Sermon for 9/15/19 Luke 15:1-10

Going after one lost sheep out of the 99 you already have or one lost coin out of the 9 you already have doesn’t make a lot of sense; that is, until you are the one lost sheep or one lost coin. I want to let that sit for just a moment. Looking for a lost anything may not make much sense until you are the thing that is lost and would love nothing more than to be found. The desperation that comes with the desire to be found is great. I’m not necessarily talking about being physically lost. These days with the advancements in technology and the fact that practically everyone carries a GPS in their pockets, being physically lost isn’t as common as it once was. No, I’m talking about a metaphorical sense of lost. This is the kind of loss that usually accompanies spiritual, emotional, and mental health struggles. This is the kind of loss that dares to ask spiritually draining questions like “doesn’t God know I’m suffering” and “doesn’t anyone care.” Deep stuff for today and we’re only a paragraph in! 

Going after one lost sheep out of the 99 you already have or one lost coin out of the 9 you already have doesn’t make that much sense; that is, until you are the lost sheep or lost coin. What might be lost that you would stop at nothing to find? I posed this question to council this past week at our monthly meeting. Universally, the answer was the same: people. The answers varied, but it was always people: a spouse, a child, or even just family overall. No one could think of a material item that would be worth searching to the ends of the earth to find. I loved the answers. We would stop at nothing to find those most precious to us. But, what if you were the one that was lost. Would you want people to put up a fight, search the very last corners of the earth, turn over ever last shadow to find you, or would you rather just not cause any trouble?

Going after one lost sheep out of the 99 you already have or one lost coin out of the 9 you already have doesn’t make that much sense; that is, until you are the lost sheep or lost coin. Let’s talk about these lost sheep and lost coin, shall we? My colleague, Rev. Emmy Kegler has written a book called “One Coin Found” which, of course, references this scripture a lot. She says “You know what’s funny about sheep? They wander. That’s what they do. That’s why, when humans domesticated animals, there arose a new role: the shepherd. Someone’s got to keep the herd together. It isn’t some rebellion against intrinsic sheep-ness’ it’s not malicious or sinful or particularly stubborn, really. Sheep wander. It’s what they do. They wander because they’re hungry. The shepherd didn’t bring them to a fertile enough field. Or they are sick, or injured, or old. And sometimes sheep run. A hundred sheep are a hundred potential meals for the wolves that wander the same wilderness. If you don’t have a shepherd watching for the wolves, the sheep can end up missing– or a meal. We’ve all known shepherds like that. Shepherds unable to see that we’re hungry or hurting or hounded by wolves that seek to tear us apart. Leaders and friends who, through passive or active indifference, see our hunger and our hurts and write them off as inconsequential. And so, we go wandering. We try to find fields that will feed us, a place safe to rest, protection from a world that wants to devour us. Calling wanderers from the faith ‘lost sheep’ fundamentally misses what a sheep is: a herd animal, gently wandering hillsides with its family in search of food and shelter. They don’t just run off. There would need to be a a cause: a rockslide, a wolf, bad grass, no water. If someone is a ‘lost sheep’ drawn away from the ‘fold’ of the church, perhaps Christians should wonder what they aren’t tending to in that sheep. Did you notice they were hungry? Did you see when the other sheep shut them out? Did you let them fall behind when they got hurt? This is additionally highlighted for me in the story of the lost coin, because coins can’t lose themselves. They are inanimate. Someone else had to be careless with a coin, if it is lost. Seeing Jesus’ parables as only about repentant sinners neglects how ⅔ of the ‘lost’ things aren’t intentionally sinning against their owners. Sheep get hungry if untended and coins stay where they’re put until someone else loses them. 

Is it possible that [this scripture] is as much about the failure of those in leadership and authority? Is God’s rejoicing just as much for the ‘lost’ who find their way despite institutional neglect?” It can be a dangerous thing to sit in this place week after week. You may leave feeling angry at God (why must Jesus challenge us so). You may leave mad at me (doesn’t she know I’m going through a difficult time. Why didn’t she call?). Or you may just leave and not come back. The church is a difficult place to be when your unbelief is greater than your belief. We don’t always leave place for doubt. We don’t leave place for anger, grief, or disappointment. This is because the church universal seems to be built on a model that encourages the church to be a place only for people that have it all together. The church is built on a model that celebrates the nuclear heterosexual family with 2.5 children, working father, stay at home mom, and Spot the dog. 

The church isn’t necessarily built for lost coins and lost sheep. Well, as Christians we may not be built for that. We can’t celebrate the grace given for all because we don’t believe that God gives grace to sinners like us. We can’t celebrate the love given by God through Jesus to all because we don’t believe that God loves sinners like us. We don’t want to come to the table every single day given the opportunity because then it wouldn’t be special. But for hungry sinners, I promise you that the body and blood of Jesus is special and a life line we so desperately desire. Instead of admitting that we are the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost disciple, we put on our church clothes, slap on a smile, and sit with empty platitudes and hungry souls. 

Going after the one lost sheep when you already have 99 or one lost coin when you already have 9 doesn’t make a lot of sense, that is, unless you are the lost sheep or lost coin. Hear me now, my beloved, God will stop at nothing to find you. Nothing. There is nothing that separates us from the love of God, not even death. Let’s stop pretending. If you have felt abandoned by the church, I’m sorry. If you’ve felt abandoned by me, I’m sorry. Neither the church nor I am perfect. But thanks be to God, we serve a shepherd that is. We serve a servant that will stop at nothing to find us. God stops at nothing to find us because we are worth finding. No matter how lost you might feel, you are worth finding. You are worth finding and you are worth celebrating. Going after the one lost sheep when you already have 99 or one lost coin when you already have 9 doesn’t make a lot of sense, that is, until you are the lost sheep or lost coin. 

 

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Sermon for 9/8/19 Luke 14:25-33

Look, I’m not super excited that this text fell on this Sunday. Like, of all Sundays, why this one? All of the kids have returned for Sunday school, which I love. Some of you are back (even without kids) after a summer hiatus. And then we get to do one of my most favorite things today and that is baptize beautiful Palmer. So,you can imagine how thrilled I was when I read the scripture for today and saw that Jesus says that if we don’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,and yes, even life itself, then we cannot be his disciples. Thanks a lot, Jesus! It feels like Jesus has been on a roll lately with these stories, parables, and sayings he’s just throwing out there. What do we say to Jesus when he says things like this?

A quick survey: how many of you have either said or heard this phrase “If you don’t stop, I will turn this car around!” I think this is Jesus’ version of that. (“I will turn this donkey around!”) There are times when you have to kind of go to extremes in order for people to listen or start to comprehend the point you are trying to make. Yes, for Jesus to say that we need to “hate” is perhaps a hyperbole. But that doesn’t change the fact that what he is saying is serious and that what it will take to be a disciple is serious. We should not forget that for Jesus, this is a matter of life and death. His death is our life. From the beginning of Luke we are told that the infant that Mary carries in her womb is not just another baby. As I referenced a few weeks ago, Mary sings of Jesus’ ministry before he even enters the world. We are told that the powerful will be brought down from their thrones. The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich will be sent away empty. Are we really to think that this all will happen because discipleship means the easy way?

Even though we are physically in September and even though today is our first day of Sunday school, we have to remember that what we are reading in scripture in current day didn’t happen at the same time that we read it. So, today’s reading didn’t happen in September during Jesus’ time. In fact, it probably didn’t. Jesus has already turned his face and his mind to Jerusalem. He has already started to think about the thing that we normally think about during Lent: his death. Up until now, Jesus has tried to have a few “now or never” moments with the disciples. But this is serious. It’s almost as if Jesus has reached his breaking point. Here is the message the disciples need to hear today. Here is the message we need to hear today, my beloved. Discipleship is not a part-time, when I get to it, if I have enough time and it’s convenient to me, or a what will I get out of it kind of job. Discipleship is a call. Last week I talked about our baptismal identity being not what we are but who we are. Discipleship is the same way: it is not about what we are but who we are.

I don’t know if you knew this but most of  you are already disciples. The moment you were splashed and proclaimed, you became a card-carrying disciple. Did you know that? Do you think of yourself as a disciple? That’s a good question, isn’t it? Let me ask you again: do you think of yourself as a disciple? Now, let me push you a bit more (because I try to be more like Jesus, ya know). When do you claim that discipleship citizenship? Because even though we’re all disciples and God desires for us to live into that called and claimed identity 100% of the time, we tend to only do it when it feels good. Or maybe that’s just me. Help to feed the hungry? Sign me up! I’m a disciple! Teach at Vacation Bible School? Sign me up! I’m a disciple! Build a habitat house? Sign me up! I’m a disciple. If we’re honest, doing these things are great. They need to be done. But, they also make us feel good. But what about discipleship that doesn’t cause warm fuzzies?

Sit at tables with people that are completely opposed to everything I support? Sorry. Super busy. Attend a protest where I will literally have to put my body on the line and maybe get arrested? Doesn’t Jesus know I have a reputation to maintain? Listen to stories of how broken systems and broken churches hurt people over and over again and not be able to do a darn thing about it? That sounds terrible. Count me out. But Jesus is giving us this “are you in or are you out” kind of mentality. He lays it all out there for everyone to see and hear. Being his disciple means that you may be put in situations and predicaments that put you at complete odds with the people that you love the most. Being a disciple means that those who love you learn of your discipleship card-carrying status and immediately shun you. After all, who wants to be associated with people who love and serve a man that allows himself to get arrested, flogged, and crucified? What kind of leader does that?

I know I say this often, but I’ll say it again. Discipleship is not easy. It is not for the faint of heart. I know. I speak from experience. I am sure there are several ways that I fail at discipleship daily if not hourly. I so desire the easy way out and that is not what is asked of us as disciples. Discipleship is a life-long commitment to kingdom building in an environment that believes only in the building up of self. We are called to build community in environments that care only about building the bottom line. We are called to care for justice while living in communities that support unjust systems. We are called to die daily to ourselves and rise to new life in Christ when we are surrounded by informercials that guarantee us that we can be better for only $19.95. Discipleship isn’t about what we are, but who we are. And we are card carrying disciples. 

Today, all of you are literally becoming card carrying disciples. I have passed out these cards in the hopes that you will keep them someplace handy. Maybe you’ll tuck it away in your wallet, in the visor of your car, or in the corner of the mirror in your bathroom. Written on these cards are the promises we make in baptism. We make these promises today to Palmer, but we also affirm them to ourselves and to the people around us. It’s important to remember that we don’t do this discipleship work alone. I wanted to have these available for you (and me) because when it feels like the world is against us, I wanted something to reference. What does my baptismal identity call me to do? What does Christ call me to do? We are called to live among God’s faithful people. We are called to proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. This is our job description. 

Sometimes as the church, we get bogged down in the small things that seem like big things. When in reality, we need to step back, remind ourselves of what our call really is. I hear horror stories of churches experiencing splits because they want to replace the old pews that are falling apart. And I think to myself “Jesus didn’t die for this.” But what Jesus did die for doesn’t even seem to be on our radar unless it’s convenient for us. Jesus has demanded a lot of his disciples. It’s a now or never moment. We are washed in water, claimed by God, marked with the cross of Christ, fed with body and blood, and then sent out into the mission field. We will be rejected. We will be ignored. We will be shunned. But so was Jesus. And for me, I’d rather serve and follow the one who loves, who dwells in mercy and grace, than follow anyone or anything that doesn’t care about my eternal life. 

Sermon for 9/1/19 Luke 14: 1, 7-14

If I somehow had the ability to transport you back to my childhood home on Tudor Lane in Liberty, Missouri, the first place I’d probably take you was the kitchen. Like so many other homes, our kitchen was the hub of the household. We had a large bar that served as the collection site of the mail,notes to one another (or to ourselves), lunch making prep, and on occasion, it was a sitting place (although my parents weren’t huge fans of us sitting on counter tops). Not too far from the bar was the heart of the kitchen: our family table. It was a solid wood oval piece with an optional leaf. For the longest time it had only 5 chairs. Dad sat at the head of the table to his left was mom, then my sister Jayna (opposite my dad), my brother Jon, then me to dad’s right. Even when someone was missing from the table (which was rare) we always sat in the same seats. It was rare for someone to sit in Dad’s seat. A lot of learning took place around that table. We learned a lot from one another but it also was the homework hub of the house. It wasn’t uncommon for the table to be cleared from dinner and everyone took their place to study. That table was a place where our identities were formed and shaped. It was where we processed bad news and celebrated good news. It was the place where we planned for weddings and babies. While this may sound strange, my parents don’t use that table any more; their new table is just as big and nice, but it’s not the same. 

I thought about that table a lot this past week as I reflected on this Gospel reading. Jesus does a lot of his teaching in Luke around a table and around food. In fact, he does more of his teaching, fellowship, and discourse around the table and food more in Luke than in any other Gospel. Are you like me? Were you formed and taught around a table? How many of your core identities are tied to a table? I think about who I am and how that part of me was formed and shaped around a table. I am a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, an aunt, a niece, and a wife. All of those roles were formed and shaped around our table. I learned a lot by watching, listening, learning, and the fellowship, hospitality, and lessons shared around tables taught me how to be who I am today. But, I am also a Pastor, a mom, a friend, and a lot more. Many of those roles were formed around tables that I had the honor of being invited to. What tables shaped you? What identities do you have?

It helps to know a bit about Jesus’ context that he speaks from this week. He is at a dinner on the sabbath. He has just come from healing someone on the sabbath, again. This is a dinner of a captive audience of the Pharisees and their leader. These are people who would be very well versed in what proper table and party etiquette would be. At a wedding banquet during Jesus’ time, the place of honor would be held for someone important, perhaps someone high up. Usually this seat was saved for some government official. Jesus is cautioning his listeners to not sit in the place of honor. Perhaps he is trying to save them all from embarrassment and shame. The thing is, however, a lot of these people he’s surrounded by in this story would be people sitting close to the seat of honor. That’s how it went in Jesus’ time. If you weren’t in the seat of honor, you were seated almost by rank. 

Instead, Jesus encourages his listeners to take a posture of humility and sit in the lowest place, wherever that may be. Jesus, as usual, is challenging the status quo and what tradition looks like. What his listeners may not understand or just may not hear is that a banquet, at least a banquet during Jesus’ time, isn’t a true banquet unless everyone is invited. The banquet that awaits us all in God’s kingdom isn’t a true banquet unless everyone is invited. At a kingdom banquet, we are shaped and formed by those around us in ways that may be unexpected and yet also in ways that are most rewarding. 

Think back (again) on your identities. Take a moment to make a mental list of the identities you have. Do any of these come with honor and prestige? Are you given a seat of honor at the table because of this title? Or are you given the seat of honor out of fear of retaliation. Do any of you have a title or identity that perhaps once gave you honor and/or prestige but societal expectations have diminished that? Here’s an example: being a teacher (in my opinion) is a position of power, prestige, and honor. I was raised by teachers and I married a teacher. I was taught to respect my teachers. If one of my child’s teachers brought up a concern over her attitude or behavior, I wouldn’t first jump to believing that the teacher was lying. “Oh goodness! Not my angel of a child.” Doctors and nurses have to deal with this too (I’m guessing). It used to be that whatever doctors and nurses said went. It was the truth. Doctors and nurses could be trusted (in my opinion, they still are to be trusted). But, then came Doctor Google. And suddenly, an identity of honor and prestige is no longer. 

Society also places expectations on our titles and identities. The titles and identities so carefully formed around tables of comfort, safety, security,and learning are challenged externally all the time. I am guessing there are millions of articles out in the world about how to be a better mother. How to be more involved, how to better discipline, how to make the perfect nutritious lunch, how to raise children to not be addicted to electronics and on and on. And make no mistake, there are similar articles for men. There are articles out there for any identity you may have. For me, it’s the articles on increasing attendance and increasing the bottom line that give me impostor syndrome. I mean, after all, what kind of Pastor am I if I am not leading 6 services a weekend to a congregation of 5000 with a $3-5 million dollar budget? Our identities are important. But they are what we are, not who we are. 

Jesus wants to shake up the status quo. He’s not trying to be a jerk about this. 

But he desires for the Pharisees, his disciples, and all of us to start living into the idea that hierarchy is a human construct. Places of importance based on status and human given identities is just an easy way for us to persecute one another. It is important that we are aware of our identities. It certainly is important that we celebrate our identities. It is crucial that we grow in our identities and nourish the relationships that form from them. But in God’s kingdom, at the ultimate banquet, around the most lavish table, none of that will matter. There is no place of honor at that table other than Jesus. 

Today, Kami receives her most important identity. This is the identity that will matter more than anything else. This is the identity that should mean more to all of us than anything else. Because nothing else matters more than being a called and claimed child of God.  This is the identity that will shape all others as she gathers around tables in the future. Because her place in the kingdom is secure, as is ours, that is what allows us to look at tables and not celebrate who is gathered but instead make room for the forgotten. Our identity as children of God is what encourages us to build more tables and chairs when we have more than enough food. Our baptismal identity is what allows us to look into the eyes of the stranger, the forgotten, the downtrodden, even our neighbor and say “here, have my seat.” 

Sermon for 8/25/19 Luke 13:10-17

Not to long ago, I started watching a new series on Netflix called “Diagnosis.” It is a documentary series that features real people dealing with real physical ailments. These people usually have been suffering for years but with no relief and no diagnosis. With the help of a doctor and The New York Times, these people and their stories are shared world wide in the hopes of finding a diagnosis. And it happens and it’s so amazing. I wondered if the internet or The New York Times would have existed at the same time as Jesus if the woman in today’s gospel would have suffered for 18 years. 

Think about this, she was bent over for 18 years. There was the physical pain, I’m sure, that accompanies being bent over for that long. I mean, I think many of us take for granted all of the ways we are able to bend and stretch. It’s only usually when we are unable to do those things that we learn how important they are. But, there also had to be an emotional, mental, psychological, and maybe even spiritual component to her ailment. Think about this: she was literally hunched over. Her world view consisted only of what her eyes could see. For 18 years, she hadn’t been able to see the sun or the stars. She may have struggled to look into the eyes of her loved ones. Because of her ailment, she was most likely shunned by those around her in the community. She was avoided, ignored, or maybe even shunned. While the text does not say as much, I can only imagine the kind of toll that took on her mental health. 

Enter Jesus, of course. He was in the synagogue teaching. The woman shows up. Now, we are not told if this is her first time at the synagogue or if she is a regular attendee. What I do know is that no matter if she’s a visitor or a regular, it takes a lot of courage to show up. I commend her. And Jesus, of course, sees her. And Jesus, of course, does what Jesus does, and heals her. But he goes a step further and lays hands on her. Her healing takes place immediately. All of her 18 years of trouble are gone in an instant. The woman’s response is to praise God. This is where our language lacks (once again). The idea behind this praising verb is that it is continual. This praising is not a one time thing. She praises God and praises God and praises God and on and on. 

But there are the naysayers. There are always the naysayers, aren’t there? We so badly want to side with Jesus on this one, don’t we? Well, at least I do. Of course he’s going to heal on the sabbath. Jesus sees someone in need and responds to that need. That’s what Jesus does. But, I have also sounded like or at least thought like the leader of the synagogue too often. Sunday is the day of sabbath. Scripture tells us we are to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. There are very few places any more that are actually closed on Sunday. Sunday has become the day when we grocery shop, do the laundry, catch up on that yard work, participate in the club sports, prepare for the week ahead and on and on. I even engage in a lot of these things once my work here is done many Sunday’s. 

At the same time, it’s not unheard of for me or any of my other colleagues to lament the attendance at church. Maybe you’ve done it yourself. People say “church just doesn’t seem to  be the priority of families any more.” Or “the only time available to have youth group is Tuesday nights at 10pm or Thursday morning at 530 because these kids are so busy.” By saying or thinking these things, we are just like the leader of the synagogue. So, I am actually understanding the lament of the synagogue leader here a bit. I understand why Jesus did what he did but I also understand why the leader feels the way he did. It’s a bit of a conundrum really. 

For Jesus, it wasn’t a matter of obeying the sabbath, it was a matter of life and death. The fact that he brings up obtaining water for the animals is his way of trying to convey this message. Remember, his audience were people that live in a very hot and humid climate. Having water for your animals (animals, I might add, that will provide sustenance for your family) is a matter of life and death. If the animals die, the families might not have food or a way to monetarily support their family. Others might argue though that keeping the sabbath is a matter of life and death. Luther says that following the sabbath means that “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” There are many who believe that attending church, listening to God’s word, feasting at the table, and being in Christian community with one another is a matter of life and death.

What are we to do then with this conundrum? Well, it should be no surprise to any of you that I am going to preach and encourage us to look on the side of grace. I say it shouldn’t surprise you because if you’ve been here longer than a minute you know that my sermons,my life, my “brand” so to speak is all about grace. While Jesus gives the crowd and the synagogue leader what sounds like a lecture, it really is an invitation to grace. Jesus highlights the ways that they are not living into a sabbath by feeding and watering their animals. Although it may not sound like it, this really is grace. Jesus is inviting them to continue living into grace instead of  always trying to live by the law. The law is great. God’s laws are there to protect us and guide us. But trying to live our lives by the law can be exhausting because it is practically impossible. I know many of you would love a true sabbath day; a day when literally nothing has to be done other than the spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental feeding of your body. That sounds amazing. But, I also know that it is impossible. There is always something that has to be done. 

So, we can either beat ourselves up knowing that we’re not obeying and keeping the sabbath holy or we can live into the grace God through Jesus Christ invites us to. While we may not be physically impaired like the woman in our story, our focus can tend to be like hers prior to healing. We are only able to see so much. It is only when Jesus heals us and lays hands on us that our perspective opens up. Sometimes we are so focused on the law, the must-dos, and, unfortunately, shaming those who do not live by the law (including ourselves) that our focus gets to be like tunnel-vision. Jesus invites us to open our eyes and our minds. When we engage in confession of the things we have done and the things we have left undone, we confess in the ways we have lived by the law, or not, and the ways we might have demanded others live by the law. And through the saving and redemptive power of the cross, we are forgiven. When we are splashed with those baptismal waters, we are reminded that even when we desire to live by the law and fail, God will be there, naming and claiming us each time. When we are fed at the table, we are reminded of God’s grace that is for us, despite us, every single time. 

If trying to be a perfect Christian (whatever that is) and trying to live perfectly under God’s law has you bent over, my beloved, I invite you to live into grace. It is a gift from God. It is given to you freely. We need not ask for it (the woman didn’t ask for healing, Jesus just did it). But here’s the thing about grace: it will mess you up. In the best way. Grace allows us to be free to love ourselves and our neighbors. Grace is what allows us to stand upright, praise God continually, and rejoice at all the wonderful things Jesus has done, is doing, and will continue to do. 

Sermon for 8/18/19 Luke 12:49-56

This is a cheery little piece of scripture, isn’t it? Aren’t you excited you came to church today? Jesus sounds a little…. un-Jesus like today, doesn’t he? I know what you’re wondering. “How in the world is Pastor J going to spin this so I don’t leave here wanting to burn the whole world down?” Because if Jesus is supposed to be good news, then where in the world is the good news in this scripture? I mean, what are we supposed to think when the first thing we hear in this scripture is “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” That’s not fuzzy warm Jesus! Once again, there isn’t necessarily a way around this. Being a follower of Christ isn’t about ease. God isn’t looking for Monday morning quarterbacks. The call to discipleship is one that demands we get in the game, get dirty, and also be willing to lose. 

At first glance, division may not seem comfortable. But, when I really started to think about it, it occurred to me that division is actually our normal way of life. We may not think of it that way necessarily, but we all make choices on a daily basis that may put us at odds with one another. Now, these choices aren’t always going to cause a riff at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table, but it’s possible that other choices might. In our house, it has to be Jif peanut butter, Crest toothpaste, Charmin Ultra toilet paper, and while we didn’t plan it this way, ever since Chris and I could drive, we’ve never driven anything but a GM car. Other things could cause division: cats versus dogs, Cyclones versus Hawkeyes, even (gasp) green versus red. But there are other divisions that do cause heartache and even pit family member against family member. All we have to do is look at the most recent election to know this to be true. These divisions prevent us from really seeing and feeling the presence of God and seeing the kingdom here on earth. 

It wasn’t Jesus purpose to set family member against family member. At the same time, Jesus hasn’t come to “validate human institutions and their values but to initiate God’s radical will” (Carlson, 363 Feasting on the Word). Maybe what Jesus says here seems radical. At the same time, if the disciples (and us, honestly) had been listening all along, this actually wouldn’t seem like such a crazy idea. We first hear of these divisions early on in Mary’s song of praise. The Magnificat, which we normally hear during Advent, speaks of division. She says that God, through Jesus Christ will bring the powerful down from their thrones, separating those who are in power from their places of power. Mary’s song goes on to say that the lowly will be lifted up and the rich will be sent away empty. The divisions that normally divided people will be reversed and God’s reign will be the only thing that makes sense. 

John the Baptist continues this idea of the upheaval of social norms. He says (using the words of Isaiah) that Jesus will come and that valleys will be filled, mountains and hills will be made low, the crooked made straight and the rough ways made smooth. And, in good John the Baptist style, he calls the crowd a brood of vipers. He challenges them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. In short, demolish the walls of division for the good of the kingdom. Jesus himself has challenged societal norms since he started preaching and teaching through Nazareth, Galilee, and all through Israel. In one of his first times preaching at synagogue, he tells those listening that the spirit of God is upon him because he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and give sight to the blind. Again, the idea is that whatever divisions we try to put in place as humans, God, through Jesus Christ, has come to demolish. The question that we struggle with today is this one: what do we value more, those divisions or furthering the kingdom of God?

I have this theory. I don’t know that we, at least in the western world, know how to live in peace. We only know how to live in conflict avoidance and instead call that avoidance “peace.” No one actually like conflict and division. At least, I’ve never met anyone who has claimed to like it. Instead, we drum up ideas and reasons to avoid conflict, just not deal with it, perhaps even ignore it, and then say “we’re good” and move on. But, in our attempt to avoid conflict and division, we may be the hypocrites Jesus spoke of in verse 56. “we fail to recognize that Jesus’s ministry itself may be responsible for stirring up that conflict, bringing both heat and light to how sin, death, and the devil are at work in our communities. The ministry of the king of peace (Luke 19:37) often hides under the sign of its opposite” (Chan, Working Preacher). Jesus comes to bring peace but we can’t see it because we’re too busy hanging on to being on the right side of division (whichever side that may be). We’re worshiping being right rather than succumbing to Jesus literally shaking us up for true peace built on confession, forgiveness, and repentance. 

In order to have the kind of peace that only Jesus can bring, we have to be willing to engage in the tough work of confession, forgiveness, and repentance. Confession is wonderful but if we only say “I’m sorry” and our actions prove otherwise, God may continue to cause division. We are called to forgive, truly forgive one another. We can’t say “I forgive you” and continue to hold whatever it is over one another. Repentance is the even more difficult work of healing relationships that have been divided only by our actions or inactions. This work of being in community together is hard and can create a crisis feeling. 

In the midst of all that divides us and in the chasms that form between us, when chaos is swirling all around us, there is Christ. No matter what side you find yourself on, there is Christ. And Jesus is willing to stay with us until we get it right. Jesus is willing to love us until we let go of what divides us and instead work for what unites us. Jesus’ peace is wrapped up in the fire he brings through the Holy Spirit. Fire is what burns away all of the noise, all of the walls, all of the divisions that stop the kingdom from being on earth as it is in heaven. And it’s not always fun. And it doesn’t always result in warm fuzzy feelings. But in our attempt to find peace, whatever that may look like, Jesus is always there. Division doesn’t have to be the norm of our lives. Christ has set his face to Jerusalem, to the place where he will be crucified, the saving action for all the world. We could fight it. But, “a God willing to die for us and for this creation is” a “singular matter. That Jesus has no patience with those who do not grasp the urgency of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his mission there, and his life’s work” (363 Lull, Feasting on the Word).  Sometimes the things that make for peace are fire and Jesus’ harsh words. Getting our attention has never been so crucial. 

Sermon for 8/4/19 Luke 12:13-31

Look, I’m gonna be honest with you this morning. You’ve come to expect nothing less, right? I wasn’t initially real excited to preach on this text from Luke today. I looked at the other texts for inspiration. I thought about a nice, good old-fashioned hymn sing. But this darn text kept calling me back. But it didn’t excite me. The last thing I want to do is stand up here and talk about the rich farmer; especially with the year so many of you are having. I don’t know all the details. But, I’ve heard the whispers. I’ve seen the worry lines on your faces. I know it isn’t a great year. And then the farmer in the text has such a huge yield of crops that he has nowhere to put them. Oh darn (sarcasm). He has so much corn and beans or wheat or whatever else that he has no choice but to tear down his barns (barns plural) and build newer larger ones. Oh goodness. That poor poor farmer. What a burden a large harvest and yield must be. 

Now look, there is no sin in being rich and having wealth. I am not calling us all to take vows of poverty. There is no sin in being successful. And I am not going to be the one to define success for you nor will I tell you how to define rich. It looks different for everyone. But it is how we treat those riches and success that can create problems. Our riches and success can create idols and turn us in ourselves. Listen once again to what Jesus said in the parable. The rich man thought to himself “what should I do, for I have no pace to store my crops…I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” If you didn’t get the emphasis, the focus is on the rich land owner. “Those who have possessions in abundance risk the sin of greed: ‘enough’ is never enough, ‘more’ is only to be hoarded, and ‘I, me, and mine’ matter more than anybody else” (West, 310 Feasting on the Word). I, I, I, the man has done nothing but turned himself into an idol. That is sin. 

Is the rich man wise and responsible? Sure. He’s smart to store up what may be needed in a year of drought. He has a thriving farming business. I know enough farmers to know that farming isn’t a sport for idiots and dummies. He is trying to do what most of us do: set aside a little bit for the future. I am guessing most of us do this in one way or another. IRA’s, stocks, bonds, land, whatever; it’s smart and prudent to prepare for the future. It’s not what he is doing that is wrong. But he is only living for himself. He also seems to believe that he can secure his future with his barns full of abundance. But his life is now. We all know too well that tomorrow isn’t promised. There are very few guarantees in life. You have your body and you have time. Sadly, when one of those things runs out or runs down, your invitation to the kingdom is delivered. This is exactly verse 20 says “you fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” 

Being rich isn’t a sin. Being smart with your investments isn’t a sin. Having an amazing year with a bumper crop isn’t a sin. But, oh my goodness, my beloved, none of this has anything to do with us. We are so quick to forget that. When things are going terribly, we love to blame God. Another diagnosis? What did I/we do to anger God? A new mother taken too soon?  Why does God seem to hate me/us? But when things are going well and we are successful. Well! Look at what I’ve done! I am amazing! I made the right decisions! I bought the right seed! I used the right version of roundup. I made the best investments. I am so smart and so amazing! I should be giving you advice. Um…who? We should not be so confident, so cocky, so sure of ourselves that we forget that what we have is not ours, including our lives. Our lives, our possessions, everything we have and everything we are is Gods. And this is troubling and yet, also a relief: God can demand any and all of it back at any time. Think about that for just a moment. Everything we have and everything we are is Gods and God can demand any and all of it back at any time. 

Being rich is not a sin. I want to repeat that several times so you hear me. Being successful is not a sin. However, it is when we think our successes and riches secure us a position with God or a place in God’s kingdom is when our thinking goes wrong. Again, it’s not that God doesn’t desire for us to do well. Yes, we should save for retirement. And yes, we need to plan for our future needs. But, it is about our priorities. Our priorities tell us very clearly if we worship god with a lowercase “g” or if we worship God with a capital “G.” Because if our priorities are only saving, hoarding even, and self then we worship god, lowercase g. But if our priorities are saving, future planning, and doing that with our neighbors and God’s mission in mind, then we worship God with a capital g. Our “capacity to trust in God can deepen only as other matters lessen their grip in our lives” (Lull, 312, Feasting on the Word). 

Our text today is challenging and we shouldn’t shy away from it. I can’t promise that I’ve made any sense of it or made you feel any better about it. But, if we lean in together and start to read this as the challenge it is, perhaps our lives may take a different shape. This parable “calls on all, rich and poor alike, to reflect carefully about what we want and why we want it” (West, 314, ibid). It is possible that if our hearts are hungering for what only God can give, and that is unconditional grace, mercy, and love, then there are no purchases, no amount of wealth, no amount of stuff that will ever fill that desire. The economy will fluctuate (I don’t have to tell you all that). The price of corn, beans, hogs, and cattle will be a roller coaster. Again, I don’t have to tell you that. But what never changes, what is constant and reliable is God. And as hard as all of this has been to hear and comprehend about riches and storehouses and self focused thinking, the constant and reliable love, grace, and mercy of God is the good news that we need to hear. When we can’t count on anything else, not even our own bodies or time, God’s love, grace, and mercy are reliable. Every. Single. Time. 

Soon, you will be invited to the table. You will receive the body of Christ given for you and you will receive the blood of Christ shed for you. You did nothing to earn it. You receive it if you have $2 or $2 million in your bank account. You are fed the same meal as dignitaries and outcasts. You are fed the same meal given to revolutionaries and the status quo. We dine on the same meal given to the disciples and to dictators. Now if that’s not enough for you to believe in God’s offensive and abundant love, I don’t know what is. What is ours is not ours alone. It has been given to us by God. God’s love, mercy, and grace are the only for sure thing in life that we can bank on. 

Sermon for 7/28/19 Luke 11:1-13

As most of you know, Chris and I recently took a vacation to Las Vegas. Some of you had a familiar question: did you gamble? And we did. And we didn’t win anything. I played a complicated slot machine that I can’t begin to describe how it works or how I won when I actually did win (a few cents here and there). Most of the slot machines that you may be familiar with are almost phased out. These would be the traditional 3 window slot machines with one “win” line in the middle. Usually it’s filled with symbols like cherries or seven’s or something similar. You put the coin in, you pull the arm, and you know immediately if you win. First of all, rarely do people put coins in anymore. And while the lever is still there, most people push a button that says “spin reels.” A more traditional slot machine is easy to understand. I wonder if we think about prayer the same way sometime. We say the right words, we make the right gestures, we put the right amount in the offering plate, and JACKPOT! God answers our prayers. It’s not that easy. Thankfully, it’s not that complicated either. 

Before you feel yourself tense up, I want you to know that this will not be a sermon about how you should be praying more and that praying is good for you. We all know this already. It isn’t my job to stand up here and guilt you into doing anything, especially something I know I need help with. I would love to understand prayer and how it works. But, the thing is, I don’t. I don’t know why God answers certain prayers and leaves others unanswered. I don’t know why God feels like answering prayers for someone else but not me. What I know for sure is that I am still learning about prayer. I also know that God wants us to pray. God desires for us to be bold and persistent in our prayer. In fact, in the text today we hear the story of the man waking his neighbor for bread and he is persistent. The translation would more accurately state that he is shameless. I’ve never thought about being shameless in prayer. And I believe that God listens to our prayers. Please understand though, my beloved, listening to our prayers and answering our prayers are two very different things. 

The words of today’s text are familiar because we pray them every Sunday. Maybe you pray them every day. In the Gospel of Luke, prayer is central to who Jesus is and what Jesus does. “According to Luke 11, through prayer believers participate in God’s commitment to bring forth God’s reign.” When the disciples come to Jesus and say “Lord, teach us to pray” they are asking the right person. Notice Jesus doesn’t tell them how to pray, as in, “close your eyes” or “bow your head.” Instead, he tells them what to say. And the entire prayer is built around a relationship with God. A loving and shameless relationship with God. 

The prayer does not assume that we need to be something that we are not. We are not expected to become greater than we are. We are not asked to transform ourselves into some kind of super human. It is a “deeply human kind of prayer. It is a prayer for … creatures in need.” What do we need? Well, the prayer breaks it down quite simply. We need relationship. When we address God as father, we speak to that relationship. And yes, it is okay to address God as mother. If you’ve had a difficult relationship with your father or father figure, thinking of God as a loving father may prove to be challenging. After that, it is simple human needs that we pray for: “give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us.” We cannot do this on our own and as crazy as it may sound, we need God’s help. 

Prayer is a lifetime practice. I want to emphasize that word: practice. Prayer evolves as our life does. If you’ve ever listened to a child pray, they are some of the most thoughtful and thought provoking prayers. But they may also not reflect your life at this moment. But what remains constant in our prayers is our reliance on God. You hear me say this almost every Sunday and you hear the disciples speak it in the text “teach us to pray.” We will never advance to “Lord, remember us in your kingdom and you taught us to pray…” The idea is that it is ongoing. Again, I don’t know how prayer works. It’s not a Holy Spirit slot machine. But, I know that God desires a relationship with us and that is accomplished through prayer. 

What keeps you from praying? I can’t very well ask that question of you if I don’t ask it of myself first. What keeps me from praying? I thought about that for a while and every answer I came up with really boiled down to one main answer: fear. It’s easy for me to say I don’t pray because I just don’t have the time. But maybe it’s not that I don’t have the time but I don’t make the time. Because if I pray, God might actually respond. I don’t pray because I don’t have the right words (whatever those are). Well, Jesus gave me the words right here. My desire to be a perfectionist keep me from praying because I am afraid I will screw it up. So, every excuse I came up with really was just fear. And with a loving, grace-filled, mercy-filled God, why do I fear? God wants you and I to be shameless in our prayer. Shameless in how we pray, when we pray, what we pray and to whom we pray. 

God wants us to pray and God wants us to ask for anything. “Prayer is praise; prayer is thanksgiving; prayer is conversation; prayer is questioning; prayer is arguing; prayer is lamenting. Prayer is all these things and more. But prayer is also — and perhaps fundamentally — asking God for what we most need and desire…shamelessly” (Lose, Working Preacher). And I understand that we may have a deep desire to know how prayer works. Because then if we know how prayer works then we can pray just the *right* way and our prayers will be answered. And then cancer would be gone, and hungry people would be fed, and people wouldn’t die of curable disease, and on and on. But we don’t know how prayer works and I know how frustrating that is. While we don’t know the “how” of prayer, we do know the “who” and that is Jesus. 

We pray to the God that answers, no matter the time of day. We pray to the God that gives us more than we expect or needed and loves us like a parent, but even better and even stronger. We pray to the God that gives us, feeds, us, forgives us, and leads us. There is no such thing as a small prayer. There is no prayer to big for God. You can scream at God or sing to God, there is no wrong way to pray. There is no wrong way to pray. Because every time we pray, we once again admit to God, and maybe, more appropriately, to ourselves, that we can’t do this alone and that our lives are dependent on the one who generously gives us our daily bread. Our lives are dependent on the one who forgives our sins and encourages us to do likewise. Our lives are dependent on the one who will not allow us to be tried beyond our limits. Our lives are dependent on the one who loves us beyond our comprehension. Be shameless in your prayers. Be bold in your prayers. Be daring in your prayers. God is always listening.