Sermon for 8/27/17 Matthew 16:13-20

I believe I have spoken of my time as a hospital chaplain during the summer of 2008 quite often. I spent the summer at Heartland Hospital in Saint Joseph, Missouri. I was born in St. Joe and the site, while far from Dubuque, was close to my parents. Serving a stint of clinical pastoral education, or CPE is a requirement of the ELCA. The summer is spent more focusing on the chaplain and leader to be than the actual patient. And paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. When the paperwork is done, then you verbally process in the group and usually, at least once, someone will say “and how do you feel about that?” Part of our assignment was to record ourselves preaching in a local context. I was blessed to have the opportunity to do some pulpit supply at a cute Presbyterian church in Oregon, Missouri.

The day came to watch my video and be critiqued by my colleagues. I spent the summer serving with another ELCA Lutheran, Rich; a Methodist woman, Denise; and the craziest Mennonite I’d ever met, Bob. Sitting in that day wasn’t my supervisor, Jackie, but instead the head of the spiritual care department, Sally. Sally was a straight shooter and didn’t mince words. My sermon was finished, everyone had their say. And then Sally looked me straight in the eyes and said “Jealaine? What is your theology? What do you believe about God? Who is God for you?” Now forgive me if you’ve heard me tell this story before. So, with one whole year of theological training under my belt I said “I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God gives God’s love and grace to all people.” And Sally looked me once again and without a single tone of apology said “I think you’re full of crap” (except her word wasn’t ‘crap’). “I’m sorry?!” I replied. She said “I don’t believe you.” Just who does this woman think she is? She doesn’t know anything about me. She continued “I don’t believe you because you don’t believe it. If you don’t believe that God’s love and grace is for you, no one is going to believe it is for them.” That was a Holy Spirit 2×4 moment for me. God hit me over the head hard with that 2×4!

I think of that often when I read this scripture. I think about who I say God is and who Jesus is. And today I want you to be challenged and think about that question for yourself. If and when Jesus were to ask you “who do you say I am” how are you going to respond? Our first inclination may be to respond with “well, as a Lutheran… “ or “I read in the Bible” or even (and maybe even worse yet “Pastor has taught us….” No. No. No. I want to know who you say God is. I don’t want a repeated theology that you have memorized that you only kind of believe or only kind of understand. What do you believe?

Maybe you feel like you don’t have the “right words” to express your faith. You heard what I believe. I still believe that. I spent four years and a lot of money in seminary and that is still the foundation of my faith and who I say Jesus Christ, son of God is for me. I want to emphasize the for me part. Just because that’s my faith statement, doesn’t mean it has to be yours. As I was preparing to go to seminary, my home pastor, Pastor Ernie Barr of Faith Lutheran in Wichita Falls, Texas said to me “if you ever feel overwhelmed or lost, just remember ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’” Who do you say Jesus is?

See, now is the time, my dearests. Now is the time for us to be bold and daring. Now is the time for us to have a bit of Peter in us. See, there were lots of people surrounding Jesus that day. Anyone could have stepped forward to answer Jesus’ question. But it was Peter who was brave and bold enough to step forward and share his answer. And Peter doesn’t give a five minute explanation of the Trinity. He doesn’t recount what he read in some scholarly journal somewhere. He doesn’t say “well, so and so said…” No. He said simply “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And for Peter, that changes everything. He was bold and daring but also personal. Peter spoke of how he knew Jesus through his encounters with him. Not as some far off, distant, unreachable God. But as Jesus, the very Messiah walking with him day after day.

Who do you say God is? Maybe the ugly truth is this: we don’t want to answer. If we answer that question truthfully with what we believe, it could alter how we see everything else in our lives. See, who we say Jesus is for us individually should and does color the way we see the entire world. And maybe, maybe we don’t want to change our opinions about certain people, places, institutions, or ideas. Once you figure out who Jesus is for you and you’re bold and declare that, then it just may affect the way you operate within your world.

My example of God loving all people through Jesus Christ doesn’t allow me to look at my neighbor, no matter who my neighbor is, and hate them. I may not agree with my neighbor, but I don’t hate them. Because God loves them. Here’s where my faith challenges me: if I believe that God really does love everyone, how does that affect the way I look at white supremacy groups, or Westboro Baptist Church members, or even those on death row? Does God love them too? But Fox News, or CNN, or Time Magazine, or Twitter or whoever tells me so many ways to feel about “those people.” At the end of the day, my faith calls me to look at the world through the lens of the cross and my own faith statement.

Who do you say Jesus is? Are we waiting for the right time to answer that question? Are we waiting to be asked? Are we waiting until our faith is challenged? Are we waiting for a situation that affects us directly? We are in perilous times, my beloved. We cannot wait to declare who Jesus is for us. People’s lives are at stake. The church cannot afford to be silent. Quite honestly, we’ve been silent for too long. We’ve wanted to keep calm, collect all the facts, weigh all of our options, and not rock the boat too much. We worship a man who could calm the waters. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to rock the boat. It’s time to stop being “Lutheran/Minnesota nice” and start being bold.

Being this bold isn’t easy. When you make a declaration of who Jesus is for you, you might receive some push back. Stand firm. This is your theology. That means it doesn’t have to be everyone’s theology. At the same time, if someone says “this is who I say Jesus is” then believe them. Just because their statement may not sound like yours doesn’t mean it is wrong. But, stating who Jesus is for you isn’t enough. You must then start to see the world through that statement and point out injustice or when the world disagrees with your statement. If your statement of faith is one of God’s love for the world, then you can’t be in favor of people protesting with torches and signs while thinking that Colin Kapernick kneeling for the National Anthem is disrespectful. If you say that Jesus is God loving the world, then you can’t be okay with our black brothers and sisters dying in the streets. If your statement of faith is that God loves the world, then you shouldn’t blink an eye when someone identifies themselves as trans, queer, blue, purple, left handed, or depressed or whatever. Because God loves the world is your faith statement, so that’s what that looks like in action. Are you starting to see how this isn’t always easy?

We’re gonna mess it up. Yes, it’s our own faith statement, but we’re still going to mess it up. We may not always see the world through the lenses of what we believe. We may not even believe it for ourselves some day. I still struggle. There are days when my depression demons are loud, really loud, and I don’t believe for one minute that God’s love and grace are for me. And then I remember that we serve a God of second, third, fourth…chances. So, I confess to God for those I have hurt (including myself) and beg another chance. And wouldn’t you know, God has always presented me with another chance to see the world as my faith grows. But while our words are important, our actions and the ways we live our lives is also crucial in pointing to who we believe Jesus is for us. If we love God, and say that we believe God loves us, then our actions will show it. We will show that God loves through our care for the homeless, the hungry, the ignored, the uninsured, the undocumented, the forgotten, the dying, the smelly, sinful, addicted, and the hurting. But none of this can happen until you know what you are going to say when Jesus calls on you and asks “but, who do you say I am” and you answer with boldness and without too much thought because it’s written on your heart. And then your response are your actions in God’s world. Be bold, my beloved. Who do you say Jesus is?

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Sermon for 8/20/17 Matthew 15: (10-20) 21-28

“Senator Warren was given a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” This is a quote from Senator Mitch McConnell about Senator Elizabeth Warren. Senator Warren was speaking against the appointment of now Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Now, before you get too anxious in thinking I am going to get political today and talk about our current state of affairs in regards to politicians, then relax. I’m not going to preach about that. Unless you think that Jesus can get a little political, which he can, then I’m totally going to preach about politics today. Here’s something you may not normally hear me say: Jesus is nothing short of a jerk in this Gospel today. I know what you’re thinking (gasp) “Pastor! You can’t call Jesus a ‘jerk.’” Yes I can, if he had it coming; and he had it coming!

Jesus goes from one moment talking about what defiles. And he wants the disciples and everyone around him to understand that it is not what we eat and what goes into our mouths, but what comes out of our mouths that defile. Jesus reminds us that our words matter. Our actions are important, yes, but our words often carry more weight than we imagine. Sure, it’s pretty awesome to hug people. But, it means more (at least in my opinion) to hug someone while saying “I love you!” On a deeper level, communion is a powerful ritual that reminds us of God’s grace. There is an action. Bread and wine exchange hands. There is a moment of pure intimacy that cannot be replicated anywhere else. But what is more powerful? Is it powerful when I just hand you the body of Christ? Sure. But to be handed the body of Christ while hearing the words “the body of Christ given for you” is even better. Our words matter. And in a era where it seems everyone has various platforms from which they can be heard, it is important to remember that words matter. And sometimes we need to be persistent in having our words heard.

The Canaanite woman was everything that she shouldn’t have been. She was a Canaanite, meaning she wasn’t Jewish. She wasn’t chosen. She wasn’t originally part of Jesus’ posse. She was a woman. She was thought of and treated like she was less than. Women weren’t even considered a full person without a husband and some children (preferably male). She has a daughter at home who is very ill. What if she has it too? She speaks first. She doesn’t even wait for Jesus to speak first. She sees him coming and instead of being polite, demure, and waiting to be spoken to, she starts shouting. Did you notice that? She is shouting. She is aware of the borders and barriers that society has placed on her and runs right through them. She is persistent.

The disciples, using words, not actions, ask Jesus to send her away. Why? Because (as they say) “she keeps shouting after us.” Send her away. Yes, like she’s some pesky fly or door-to-door sales-person. She is using her words, at first, not actions. And yes, she’s yelling. Wouldn’t you be yelling as well if your child was sick, possessed by a demon?? And the disciples want her cast off, sent away, and basically brushed under the rug. The disciples long for her to obey the borders and limits both physical and imposed that society and life have placed on her. But instead of letting those limits stop her, she persisted.

And when she persisted, she did so with reverence. She threw herself onto her knees. She was in a position of respect towards Jesus. Once again, she ignored all of the borders, barriers, and obstacles in her way and persisted. “Lord, help me” she cried. If you’ve ever had a loved one in pain, you can probably understand her desperation. Despite his long explanation before this encounter, what comes out of Jesus’ mouth is what defiles. He calls her a dog. He calls her a female dog. And yes, in Jesus’ time it stings as much as it does now. Despite the continued hurdles placed in front of her, the Canaanite woman persisted. She responds to Jesus that even dogs manage to get crumbs from under the table. It’s amazing that all this woman wanted was the theological equivalent of crumbs. She wanted, and was demanding a literal place at the table.

I wonder how often we let borders, obstacles, and barriers get in our way of either going to God or advancing God’s kingdom. How often do we let the barriers that get saddled upon us by society or ourselves stop us? These are barriers seen and not seen. These are barriers that sound a lot like prejudice. They are phrases like “you can’t do that, you’re almost 80 years old!” Or “do you really think it would be proper to have a woman involved in such things?” Maybe it’s something like “perhaps we should find someone not in a wheelchair to do that job.” Sometimes these phrases are used by well meaning people. After all, Jesus was a well meaning person when he said that he was only sent to the people of Israel. I am sure he wasn’t expecting push back. I am sure he wasn’t expecting a woman (of all people) to be persistent. And yet, she was.

It is getting more and more crucial with each passing day that we are persistent, my beloved. See, if you are willing to take a bold stand against racism, white supremacy, and start educating yourself on white privilege, you’re going to get some push back. Trust me, I have. But we must meet every naysayer, every protestor, every well meaning person, with persistence. This includes Jesus. And what a powerful statement, right? Jesus, a pretty awesome leader in his own right, was willing to learn. He was challenged and learned from the challenge. Perhaps we can follow in his footsteps. When you are challenged, are you going to put up your own walls, borders, and barriers, or are you going to persist through to either righting that challenge or learning from it?

If you’ve been challenged to check your privilege, have you really wrestled with that and persisted to see where that challenge comes from? Or have you responded with “why can’t I be proud to be white?” When someone says “I don’t know why I should care about events in Virginia. It didn’t happen here.” Persist. Because it could and it does, every day, on a small scale over and over. If someone says “I don’t know if you realize this, but when you said [this] it was received this way….” persist in listening. Then persist in learning the ways your words hurt and harm. But at the same time, persist in using your words to help heal. You can be the one that challenges the system, just like the Canaanite woman. Here’s a perfect example: men, next time you notice a woman talking and a man interrupts her, call his attention to it. “She was talking” and then create the silent space for her to continue. Women: the experiences of women of color in this country are vastly different than ours. Just because we are women doesn’t mean we’ve experienced the same things. When they say it’s different, trust them. And, if appropriate, invite them to share so that you can persist in learning, not so you can fix it.

Persistence is important, now more than ever. Persist in your prayer life. Persist in the reading of the Bible. Persist in receiving the sacraments. Persist in your desire to learn, listen, and change. Persist in resistance. Most of all, keep persisting until not only Jesus gets heard, but until Jesus listens as well.

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.