today that Jesus speaks of is a never ending today. So (and stick with me here) when Jesus first said it, it was that day. And when it was said again some 300 years later (or something) it mattered on that day. When you first heard this scripture, it was that day and it mattered. And now, we’re here, in today, and it matters still. I know that can be kind of confusing. But Jesus is just trying to emphasize that his good news, his prophecy and his promise is never ending.

At the same time, one might wonder if this is good news. If you are rich, and trust me, most of us in this room are rich, and the Jesus is bringing good news to the poor, what does that mean for us? And if Jesus is proclaiming release to the captive, then what does that mean for those people who have imprisoned those in mind, body, or spirit? Letting the oppressed go free changes power structure and people always struggle with that. And then Jesus says this is all happening because today, we heard it as such. Everything that Jesus said should actually give pause to those in power, including us. Because what Jesus is saying is that everything we’ve known, everything we are, everything we thought was right has been turned upside down. Power will come from weakness. The poor will be rich. The oppressed and blind will now become fully integrated members of society. Maybe this doesn’t leave you unsettled. Because maybe you don’t think of yourself as rich, or an oppressor, or a someone who enslaves someone else.

But, Jesus is all about justice, righteousness, and mercy. So, if we were to put this writing from Isaiah, the words that Jesus spoke, into current context Jesus might say something like this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has called me to bring good news to the poor and those who are told they are poor and those who are made to feel poor. I will bring good news to those who receive welfare, food stamps, and government assistance. You are valued.” Or what about this: “The Spirit of the Lord has sent me to proclaim that there is no such thing as illegal or undocumented. Everyone is valued in my sight.” Well now! That’s a little different, isn’t it? I know what you’re thinking “stay in your own lane, Pastor. Don’t get too political.” But, when are we going to realize that Jesus was political? We will hear more from this scripture next week, but as soon as Jesus said all of this, the townspeople (reminder, from his own hometown) wanted to throw him off a cliff. And they tried. Sure, justice and righteousness should anger us. But injustice and corruption should vault us into action. In the hearing of these words today, we too should be so filled with the Spirit that we act on Jesus’ words.

I’ve said this before, but being a Christian and ultimately, being a disciple isn’t just in name only. This is a way of life; a call to action. Injustice should anger us. Corruption should anger us. Poverty, hunger, people dying from preventable disease, dirty drinking water, and on and on, it should all anger us. Because this is not the world that Christ desires. We cannot rest on our laurels and hope that someone else will do the work of Christ for us. We cannot tell people “I’m a Christian” and then do nothing to act on that. Because we love Christ and Christ loves us, the hurts of the world might and should hurt us too. But it’s too easy to sit back and do nothing. Because if we sit back and do nothing, our status in life isn’t challenged. Our long held beliefs aren’t challenged. We aren’t forced to look at our choices and justify them. But, if God sees us all as equals, and if all is equal in God’s kingdom, then what does it matter? There is no first class heaven. That’s not how it works.

Scripture has been fulfilled today in your hearing. This means that Christ is calling you to listen and answer the world’s cries. And I get it. The pain of the world is almost too much to bear. We cannot solve all the world’s problems by ourselves. But we don’t need to. The world isn’t looking for a new savior, we already have one of those. Instead, the world is looking for and needing disciples who take seriously the sacrifice the savior made for all people. You don’t have to make a difference for the whole world, but just the world around you. We all know that one small ripple can make a huge effect. I don’t want to assume that Jesus forgot anything or that Isaiah forgot anything. But, I wonder if we need to add a little asterisk or something to this reading. Perhaps Jesus should have said “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing and in your doing.” The only Bible some people ever read may be you. The only glimpse of God people ever see may be you. The only love of Christ that people experience may be from you. Challenge yourself such that your words, tasks, and actions answer the call. God’s grace, and the Holy Spirit are upon you to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to ensure freedom to the oppressed. It’s no small task. But our God is no small God!

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Sermon for 1/20/19 John 2:1-11

If you took the time to read my annual report (which, if you did, thank you) you would have seen that one of my goals for 2019 is to continue doing everything I can to make sure that you know that (1) God loves you and that (2) God’s grace is for you. This is awesome in theory. And I am not giving up on this goal that quickly. But here’s the rub: I can’t just say that God loves you and that God’s grace is for you. I have to either somehow show you or point out the parts of your life where God is showing you love and grace. Trust me, sometimes I need people to point it out to me. I’m too quick to reject God’s love and grace and instead chalk it up to good luck or maybe just being the wrong person in the right place at the right time. Does that sound like familiar thinking to anyone else?

I suppose it could have been easy for Jesus to tell the people that he loved them and that he wants for them grace upon grace. But, talk without action can be kind of empty sometimes. Depending on the inflection, even the intent behind the words can be lost. And so, instead of going on and on about how much he loved them and how much abundant grace was for them too, Jesus decided to show the wedding guests abundant grace in the form of good wine that didn’t seem to run out. I also think it’s important to focus on Jesus’ message, not necessarily the methods. Jesus could have supplied more food than the wedding banquet could have ever eaten. Or maybe he could have arranged for everyone to have a uber-style camel ride home. What I mean is that our focus shouldn’t necessarily be on the wine, but on God’s great abundance.

This is (hopefully) the good news of our inclusive God. After all, how would it feel to have a pastor say “God’s abundant grace tastes likes barrels of good wine…and plenty of it” if you are in recovery, don’t drink, or maybe have never had a drink? How are you supposed to think about God’s grace? That’s why I say, don’t focus on the method, focus on the message. In John’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus is two things: a light in the darkness; the light that no darkness can overcome. And, the method of which we are to receive and experience grace upon grace (see Jn 1:16). And again, this is all fine and good. But, we serve an experiential God. We don’t serve a God who is all talk and no action. So when was it then, my beloved, that you experienced God’s light in the darkness or when was it that you experienced grace upon grace?

We are still in the season of epiphany. We are still getting to hear more and more about the epiphany of who this Jesus guy was. We know that he was born to nobodies, not nobility. And he was born in a nobody place. And yet, we are already hearing stories of how lives were changed by experiencing Jesus. We will come to find out, much like the guests at the wedding, that we know that Jesus is present because we will be surrounded by abundance. Maybe that will be an abundance of love, abundance of grace, abundance of mercy, or maybe even an abundance of tangible items. I think God makes Godself known to us in a way that makes sense to us. Once again, my beloved, I ask you to think about when you last experienced grace upon abundant grace.

Last week I mentioned that maybe sometimes we need that feeling that God has got a hold of us in the small seemingly insignificant times in order to rest assured that God has us in those big crisis kinds of times. So often, I think we think of grace as a one time deal. Or maybe we think of grace as a big time deal. And really, grace is a big deal! But maybe we should start recognizing and thanking God for grace, no matter when we experience it and no matter how much grace it feels like because once again, grace is a gift. It is always a reason for us to be thankful.

For example, many of you know that I was in a rollover car accident within my first year here or so. I spun and rolled my SUV into a ditch on highway 30 going west coming home from Target. I have no doubt that I am here standing before you only by God’s grace alone. That was a big time grace moment for me. But, what about those small grace moments we all have? Getting an extension on an assignment, receiving an unexpected apology, receiving an acceptance of that apology, getting an invitation, getting that phone call, whatever it may be, we have all received abundant grace in small ways. Epiphany is all about God making Godself known and God makes Godself known through grace. So we all have those epiphany moments but will we recognize them? What if, instead of using time, luck, right place, or even your status in life as an excuse, we just accept things for what they are: God’s grace in abundance.  

Instead of saying “I was in the right place” or “I was just lucky” or even (gasp) “of course! I deserve this!” we instead give thanks to God in the small and big ways that God shows us grace. And we should always be prepared for this grace because God has a habit of showing up in the most unexpected places to the most unexpected people. God has a history of doing this and it’s not going to stop now. Mary and Joseph? Unexpected people! Bethlehem? Unexpected place! The shepherds? Unexpected people! The wise men? Unexpected people! This wedding feast? Unexpected place! You there, in the pews? Unexpected people! Elvira Zion? Unexpected place.

And grace isn’t a commodity for us to hoard. It never changes value. It will never run out. We don’t have the market cornered on grace. Let us not forget that God’s grace is always abundant and abundantly always for all people. There is enough for you and God will always provide. But that also means that there is always more than enough for the people (and places) we think grace can’t get to. In fact, in the bible, it seems that grace always finds the people and places other people have forgotten about. God does not change God’s ways. We are not the purveyors of grace; it isn’t ours to hoard and dole out. However, we can be like John, the one who points to grace, and that is Jesus Christ. Don’t shy away from pointing out grace moments to one another because sometimes we need that help! We are not in Christian community by ourselves. We can’t do this by ourselves. We need one another. By recognizing grace in someone else, you may be more likely to recognize it in yourself.

It’s never to late for resolutions or even goals if you’d rather. What might your life looked like if you woke each morning or before turning in each night, you made a mental list of the 5 ways or places or people through which God showed you abundant grace? It’s easy to believe God’s grace is for you. It’s another story to start recognizing it and live like it. How could our worlds change if we made 2019 the year we verbally (as in out loud) recognized grace? This world is starving. It is hungry for something more. I don’t know about you, but  I am tired of a cheerless news cycle. I want to do better at recognizing those abundant grace moments. For the sake of my own sanity, I need to do better at recognizing those own grace moments. I want to end today’s sermon with a quote from a favorite author of mine, Anne Lamott. She says “I do not understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” And for that movement, for that grace, for that love, and mercy, and hope, and healing, and forgiveness, we give thanks to God!

Sermon for 1/13/19 Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Baptism of Jesus

This Sunday we mark and remember Jesus’ baptism. In many ways, we mark and remember our own as well. We started the service with a remembrance of baptism. And the font will remain here, front and center, as we partake in communion. As you come forward, I invite you to receive two signs of God’s love and grace today: the meal and water. If you so choose, you can dip your hands into the font and trace the sign of the cross on your forehead as a reminder that you belong to God, you have been claimed by God, and you are loved by God. I am going to flip flop a bit this week going back and forth between the Luke reading and the text from Isaiah 43. I have said more than once that God’s timing is so much better than ours. I have also said that God’s ways are better than ours and God’s plans are better than ours. All of that sounds good in theory unless you are the one in the middle of a crisis or you are the one waiting on God’s timing, ways, or plans. Then it feels like God may need a GPS or something.

As most of us have traveled through this week, I am guessing that most, if not all, of us have been touched in some way by the tragedy at ADM. Maybe you don’t have a personal connection, but you are a member of this community and so it affects you too. And in times like this, sometimes it may feel like God is nowhere to be found. Or we may wonder what God can and will say to us at a time like this. And then, as if God knows what God is doing, we get these readings today. Isaiah reminds us that God says to the Israelites and to us “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” I don’t know about you, but I need that reminder daily. I need that reminder that I am precious in God’s sight, I am honored, and that God loves me. Do you hear this for you too, my beloved? God loves you. Take a moment, and just tell yourself that, whisper it to yourself or say it mentally. God loves me.

What happens during Jesus’ baptism isn’t unique to Jesus. God didn’t just claim Jesus in baptism. God claims all of us in our own baptisms. This is amazing. We don’t serve some far away God who sits on high, judging us and planning and plotting all the different ways to smite us. We serve a God who literally opens the heavens, descends upon every single one of us, and claims us as sons and daughters. In that moment of Spirit met with water met with God, we are claimed, we are redeemed, and we are called by name. Again, I don’t know about you, but I need that reminder!

God claiming us isn’t a sometimes thing. It doesn’t come with a caveat. At no time does God say “you are mine only if….” God never says “you will be mine once you are older.” Or “you will be mine once you make more money.” Or “you will be mine once you get your life together.” None of that! Are you hearing me yet? God says “I love you. Do not fear..I am with you. I have redeemed you. You are mine.” There are no caveats to God’s love. We think there are. We think we must act a certain way, be a certain way, live a certain way, or think  a certain way in order for God to love us. We think we have to earn God’s love. We think we have to work for God’s love. We desire maybe even to limit God’s love. “Well, I’m loved…but that person over there certainly isn’t.” If we were all created in God’s image (which we were) then why wouldn’t God love us? There is no catch. There are no “yeah…but’s.” There are no what if’s. God loves you, period. End of story.

We want to doubt this love because that’s what sin makes us do. Sin sneaks into the God parts of our hearts and brains and tries to convince us that God’s love doesn’t belong there. Sin tries to tell us “you don’t deserve that love.” Sin tries to tell us “you’re too screwed up for that love.” Sin tries to tell us “God has forgotten about you.” Sin tries to even tell us “you don’t need God…you’re fine on your own.” And we have seen and learned time and time again that sin is always wrong. Sin is just evil desiring to take over our lives. Sin is just like a jealous lover and won’t give up easily. This is why we need that reminder from God, who’s love is always greater and stronger than sin, that God has redeemed us. God loves us. And that we belong to God. I don’t know who needs to hear that, but I do.

In times of crisis especially, we need to be reminded. And it’s good to be reminded of God’s presence and love in the times of great crises like what our town is suffering now. But, we also need that reminder as we go through our own little crises. And I get it, not everything is a crisis. But, we’ve all had those days when we need to be reminded that God hasn’t forgotten us. We need that reminder that God has got us. And we need that reminder that we belong to something greater and bigger than ourselves. We’ve had those days when we’ve spilled coffee on our shirt just as we’re walking out the door. Then we get in the car only to discover we need to fill up the tank and we’re already running late. So, we hurry to fill up the tank and make it to work on time and we would have gotten there in time if we hadn’t gotten pulled over for speeding. All of these things (or situations like this) isn’t what we may call a crisis. It can just be a bad day. But, it’s in those moments especially that I need to be reminded of God’s grip on me and my life. Because, again, I don’t know about you, but if I am reminded to God’s love for me in the little moments and life’s challenges, then I might be more able to rest assured of God’s love and grip on me in the big challenges.

On top of receiving communion today, which is a tangible sign that God loves us. I have invited you to play in the waters a bit as well, another sign that God loves us. But, I want to equip you with one more tool to take with you. This is easy, everyone can do this. When you’re having a day. You know…a day. Sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes you’re the windshield kind of day…and you’re a bug? That kind of day. When you’re having a day and you want that reminder of God’s love here’s all you need to do. Remember your baptism. It’s simple. There are no fancy tools required. You can even do this at a red light instead of responding to a text. Just use a thumb or a finger and trace a cross on your forehead. As you go in one direction remind yourself “I belong to God.” And as you go in the other direction remind yourself “and God loves me.” Let’s try that now (finger goes vertically down forehead) “I belong to God” and (finger goes horizontally across forehead) “God loves me.”  Repeat as needed. As many times as you need. Do you need to do it on the hour every hour? So do it! Do it until you start to believe it. Do it until you believe that God really does love you and claim you and redeem you. Do it until you know and feel that God has not forgotten you or forsaken you. Do it until the day you die and then God will do it for you.

My beloved, I don’t know about you, but I need this in my life. I need this daily. I need God to have a hold on me and the promise of God’s love just like I need water, food, and oxygen. I need that reminder that I am not alone, that this world will not get the best of me, and that I am not defined by my sin. I need that reminder that when chaos swirls around me and it feels like I am drowning, God is most definitely there by my side. I need God daily to call me by name and remind me that I belong to God. I don’t belong to this world. I don’t belong to the chaos. I don’t belong to the storm or fire. I don’t belong to crisis. I don’t belong to sin. I belong to God. I need that reminder. But then again, that’s just me. I belong to God. God loves me. Now, your turn.

Sermon for 1/6/19 Matthew 2:1-12; Epiphany

It’s a new year and with it come new possibilities. I don’t make resolutions because I know my personality and I feel like I am just setting myself up for failure. I have some things I’d like to work on in 2019 but these are not do-or-die type of resolutions. And while I don’t poo-poo resolution making, I often find that whatever God has planned for me is better anyway. But, an ongoing goal I have, no matter the time of year, is to always increase in my spiritual life. Maybe you made a resolution along these lines. Perhaps you want to read the Bible more, have a more active prayer life, or maybe you just want to be in these pews more often than not. A spiritual resolution is always good. An invitation from God to enter into a fuller relationship is one that I would have trouble turning down. Today though I want to talk about an interesting spiritual practice that may pique your interest. I want to talk about what it might be like to be like the magi and engage in holy resistance.

Let me give you a little background before we start thinking about holy resistance. Today’s story is a familiar one. After all, we have all seen nativities or maybe even own one with wise men as part of the set. And how many come in a set usually? (3) But how many does the Bible mention? None! The Bible doesn’t mention a number. We know it was more than one because we are told that these are wise men, men plural. The number three most likely came from the number of gifts. These wise men, or Magi as they are called were stargazers, literally. They were most like astrologers who studied the heavens and the skies for signs of significant events and changes. It was not strange for them to follow a star.

Herod had conversations with the magi. He found out their timeline and then said “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” That sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. Herod had the most evil of intentions. He was King and in his mind, there was room for only one king. There was only room for so much power and it all belonged to him. Herod felt threatened. He was so threatened in fact that shortly after this story, we hear of Herod giving the orders for all babies under the age of two in and around Bethlehem to be killed. Can you imagine being so insecure in your place of power that you demand that even children be killed? In our story today, the magi are warned in a dream to not return to Herod. So they didn’t. That is holy resistance.

So what am I talking about when I talk about holy resistance? I think the easiest way to explain it is choosing Jesus and Jesus’ values over society and societal values. We could also say that holy resistance is knowing our power comes from the cross and not anywhere else. What I proposing isn’t easy. I mean, it’s called holy resistance for a reason, we’re going to get resistance. If this were something easy then it’d be called holy cake walk or something of the sort. When we choose Jesus (versus choosing society) and when we follow Jesus’ call and path, we’re bound to do things that aren’t popular, that aren’t seen as smart, and that may even cost us friendships and relationships. Like I said, holy resistance isn’t easy.

We already have one concrete example of holy resistance, thanks to the magi. They were led by a dream, maybe even the Holy Spirit, to not return to Herod. And they didn’t. This did not gain them favor with Herod. After all, Herod was used to people doing what he said. So let’s talk about holy resistance for our time. What does that look like from a practical standpoint? Like I said, it often comes down to being on the same side as Jesus and remembering that our power comes from his death. Here’s a fairly small, mundane, yet relevant example. To engage in holy resistance means that next time you hear a friend, family member, or co-worker use a racial slur or tell a racially charged joke, you speak up. “That’s not funny. I don’t appreciate that kind of humor or that kind of language. Please don’t do it again.” If we believe that we are all made in God’s image, then there is no place in the holy resistance for bigotry and hate.

Holy resistance might affect how you spend your money. This takes a bit more time and commitment. But, for example, perhaps you make the decision to only purchase goods that follow fair trade practices; meaning that the people who make the goods earn a fair days wage. That is holy resistance. Most of you know where your meat comes from (as it comes from your own stock) but perhaps you find out more about that if you purchase from the grocery store. Same with your fruits and vegetables. God created the earth and put humans in charge of taking care of it. This includes all vegetation and animals.

Holy resistance is hard when it comes to more hot button topics; most of the things talked about on the news for example. What would Jesus say about a wall between the United States and Mexico? What would Jesus say about the rising health care costs? Did you know that 1 out of every 3 campaigns on GoFundMe is for medical costs? What would Jesus say about the hungry, the homeless, the underemployed, the imprisoned? Holy resistance isn’t always so clear when you’re faced with these types of issues. I try and think about what Jesus would do, but so often doing the opposite is easier and it doesn’t cost me friends. This is where our sin enters the equation of holy resistance. Because so often we do what is in our best interest instead of being the disciples that God has called us to be.

The good news today, my beloved, is that just by being here today you’re already engaging in holy resistance. On a day that so many choose to sleep in, get stuff done around the house, or just stay at home and relax, you have chosen to come and spend an hour here. I know it may not have been an easy choice. And soon, we will engage in holy resistance as we receive the body and blood of Christ. So many that aren’t part of the church may think that this holy meal is weird. But we know that in this act of holy resistance, we receive grace upon grace. So whether you know it or not, you have already been engaging in holy resistance. I know it is hard work, but God is with you. Your reward for this resistance may not be seen until we reach our heavenly home. Perhaps we should all take a cue from the wise men and take a different road. The road of holy resistance is spirit filled, spirit led, and God inspired. If this new year has you thinking about new ways of engaging your spiritual life, perhaps holy resistance is just the thing you’ve been waiting for.