Sermon for 3/24/19 Luke 13:1-9

Why do bad things happen to good people? This is a question that has been asked probably since that darned apple was consumed in the garden. It’s asked in various ways, but it all boils down to that same question of bad things happening to good people. There’s a fancy word for this kind of questioning and thinking. It’s called theodicy. And, I’ll be honest friends, it’s kind of a wormhole question that sucks ya down and won’t let go very easily. The other thing is, questions like these cannot be answered in this lifetime. That doesn’t mean we should (or will) stop asking them. But knowing that they have no answers may actually come as a relief. Or, perhaps, it is just a source of frustration. Add it to the list of things you’d like to discuss with God when we all get to where we’re (hopefully) going.

Much of our text for today deals with these theodicy questions. Those poor Galileans. It’s like Pilate didn’t even care about their sacrifices. Why did this happen to the Galileans? What did they do to deserve that? And those poor people in the tower of Siloam. 18 people died! How does that happen? What did they do? It sounds silly when we talk about it in relation to the text. But, even just this last week I’ve heard theodicy voiced in other ways. One of the worst, most vile was in relation to the floods in Nebraska. Now, mind you, I’m heartbroken about these floods. Nebraska is a place I consider one of my homes. I know and love people who live there. Someone somewhere suggested that the floods are happening because Nebraska, as a state, voted for President Trump. That is terrible theology. I heard several forms of theodicy wrestled with after the tragedy at ADM. As I said, we’re going to ask these questions knowing full well we’re not going to get any answers.

Honestly, quite often, we use questions that we wrestle with in times of theodicy to avoid what Jesus is really calling us to: repentance. Of course, that may lead to even more confusion. What in the world do repentance and theodicy have to do with one another. If the classic question is “why do bad things happen to good people” and I (personally) had nothing to do with that bad thing, then why would I need to repent of anything? Good question. I want to start with the idea of repentance and focus on two aspects: individual repentance and corporate repentance. Now, I may use the word corporate off and on and I am using it to talk about a group of people, not an actual corporation. If we were to repent of something as an entire church, that would be a corporate repentance.

Repentance is a church word. We pastor-types use it a lot with the assumption that you all know what we’re talking about. But it can also be one of those things that is said a lot but you’re really not exactly sure what it is. We especially talk a lot about repentance during Lent. Repentance is part of what we’re called to do to prepare ourselves for the trial, execution, and ultimately, the resurrection of Jesus. So, repentance literally means to turn around. It means that you’re going to do a 180 in your life. You will be letting go of old thinking. It’s more than saying that you will do better, it’s actually doing better. Repentance means you’re actually going to change. We often talk about confession and forgiveness. But our confession and forgiveness is actually three-fold: (1) confession, (2) forgiveness, and (3) repentance. Whole-hearted repentance means that we gain or establish a new perception of what is real and true. And yes, we’re going to even screw up repentance. We may fall back into our old ways. But, if we’re actually trying to repent then God will be there with mercy and grace and forgiveness.

As I said, we have individual repentance and corporate repentance. Individual repentance is a bit easier to understand and talk about, so I am going to start there. This is repentance that is done usually only by you and you alone (with the help of God). I think about this in our relationships: marital, friendship, work, or otherwise. You did or said something wrong, you’ve been forgiven, and then you make it a point to NOT do or say that thing again. And yes, sometimes that’s easier said than done. I get it. After all, it seems we sometimes hurt the ones we love the most.

Corporate repentance is a bit more tricky and I think this is where we tend to get tripped up. I also think it’s a place where God is trying desperately to move and we keep fighting God at every turn. Corporate repentance is when a group of people make the decision to change their thinking and being in the world. Here’s a mundane example: let’s say you as a family are very distressed about destruction of the earth and the effects of global warming. It is impossible for you as a family to stop global warming. That would take the involvement of a lot more people. But, what you see as repentance for your involvement in the direct effects of global warming may be to start recycling.

Corporate repentance can also be done as a church. Did you know that our denomination, the ELCA, has started to acknowledge the hurts caused in the name of “progress and civilization?” When the church has met for large churchwide meetings and gatherings, there has been a moment when we acknowledge the Native American tribes that the land we’re now on used to belong to as well as lamenting the ways the land was taken from those tribes. We can’t rewind time. But, like I said last week, when we know better, we do better. Repentance is necessary to avoid theodicy type questions. Instead of blaming individuals for when bad things happen, repentance encourages us to look inward and question how we might have contributed to the problem.

To go back to what I talked about earlier, the flooding in Nebraska isn’t the fault of anyone here or anyone that lives in Nebraska. But, maybe it will encourage us to take a closer look at how we steward our waterways and land. Maybe we repent from disbelieving in things like climate change and start to have real conversations about how we respond to climate change. While we don’t know what happened at ADM, we repent from blaming Lt. Hosette or FF Cain of course. But maybe we also have more conversations about workplace safety, or why people feel the need to work long hours. I don’t know. Repentance is hard. God is with us when we do it, for sure, but it is hard.

The result of repentance is this: fruitfulness. When we are fruitful (like the fig tree in our story) then we are better equipped and prepared to respond to the brokenness in the world. Repentance starts with seeing people. We see their humanity instead of their shortcomings. After all, that is what we desire for ourselves, right? We want people to see us for us, not for the ways in which we have failed. It’s almost as if (gasp) we want others to see us the way God sees us. We can pray that we view others the same way. I have said this time and time before, we don’t have broken people, we have broken systems. Repentance is the tool that helps us to repair broken systems. It is hard work, like I said. And yes, this work may not bear fruit in our lifetime. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in it. God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, empowers us in this work. You have been forgiven. You have been redeemed. Now, the work of repentance starts. It is time for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. We can’t just say that we repent, we must actually do it and model it for others. So next time, instead of asking “why do bad things happen to good people” maybe we repent of that thinking and ask why is there a broken system happening to anyone and what can I do about it?

Sermon for 3/17/19 Luke 13:31-35

I want to share a brief story with you that I have actually written about before. So, if it sounds familiar, that’s why. A few years ago I was in Atlanta for continuing education. I had stayed way past my bedtime at a local watering hole catching up with friends. By the time I made it to the MARTA (the mass transit of Atlanta) it was late. I could immediately tell that the population that rode the MARTA at that time of night was quite different from those I had ridden with earlier in the day. It was clear these were blue-collar employees. They were dressed in chefs coats, hospital uniforms, hotel staff garb and the like. I also was keenly aware of something else: I was one of the only people at my MARTA stop that was not a person of color. It was as if my pasty white skin suddenly had the ability to glow. I looked around for anyone else that was white and had no luck. And maybe there were others, but with my tunnel vision, I saw nothing. I put my headphones on but didn’t turn on my music. I wanted the perception that I was listening to something and not bothered by the world around me. At the same time, I wanted to hear if something was going on around me (hence, no music). I moved the backpack I was carrying a little closer to me. I sat as far back against a wall as I could on the train. And then, I finally realized everything I had done to “protect” myself in the name of fear.

I had never really come face to face with my own racism until that point. I stupidly thought that having a heart for social justice and being a tad bit liberal that I wasn’t racist. I was wrong. To some extent, I still am racist. I am not blatantly racist, of course. But, I am blind to the ways that I am allowed to move about in this world because of my skin color. In fact, most of the time, if I am aware of ways that the world seems against me, it is because of my gender. I hardly ever think about the ways that I benefit from being white. Please understand, my beloved, this is not going to be a message where I expect you to apologize for something you had no control over: your skin color. But, what I may do is challenge the ways we all (and that includes me) benefit from that. If you’ve never thought about the ways that you benefit from skin color that alone is privilege.

Jesus says “how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” It’s a risk, as a Pastor, to make sweeping broad statements and take a stand on an issue. We run the risk of losing members, or even worse, losing a job. So we weigh things carefully. But, I didn’t have to think very long or very hard before deciding to make this profession: white supremacy is a sin and it is responsible for killing entirely too many of God’s people. It wasn’t just the tragedy that occurred in New Zealand that sparked my stance. This is something I have believed for some time. That phrase that Jesus utters to the people of Jerusalem is one of lament and sadness.

Can you hear it in his voice? “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus desires to protect us. It’s a beautiful sentiment. Jesus desires to offer us a safe place, shelter, and love. And yet, the people of Jerusalem resist. We resist. And it’s more than resistance, it’s the idea that we were not willing. Meaning, there was no room for negotiation. Why would the people of Jerusalem, or us, or anyone for that matter refuse to be sheltered, loved, and protected by Jesus? I fear it’s the same reason we want to skip right past Good Friday. It’s the same reason we don’t want to gather around the foot of the cross.

Under Jesus’ care, at the foot of the cross, in those dark moments of Good Friday, if we’re honest, we’ll come to discover one amazing, wonderful, and yet disturbing truth: we are all one and we are all equal. And again, if we’re being honest, there are times when we may observe the world around us and desire to be anything but equal. In some ways, that’s good, right? I mean, do we desire to be equal with those from history that have done the most damage? Do we desire to be equal to those even from our own personal history that have caused us the most damage and heartache? But, there are those, who like us, are just trying their best to get by. They’re just trying to work their daily job, provide for themselves or their families, and make time for a little worship and fun.

Upon first glance, we may desire to be equal to people like that. But, there is evil in society. It’s the same evil that caused me to be so paranoid that evening in Atlanta. It’s the evil that says “no matter what, if it doesn’t look like you, dress like you, worship like you, love like you, or operate in this world as you do then it is evil and should be destroyed.” And I understand that you may not think that way. Heck, I pray you don’t think that way. I pray the majority of the human race doesn’t think that way. But there are those in our society that are a cancer. They are evil. Luther insisted a thing be called what it is. Human beings who desire to destroy others simply for skin color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical abilities are evil and will not, cannot be tolerated. Hate is not a Christian value and most certainly should not be a human value.

We fight being gathered under the care of Jesus because then we are admitting that we are all equal, that we are all in need of love, and that we all are in need of care. But hate gets in the way. Jesus wouldn’t stand for it and neither will I. I hope you won’t either. I hope when you leave here and watch the news or observe the world your heart will be open and broken. Our hearts should be broken because the world God made is broken. Hate is not the desire of God. God does not desire for anyone to be stuck in the sin of supremacy. God does not desire for anyone to be stuck in sin period.

What makes God so astounding and so amazing is that, through Jesus Christ, we have a God that continuously seeks us out. We have a God that desires to pull us out of our sin to redeem us. And God will keep trying until we either give into that love or we come face to face with God to answer for our words and actions. But the cross is not a “get out of jail free” card. The cross demands more of us. The promises made in the waters of baptism demand more of us. The love of God demands more of us. The command (and demand) is that we cannot stay settled in our own personal peace if there is lack of peace anywhere in the world God created. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. When our neighbors are in pain, whether it is 5 miles or 5000 miles away, we should hurt too. The first step is confessing our own sins. And again. And again. And learning. When we know better, we do better. And making changes that benefit the kingdom of God. You are allowed to change your mind,  you know. You no longer have to hold fast to the same beliefs you had 50 years ago or even 5 minutes ago.

Jesus desires for us all to be gathered under his loving, watchful, caring eye. This can only happen when we start to move and interact with the world as one. It starts at the foot of the cross and ends at the empty tomb. The days between is where we’re stuck. Don’t let the cross be in vain.

Sermon for 3/10/19 Luke 4:1-13

Did you know that we get this story every first Sunday in Lent? The story of the temptation of Jesus. So, it might be easy, maybe even tempting for us, to hear this reading and immediately think of our own temptations. After all, don’t some people give things up for Lent so that they can learn the power of temptations? At the risk of sounding cruel, this reading is not about us. We should not hear this and immediately apply it to our own lives. After all, the temptations that Jesus faces, are nowhere near or like the temptations we face. Now, I know what you might be wondering. If this is not a text about temptation, then what is this story about? Our reading today as a story about identity. It is a story about Christ and his identity to and in God. It has a story about Christ and his identity to us. And, it is a story about our identity to and in Christ. The story is all about how Jesus is going to live into his identity as the son of God, and how we might follow as children of God and followers of Christ.

We are told that this encounter is spirit driven literally the text says that Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit. He is full of the Holy Spirit. So, he is not alone while being tempted. As a side note, this makes me wonder how much of this is Jesus trusting in the Holy Spirit and how much of this encounter is him trusting in his identity. How strong might we be if we put more faith in our identity and the Holy Spirit? But I digress. The temptations from Satan all start out the same “if you are…” Believe it or not, this is actually better translated as “since you are.” “Since you are the son of God” and then the temptations follow. This is not a question of Jesus’ identity but more of a challenge of how he will live into that identity. Satan is not questioning whether or not he is the son of God. But because he is the son of God how will he move about in this world? Perhaps we could post the same question to ourselves. Because we are called, claimed, and beloved children of God, how will we move about and encounter and interact with this world?

Before this encounter, in scripture we actually heard about the baptism of Jesus. Therefore, we heard about his identity in God. After Jesus is baptized, a voice comes from the clouds declaring “you are my Son, the Beloved” (Lk 3:22b).  So, perhaps, for Satan this is less about temptation and more of a challenge. You are the son of God, you are the Messiah, you are surrounded, filled, driven by the Holy Spirit. So Jesus, what will that look like? Once again my beloved I wonder what happens when we ask the same of ourselves. We are children of God we are the beloved of the Messiah, we are surrounded by the Holy Spirit. What does the world look like when we take on that identity?

The first temptation that Satan gives Jesus is to turn rocks into loaves of bread. We know that Jesus is hungry. After all, he has been fasting for 40 days. You can imagine then, the hunger is real. I mean, I know how I feel when I have gone for hours without eating. Let alone, 40 days. Once again however, this is not about Jesus necessarily. This temptation is about how Jesus will interact with the world and claim his identity. Let us not forget that so much of Jesus’s ministry is feeding people literally. Jesus feed hungry people. Can you imagine how easy that might be if Jesus was able to turn any and all stones into bread with a snap of his fingers? But Jesus refuses this temptation. He tells the devil that one does not live by bread alone. And, if you think of the many feeding stories that we hear about Jesus, it is more than just feeding that Jesus gives people. When Jesus feeds people, he affirms their humanity. It is about community. It is about recognizing who they are and where they are in that moment. Being able to snap his fingers and turn stones into bread may not be able to deliver that same message.

The second temptation that Satan presents to Jesus is about power. Satan offers Jesus all the powers in the world if only Jesus would worship Satan. Once again, think about all the injustices that Jesus could make right if he were all powerful as Satan seems to promise. Think about all the prisoners he could free if he were the one in charge of all the kingdoms of the world. Think of all the people he would be able to help if only he were the one in charge instead of governments or rulers. Satan is speaking directly to the heart of Jesus’ ministry. What he is offering is an easy way out. But once again, Jesus remembers who he is and who he belongs to. He reminds Satan that he will worship God and God alone. Jesus, once again, is resting secure in his identity. This is not an easy thing to do for us humans. They easy way out is always tempting us.

The final temptation that Satan poses to Jesus is to jump off the highest point trusting that angels will catch him. Once again, our reading says “if you are the son of God,” but it is more accurately translated as “since you are the son of God.” Since you are the son of God, prove that an identity. Show me and the world that God will claim you and catch you when you fall. And Jesus, knowing the devil’s intent, states that you shall not put your God to the test. Jesus does not need to prove that God loves him and will protect him. He already knows this to be true in his identity. He knows that he is the son of God, the Messiah. It is not to him to prove this to anyone else.

So, my beloved, what can we learn from this today? I think are most important takeaway from these readings today is to be secure in our identity. No matter what else the world may call us, good or bad, our primary identity is that as child of God. There is no shortage of people either challenging us to prove who we are, or people challenging who we are. God created us in God’s image. We are beautifully and wonderfully made. However, there are many that will challenge the way we act, the way we look, even the way we move about in this world. That’s why it is so important to remember who we are and whose we are. We are reminded of this identity every time we gather at the baptismal waters and every time we gather around the table. We are fed and bathed in the promise of redemption and loving adoption from God. This is not to say that we will not cave to temptation. We know we will. We know we have. It is sin infiltrating our lives on an almost daily basis.

It is good for us to remember then, when we do fall to temptation and sin, we serve a God that is relentless in loving us. You saw that the devil gave up challenging Jesus after three tries. Good for him for trying. It was a no-win situation for the devil. But for Jesus, he never gives up on us. We do not live by a three strikes and you’re out rule. Of course, Jesus does not desire for us to succumb to temptation and sin, but when we do, God through Jesus Christ is there to remind us that we are loved and forgiven. The freedom of the cross promises us this on a daily basis. We will not be defined by our temptations or our sins. The love that God has for us is stronger and greater than either of those.

Satan may also tempt us with something else: the idea that we actually do not deserve God‘s love. We may be quick to reject it. We may think that our sins are too great or are unforgivable. I am here to tell you my beloved that simply is not true. So, perhaps, over the next 40 days, you give into the temptation to be loved. Give into the idea that God is going to love you even when you feel you are unlovable. Give into the idea that you are forgiven even if you cannot forgive yourself. Give into the fact that you are claimed by God as a child of God and nothing can come between that relationship. What a wonderful 40 days this might be if we gave into those kind of temptations. Give into the temptation to love your neighbor. Give into the temptation to see the best in one another. Give into the temptation to see Christ moving in the world towards making this world a better place. Give into the temptation of allowing yourself to be loved so wholly/holy and so fully that you can’t help but love one another and the world that God created. Temptation exists. Evil exists. Sin exists. And I am very confident that the devil exists. But none of that is stronger than the grip that God has on us as claimed children of God. Our identity in God is secure. The love that God has for us is the strongest weapon against any temptation. Rest secure in your identities my beloved. God has a strong hold on you!


Sermon for 3/3/19 Luke 9:28-36 (37-43) Transfiguration

Let’s be honest. There are just some scriptures that we as preachers don’t know what to do with. I think I mentioned something similar last week. And when it comes to our own faith and the scriptures that sustain us, I highly doubt that most of us would reflect back and say that it is this reading today, often referred to as the transfiguration, that sustains and supports our life as Christians. When people ask us “why do you believe in Jesus?” I don’t think we quote this scripture from Luke. (Side note though: if you haven’t thought about why you believe in Jesus, perhaps that might be a good Lenten discipline for you to take on. Think about and pray for 40 days about why you believe in Jesus). Just in case you think you’re alone with not quoting this scripture, or heck, even understanding it, rest assured you’re not alone! After all, even Peter, who was often recognized as Jesus’ most loyal disciple, didn’t understand what was going on. It even says in verse 33 that Peter suggests they stay on the mountaintop “not knowing what he (Jesus) said.”

It’s easiest to understand the Transfiguration (as if that’s possible) by remembering a few things that shape this reading. Jesus, up to this point, has been showing the disciples and us who he is, how his ministry will be, and what he expects of us as disciples if we choose to follow him. That is what epiphany is/was all about. A few weeks back even, Jesus asked Peter “but who do you say that I am?” And it is Peter (of all people) who responds that Jesus is the Messiah. But, what that means isn’t always clear to Peter (or us for that matter). Jesus knows what it means to be the messiah. It means that he will have to undergo suffering, torture, and death, only to conquer that death and rise on the third day.

So often when we think of the cross, our go to answer is that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us from our sins. While this isn’t wrong, this also isn’t the whole story. What Jesus gives us is healing, our own resurrections, and ultimately, freedom. Jesus is God’s love letter to the world. Jesus is the only one who comes again and again, without limitations, without exceptions, and without expectations, to rescue God’s people (and that includes us). Peter has said, outright, what and who Jesus is. Yet it is Peter who wants to keep him from doing it. And Jesus continues to show who he is and what he does (despite Peter, despite all of us) by once again showing his healing powers in this strange story from versus 37-43.

Here is what is so wonderful about God (as if you needed more convincing): God, through a transfigured Jesus Christ, comes to us, is present with us here and now, in ways we may understand (or not), despite the fact that we, like the disciples, may not be fully awake to the promises of God. So many of the ways we experience Jesus would never happen if Jesus would have stayed on that mountain top like Peter suggested. In the transfiguration, Jesus literally transforms. He was glowing (literally) and was surrounded by Moses and Elijah. He also transforms from the Jesus we’ve gotten to know to the Jesus who will turn his face towards Jerusalem and ultimately, towards his death.

But the disciples weren’t fully awake. It’s easy for us to miss the ways that Jesus transforms in front of us as well as transforms us. It’s easy for us to miss the ways that God, through Jesus Christ is present and continues to be present in transforming, transfiguring ways to us and for us. Here are some examples (even some we may take for granted). When we gather each and every week, Jesus is here and transforming this community. When we gather around the table and the font, Jesus is transforming us. When we gather after worship for coffee and sit around tables, yes, Jesus is transforming us there too. Just because it doesn’t take place within our worship space doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t still there, working and transforming us. When we pray for one another, that’s transforming. When the ladies gather to make blankets and assemble kits, that’s transforming. When Diane gathers supplies, packs up the backpacks, and Teri picks them up, that’s transforming. The time, patience, and (sometimes) literal man hours that went into the basement project, the new bathroom, and soon the new carpet in the narthex is transforming. I hope I don’t have to tell you how transforming the second Tuesday of the month is around here. That’s when Rich and Nancy open their hearts and the food pantry and literally change lives through Jesus Christ.

Even in our weariness, God is transforming us and this place. Maybe despite our weariness, even. And yes, my beloveds, even when our sin gets the best of us, Jesus is transforming us and transforming the entire body of Christ. For generations, God, through Jesus Christ has come over and over to heal us, rescue us, feed us, teach us, and love us. That love is what constantly ushers us through our own transfiguration, our own transformation from death by sin to a life fully lived in the mercy, love, and forgiveness in and of Christ. Perhaps this message isn’t sinking in quite the way I want it to.

We serve a God that is a God of new life. Alleluia? Alleluia! We serve a God that is a God of second chances. Alleluia? Alleluia! We serve a God that has the power to overcome and defeat death. Alleluia? Alleluia! And that new life, those second chances, that power that overcomes death, it all happens right here. In this place. At little Elvira Zion Lutheran Church at 2207 380th Avenue in Clinton, Iowa. It happens here. Alleluia? Alleluia! Every church in the nation, heck, even in the world, should be called Transfiguration Lutheran Church (or whatever denomination). Because if we don’t believe that God is transforming us every single Sunday and every single day, how will we ever believe that God has the power to transform the entire world and does it? I hope you leave this place today different than when you arrived. You have been transformed. You have been fed by fellowship, singing, readings, hopefully this preaching, soon the meal, and on and on. You are a transfigured person. You are loved by a God that cannot be restrained, even by death. You are showered, coated, bathed in mercy and grace by a God that will consistently seek you out, even in, and especially in, those moments when you are weary. Soon enough, we will look to the cross, and there will hang the messiah. Hanging and killed for the sins of the world and to guarantee our freedom. But, we know that’s not the end of the story. Even God has the ability to transform death in a tomb to emptiness and good news. If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is. Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)