Sermon for 10/27/19 John 8:31-36; Reformation

On the campus of the greatest university in the land, Northwest Missouri State University, sits its administration building. In 1979, a year after I was born, it was almost lost in a devastating fire. My parents still talk about it. But in 2010, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of my favorite buildings that stands on one of my favorite  places on earth. As you walk up to the doors and the building starts to impose her enormous height on you, if you were to look up, you would see etched in stone between two turrets, “and the truth shall set you free.” Now not being a Bible expert in college (I know, some of you may be surprised) I honestly thought it was more of like a honor code situation. Like the building was reminding us not to lie and cheat our way through college. Which also was good. Had I known the real truth, perhaps the stress of college might have been a little less. 

What is the truth?That’s a loaded question, isn’t it?  We live in a time when it seems to be harder and harder to tell truth from fiction. A lie seems to spread faster than the truth on social media these days. And I try, believe it or not, I really try to not talk politics from the pulpit. But our administration makes it challenging to believe truth from fiction as well. Should we dare criticize the administration, even if it is fair, even if it is true, there is a risk it will be called “fake news.” So what is the truth? At the risk of sounding like a basic children’s sermon answer, the truth is Jesus. Jesus even tells us that himself later in the gospel of John. He says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6) 

Jesus is reminding all who believe in him, including us, that as long as we abide in him, as long as we are in relationship with him, we will know freedom. Knowing Jesus is knowing the truth. This is such a hard concept for us to grasp in western culture because we already live in a free society. Now, no matter what party you side with, you may not think that country is perfect, but we do have our freedoms which is what makes our country amazing and targeted. At the same time, it can be hard for Christians to understand the concept of freedom if we are already governmentally free people. 

But the freedom that Jesus spoke of wasn’t the freedom many of us think about when we pledge allegiance to the flag, stand for the national anthem, or honor our veterans. The freedom that Jesus was speaking of was the freedom that only he can bring: the freedom from sin and the freedom for relationship. The freedom for relationships with one another and the freedom for relationship with God. The freedoms that most of us know as United States citizens are wonderful and glorious and they are what allow us to gather in this place week after week and worship the way we do. We should not take them for granted. But at the same time, these freedoms cannot save us. It is only the cross and the actions of Jesus on the cross that can save us. If God forbid all of our constitutional freedoms were taken away tomorrow, we would still be free citizens of God’s kingdom because of the cross. 

We also shouldn’t miss the importance of this day. It is, after all, the day we mark the Reformation. We shouldn’t just think about this as a day in history but an invitation to constantly be re-forming. After all, scripture reminds us this day once again that we are justified by faith apart from works. Meaning, we are justified by our faith in God and by God’s saving actions on the cross and not by anything we ourselves can do. Because as amazing as we are (and let’s be honest, we’re all pretty amazing) we cannot save ourselves. We also cannot do anything to save ourselves. We cannot work ourselves into salvation. We cannot earn our way into salvation. We cannot even hope or love our way into salvation. Salvation is a gift. Knowing this alone is freedom. We are justified by God’s grace as a gift. A gift.  

God’s grace is a gift that will mess you up, like I said last week. Because really, God’s grace is the only thing that frees you really. Grace is what frees you from sin. God’s grace is what frees you from death. God’s grace is what frees you from yourself. God’s grace is that ladder that pulls you out from the pit. Grace is what picks you up, brushes you off, and dares you to start all over again. At the same time, grace is what gives us the freedom to serve our neighbor. We serve our neighbor not because we need to. We don’t need to earn points with God.That’s not how it works. No, we serve our neighbor because we are freed from our sin. Our burdens have been lifted. Our joy in the Lord is so great we just can’t help ourselves. This is the good news that our world is hungering for. This is the truth. 

I believe the world is longing for another reformation, my beloveds. History tells us that is happens around every 500 years or so and that means we’re overdue. In a time where people are having trouble understanding what is truth and what isn’t, wouldn’t be refreshing to know for certain, without a doubt that truth is as simple as Jesus. And he meets us here in bread and wine. The truth is as simple as Jesus and grace is for you too and you don’t need to do anything to earn it. We could be the new reformers the world is looking for. We could be the Martin Luthers the world is waiting on. We don’t need need doors or 95 thesis or even the dark of night to do our work. We just need to be brave enough, bold enough, grace filled enough to proclaim what really is the truth and that THAT truth, Jesus, can set us all free. 

Sermon for 10/20/19 Luke 18:1-8

My beloved, I am starting today’s message by asking for some feedback from you. What does persistence mean to you? Do you find persistence enduring, annoying, or both? From my experience, I have found that persistence and the pure act of just being persistent can be both. It just kind of depends on your perspective. It also kind of depends on who is on the other end of the persistence, right? I mean, when I am being persistent, I feel like I am working (maybe even fighting) for what I want. It can feel like an underdog moment. When my beloved child is being persistent (depending on the time, day, and topic) it can be a test to mommy’s nerves.

Scripture can be persistent too. Did you know that? The Bible isn’t meant to sit on your shelf and collect dust. It’s also not meant to be read and just taken at face value. The Bible is a living, breathing document that should challenge and change us. We should wrestle with scripture often. Scripture is persistent and it was persistent with me this week. See, I kept thinking of the text this way: we Christians are the persistent widow. We should be persistent in prayer. Persistent in asking for justice. Persistent in going to God. But then, what does that make God in this story? Does that mean that God is the judge in this story? Well, that makes no sense at all. Because the judge says that he neither feared God nor had respect for people. I also refuse to believe in a God that would make us, God’s own people, practically beg God for justice. The story, to me, just doesn’t make sense when it’s read that way. So, scripture and I wrestled. A lot. 

What if, instead, God was the widow in this story? To view God as persistent makes me think about God in a new way. (And, honestly, I like thinking about God in new ways.) What might it mean for you, for us, even for this world that God is persistent? What difference does it make? For me, that’s a word of hope. That’s a promise that God doesn’t give up easily and isn’t easily persuaded either. I mean, I think logically we know these things already. But, sometimes my heart and soul need to be reminded that God is going to be persistent in all of the best ways possible. 

When we tell ourselves “I can’t do this” God will be persistent in whispering “yes you can. I created you. I know you can do this.” When you look in the mirror and only see the flaws, wrinkles, gray hairs, extra pounds, or surprise zit, God will be persistent in reminding you how beautifully and wonderfully made you are. And God will keep telling you until you believe it. When evil lurks in all of its forms, no matter what they may be, God will be persistent in reminding you how much you are loved, how much you are cared for, and that yes, grace really is for you too. I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a refreshing take on God. 

Think about it for a moment. Think about God as the widow in this story and put yourself in the place of the judge. Now, I know that may be a bit uncomfortable because the judge isn’t the greatest person in this story, but stick with me here. The widow shows up, day after day after day after day just simply asking for what she wants. She wasn’t forcefull; she wasn’t a bully; she just was consistently persistent. And finally the judge gave her what she wanted. Picture God the same way. God shows up in our lives daily. Maybe we notice,  maybe we don’t. But Jesus promised us that we would have in him, Emmanuel, God with us. So there is no doubt that God shows up persistently every single day in our lives. God is always trying to show us something or tell us something or point us in the right direction. Some days, we/I listen! 

God has to be persistent because sin usually, okay, always gets in the way of us listening to and seeing God. We don’t want to believe that God loves us because of all the horrible things we’ve done (at least, we’ve built them up to be horrible things in our minds). So God must be persistent in telling us we’re loved. But God will do that because that is what God does. God will tell us 1,000 times a day every single day that we are loved if that’s what it will take for us to believe it. God has to be persistent because sin makes us believe that we’re not forgiven. Sure, we can say we are, and we can believe it in our heads, but until we actually live like we’re forgiven, God will persist in reminding us over and over and over again that we are forgiven. Would you like to see the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet as proof? 

God has to be persistent because sin would have us believe that grace is abundant and amazing and yet somehow misses us. Sure, we Christians can talk a big game about this grace stuff to our neighbors and friends, but do we believe it for ourselves? Do we really understand that we do nothing to earn God’s love and that, my beloved, is grace? Do we really understand that we do nothing to earn God’s forgiveness and that, my beloved, is also grace? And do we really understand, fully comprehend, the life-changing, world turning power grace can be? Grace messed me up. Grace has pulled me out of so many self induced holes and places of darkness that if I even think about grace too much I get choked up. But I get choked up because God had to be persistent with me until I believed it. I’m a bit stubborn you see. 

God is going to keep showing up in your life, day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute to persist in your life, whatever that looks like for you. But God will also persist in sending all of us out into the world. See, as Christians, we can’t just sit here and soak in all of this love and grace and mercy and keep it to ourselves. This isn’t a secret. It’s also not a commodity to be rationed. When we know that God is persistent, that God never gives up on us, then we are freed to love and serve the neighbor with great persistence and Christian love. Because God never gives up on us and never lets go of us, we are freed to take a risk, try new things, and ask big questions. Because God persists in loving us, we are then called to seek justice for our neighbors. We are sent to right wrongs and advocate for those whose voices aren’t being heard. We are empowered to use the power we have to make room for the forgotten and trampled on. In God’s kingdom, we will never run out of food or room at the table. God is persistent like that. May it be on earth as it is in heaven. 

Sermon for 10/13/19 Luke 17:11-19

I spent some time at a conference in Denver last week called “Evolving Faith.” Many of the attendees of the conference might classify themselves as “exvangelicals.” They came from various faith denominations. Many, however, have been hurt by the church and her people. Something happened in their lives and the church that they loved was no longer a safe place. I heard a story of a woman who was heavily involved with her church and then her brother came out as gay and she and her family were no longer welcome in church. Another story of a cancer diagnosis and no one from the church bothered to call. At the end of the conference, we misfits, all 2,000 plus attendees gathered around the table to have a humble meal of bread and wine. For some, it had been years since they had communion. For others, like me, it had just been a few weeks. But for so many in attendance, it was the first time in a very long time that they felt seen. They didn’t need to put on airs, pretend to be okay or well, have it altogether, or even be confident in what they believed. We were welcomed at the table, just as we were, and so we went. There is power in being seen. 

The lepers in our story today were seen. I think this is a story about healing. I think this is a story about what it means to be grateful. I also think this is a story about what it means to give praise to God. I also think this could be a story about what it means to give thanks. But, it all starts with being seen, and there is power in that. The lepers were probably used to not being seen. After all, they weren’t the most aesthetically pleasing crowd. Jesus met them on their turf, so to speak. Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. This was dangerous territory. It probably wasn’t a well traveled road. It wasn’t safe for the average Judean. But, it was safe for the lepers. In this region, they could just be. They could be in community with other lepers without the stares, without the gossip, without the looks of pity, without people crossing over to the other side of the street. They could live without having to justify even the breath in their own lungs. And then Jesus came along. And I think it’s important for us to once again hear and see what happens before healing and rejoicing happens. Listen again. 

Verses 12 starts “as he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,” because remember, that’s what they were used to, society had trained them to do that, “they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them,” and I want to stop right there. Jesus saw them. He saw the lepers. He saw their full humanity. He saw them and then healed them. And his immediate command was “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” What Jesus said basically was “go and make yourself seen by someone else as well!” The priest was the person that could bring the lepers back into community fully. The priest was one of the people that would insure that the lepers would be seen fully. There is power in being seen. 

I believe that the lepers praised God because they were healed, yes, (I can’t blame them) but because of what the healing means. See, during this time, there was much expected of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. If someone had an illness that could be visually observed (such as boils or leprosy), or if someone had been seized by a evil spirit then they were outcast by all of society. Their family, their town and community, even their church didn’t want anything to do with them. After all, what if it is contagious. Thank goodness we don’t operate like that anymore. (eyeroll) For the lepers, healing meant that they can now be seen as members of the community again, as members of their families again, as participants in worshiping communities again. There is power in being seen. When you feel seen, how can you not but praise God? After all, it is often only God that truly sees you. 

When was the last time you felt seen? And I mean truly seen? I had to ask myself this question and I don’t know that I have a good answer. I am seen a lot as my roles, which isn’t a bad thing. I am seen as Ellen’s mom, or Chris’ wife, or Pastor, or sister, or whatever. But, when was the last time I felt seen as Jealaine, child of God? Because, as I’ve said over the last few weeks, if that is our core identity, which it is, then when was the last time you felt really seen in your core identity? And I also had to wonder what what prevents me from being seen. The answer really stung, my beloved. I prevent me from being seen. There is power in being seen and there is healing in being seen and I am getting in my own way, maybe you can relate. 

Maybe I don’t want to be seen because then if I am seen, I will be fully seen. This means I will be seen with all my flaws. I will be seen with all my shortcomings. I will be seen with all my sins. I don’t want people to see that. I don’t want to be shunned from the community. I don’t want to be a leper. But did you notice something about the lepers that Jesus healed? There was more than one. Even within the leper community, there was more than one. This was a group of people that managed to look at one another’s brokenness and said, “hey, me too! Let’s travel together.” Maybe church should be more like that. I am broken. You are too. And together we aren’t whole. But we are a whole lot. That is because God sees us. All of us. Just as we are. 

Soon, we misfits in this place will gather around this table to be seen once again. Sure, I will hand you bread and wine, but it is God that is meeting you in this meal and is seeing you. The body of Christ given for you who is working long hours for little pay. The blood of Christ shed for you who feels guilty for letting those dishes sit in the sink another day. The body of Christ given for you whose marriage is falling apart. The blood of Christ shed for you who just needs a break, is that too much to ask? The body of Christ given for you whose own body is starting to fail you. The blood of Christ given to you who doesn’t quite know what to think about this God and Jesus stuff. The body of Christ given to you who fight demons every day. The blood of Christ given to you who have a child that breaks your heart daily. You are seen. You are called. You are claimed. And you are seen. You are loved right where you are, no matter where you are. And you are seen. All thanks and praise be to God, you are seen.