Sermon for 6/30/19 Luke 9:51-62

I really do tend to be an optimist. I do see the glass half full. But, I also once read that optimists tend to be late a lot. The theory is that this is because we always think there is more time to do more things before the actual appointed event. I know this all too well. In fact, we have a joke in our family that there is such a thing as “Vaccaro time.” Vaccaro is my maiden name. Vaccaro time is around 10-30 minutes behind. I ran on Vaccaro time a lot before I met Chris. But, he likes to be on time. I’ve gotten better. But, I am usually predictably early to one thing: worship. Anyway, I think all of this comes from something similar to what is going on in the Gospel today: the “but first” syndrome. 

We’re on our way out the door “but first.” But first, I want to change out the laundry, take the dogs out, put those breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, and yell out every mom’s favorite phrase “did you go potty?” But I also wonder how many times I’ve said “but first” and missed out on something better. But first, let me finish this sermon. But first, let me finish this email. But first, I need to make a phone call. But first, I need to put this laundry away. All of us can probably think of a dozen “but first” instances that might have caused us to miss out on life. Two unnamed men in the reading for today desire to follow Jesus. But first… The first man says that he will follow Jesus but “first, let me go and bury my father.” The second man also desires to follow Jesus “but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Both times Jesus reminds them of the kingdom work that they both have been called to. 

Being a follower of Christ isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I think we would like it to be. But, it’s not. It’s more than coming to church. Being a follower of Christ requires action, movement, and a commitment. And a lot of times, we have those “but first” moments that can interrupt our discipleship. Please hear me, my beloved, these but first moments aren’t bad things. I don’t want you to think that I am telling you to drop everything in your life and follow Christ. Because while that sounds nice in theory, and that is what Christ asks us to do, sometimes it’s the but first moments that often keep our lives moving. “But first, I need to add to my retirement fund a bit.” “But first, I need to get care of the cattle lined up.” Taking care of our future, our families, our livelihood, is important and good work. As nice as Shelly at Chase-MasterCard is, she will never waive a payment because you tell her you’re going to drop everything and follow Christ. 

But what about the things we do tend to put in front of Christ that really could be back-burner items? What but firsts do we put in our lives that are actually stumbling blocks? Because in our story today, we’ve reached a critical point. Jesus has turned his face to Jerusalem. This can only mean one thing: he is starting to prepare himself for his death. All along Jesus has been encouraging those around him to follow him. And it hasn’t been too bad so far. And then he turns his face to Jerusalem. This is a rubber meets the road kind of movement. It’s as if Jesus is saying “I’m all in. Are you all in?” And we suddenly might be looking for all kinds of “but first” moments to get us out of this one. Because Jerusalem means sacrifice. Jerusalem means judgement. Jerusalem means chastising. And ultimately, Jerusalem means death. It would be about this time that I would be looking for any and all ways out. 

That’s a hard reality to admit. Because my reaction to all of this is about me and has nothing to do with Jesus. What does it say about me that as soon as Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem, I want out? What does it say about me that when my idea of faith is challenged, I want to shut down? What does it say about me when someone challenges my ideas of social justice and I just want to use scripture as a weapon (something I know I’ve preached against). I don’t like it when my shortcomings are right in front of me, clear as day, begging to be examined and corrected and I just desire to make excuse after excuse. What wins out over Jesus time and time again is my desire to remain “safe.” I often forget that Jesus will keep me safe but my lack of trust keeps me in the shadows of uncertainty and but firsts. There are even topics I think about preaching, “but first…” And I rationalize it by thinking about it strategically, and thinking about what such sermons might mean in this context, and whether or not I want to keep this call. So, I try and stay fairly vanilla and not rock the boat too much. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do. 

What might it look like if we did follow Jesus with reckless abandon? What might it look like if we stopped making excuses, stopped stalling, and started moving? What might it feel like if we actually trusted God as much as we say we do? This isn’t about proving anything to Christ or earning his love. This is more about proving something to ourselves. This is about reminding ourselves that we are called and claimed and what that looks like on a day to day basis. This is about “leaning on the everlasting arms” on a daily basis and knowing that God will never lead us anywhere that God has not been. Stetson doesn’t know a lot of “but firsts” quite yet. He has learned the most important thing a baby can learn: trust. He trusts that when he cries, he will be loved. He trusts that when he’s wet, somebody is going to do something about that. He trusts that when he is hungry, he will be fed. Today, he will learn that God loves him in a way that no one else can. Stetson has been called and will be claimed in the waters, just like we all have. What if we looked at Stetson as an example of discipleship? When it comes to our needs, trust that God has it covered. It’s tempting to fight back and say “but first…” I think when Jesus calls we must resist the temptation to “but first” because we may miss out on something even better. 

“Jesus does not choose to punish those who are reluctant to support him, even today. Instead, we are reminded again and again that ours is a Savior of love, who is not about punishing all who resist or compelling everyone to get in line or face the consequences, but one who invites those who believe to walk the journey with him” (Shaffer 192; Feasting on the Word). This baptism today is about love. It’s about the love God has for Stetson and for you and for me. And we need to be reminded of that love as much as we can. God does love you, my beloved. Even in those moments when Jesus is all in and you still want to think about it, God loves you. This is one of the reasons why it’s crucial that baptisms are done in the public square. This proclamation of love isn’t just for Stetson, it’s for all of us. We will soon see that promise in water in word. This is a reminder that we are called to be faithful, not successful. Our journey of discipleship will be filled with some failures. When it happens, Christ will be there, leading the way, encouraging us to keep going. No if, and’s, or but’s about it. 

Sermon for 6/23/19 Luke 8:26-39

In my experience, mental illness doesn’t come with casseroles. Usually when a loved one is diagnosed with something that affects his or her life, people stop by with casseroles and offers to help? A new cancer diagnosis? Here’s a casserole, an offer to drive you to chemo, and a future date to clean your house. A new MS diagnosis? Here’s a casserole, plans to modify your house so it’s easier to get around, and a team to walk in the next charity fundraiser. An autism diagnosis? Here’s a casserole, me learning more so I can be a better advocate, and keeping a lookout for tagless clothing (true story). Suicidal ideation with manic bi-polar swings? No casserole. No companions for the journey. No house cleaning. Mental illness is often kept in dark places, hidden from human and public consumption, and shrouded in secrecy and shame. As hard as I’ve tried, I can’t shake the idea that the man in today’s story, Legion, has been and is suffering from a mental illness. I would also love to say that things are better now for people with a mental illness. Pharmaceutically, they are. But, people like me with mental health issues are still often relegated to places of darkness, secrecy, and shame. I will continue to talk about mental health from the pulpit because it needs to be spoken of. People need to know they’re not alone and that the church takes seriously the issues of mental health.

Legion had been living in a tomb. Legion had been living in a place that was sequestered, dark, isolated, and a place meant for the dead. Legion was very much alive but I doubt he was living. We aren’t told whether Legion decided to segregate himself or the pressure, judgement, and shame put on him by the others in the town sent him to the tomb. Make no mistake, my beloveds, we all have tombs. Sometimes we are very familiar with the tombs in which we reside, other times our tombs are like a terrible vacation home that we only sometimes visit. So the question I asked myself (which I pose to you now) is how do we live in our tombs and/or what keeps us living in or visiting our tombs? I think some of the things that drive us to our personal tombs are: shame, secrets, fear, expectations, our own disbelief, isolation, misunderstandings, identity, and even our physical health. How might all of this actually look? Maybe you’re driven to the tomb by the secrets you keep: an affair, a situation at work, or an assault. Maybe you’re driven to the tomb by shame. The one or two drinks a week have turned into 5 or 6 a night. You still sneak that one cigarette after dinner even though you told your family you quit. Some of you may have thought you didn’t have a tomb but then this recent planting season happened, or didn’t. And doubts crept in. And you questioned your identity because if you’re not farming, then what in the world are you doing? Before you know it, you found your tomb. We all have tombs.

Legion is tormented by evil spirits. I don’t know that we talk enough about evil spirits or even know enough to talk about them. But evil spirits are very real. This is a common topic of spiritual conversations in churches in countries where witchcraft is practiced and very real. As someone with a brain health disease, I can attest that evil spirits are real. Legion is bound, literally, by his spirits. The spirits kept him under guard and bound with chains and shackles. Even if Legion did manage to break free, he was driven out into the wilderness which was another place of darkness, uncertainty, and lack of life. How might evil spirits move in our lives, then my beloved. Evil spirits tell us lies. Lies like “no one cares” or “you’re all alone.” Evil spirits whisper doubts in our ears. “You’ll never do this” or “this will never work.” Evil spirits also seem to control our internal dialogue. This is the way we speak to ourselves. When my evil spirits are working at full throttle, I say things to myself I would never in a million years dream of saying to any of you or my beloved Chris or Ellen. But, I believe my internal dialogue maybe a little too easy. Evil spirits move about in rumors, anxiety and anxiety like symptoms, and fear. Evil spirits, external and internal want to keep us bound and in tombs. Evil spirits obviously don’t know that Jesus will always meet us where we are even if it is a tomb being held captive by our own thoughts.

That’s exactly what Jesus does to Legion. Jesus removes the demons, casts the demons into a herd of swine, and the swine (as a result) ran into a lake and were drowned (sorry Mommsen’s). Jesus freed Legion. But, an interesting response from the townspeople was fear. They were afraid because of genuine fright. After all, who was this Jesus and how was he able to do this to so many demons? And maybe they were afraid because now they had hope. It’s the kind of hope that says “if it can happen to Legion…maybe it can happen for me.” Fear can look like a lot of things to a lot of people. Legion literally had his identity changed in this moment. I believe that his actual name wasn’t even Legion. He had just been called that for so long that it had become his identity. After the demons left him, Legion was clothed and “in his right mind” as we’re told. He will become part of the community again. Jesus has the power to claim us and the identity that comes with that is something no powers can overcome. This is the identity given to all of us in baptism.

When Jesus claims us, we learn that healing is possible. Restoration is possible. Relationships are possible. Inclusion is possible. Community is possible. Recognition is possible. Now, here’s the thing. Legion had a “place” in society. He was that society’s outcast. That was his place. Jesus removed him from that place and gave him a place in society once again. A place where he wouldn’t be feared and a place where he would be included. The town people were certain of Legion’s place before Jesus came along. Then Legion was healed and they got scared. I mean, if we can’t be certain of certain people’s places and situations in society, of what can we be certain? Jesus. Even if no one else sees us or recognizes us, Jesus always will.

Baptismal promises will be made to Basil Sue today and it’s a good time for all of us to be reminded. We have all been marked with the cross of Christ. No demon can erase that. We already belong. Even if it feels like you belong nowhere, you do belong to Christ and there is a home for you in God’s kingdom. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. Sealed, protected, shielded. Even in your tomb dwelling moments, you are sealed, claimed, called, and protected by God the Father through Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. What sometimes frustrates me with stories like this is that it all seems to tie up in a neat little bow. Legion is healed and Jesus is on his way. We know all too well that healing seems to never come for those we love that struggle with mental health issues. I know this well. In those tomb moments, it’s good for us to remind each other of the promises made to us in baptism. In those tomb moments, it’s good for us to remind one another that Jesus continues to show up right where we are, without judgement, to be with us (even if the place we are is dark, dim, and full of death). It’s in those tomb moments, that we, the body of Christ need to show up and be with one another and believe enough for those struggling with disbelief. It’s to us,the body of Christ, to show up and share our light with those in the darkness. Well, we do all of that, and bring a casserole. Amen.

Sermon for 6/2/19 John 17:20-26; Easter 7

Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!) Alright, so I want to start today by asking you some questions. I will give you your choices first and then we’ll do a little informal polling. These questions aren’t meant to shame you or get you in trouble. It’s more for just my information. Here we go. The first question is this “when it comes to my prayer life, I (1) pray daily (or on a semi-regular basis) or (2) I only pray when things are overwhelmingly good or pretty darned bad. Next question. I prefer to pray (1) quietly. Almost a whisper. Or silently in my head. Or (2) out loud. Final question. If I had to pray out loud I would rather pray (1) for myself or (2) for someone else. So, just in case you wondered, we’re going to talk about praying today. And why? Because that is exactly what Jesus is doing in this text.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: this is probably one of the most confusing passages in scripture. It’s like reading the directions from an Ikea television cabinet in Swedish. What’s frustrating is that this passage is so beautiful and what is going on is amazing. And yet, the language makes it hard, if not impossible to understand what actually is going on. Jesus is praying. He is praying out loud. Unlike other places in the Bible, Jesus has not gone off by himself to pray. He is praying for the disciples. And the disciples can hear him. What is most amazing about this passage (and quite possibly my most favorite thing about this passage) is that Jesus is praying for you. Out loud. Let that sink in for just a moment. Jesus is praying for you. I know what you may be thinking “how is that even possible?”

For reference I am talking about the very first sentence of the reading for today. It says “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” The translation found in the Message says “I’m praying not only for them but also for those who will believe in me because of them and their witness about me.” Remember, Jesus is praying and he is doing it out loud. Anyone and everyone present would be able to hear him. In this instance, it is the disciples. Jesus says that not only is he praying for the disciples but also anyone and everyone who will come to believe in Jesus through the works and words of the disciples. Jesus is praying for all the future Christians that are to come. This means that Jesus is praying for you. But it also means that Jesus prayed for your ancestors and Jesus is praying for your loved ones that are yet to come. Jesus is praying for your loved ones that may not even be a thought in your mind; or at least, not at this time. For example: with this prayer, Jesus is praying for my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, and my great great grandchildren. That thought alone has enough power to make my brain hurt.

We know that Christians didn’t just come to be magically. There were followers of Jesus, yes. But, we know so much of Jesus message and ministry was spread by the disciples. In fact, there’s an entire book of the Bible dedicated to this: Acts. You being a Christian didn’t happen by accident. And you aren’t here just because you are the third, fourth, or fifth generation to attend this church and be Lutheran. You are Christian, I am a Christian, we are all Christian because after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the disciples went from town to town, from village to village, and made more disciples. This is core to what it says in Matthew 28 “go and make disciples of all nations.” That is exactly what the disciples did: they made more disciples and more Christians just by telling the story of Jesus.

Then, year after year, generation after generation the stories got told and Christianity grew. All along, Jesus prayer covered all of those believers. If you read carefully, you’ll not hear an expiration date on Jesus’ prayer. Jesus said that he is praying for “those who will believe” in him through the words of the disciples. While we weren’t literally there, there is something really powerful and humbling in knowing that Jesus prayed for me. Jesus prayed for you. Jesus prayed for all of us. Jesus prayed for everyone who calls themselves a Christian. Jesus prayed for everyone who will call themselves a Christian.

Here’s the thing, my beloved. Yes, I am a Pastor. Some might think that I am like a professional pray-er or something. Some might think that I am spiritually healthy. Like some kind of spiritual marathoner. But, I am just like you. There are times when my faith struggles. There are times when my belief is more unbelief. There are times when I look at all the world has to offer and I have no words. And in case you’re new to getting to know you may not know this: I am horrible at asking for help and I’m horrible at asking for what I need. In those moments, I think about this scripture. In fact, verses 20-21 hang in my office. I need to know that Jesus is praying for me. I need the comfort that comes from prayer. When I can’t even pray for myself, for whatever reason, I know that Jesus has prayed for me.

This has been especially comforting to me these last few weeks as it seems like every time I look out the window it’s raining. And my heart breaks. My heart breaks because I love you all so deeply and I can’t even imagine what this rain is doing to you and to your planting. I have no words. And then I remember: Jesus prayed for you. I want that to be clear. But, especially for those of you, my beloved, that are farmers or a farming family, Jesus has prayed for you. For everyone who relies on farmers (and that is all of us, by the way) Jesus has prayed for you. In those moments where you were calculating acres and days left, Jesus prayed for you. In those moments where your bones ached from being in the cab for hours much longer than usual, Jesus prayed for you. In those evenings where your loved ones sat down to a dinner table with an empty chair and bedtime happened, again, without you. Jesus prayed for you. And when the weather report came on quickly followed by crop prices and all you could do was have a sigh that was too deep for words, Jesus prayed for you. I know it may feel like the world has no idea the impact of all of this rain has had on you, your family, and your business, but Jesus knows. And Jesus prays for you.

When we gather around water and splash one another with baptismal promises, we can feel Jesus’ love. When we gather around this table and we are fed with Jesus’ body and blood, we can taste Jesus’ love. But in this holiest of moments, when we are meant to overhear, Jesus prays for us, and we can hear Jesus’ love.