Sermon for 2/24/19 Luke 6:27-38

Do you mean it? I mean seriously, do you mean it? Did you really just hear everything I read, everything that Jesus had to say and then respond “thanks be to God?” Really? Thanks be to God? If you really meant it, then, by all means, please come up here and preach for me. Because my first reaction to a reading like that is “the Gospel of the Lord” and me responding “nah. I don’t like it.” Now before you clutch your pearls and think “Pastor! You can’t talk like that! That’s the bible.” Yes I can. God invites us to wrestle with scripture. Scripture should make us joyous, and should make us think, and should make us uncomfortable. There are stories in our bibles that might make your skin crawl. If you don’t believe me, go home, open your bible to Judges, and read the story of Jael driving a tent stake through a man’s head, killing him instantly. There’s a story we don’t hear on an average Sunday. Thanks be to God?? Let’s be honest with ourselves friends, sometimes scripture is hard. Sometimes scripture is uncomfortable. And sometimes, we just may not like it.

What Jesus is proposing in this continued sermon on the plain is almost impossible. He once again is preaching. This is a continuation of last week’s readings when we heard the beatitudes. If there’s anything that Jesus does well, it’s not sugar coating things. We never hear Jesus say “well, if it’s okay with you” or “if you aren’t too busy” or even “if it will make you feel good.” Jesus is a pretty black and white kind of guy. The first sentence alone is enough to make me want to check out. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Nope. I’m out. If this what it means to be a Christian, I’m not sure I want to participate any more. I want to pause here really quick to make sure that while the bible talks about abuse, it is never okay. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, either mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, or otherwise, God does not desire for you to stay in that relationship. Additionally, if you need resources for yourself or someone you love, I am here to help.  

I think what makes this reading so incredibly difficult is that the idea of forgiveness is incredibly powerful and, at the same time, runs contradictory to everything we may feel or desire. Forgiveness, especially for those who wish to do us harm, curse us, abuse us, or takes from us (maybe, or especially) without asking, can feel impossible. Remember that we are still in the season of epiphany. God is still revealing to us, to the disciples, to all people who God is and will continue to be through Jesus Christ. This is a God who has come to turn the world upside down. This God, who became flesh, has come into our lives, and has changed the way we respond to other people. Or, at least it should.

The challenge, of course, comes from what our natural inclinations may be to what God is calling us to. I mean, if we’re honest, our natural instinct is to go blow for blow and cutting words to cutting words. But, how do we live our lives responding with grace and kindness instead of reacting with words or actions that may answer hurt with more hurt. And again, if we’re being honest, we may not always want to respond with grace and kindness. I mean, if you can think of (or picture) the person in your life that has caused you the most heartache and pain, do you really desire to respond to him or her with grace and kindness? Yet that is what God challenges us to do. I’ve read and heard more than once that hurt people hurt people, or that hurting people hurt people. Sometimes those hurts can only be healed by grace.

I know I talk about grace a lot. But when you have experienced the life changing power of grace, you can’t help yourself. God’s grace literally changed my life. Once I learned about God’s grace, my entire relationship with God changed. Here’s a strange thing about grace: I hate that you may have needed to experience it, but at the same time, I am so grateful if you have experienced the life-changing power of God’s grace. Grace is just unmerited love, forgiveness, and mercy. And maybe you have felt it from God. But, more likely, you have experienced grace in relationship with someone else. Even though that grace may have come from another human being, let us not kid ourselves, my beloved. Grace can only be accomplished with and through God. We can’t experience grace without God and really, isn’t that a great place to be?

When I say that grace has the power to change lives, I’m not over exaggerating. It really does. Grace transformed me and my life in such a way that my heart was healed and I felt redeemed. Grace is what called me into ministry. How have you experienced grace? Once you are able to recognize grace in your own life, you are then able to recognize the ways it changes your life and leaves you completely vulnerable. Believe it or not, this vulnerability is a good thing. You may not hear that idea very often. Society wants us to believe that being vulnerable is bad. Vulnerability and shame all too often go hand in hand. But, what if being vulnerable just meant leaving our hearts and minds open to what God can and will do?

When grace leaves us vulnerable, which it often does, then the Holy Spirit is allowed into our lives in such a way that we see and feel a new way of living and loving through Jesus Christ. What Jesus demands of us as disciples is a complete and total change; a repentance and leaving behind of our old selves and instead invites us into holy and wholly living. This holy/wholly living isn’t always neat and tidy. There will be times when we feel rejected. There will be times when we might wonder if this discipleship is all it is cracked up to be. And those times, my beloved, are when we must rely on God. The great reward that Jesus speaks of isn’t material items. We will not gain cars, wealth, or fame from following Christ. But what we will gain and what our reward will be is a better version of ourselves.

None of this happens by chance. We may do our best to live a Christian life daily but we will always fall short because of sin. The temptations of this life are far too great for us to resist. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give to everyone who asks of you, there may be times that sin seems almost appealing. The life that Christ calls us to isn’t easy. But the life we are reformed into through that journey of discipleship and following Jesus has a great reward of a better self and a better, greater, deeper love for the world God made. None of this is possible, of course, without grace. Grace is stronger than our sin. Grace is stronger than even our best intentions. Grace is stronger than our hard work. Grace is stronger than our resistance. Which means, even in the moments when we resist God’s grace, it is changing and transforming us for the better. The path is difficult. Let’s not kid ourselves. It can feel lonely, and at times, insurmountable. But, the path is lit by grace. And it is a path that rewards us in ways that are almost unimaginable. Thanks be to God!  

Sermon for 2/17/19 Luke 6:17-26

In many ways, this text and I danced with one another this week. However, much like when I actually dance, I didn’t realize what I was doing or what was going on. Last Sunday, I took a nice long drive up to camp EWALU in Strawberry Point for a brief but life-giving retreat. As I flipped through the radio stations, I caught the announcement of Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota proclaiming she is now running for president. Along with like 76 other people. I kept the radio where it was because I’m a news and political junkie. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention until she started talking about things that other people call “obstacles” and that maybe these aren’t obstacles but our path. Sounds like something a politician would say. And then at the retreat we talked a lot about the book “A Wrinkle in Time.” As the main character, Meg, prepares to go out on an adventure, one of the witch/all knowing beings type characters says that the gift she is giving Meg is “the gift of” her “faults.” Meg seems to turn up her nose at the idea because what kind of gift is the gift of her faults?

And I thought about this as I read this passage from Luke. This version of what we know as the beatitudes can seem like a cruel joke. Honestly, depending on the mood and your situation, the beatitudes in general can seem like a cruel joke. What kind of God do we have that says those who are poor, hungry, sad, and hated are actually blessed? While there was a crowd gathered around Jesus (as always) these words were more directed towards the disciples. We don’t get to hear how the disciples reacted. But how would you react? It’s hard not to project our own feelings onto the disciples. For me personally, I’d feel angry, frustrated, and, honestly, sad. I mean, here’s Jesus talking about the blessings of what I consider anything but. If I were a disciple, having left everything behind to follow him, I’d be sad. Doesn’t Jesus appreciate me? Doesn’t Jesus understand what I’ve done? Doesn’t Jesus know everything and everyone I’ve left behind? Jesus seems a bit out of touch.

I wonder if you’ve thought the same thing. I wonder if you’ve come to church ever, sat in your pew, and listened to me go on and on about God’s grace and God’s love and think to yourself “boy…she doesn’t get it.” Please understand, I am not comparing myself to Jesus. I would never think to be that brave. But, I’m sure I’ve sounded out of touch and maybe even uncaring more than once. All of you come week after week with your own troubles. Some are just the challenges of life, things like bills, work stress, family stress, the things most of us deal with on a weekly basis. But then, there are challenges that can make us feel like we’re carrying the weight of the world: a new diagnosis, a troubled relationship, a loss. I’m not a mind reader. I don’t know all of the things you carry. I’m privy to know some, but not all. So maybe you can relate to the disciples in hearing these blessings as anything but.

It is difficult, at best, to view our crappy things in life as a blessing. Even the most optimistic person might struggle. For some, it’s in the times of these dark valleys that God may actually feel farther away than usual. Darkness doesn’t normally feel like a blessing. Abandonment doesn’t normally feel like a blessing. Being lost doesn’t normally feel like a blessing. Having anger as your go-to emotion doesn’t feel like a blessing. Feeling nothing doesn’t feel like a blessing. So, what’s up, Jesus? Because for many of us, we may not speak it out loud, but the circumstances of life feel like anything but a blessing. How are we supposed to have faith when you, honestly, seem so out of touch?

Maybe these are just my emotions. But, I really struggle to believe that I am the only one who feels this way. And maybe no one knows. Maybe no one knows your struggles but you and God. But I have to believe that I’m not alone here. Or maybe I just want to believe that I’m not alone here because I don’t want to be alone here. So, just in case you think that, I, as a person of faith, just blindly believe without any doubts, you’d be wrong. I guess our challenge for today, or maybe every day, is how can we live into the reality that life is going to happen but that the realities of life can be a blessing? How can we view the darkness as a blessing? How can we view anger as a blessing? How can we view being lost as a blessing?

I think it starts by being honest, right? We don’t automatically jump to those feelings. We don’t flip from “I’m lost” to “what a blessing” instantly. I think when we acknowledge our darkness, we may be more likely to acknowledge when we see light. When we acknowledge our faults, we may be more likely to acknowledge our gifts. When we acknowledge our obstacles, we may be more likely to acknowledge our paths. “God saves us when we are at a stage of humbleness, brokenness, and depravity because that is when God reaches us; and not because we have made our way down there, but rather because we are no longer in denial over our condition” (V. Westhelle).

A blessing from God means that we have nothing but God. When it feels like you have nothing, it suddenly becomes abundantly clear that what we have is God. And really, that’s all we need. Because we serve a God who is a God of the forgotten, a God of the lost, a God of the abandoned, a God of the forsaken, a God of the poor, hungry, bereaved, and defiled, then we most certainly serve a God who is a God for us. Life will not be without troubles. Life will not be without struggles. But life will never ever be without God. Even in the moments when it feels like God doesn’t “get it” or when we struggle with God, God will never abandon us or leave us. In the moments where it may feel like God’s love is especially far away, those are the moments when we need to remember our own baptisms, come to the table, and remind ourselves of the empty tomb. Because if we have a God that can defeat even death, then we most certainly have a God that will defeat whatever we’re carrying. My beloveds, if you have some blessings that feel more like a curse, please know I see you. But more importantly, God sees you and loves you. You are not forgotten and you are not alone.   

Sermon for 2/10/19 Luke 5:1-11

I want to talk briefly this morning about what I believe is a universal experience. I am going to call it the Murphy’s Law of stuff. This is what happens (and I think we’ve all been there which is why I think this is a universal experience): something isn’t working the way it should be or the way you want it to. My guess is, the majority of the time it’s something electronic. Let’s say it’s the remote to your television. You’ve tried flipping the batteries around. You’ve tried actual new batteries. You’ve tried hitting it on your hand, which then you decided to use the table instead. Nothing is working. Finally, someone else asks “what in the world are you doing?” You explain that something that should be working isn’t. And doesn’t it figure that the other person walks over, grabs the remote, and it automatically starts working like it should? Oh my goodness! That’s so annoying.

Simon had that happen to him in this reading from today. Jesus has once again been followed by a crowd of people and he escapes them, or creates a little space, by going out onto Simon’s boat. He encourages Simon to let his nets down again. Now, Simon was probably a master fisherman. He was most likely in the middle of cleaning his tools, wrapping up his net, frustrated over the lack of fish which meant the lack of income. And he tells Jesus (quite respectfully, I might add. He did call him “Master”) that they had already been fishing all night long and didn’t catch a thing. “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” And they caught so many fish that they needed helping pulling in the haul and the nets started to break. In that moment where Simon witnesses the miraculous goodness of God’s mercy, grace, love, and provision, he answers the call that God has placed on his life. He transforms from Simon the fisherman to Simon the disciple. He got out of the boat.

Call has consequences. Following Jesus has a price. When Simon got out of the boat to follow Christ, he was literally leaving everything behind that he had always known. He was leaving behind an identity that he thought he was for an identity he was being called to (but knew nothing about). He had just witnessed what Jesus was capable of, and it’s as if Simon couldn’t wait another minute to be a part of it. And without hesitation, he got out of the boat. I don’t know about you, but I highly doubt that I could have done what Simon did. But, Jesus has called Simon into a new life. He has almost transformed Simon right in front of us, a resurrection of sorts, and Simon cannot not be a disciple. Simon will now be an active participant in God’s ministry with Jesus and for Jesus. He leaves behind his livelihood, his income, and perhaps he leaves behind what is easy. Sure, on this particular day, fishing wasn’t the best (or maybe even easy). But Simon knew he could come back tomorrow or maybe try another watering hole and probably catch some fish. There might have been peace in that routine. But Simon has been changed and there’s no going back.

Once we witness the life-changing ways of Jesus, are we ever the same? We shouldn’t be the same. We should be so astonished by what we witness Jesus doing in our lives that we can’t help ourselves and we too get out of our own boats. Now, of course, I’m not talking about physical boats here, no pontoons or fishing boats. I am talking about getting out of whatever comfortable spot we reside in and wading into unchartered, unclear, rocky, shaky waters to follow and serve the one who calls us, the one who is always making us new, the one who redeems us day after day. This is an act of obedience so astonishing that it may make our loved ones around us wonder what has gotten into us. Because, again, once we witness the life-changing ways of Jesus, we aren’t the same. We can’t be the same. We know too much! Once we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the life changing ways of Jesus, we have a new definition of love. We have a new definition of grace. We have a new definition of mercy. We have a new definition of life! And we are so filled with the Holy Spirit and the promise of accompaniment and abundance that we practically leap out of our boats and run to follow Jesus, right? Or not.

Following Jesus and answering his call is risky. From a practical standpoint, it makes no sense whatsoever. It’s not like we all have the luxury of dropping everything to answer God’s call. I mean, there are bills to be paid. But to leave everything and follow Jesus is at the heart of discipleship. And Jesus calls all of us to be disciples. And it can be scary, and unknown, and risky, and so incredibly worth it. God calls us out of our life of comfort because for so many of us, being comfortable has quickly morphed into being complacent. We don’t dare get out of our boat or even rock the boat because we’ve got it good. It’s unfortunate that there are problems in the world or that people are suffering. But, it doesn’t directly affect me and so we mind our own business. But my beloved, if we think God is just going to call us once and then give up, we’re sorely mistaken. God is constantly calling us, challenging us, maybe even daring us to get out of our places of comfort, get out of our places of complacency, and enter into the places of Christ.

When we don’t answer God’s call, we declare that we aren’t interested in worshipping God, we’re only invested in our own interests; we’d rather worship ourselves. We should know by now that that kind of life isn’t a life at all. It’s merely an existence. And again, I don’t know about you. But, I don’t want to just exist, I want to really live. And discipleship is a life that is unpredictable and yet rewarding at the same time. We don’t do it alone, that’s for sure. God has a plan for our lives. Whether we get out of our comfort places or not, eventually God will steer us in the direction we need to go. When we see what God through Jesus Christ can do, we are changed. The cost of discipleship is great; it involves putting God in Jesus Christ at the center of our lives even if that involves changes in our lives. But we do this not because we are forced to do this. We do this because, like Simon, we have experienced grace upon grace. We put God at the center of our lives and follow because, like Simon, we can’t go back to what we once knew. We do this because we can’t do anything else.

Sermon for 2/3/19 Luke 4:21-30

Believe it or not, Jesus didn’t come to be liked. Not one verse in the bible has Jesus saying “I came so that all of you may like me, so that I may be popular, and so that I may have a lot of friends.” Even his closest friends, the disciples, abandoned him during his hour of need. Jesus didn’t necessarily set out to alienate people. His intentions never were to make people feel alone, unloved, or abandoned. But, Jesus came to be a holy disruptor. When Jesus starts his holy disrupting, it doesn’t win him any friends. In fact, the people of his hometown, who originally spoke well of him and most likely had a lot of pride for the hometown boy, so badly don’t want to hear what he has to say that they attempt to throw him off a cliff.

Today’s reading is a continuation from last week. Jesus has gone to the synagogue, read from Isaiah and proclaimed God’s favor for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. On the surface, that sounds really nice. But, we know that Jesus is more than just lip service. And quickly privilege and grace are going to collide and it’s not going to be pretty. The townspeople surround Jesus and want, desire, even demand his favor. They tell him “do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” The townspeople in Nazareth want the healing, they want the liberation, they want the release of the captives, they want it all. And Jesus’ response isn’t an overjoyed response to their demands. Jesus doesn’t give them what they want. He, instead, starts to be the holy disruptor that he is.

Jesus calls the people of Nazareth to pay attention to the people who are of special concern to God. And the people of Nazareth probably respond “isn’t that us?” Of course God loves us. That’s not the point. There is a difference between God loving us and God showing concern for the least of those around us. But, the problem is this: we seem to think it’s an either/or situation. God certainly can’t love us AND show special concern to those we don’t desire to love. But, Jesus, being the holy disruptor tells us “of course God can!” It might be helpful for us to know why what Jesus said was so disruptive.

Jesus spoke of widow at Zarephath in Sidon and also spoke of a leper that got clean, Naaman the Syrian. “The widow was obedient and faithful to God, willing to give the last of what she had in order for her household to receive a blessing from God (1 Kgs. 17:1-16). She endued the severe famine in the land and did not allow the apparent lack of resources to interfere with her relationship with Elijah. Naaman, who was initially resistant to Elisha’s prophetic instructions, eventually immersed himself seven times in the Jordan and was healed of his leprosy (2 Kgs. 5:1-14). … Both of these examples represented the extreme ‘other’ to those in the synagogue crowd, and they served to drive home the point that the good news Jesus proclaimed was intended for Jew and Gentile alike.” (Byron, 311/312 “Feasting on the Word”)

The gospel is offensive. Jesus wasn’t executed by the state because he was a bad guy. He was executed because he was a direct threat to power. The people who had privilege believed they alone were to receive Jesus’ favor and thus God’s favor. What the people of Nazareth wanted, really, was a false prophet. They wanted someone who would show them and only them God’s favor. And that’s not how Jesus or God operates. And before we’re too quick to shake our heads in disbelief at the people of Nazareth, let’s be honest with ourselves. We too desire the same thing. We want God’s favor for us. We want God’s provisions for us. We want God’s grace for us. And again, if we’re honest, we don’t want to share. Enter Jesus. Jesus and his good news. Jesus and his good news for all people. And his good news is so offensive we want to throw him off a cliff. Jesus and his good news that’s so offensive we hang him on a cross to die.

God’s grace doesn’t care about privilege. God’s grace is showered on those who need it the most. And the people who need God’s favor and grace the most are the people that we in society would rather forget. Jesus is rejected several times throughout Luke. People even reject the idea that the tomb is empty. He is used to rejection. That won’t stop him from spreading what he knows to be good news and what to us may sound more like a load of hooey. Maybe we can start to understand how offensive Jesus was and is if we put this scripture into terms and ideas that we can relate to a bit better. It would be as if Jesus came into our midst and said “the money you collect every week for your food pantry is fantastic. Now, I’m going to use that money and instead feed immigrants at the border. I’m going to make sure they have the healthcare they need and the representation in the courts to keep them safe.” Or what if Jesus said “this week’s offering will be used to operate a suicide hotline for folx who identify as transgender.” I’m gonna push you one more time. Jesus, seeing the pain and hurt in the world, enters into our sanctuary and says “the money you’ve been saving up for some special project? Instead I will use it to lobby for safer gun control so that no child has to fear going to school. “ Now maybe you can start to understand why people wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff.

Jesus didn’t come to make us feel good. Yes, Jesus loves us. Jesus loves you and me. But his love doesn’t stop there. And that is what makes Jesus so offensive. Jesus’ love is for those we’d rather forget or even throw off a cliff ourselves. The Gospel is offensive and should anger you, my beloved. But, it should anger you into action. Because this world isn’t how God intended. The top 3% of the world (or whatever) control the world because of wealth. We are one of the richest nations in the world and we still have people in Flint, Michigan without clean drinking water. We are one of the richest nations in the world yet someone who works a minimum wage job for 40 hours a week still needs government assistance to make it. We don’t have broken people we have broken systems. And Jesus came to abolish broken systems and heal broken people.

Being a believer is hard. If you haven’t questioned your faith lately or what God is up to in this world, maybe you should take a closer look. What Jesus is asking of us is so difficult. Because when the good news doesn’t sound like good news for us, we may wonder what kind of God we serve. But the good news isn’t good news unless it’s good news for the poor, and the infirmed, and the lowly, and the blind, and the forgotten. So when holy disruptions meet marginalized grace recipients, then, and only then, do we all hear the good news of God’s love for the world.