Sermon for 1/26/20 Psalm 27:1-9

At Wartburg Theological Seminary, each graduating class is asked to pick a class verse from the Bible. The same task fell to my class and we hemmed and hawed over several verses before finally deciding on psalm 27:1 “the Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” We joked that chose a verse about not fearing and not being afraid during a time in our lives when many of us did have a lot of fears and many of us were afraid. After all, many of us were waiting on calls, waiting to be sent out into the world to do ministry, having no idea where God would send us. There was a lot to fear. What I appreciate about this psalm since that time in my life is that it has grounded me — brought me back to my true identity as a called and claimed child of God. And while picking my favorite scripture is probably akin to picking a favorite child, this psalm ranks high in my personal favorites. 

I really wanted to preach on that scripture from Matthew 4 today, really I did. But this Psalm just wouldn’t let me go this week. So, like always, I am going to preach to myself this week and you all just get to listen in. Now feel free to pass judgement on me if you wish, but believe it or not, there are very few verses of scripture I have committed to memory. There are a lot of things in my brain already. This verse, however, is one I have memorized. The promise is just too amazing and the grace is just too much for me to want to forget this verse. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” There is a long list of things we could fear, maybe even should fear (have you watched the news lately). But fear can quickly become our god (little g). We can quickly stop truly living our lives thanks to fear. But God is our light and our salvation. We have nothing to fear, my beloved. 

The psalm continues by saying “The Lord is the stronghold of my life.” This language of “stronghold” would not have sounded strange to the people of Israel. In fact, God is referred to as a “stronghold” several times throughout the Psalms. “The metaphor derives from military situations in which a well-positioned fortress with strong walls provided safety from enemy assaults” (Creach, Working Preacher). Therefore, picturing God as a stronghold and calling God a stronghold is akin to admitting that whatever may be troubling us, God’s protection is enough for us. In times of trouble, the temptation may exist to flee. What better place to flee than to God and God’s protection? This psalm reminds us once again that God is a safe place for us. 

Now I don’t know about you, my beloved, but I am bombarded by messages from the world that go against this. Apparently, according to the commercials I see on television, I need the expensive face cream or botox, the newest diet trend or botox, a different job with a huge paycheck, well behaved children (notice I said “children” plural), a well manicured lawn to go with my well kept house, and did I mention botox? But did you notice that the psalm didn’t say that the Lord is our stronghold once we get our lives together? This is the good news that the Lord welcomes us just as we are; not after we are our own version of perfect, but when are forgiven and loved, which we already are in God’s love and by Christ’s actions on the cross. 

Then the psalmist asks of the Lord something I think we all desire. Verse 4 says “One thing I ask of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” And isn’t that it? I mean, more than riches, more than land, more than a supermodel body, what I really desire is just to live with the Lord, to sit at his feet, to ask him all the questions of my heart. Sometimes I wonder if we dare ask the Lord for such things because we wonder if we are actually deserving of such things. We may not ask because fear there’s a catch. We may not ask because we fear our list of sins and shortcomings will be listed before we are able to dwell in such a glorious place. Maybe we may not ask for fear of who else might be dwelling there. 

But here’s my thought, beloved, and I’m willing to be wrong about this: when (not if) we are in the glorious, light filled presence of the Lord, does any of that matter? I want to believe that when we are in the Lord’s light, in the Lord’s stronghold, in the Lord’s house, his shelter, his tent, God’s love will just simple drown out any questions and doubts we may have. We will, I believe, know without any doubt, that we truly have nothing to fear and nothing of which to be afraid. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s a powerful statement. Because whether I want to admit it or not, I have a lot to fear. I mean, some of what I fear is valid: what kind of world will exist when Ellen is an adult? Will another war be waged in my lifetime? And then there are the fears that I dare not even speak out loud. These are the fears that many of us have that are usually coated in shame or the inability to forgive ourselves. But, but(!) the Lord is our light and our salvation, who shall we fear? Nothing. And while I don’t want any of you to be in any hurry, we don’t even need to fear death. 

God’s love is our light and salvation. God’s mercy is our light and our salvation. God’s forgiveness is our light and our salvation. The cross is our light and our salvation. We need not fear anything. This is why I have this verse memorized, because I need this reminder daily. No matter what I fear, no matter how often the darkness may tempt me or call my name, the Lord is my light and my salvation. I have nothing to fear. You have nothing to fear. Thanks be to God. 

Tristan Toppert–funeral

Kevin, Lisa and family; my beloved people of Elvira Zion, Steamer Nation, friends, I have a confession: I don’t want to be here today. It is only by God’s grace and your prayers that most of us who love Tristan have been sustained this past week. I keep waiting to be woken up. I keep waiting to be told there’s been some mistake. I keep waiting for my tears to stop. And it’s only by God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness that I know we will all be able to walk out of this gym, away from a grave, and know that this is not the end of Tristan’s story. See, this is our Good Friday moment. Death is final. But the three days are coming. The empty tomb is coming. The resurrection is coming. And Jesus, our Lord and Savior, defeated death. Death doesn’t get the final word. Not now, not here. The final word around here, around those who know the truth, is this: love. Love gets the final word. 

This death also isn’t Tristan’s story. We will not let one moment define his life. We refuse to do that. What we will do is share his story. We will share his story and we will share his contagious love for life in the hopes that just one person will know that love and forgiveness can go a long way. Even in death, Tristan was covered in God’s love and forgiveness, just as he was in life. He was claimed in the waters of baptism as a beloved child of God and was claimed once again last Monday. Tristan’s faith was central to who he was. Did you know that? He loved so fiercely because God loved him. For confirmation, I make all the students write a faith statement. This is a challenging task for adults, let alone, an 8th grade student. In his faith statement Tristan wrote this “Matthew 19:26- Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ This is my all-time favorite verse from the bible.  What I believe this quote is saying is that there are actions in life that seem as if ‘it is over,’ but with God ‘it is never over.’ The biggest asset in life is God. He is my father; I am his son.”

Tristan also loved his family. He was the “funcle” the fun uncle. His nephews worshiped him. He adored his brothers. He would do anything to help his grandparents. He would climb flagpoles to hide Easter eggs. Or make Carson do it. This past Christmas was filled with gifts handmade by Tristan and orders placed by many more family members for his future work. His talent was obnoxious. I was always so jealous of that. He would look at what I would normally call a pile of junk and see nothing but potential. Maybe there is something to learn there. When one too many concussions knocked him (literally) out of football, his first love, he found his passion in the building trades program. If it involved wood, welding, or doing anything with his hands, Tristan was in. Or if it involved eating, you could always find Tristan near. 

Tristan was a walking treasure chest of useless knowledge which he was more than happy to share with you at a moments notice whether you liked it or not. He loved a good debate. Not necessarily an argument, but a good debate. Despite any efforts by me or anyone else, he loved the 49ers. He loved football, period. For a while, he thought playing past high school might be his destiny. He enjoyed track and tried cheerleading for a short stint as well. Tristan wanted to give of himself in any way possible. He learned by watching his family give of themselves. He was a disciple in every sense of the word. Tristan had one of the most generous hearts of anyone I knew. He loved deep and he loved hard. He so desired to be loved in return. Tristan really did live his life according to the golden rule. He treated others how he desired to be treated. If you experienced Tristan’s kindness, which I’m sure most of you did, please know you were experiencing was pure, genuine, love. This is the love that God poured into him (obviously, in abundance) and then Tristan chose (CHOSE) not to keep to himself but to make the world a better place. The kindness that you experienced was nothing short of a gift from God. 

That Romans reading we heard says “what then are we to say about these things?” Yes indeed. Because God has heard me say a lot this past week. Some of it hasn’t been suitable for church. See, our God is big enough to handle all of these emotions. What then are we to say about these things? The truth. This sucks. But the reading continues. “If God is for us, who is against us?” And if we’re honest, again, in life it can feel like a lot of things are against us. It can feel like a lot of people are against us. I fear that is what our beloved Tristan felt on Monday. But, God tells us another story. God is for us. God is for you. God is for me. And God was most certainly for Tristan. God is for us. God’s love is the most powerful force imaginable. Scripture says that nothing comes between us and the love that God has for us. 

Do you hear me, my beloved? Nothing comes between you and the love God has for you, not even death. There are no words, no actions, no shortcomings, no sin that will ever get in the way of God loving you. There is nothing you can do or that Tristan ever did that will ever make God say “well….I’m done loving that one.” Because God’s love is patient, and kind, and never ever ends, not even in death. As I said earlier, this death isn’t the final word. How can we possibly live in a world where death has the final word? No. Not today Satan. We’re resurrection people. We’re empty tomb people. We’re third day people. We’re love conquers death people. Because the alternative is too damn dark. We don’t want to live in darkness. We don’t want to live in a world where death and darkness wins. God’s love tells us, promises us, all of us, including Tristan, that we don’t have to. God promises us a kingdom that God prepares for us where forgiveness and mercy reigns. And if we take seriously that prayer that we all know so well, “on earth as it is in heaven” then may it be so, beloved. May we live and act like we are forgiven and are surrounded by mercy and treat one another the same. That is God’s kingdom on earth. 

We will see Tristan again. We will see that mischievous smile, those amazing eyes (full of knowledge), and we will once again be in the presence of his soul so full of love it’s almost overwhelming. I believe this because I believe in a God of the resurrection, and my God has not led me astray yet. I also refuse to believe the lies that the demons in my head tell me and so I want to believe that Tristan has been assured by God that whatever was chasing him was nothing but a lie and he was only running to God’s love and not running from anything. My beloved siblings in Christ, I hope you know this: Tristan so deeply loved God. And God loved Tristan. And God loves you. No matter what you have done or not done, no matter what you may call God, no matter if you set foot in church or not, God created you and thinks you are wonderfully and beautifully made because God doesn’t make junk. I look out and can see the image of God in all of you. Wear it proudly. But if you struggle to believe that. If you battle demons that are too dark to mention or you think you are alone, let me assure you, you are not. There is a number on the back of your bulletin if you want help. 

Finally, Steamer Nation, I want to leave you with this. And I am talking specifically to Steamer Nation. If it is in your power, and it is within your power, never ever allow this gym to be turned into a sanctuary for this purpose again. Do not allow another family to weep and mourn the way I have witnessed this past week. Choose kindness. Choose love. Choose forgiveness. Choose mercy. Choose grace. It’s what Tristan wanted. It’s what God calls us to do.

Sermon for 1/12/20 Matthew 3:13-17

It probably won’t surprise many of you, but we’re big Disney fans in the Marple household. We got our subscription to Disney Plus as soon as it came out. We’ve been on a Disney Cruise as many of you know. As soon as the opportunity arose during Thanksgiving, we ventured out to see Frozen 2. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. Even if you don’t have kids, go and see it. It’s a great movie (I even liked it better than the first one). One idea that runs through the movie (and don’t worry, this won’t ruin it for you) is that water has memory. Water remembers. And it makes sense. Water is a living creature. It is made up of oxygen and particles just like you and me. So water remembers being frozen, or disturbed, or dammed up, or polluted, or whatever the case may be. Considering that water has been around since the literal creation of the earth, water must have a very long memory. In a lot of ways, water helps us to remember too. 

In today’s story, we hear about Jesus’ baptism. The temptation, of course, is to think of our own baptisms. This is only natural. Perhaps we think of Casey’s baptism still to come. Also only natural. But the focus for scripture today is Jesus’ baptism. The baptism isn’t the end of his ministry but the beginning. In the waters he was named and claimed, just like we all are, and those waters helped to form his ministry. And as corny as this sounds, the fact that water has memory isn’t just a Disney idea. I really truly believe this. We also know that water is crucial to creation. It is part of life and necessary for life. At the same time, water is necessary for new life in Christ. In the waters of his baptism, Jesus gets an identity: Son of God, beloved, one with whom God is well pleased. That is Jesus’ identity in that moment. That will also shape his ministry that will begin at those waters and finish not at the cross, but with an empty tomb and resurrection. 

Like many of you, I’m sure, I followed the news closely this past week. I watched, I listened, I carefully followed tweets. And I worried. See, seminary didn’t teach me how to lead a congregation during wartime should such a time arise. This past week was full of disruption to what should have normally been a fairly mundane week of news as normal and most of us giving up on resolutions. When rituals get disrupted it can leave us feeling in a lurch and wondering what is next. When routines get disrupted it feels like everything gets thrown off. I don’t know about you, my beloved, but this past week felt like it lasted about a month. My mind, my body, and my spirit are not meant to live in crisis mode as much as it did this past week. 

I think that is why I am so grateful that this is part of our routine. That we gather here, week after week as the body of Christ, in community, to recenter ourselves in Christ. We gather around bread and wine to be fed by a humble feast and be reminded of what love really tastes like. And we are reminded of this while being told that this bread and wine is given for all for the forgiveness of sins. Even though we gather here at this physical location, this is being done all over the world in places of worship and this routine binds us together. 

Then we gather at the waters. The waters that remember. They remember Jesus and they certainly remember you. Baptism isn’t just water. This baptism was just water until the Holy Spirit showed up. The Holy Spirit, I like to think of her as the trouble making person of the Trinity, shows up and descends upon Jesus. And it is that Holy Spirit that sends Jesus out into the world and accompanies him as he starts doing ministry. But left behind are the waters that washed the son of God. The man who was fully human and yet fully divine. He entered into the waters as normal as you or I but rose transformed. I’d like to think the Holy Spirit does the same to us. In Jesus’ baptism, he was fully claimed. He was washed (although sinless) and the waters remembered. I wonder though, and scripture never tells us, do you think that Jesus ever forgot who he was?

Like did Jesus ever have a dark moment when he forgot that he was the Messiah? Or did he have moments where he doubted his divinity? Did he have moments where he forgot what was professed to him in those waters? I’d like to know if Jesus had those very human moments. I know I do. There are moments when the waters have to remind me of who I am. I don’t remember, but the waters of baptism remind me of who I am. But here’s what makes me super mad about the waters of baptism: they remind me of who my enemies are too. And my enemies, or the people I perceive to be my enemies, the people I don’t like, or the people I wish ill upon, they have been named and claimed too. The waters of baptism remember them too. God loves them too. 

See, there would be times (like this past week) when it would just flat out be easier to not be a baptized Christian. It would be easier to not be a pastor. It would be easier to forget about the waters and let the waters forget about me. But I can’t. Grace messed me up. And now I can’t get over the fact that the same God that named and claimed Jesus as beloved does the same to the guy I don’t even know but argue with in the comment section on the internet. The waters washed my eyes cleaned and I wished they hadn’t. Because I can’t view this world without it breaking my heart. I can’t view this world and not see it begging for justice and peace. Not only do the waters of baptism remember me, but they remind me of who I am and whose I am. And these waters aren’t exclusive to me. Jesus wasn’t the only person baptized in the Jordan. Jesus’ baptism was the start of his ministry. And our baptism is the start of ours. 

These waters remember you. There is nothing to prevent you from being baptized. In fact, just because we’re baptizing Casey today doesn’t mean we can’t baptize someone else too. When you forget who you are, allow the waters to remind you. You are claimed. You are beloved. These waters will transform you. That’s a fair warning. Like I said, grace messes me up all the time. There’s been a lot to fear this past week. Perfect love casts out fear. In these waters, we collide with perfect love: the love of God. You are God’s beloved and the waters remember. So should you. 

Sermon for 1/5/20 Matthew 2:1-12; Epiphany

I will not often admit this, but I am not the best with directions. I find that I am better now that I live in a river town. As long as I know which way the river is, I know where I am. I have never been one of those people who uses directional directions, you know, where you use silly words like “north and east.” I also find it amusing when people give me directions using landmarks that no longer exist. These directions sound like this “go down to where the Johnson outbuilding used to be before they tore in down back in ‘68…” So believe it or not, I rely on GPS a lot. We also have this handy dandy feature in our car (I’m sure a lot of you have it too) called OnStar. With a press of a button I can talk with a real live human, tell them where I’m going, and they send directions to my car. Then through the magic of satellites, a computer voice comes over my car speakers and tells me where to go. It’s great. And I love that it’s called OnStar. 

The wisemen had their own version of OnStar. It was an actual star. Now, another true story about me: long before I knew anything about the Bible or astronomy for that matter, I thought that the star that the wisemen followed was the north star and so that star only appeared on Christmas Eve. I am admitting that I was wrong about this (obviously) just in case any of you think this as well. While the infant Jesus is the main feature of our Gospel for today, we cannot forget a supporting cast member: the star. Scholarly journals offer numerous interpretations on whether this was a star, a supernova, a comet, or what. We’re not told. I’m sticking with what scripture tells me and my very basic eighth grade understanding of astronomy here, it was your average every day kind of star, maybe just a little bit brighter. But the star is the GPS for this story; it sends and directs everyone to the main star, the infant Jesus. 

“The star is a symbol of our need for divine revelation to see the Messiah and King. Without divine revelation, we would miss the Messiah” (Feasting on the Word, Thomas 212). Just think about that for a moment. Had the wisemen not seen the star, they would not have known about the birth of Jesus. They would not have made a trip to pay him homage and worship him. They would not have brought him gifts fit for a king. They would not have been for us and for many, another affirmation that this was not your average birth, this was not your average infant, this was not your average star. The star is crucial in this story because it leads average humans like the wisemen and you and me to the divine. We should always follow this star. 

So you may remember that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The star appeared in the east. We know that’s a very generic direction. We don’t know if the star appeared over the Dead Sea, over the Jordan River, or some where over what is now Jordan or Syria. We just know it appeared to the east and it was stunning enough to beckon these three wisemen to follow. Here’s the strange thing that may be easy to miss. The wisemen were not Jews. They didn’t have scripture. But, they saw something that lead them to search for this new king. And when they arrived they knew enough to ask “where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” (Mt 2:2)

After asking around, the wisemen get no where. No one seems to have an exact address or location for this birth of the Messiah. What shall they do? OnStar to the rescue. They follow the star. The star went ahead of the wisemen, leading and literally illuminating the way to the Christ child. When the wisemen finally reached their destination the star stopped. And the wisemen were overjoyed. Can you imagine? They had followed this star and their journey had reached a fevered pitch and I am sure they were full of joy, excitement, awe, wonder, majesty,and maybe just a little intimidation. They would finally see the king. And the first thing the wisemen do is fall to their knees and worship Jesus. They humbled themselves in body and spirit and bowed before the infant king. 

The presents they had weren’t ordinary. They were purposeful and when the star beckoned, I am sure the wisemen knew they had to bring gifts worthy of a king. The gold was a precious element, it still is, and worthy of a king; “frankincense was incense worth of a divinity; and myrrh was a spice used in burials. So the gifts were appropriate for one who was a king, a God, and a suffering redeemer” (Feasting on the Word, Culpepper 215). After the worship and the gift giving, the magi no longer needed the star. The love of God was enough to direct their lives. 

What are we to do? Where is our star? We have a lot of things that beg for our attention. We have a lot of things in our lives that pose as stars. We have many well intentioned things that want to direct us in this way or that. But it is Christ, our true star, that we should follow. When I think about the night sky it can be overwhelming. If you live out here where there is no light pollution, you know how beautiful a starlit sky can be. The wisemen had it easy (almost). Their star was bright and it moved. It was as if their star was saying “over here guys, look at me!!” But just like a night sky, our lives can get beautifully clustered. So we know we should follow the star to Christ but how?

Most of us already come equipped with a GPS: God Provided Spirit. It is the mark of Christ given to you in baptism. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. This is your GPS. This is what you should follow when the world around you gets noisy. This is your star. Our baptismal identities is what makes us who we are. We are first and foremost children of God. We are loved and protected by an infant who welcomed wisemen and a refugee who fled from Herod. We are challenged by a messiah who fed thousands and cured many. Our baptismal calling is like that of following a star. The journey may not be easy, but at the end, we have the opportunity to worship and praise the one who really does give life. I pray that in times of trouble you remember that your star, your calling, your identity, is your God Provided Spirit marked on your foreheads for all the world to see.