About jealaine

ELCA Pastor. Mom. Wife. Dog mom. Sister. Daughter. Rookie theologian. Avid fan of: NWMSU Bearcats, KC Royals, KC Chiefs. Just trying to live faithfully among God's people in the rural landscape of Iowa (without saying too many 4-letter words). All opinions/views expressed are my own and do not reflect my denomination or the church I currently serve as pastor.

Sermon for 8/13/17 Matthew 14:22-33

How many of you have ever heard the phrase don’t ask Jesus to guide your feet if you are not willing to move? So, for the record, Peter asked to get out of the boat. And sure, we could blame Peter for being a lot of things: tired, delusional, maybe hungry, whatever. But the fact is, he asked Jesus to call him out of the boat. Peter! If you are not willing to go with Jesus, don’t ask him to move you. And try as we might to shake are headed Peter, we are often guilty of doing the same thing. “Lord! Please, use me! But, on my own time, under my own circumstances, and when I am good and ready.” If you have ever try to negotiate with God, you know how well it turns out. Normally, it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted to. It turns out the way God wants it to. And, as it turns out, it usually is much better than what we had planned. With apologies to those of you who shudder at salty language, I think my sermon this week can be summed up best by one sentence: get out of the damn boat!

Why do we think that discipleship, evangelism, stewardship, and caring for the other is someone else’s job? We are quick to want our children, grandchildren, family members, and loved ones baptized. We often think it is a ticket out. We think it is a ticket out of hell. That is why you may find some grandparents worried about their grandchildren’s salvation. But I am here to tell you, baptism is not a ticket out, but it is a ticket in. In our baptism, our ticket stamped. It is our ticket in to evangelism, stewardship, and discipleship. Once we are baptized into the community of believers, we are then “in” to work for Christ.

And maybe we don’t realize that that is part of what happens of baptism. After all, most of us were baptized as children. We did not have much of a say as to what we were getting ourselves into. But, generations before us have been baptized and survived working for Christ, generations after us will be baptized and survive working for Christ. I think we can handle it as well.

But often, instead of looking at situations as continuing to validate our ticket in, we put up walls, come up with excuses, and sometimes even blatantly ignore Christ. It is a very dangerous thing to ignore God. I have said before that God is the master of hide and seek. You may try and hide from God, but God will find you. When God calls, we often let self doubt, fear, and the shame and stigma serving Christ get in our way. Forgive me for using a dumb example. But, when people were in trouble in the Superman movies, Superman never looked at them and said “you know, as it turns out, this is more of a job for Spiderman.” No, Superman saw a need, and figured out how to solve the situation.

Now, I understand that none of us are Superman, Wonder Woman, or Spiderman for that matter. We can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. We don’t own an invisible jet. We certainly are not able to swing from building to building with ease. But, what we do have is something even better. We have God calling us, the Holy Spirit on our side, and Christ already leading the way.  And maybe it is difficult for you to hear the good news in this gospel today. But here it is for you, my beloved’s. When we ask God to move us, and we step out of the boat, nothing is on us. God already has a plan, God already has a will and a way. And more importantly God has got us. Did you hear that? Jesus reached out to Peter and held onto Peter. God has got us. We need not be afraid of anything. God has got us. Are you hearing me? When we dare step out and take the risk, God has got us.

I often say that God prepares the called. God does not call the prepared. If God is calling you to something daring, or maybe even just something out of your norm, God will prepare you. God has got you. Or, maybe for those of you that are a little younger, maybe you understand this better: “God’s got yo’ back.”

As I prayed about the national events that have taken place in the last 48 hours, it occurred to me that we may not desire to get out of the boat because the boat is comfortable. The boat is where we are surrounded by people who think, act, talk, and look like us. Sure, we may ask Jesus to move us, but when we realize that Jesus is an undocumented man of color, we may start to question his abilities. Part of my call to serve this church, and not just the church local but the church global, is to name sin when I see it. It’s part of being what Luther called “a theologian of the cross.” What happened in the name of “justice” in Charlottesville, Virginia over the last few days is sin. It is white nationalism. It is domestic terrorism. Death occurred. These are people that want to hide behind their skin and long established positions of power. These are radicals. These people, marching with torches, yelling terribly racist things are the community soccer coaches, mail carriers, grocer, and maybe even worse yet, these are people that sit in church pews every Sunday. These are people who refuse to get out of the boat because the boat is comfortable. The boat is filled with people just like them. The boat is safe. Stepping out of the boat is scary, I totally get that. But the boat of white supremacy has been floating in rivers of blood spilled by our siblings of color for too long. I, for one, no longer refuse to be quiet and complacent. My silence has lead to death. I am getting out of the boat. Not because I want to, but because God has called me to wade into the waters. God has got me. I am going to mess up, and get my words wrong, and my actions may be sloppy. But, I can no longer stay silent. I’d rather sink in the rivers of justice than continue to float in my own little boat of white privilege.

As you may recall, last week I gave five of your fellow congregation members $40 a piece. They trusted in God and got out of the boat. They trusted that God had them and was already working through them to show them where those funds needed to go. I am so excited to hear the stories of how God moved this week I’m on the people of God. Who wants to start?

Sermon for 8/6/17 Matthew 14:13-21

Chris and I have been blessed to do some traveling overseas in our time of marriage. Before we were even engaged, we took a trip with our alma mater to Europe. We were going to experience 6 countries in 18 days: Austria, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. We traveled during the time when mad cow disease was a very real concern. And for some reason, people overseas must think that Americans favorite thing to eat is fried chicken (like chicken fingers), french fries, and ice cream with fruit cocktail on top. We were pretty far into the trip. We were all tired and ready to have something other than chicken and we wanted comfortable beds. We had been traveling the hilly, winding roads of Switzerland when we passed a cute little hotel that looked like something out of the movie “Heidi.” Our friend Megan wondered aloud “why can’t we stay at a place like that??” And our bus came to a halt. This was going to be our hotel!

Once we got settled into the Hotel Alphenhof in Melchtal Switzerland, we ventured downstairs to the dining room, expecting the normal meal of sad chicken, soggy fries, and more saccharine covered ice cream. I sat down thinking “well, at least my room is nice and comfy.” Then, out came platters of food. Amazing pork schnitzel, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, amazing butterscotch pudding. And then, just when we thought we were full and someone said “I wish we had more, like seconds or something” out came more platters. To this day, Chris and I agree that it was one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten. And was it really that good? Who knows. But, we were hungry, we got fed, and we ate until we were satisfied and filled.

We hear Matthew’s Gospel telling of the feeding of the five thousand today. This is a story so powerful, it is the only one to grace all four of our gospels. And it is a miraculous story, really. It is powerful to think about 5000 people (and then some) being fed with what started as five loaves of bread and two fish. But we don’t get a lot of details about how it happened. Did baskets appear out of nowhere? Did it start literally raining loaves and fish? Did it appear slowly or all at once? But, we don’t need the mechanics of the miracle. Sure, we may want it or even be curious about it, but that’s not what makes this story so amazing. The miracle of this story is we get to witness God’s love through Jesus Christ to all of us.

Jesus’ MO was compassion. His modus operandi, or his method for his ministry was compassion. The story that comes right before our gospel today is the death of John the Baptist. John the Baptist whose head was cut off and served on a platter to Herodias’ daughter for her birthday. John the Baptist who had baptized Jesus in the Jordan is now dead. Jesus wanted to get away, be by himself, maybe mourn for a moment or two. But, the crowd followed him. They knew what Jesus was capable of and now longed to be in his presence. And Jesus, instead of turning them away, instead of begging for a moment alone, he looked at the crowd with compassion and started healing the sick.

What is always interesting to me about this story is that it is the disciples who speak up and alert Jesus to the time (“the hour is now late”) and the crowd’s hunger (“send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”) Not one person (that we know of) stepped up and said “gee, Jesus, this following you stuff is great, but you don’t happen to have a sandwich or anything, do you?” And, like so many other times, it is also the disciples who miss the point. It is late and the disciples want the crowd to return to the villages to buy food. Let’s look at the facts: first of all, it’s late. To travel this time of the evening would have been dangerous. Theives and bandidts were known to travel the desert just waiting to prey on the innocent. Second, (or maybe additionally) it’s late! By the time they get back to the villages is there actually going to be anything open? It’s not like there were 24 hour McDonald’s with a drive thru during Jesus’ time. The other thing is that this crowd had been following Jesus for a while. If they were doing that then they probably weren’t working. How were they supposed to buy food? It’s as if the disciples took the attitude that a lot of us take all too often “not my problem.”

And Jesus takes that attitude and gives it right back to the disciples, “you give them something to eat” he says. It is actually the disciples that pass out all of the food. Yes, it is Jesus who prayed, and it is God who multiplied the goods, but the disciples fed the multitudes. I wonder what the crowd does when all is said and done? They have just been given something they didn’t expect. They have been fed. Not only have they been fed, they are fed until they are filled. The only thing we know is what the Bible tells us. We are told (in next week’s gospel) that Jesus sends them away. But, I hope the disciples did what any of the rest of us would do once they received something they weren’t expecting and they received it in abundance: they shared.

What do we do when we get something in abundance? We hoard! We keep it all to ourselves. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring…so we keep it all. And if we do have the slightest inclination to share, we have a list of excuses: I don’t have the time, I don’t have the money, I don’t have resources, I don’t know how to get started, etc…. We serve a God of abundance, a God who will always give us more than we expect or need, and so many times our response is to keep God’s goodness all to ourselves. We forget that everything we have and everything we are comes from God. Yet, we treat our abundance as if WE earned it, as if WE just magically had the ability to work for it, as if WE actually deserve it, when in reality, we don’t.

So, what I want to do today is a little challenge. Before I ask for volunteers, here are some rules set in place for what I am about to do: you have to have this assignment done in a week and you have to be able to be in church next week. Now, not knowing what the assignment is exactly, can I have 5 people who would be willing to help? Now, in each of these envelopes is $40 cash. This is God’s money. I got it from my bank account. I say this so you don’t think I’m pilfering the church or anything. Your assignment for this week is to spend this money in a way that makes the world a better place. Here is the caveat: you cannot spend it on this congregation. So, you cannot buy food for the food pantry or school supplies for our Lutheran World Relief school kits. I don’t care how you spend it, but I would like documentation. Maybe that means receipts, maybe that means pictures, whatever. And then, come back next Sunday and we will hear about how God worked through you to make the world a better place. Spend the $40 on one person or help 40 people, I don’t care, but you now have an abundance and the world is waiting.

When the people on the hillside were hungry, Jesus said to the disciples “you feed them.” If we are to take our call to discipleship seriously, we take the abundance given to us and we share. God always provides and God always provides more than enough. I have taken away all of your excuses this week, so how will you share this abundance that is not yours with people you may not know? Won’t it be fun to watch God move?

Sermon for 7/30/17 “A Mighty Fortress”

Many, if not all of you, have probably heard of Martin Luther. It is because of him that we are sitting in a Lutheran church. We are known as Lutherans. We will, this October, celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation. It is important for us to remember though that Luther didn’t set out to start a reformation. His intention was to convict the church, specifically the Catholic church in its teachings. He was tired of seeing indulgences sold as well as watching Rome build massive cathedrals while people were dying on the streets. It was in that light and in an attempt to be true to the Bible and what he believed the Bible was saying that he wrote his 95 Thesis and posted them to the church doors. He didn’t wake up one morning and think to himself “I think I’ll start a reformation!” Our hymn today, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” was written during that time, but not because of that time. In fact, the reformation didn’t start being celebrated until after Luther had died.

It’s actually hard to pinpoint the exact date that Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress,” but most experts agree that it was somewhere between 1527 – 1529. Over the years it has been translated into 170 different languages. What makes this hymn unique (at least in the context of our sermon series) is that not only did Luther write the lyrics, but he also wrote the music that accompanies it. Because of the time it was written, we know that this was around 10 years or so after Luther posted his 95 thesis on the door of the church in Wittenburg. Here is what you may not know about Martin Luther: he suffered greatly with depression. That actually is a comfort to me. He suffered from deep, dark, depression. It was during one of these times that he actually wrote our hymn for today.

It was a difficult time in Germany and for Luther personally. A man who followed Luther’s teachings was martyred, a plague fell over Wittenburg, and Luther’s daughter died 6 months after being born. He wrote to a friend saying “we are all in good health except for Luther himself,” (yes, he talked about himself in third person), “who is physically well, but outwardly the whole world and inwardly the devil and all his angels are making him suffer.” In addition to what was going on locally, Luther was still battling (arguing) with other reformers over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. When Luther went to write “A Mighty Fortress” it was as a hymn of comfort rather than a hymn that was a battle cry. He based it on Psalm 46.

Although I’m not always a huge fan of the King James version of the Bible (I think it is easy to get confused with all of those “thou’s” and “arts” I will be referring to that in scripture today because that is most likely what Luther knew (although his would have been in German). Luther’s original words (or, our best guess, at least) were “a mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” And there’s a word that we hardly hear any more: bulwark. It means a wall or rampart. It can also mean a person that acts as a defense. Our God is a fortress, our God acts as our defense. Wow! That is a powerful image when you think about it. Our God is a force that cannot and will not be moved.

Psalm 46 says “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof.” I love the idea and image of God as a refuge, as a home or safe place. It’s as if God serves as our lighthouse, directing us towards easier times, safer waters, or even God when the waters get rough. I also like the idea of refuge because when I think of a refuge, I think of something covering me. I don’t know about you, but I get a lot of comfort thinking about God covering me, almost hugging me or protecting me.

Luther continues in the first verse “for still our ancient foe, forsworn to work us woe, while guile and dreadful might is armed to wage the fight: on earth there is no equal.” Our ancient foe of course is sin. The trouble is, it is our ancient and current foe, right? Sin indeed will work us woe. I have struggled to discern what Luther is saying at the end of verse 1. Is he saying that on earth there is no foe quite as strong as sin or is he saying that there is no one on earth like God who will fight for us? Either way, he is correct. Psalm 46 actually reminds us 3 times in 11 verses that God is with us and that God is our refuge. But, despite having a safe refuge, despite having a God who loves us and desires to protect us, we still venture out into the world, sometimes even on purpose, to chase sin.

For whatever reason, we leave the comfort of God’s refuge and go after sin. It’s as if sin is that sparkly, glittery object we just can’t resist chasing. Sometimes we do it knowingly, sometimes we don’t realize we’ve chased sin until we’re in the midst of it. The second verse of the hymn sums up this battle, and I love Luther’s original words. “If we in our own strength confide, our striving turns to losing…” So, if we trust in our own strength, in our own ways, our own plans, it will turn out to be a losing thought. We are promised, instead, an advocate. Luther continues “the righteous one fights by our side, the one of God’s own choosing. You ask who this may be: Christ Jesus, it is he…” And we are once again reminded “the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:7).

When you think about this hymn in the context which Luther wrote it, it takes on an entirely different feeling. If you think about it as it was written: by someone who was battling the demons of depression, watching his friends fight a plague, someone who buried a child, and someone who was in the middle of a religious crisis of sorts, the words are almost comforting. “Though all the world with devils fill and threaten to devour us, we tremble not, we trust God’s will: they cannot overpow’r us.” Sin, in all of its forms, is all around us. If we let it, it really could devour us. I have been in that dark valley before. I have been in the dark valley of the self denial of forgiveness. I have known in my heart that God forgives me, but my head tells me a different story. It can really feel like you are being devoured.

But God is our refuge, our fortress, our safe place. And no matter how many times we may stray from God, God stays firm, unshaken, and a solid foundation for all our needs. It is on us when we choose to stray. God never pushes us out of the comfort and refuge of the fortress. We go searching for bigger and better things, ultimately get lost, and when we look for comfort and direction, there is Jesus. Sent by God, once again, to be our guide. Even if everything we know on this earth to be ours is taken away from us, the kingdom of God is ours forever.

This hymn is more than a battle cry for the reformation. This is a hymn of comfort in times of real trial. Despite its age, this hymn is just as relevant today as it was 500 years ago. When we need to be reminded to what we must cling, perhaps we can think of this hymn. This is a hymn of proclamation that our safety, security, and love is in God and God alone. A mighty fortress of love in a world full of sin, hate, and destruction.

 

Sermon for 7/23/17 “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”

Finally, finally finally! In this fourth week of the sermon series I finally found a hymn writer that feels like a normal human being. Edward Mote wrote today’s hymn focus “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.” And unlike the other hymn writers we’ve talked about so far, he was an average guy. He wasn’t a genius; he didn’t write thousands of hymns; he doesn’t have a super tragic back story. Edward Mote: solid normal guy. But, he still wrote one of the best loved hymns and so I guess that makes him a little above average. Edward Mote was born in 1797 in England. His parents were people I probably would enjoy hanging out with; they owned a pub. They were working parents before there were such a thing. Because of their work schedules and busy lives keeping up with the business, Edward was often left to his own devices.

In his home, there wasn’t a scriptural or church upbringing of any kind. Edward was even quoted once as saying “so ignorant was I that I did not know that there was a God.” His parents connected him with a local cabinetmaker. And so, he became an apprentice to the senior cabinetmaker. It was the senior cabinetmaker that took Edward to a service with a preacher by the name of John Hyatt; and at age 15, Edward took an interest in Christianity. He spent the majority of his time in cabinet making but tried to stay involved in ministry in various ways. At age 55, Edward finally entered into full time ministry. (This is a wonderful example that you’re never too old.) He became the pastor of a Baptist church where he served for 20 years.

Edward said “One morning it came into my mind as I went to labour, to write a hymn on the ‘Gracious Experience of a Christian.’ As I went up to Holburn I had the chorus…” The story continues that Edward went to see some church members. The wife of a particular couple was very ill. The husband informed Pastor Mote that it was customary in their home to mark Sunday with prayer, Bible reading, and hymn singing. When it was time for the hymn singing, Edward pulled the lyrics out of his pocket and it was there that our hymn was sung for the first time. The verses of the hymn were a comfort to the ill woman and her grieving husband. From that experience, Edward was inspired to write additional verses.

The chorus most likely is inspired by Matthew 7:25-27 “The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” It also could have been inspired by Luke 6:47-49 “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.* But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.’”

This hymn doesn’t mess around at all. Right from the first few words, we get the sense of what the hymn will be about. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” If that’s not a bold statement of faith, I don’t know what is. We do attempt to build our hope on other things, though, don’t we? We place our hope in things that cannot and will not ever give life. Hebrews 11:1-3 says “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” Or, we could refer to Romans 5: 2b-5 “and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

But, sin, that tricky evil familiar force, tempts us to place our trust in anything and everything that isn’t Christ. We may call it other things, but at the end of the day, it’s sin. Instead of placing our hope in Christ, we place it in stability in our jobs, in our lives, in our families, and sometimes we even try to place our hope in the stability of our country. But despite calling it stability, it is sinking sand. We place our hope in ourselves (which is always dangerous). We worry about number one or may believe that we are invincible. Then something happens that shakes us to our core and we find that placing hope in ourselves is sinking sand.

We place our hope in our family and friends. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would hope that you place hope in the ones you love. But, they can’t be the foundation of your hope and faith. Because as much as we love our family and friends, they will, someday, eventually, let us down. And we are reminded once again that those relationships, though fruitful, are still built on sinking sand. There are so many things that surround us daily that we put all of our chips behind, we go “all in” on that particular relationship, job, even material good that we think we can hope in. Eventually, the sinking sand kicks in and we are left disappointed.

God, the source of our life, the source of our hope, the source of our salvation, the source of love, mercy, justice, and peace, will never disappoint us. God is anything but sinking sand. As I said last week, God is always faithful. Even when we try and put our hope into other things, God is always faithful. Now, we may not always understand God’s ways (and I know that can be maddening for some of you). But, we trust that God’s ways are higher than our ways; God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).  Even in the moments when we can’t see God or feel God, we “rest on his unchanging grace.” Our anchor is safely secured into God. God has a hold of us and not the other way around. God never lets go.

I’ve spoke of this before, but it needs to be repeated. I think so many of us are hungry for something certain. We desire something we know to be 100% true. In an era of “fake news” we need something that we know, without a doubt, is a certain thing. We need that certainty for the times when we don’t know if anything is certain. We need a solid foundation. And no matter how much we go searching for it, it’s already here. We don’t have to buy it. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t even deserve it. The certainty, of course, is Jesus Christ. “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.” Christ is our foundation. Christ is what we can be certain of. Christ is the force that will never fail us and never disappoint us. Christ is the force that will never give way to something else. And Christ will never yield to sin. Christ already looked sin in the face and responded with a cross. Build your hope on Christ, brothers and sisters. Everything else is sinking sand.

Sermon for 7/16/17 “Great is thy Faithfulness”

I’ve decided I need to stop doing this sermon series. Granted, that is a joke, but studying these hymn writers have done nothing for my ego. Last week we heard about Fanny Crosby who was blind and wrote 8000 hymns. This week, we will learn about Thomas Chisholm. His story sounds like something out of a book. He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky in 1866. While he did attend school, it wasn’t a great education (as compared to current day). And by age 16, he was himself a teacher. At age 21, he became the associate editor of his hometown newspaper. But, it was in 1893, at the age of 27, that he experienced his first revival meeting. This was most likely a traditional tent revival as you imagine it. He heard and experienced the preaching of Methodist evangelist (yes there is such a thing), Henry Clay Morrison. And Thomas immediately wanted to start into ministry. So yes, Lutherans, one of your favorite hymns was written by a Methodist.

But, sadly enough, due to health issues, Thomas only got to serve a short amount of time in one call before he had to retire from the ministry. His heart for ministry was very much still present, but his health would not allow the rigors required to be a pastor. So he did the next logical thing, moved his family to Indiana and then New Jersey where he started selling insurance. And yes, it was during that time when Thomas wrote our hymn for today. He wrote around 1200 poems and hymns total. Several of them were published in Christian weekly or monthly magazines like “Sunday School Times,” and “Moody Monthly.”

Thomas was quoted once as saying “my income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.” Later, he explained his hymn lyric writing in this manner “I have sought to be true to the Word, and to avoid flippant and catchy titles and treatments. I have greatly desired that each hymn or poem might have some definite message to the hearts for whom it was written.” When “Great is Thy Faithfulness” was introduced by Billy Graham crusades in England in 1954, it took off.

The refrain is possibly inspired by Lamentations 3:22-23. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” And oh my goodness, is this ever a promise I need to hear. This promise of God’s faithfulness to me, despite my unfaithfulness to God, is what allows me to inhale and exhale day after day. It is only because of God’s faithfulness that I am who I am. It is only because of God’s faithfulness that I am not mired down by sin and suffering. It is only because of God’s faithfulness to me day after day, morning after morning, that I am fed, forgiven, and set free. And it is only by God’s faithfulness and God’s faithfulness alone that any of us have come this far! (Amen? Amen!)

I love the second verse as much as the first. I think part of what I love about this verse is the personification of the seasons and stars. Isaiah 55 says “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” I love the idea of nature singing and even clapping the praises of God. Perhaps that is part of what Thomas was trying to capture in verse 2. All of the seasons: summer, winter, springtime, and harvest (did you catch that farmers? Not fall…but harvest), and all celestial beings: sun, moon and stars will join together with everything in nature to provide abundant witness to God’s faithfulness, mercy, and love. As if it’s not enough for us to praise God; but everything that God has created and continues to create also praises God. And why not? It’s not like humans are God’s only creation. God created everything that is around us. We were designed to live in harmony and have dominion over creation. So why shouldn’t the seasons, and the stars, and even the tiniest little caterpillar sing of God’s faithfulness?

Many times in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, the word that is used for faithfulness is similar or related to the word for truth. So think about the hymn this way “great is God’s truthfulness” or even “great is God’s truth.” And what is God’s truth? I think we are often afraid to ask that question. I have spoken with many people or been witness to several conversations where people genuinely worry about their salvation. There are often expressions of doubt and regret. We humans are so very good at forgiving one another and believing that God really does forgive. But we struggle with believing that the same forgiveness that God gives others is really for us too. We struggle to even forgive ourselves.

I think the truth I long to hear, maybe the truth that we all long to hear is that we are forgiven. We are loved. And yes, even that thing that we’re struggling to forgive ourselves for,God already forgave us for that. “Pardon for sin and a peace that” endures. Pardon: the act of forgiving. Not only are we loved, it’s like we have our own little cheering section in our corner. God is that force that encourages us, that enables us to go out into a world that is hurting and declare “you! You there that thinks that they are living in darkness? That darkness is no match for God.” Maybe you need to hear that too, my beloveds. The darkness you experience, whatever that darkness may look like, is no match for God.

We know all too well that sin is a very real force in this world. Sin disguises itself in many different ways. But we remember that it is God that is faithful. It isn’t money that is faithful. It isn’t power that is faithful. It isn’t the price of corn or beans that is faithful. It isn’t our jobs that are faithful. Sadly, it isn’t even our friends or family that are faithful. It is God and God alone that is faithful. No matter how many times we may be faithful to something else, and we do it over and over and over again, brothers and sisters, we are faithful to so many other things other than God. No matter how many times we try and move our faith elsewhere, God’s faithfulness to us remains.

Do you want a certainty in this world? Do you want something that you can count on? Do you want something you know to be 100% true 100% of the time? God and God alone is faithful. Always. To the end of time, end of story. And not only does God have blessings for you today, there are 10,000 more blessings waiting where those came from. God’s faithfulness is so good. We may have worries (and I know we do), we all may have troubles (and that could be a bit of an understatement) but the one constant, the one thing that remains so true no matter what is God. God is the only thing that never changes. Great is thy faithfulness. Thanks be to God, great is thy faithfulness.  

Sermon for 7/9/17 “Blessed Assurance”

Should you ever start to feel really good about the amount of work you have accomplished in your life thus far, you can perhaps, take a moment to reflect on Fanny Crosby. Ms. Crosby wrote the lyrics to “Blessed Assurance.” That alone is pretty impressive. However, she also wrote around 8,000 other gospel hymns. Additionally she also wrote around 1000 or so non-religious songs, 4 books of poetry and 2 autobiographies. She also was blind for almost her entire 95 years of life. I don’t know about you, but I now feel like I’ve done nothing with my life! The other hymn that many of you love that was written by Crosby? “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.”

Fanny was born in 1820 just north of New York City. At only six months old, she caught a cold (as newborns do) that traveled to her eyes. At that time, medicine wasn’t as advanced as it is now, obviously. The antidote that doctors chose was a mustard plaster. Fanny claimed that it was the mustard plaster that caused her blindness but doctors that studied her medical history after she died think it might have been a genetic condition. Early in her life she attended a Presbyterian church. It was there that her faith started to develop. She started to memorize five chapters of the Bible per week. She enrolled in the New York Institute for the Blind where she learned how to play the piano, the organ, harp, and guitar in addition to becoming a very good soprano singer.  

Considering the time and her gender, Fanny was a bit of a trailblazer. In 1843 she was the first woman to ever address the United States Senate. She was advocating for the support of education for the blind. It was 30 years later, in 1873 that Fanny wrote “Blessed Assurance.” She had already written the words and when visiting her friend and frequent collaborator, Phoebe Knapp, played a melody that she had just composed. “What do you think the tune says” Phoebe asked Fanny? And without hesitation, Fanny said “blessed assurance; Jesus is mine.” Remember that Fanny had practically memorized the bible. For her, the words to “Blessed Assurance” were a reflection of her own faith life as it was expressed by Paul in Philippians 1:21 “for to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”

Let’s take a look at these most awesome lyrics. “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” That could be a statement of faith or of relief when you think about it. Hear from Hebrews 10 “and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscious and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” It’s good for us to remember that last part: “he who has promised is faithful.” Meaning that God is faithful. Our faithfulness has nothing to do with this. And as much as I enjoy this hymn, it can prove to be troublesome at times. It’s not the “blessed assurance” part that bothers me, but the “Jesus is mine” part. Jesus is mine mine mine…as if I alone can lay claim to the Savior of the world.

But there are some who desire to do this, right? There are some Christians who want to know if you have a close and personal relationship with Jesus. Have you professed Jesus as your Lord and Savior? This decision theology puts the power in our hands which is always troublesome. We know that there is nothing we can do to “get closer” to God through Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter how much we profess or how many “conversion” experiences we have, God is already as close to us as God possibly can be on this side of heaven. There’s nothing we can do or not do to change this.

Additionally, we don’t and can’t “own” Jesus. Jesus can be all things to all people and thankfully (or maybe unfortunately) we don’t have a say over any of that. It can be wonderful to sing this. It can be a comfort. When we’re having not so great days or when we’re going through rough times, it can be really comforting to sing “blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” But what may be troubling is that anyone can sing these words. Those for whom we’d rather limit God’s love through Jesus Christ also sing these words.

When we sing “o what a foretaste of glory divine” we sing of our afterlife, yes. But we can also experience a foretaste before death. We even sing about that as well. We sing about a “foretaste of the feast to come.” This is what we celebrate in communion. When we receive communion, it is but a small taste of the feast that we will have with Christ in our death. When we splash Piper today, we will be reminded that God is with us daily, another foretaste of the feast to come. In our baptism, all of us have been purchased by God; all of us belong to God.

Then, think about the chorus. “This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior all the day long…” It doesn’t matter what you think your story is, this is your story. Your story isn’t one of failure, or “shouldda couldda wouldda.” Your story isn’t even what other people wish it were. Your story is that you have been purchased by God. You are God’s. To God you belong and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do about that. When that is your story, why wouldn’t you want to sing it for as long as you possibly can? We are filled with God’s goodness and lost in God’s love. How comforting is that thought? For me, personally, that is a very blessed assurance. Echoes of mercy; meaning there’s enough mercy that God has given us that it actually can echo.

When you have those moments of doubt, when you have those moments of darkness, when you have those moments of uncertainty, or even when you have those moments when you wonder if God has forgotten about you perhaps these words will bring you some comfort. You are an heir of salvation, a beneficiary, a inheritor of salvation. God has purchased you with the blood of Jesus. When the rapture happens, angels will come down in love that sounds like whispers. You are filled with God’s goodness. And God’s love is so amazing and so wonderful that you are able to get lost in it. Blessed assurance, Jesus is yours; and more importantly, you belong to Jesus. There’s no way to change that. There’s no way to undo that. There’s nothing that will come between you and that love. In a world that’s hungry for certainties, in a time where people long for definite answers, in a climate where people are so quickly divided, what a gift it is to proclaim and declare some most definite assurance. Blessed assurance.

Sermon for 7/2/17 Amazing Grace

Today we start a month-long sermon series on the history and theological background for some of your favorite hymns and mine. I don’t think there’s a better place to start than Amazing Grace. After all, I’ve said more than once that I am the wretch that the song speaks of. I know for many of you, Amazing Grace ranks up there as one of your favorite hymns as well. It was published in 1779 and written by John Newton. And it was semi-autobiographical in nature so that might start to give you a taste of Newton’s life. His mother died when he was young of tuberculosis. His father worked as a shipping merchant so John’s upbringing was left to a stepmother and boarding schools. He joined his dad at age 11. As he aged, he was employed by several different ships often being asked to leave because of his insubordination and vulgar language. He literally cursed like a sailor.

He was on board the ship, the Greyhound, when a terrible storm struck. This was the start of John’s “come to Jesus” conversion. This wasn’t a simple rainstorm. This was a storm of epic proportions. I doubt Hollywood could even make this stuff up. The wind had taken the sails, ripped wood off the side of the boat, and thrown men overboard. John was responsible for manually working the pumps in the hopes of keeping the ship going. But, he did this for 11 days. Finally, he was just too tired to keep pumping, so he was tied to the helm of the ship and hoped to keep it afloat and on course. I would imagine that an experience like that gives one an opportunity to think about God. The story goes that he even begged for God to have mercy on him and the remaining men on the ship.

Upon landing safely, his conversion to Christianity started. He was comforted by Luke 11:13 “if you then, who are evil, know who to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Still, like so many of us, he began to question if he was even worthy of God’s love. But he slowly started to develop his faith and eventually became a pastor. He often would write a hymn to accompany his Sunday night lectures and sermons. It was in that context that he wrote Amazing Grace. He drew inspiration from King David in 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God; you have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come. You regard me as someone of high rank, O Lord God!” The other thing that is important to remember or know is that John Newton spent part of his time at sea as a slave merchant. Once he became a rector, he spoke out against slavery. One of his congregation members was a member of parliament and instrumental in abolishing slavery, thanks to being influenced by his pastor.

For Christians, for Lutherans, this hymn is more than just a hymn. This is a way of life. After all, one of the hallmarks of our theology is that we live by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 says “for grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” We are saved by grace. We cannot be saved from ourselves by ourselves. If and when someone asks me “why do you need God?” or “why do you need Jesus?” And my answer is always “because I cannot save myself.” Luther said “knowledge of original sin is a necessity. For we cannot know the magnitude of Christ’s grace unless we first recognize our malady” (AP 117:33). This is why we always open our worship time together confessing our sins to God. It is only after we’re aware of our sins that we are ready to accept the grace that God has waiting for us.

So, what makes grace so amazing (other than the fact that it saves us from ourselves)? Once again, we turn to scripture. Romans 5:8-10 “but God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Did you hear the good news in this scripture, my beloveds? “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Christ didn’t die for us once we got our stuff together, once we prayed so many times, once we gave so much money…instead, Christ died while we still were sinners.

God’s love changes us. That’s probably a given. I hope you hear me say something like that and you think “duh Pastor! Of course God’s love changes us!” But do you believe it? Sin has the tendency to make us blind. We are blind to God’s love, we are blind to God’s mercy, and we are blind to God’s grace. That’s what makes God’s grace so amazing; we can be completely blind, we can be completely unaware and yet God’s grace allows us to see. “Was blind but now I see” is more than just an afterthought. It is a statement and true testament to God’s goodness.

The verses all tell a story. The verses all speak to the ways that God’s grace infiltrates our lives on a minute by minute basis. However, the words we have today weren’t the original words that John Newton wrote. The fifth verse was a later addition. The two verses you may not be familiar with are these: “Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.” And “the earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine, but God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.”

Grace teaches us to simultaneously fear God and yet somehow also relieves us from our fears. Grace has a way of showing us the truth of life, the messy stuff the ugly parts of our lives, and still says “but yet….” For me, that’s what grace is all about. It’s as if God is saying to me and to all of us “but yet…” But yet, God still loves you. But yet, God still forgives you. But yet, God still provides for you. But yet, God still feeds you. But yet…and maybe that’s where the idea of grace upon grace comes from. It is more than we ever need and certainly more than we ever deserve.

The last few weeks I’ve talked about being a disciple and the difficulties that life entails. Newton’s words spoke to this as well: “through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” We’ve all been through a lot. We all have stories we could share. We all have instances in our lives that we could look back on and claim “I got through only by the grace of God.” We will continue to survive by grace through faith. We will continue to breath by grace. We will continue to live solely by grace. And, when the time comes, when our journey on this earth is complete, it is by God’s grace alone that we will be welcomed into heaven. It is by God’s grace alone that we will continue to know God’s love after death. And it is because of God’s grace alone that we will continue to praise God, even if we do it for 10,000 years or more.