Sermon for 4/2/17 John 11:1-45

One of the reasons I love you all so much is that you have allowed me to be very open and honest about my own struggles with mental health. You continue to love me through good times and bad times. You have been understanding during my valley times and celebratory during my peak times. My battle with depression and anxiety will be one I will fight for the rest of my life. I am always learning more about my friends, depression and anxiety. I feel like the more I learn, the less they have control over me. And the other thing is, I know I’m not alone. Thanks to your bravery, some of you have shared your own struggles with me. We’ve compared meds together (prozac? No thank you!); we’ve lamented over treatments that didn’t work; and, sometimes,we’ve just cried together. But, for everyone who has shared their own struggle with me, and for me myself, the best message I could give to all of you who either love or know someone with a mental illness is that it does not bind us. We refuse to be defined by these diseases.

I got to thinking about this as I read through this Lazarus story and I heard Jesus say so clearly to those waiting for Lazarus outside his tomb (and, so to me as well) was “unbind him, and let him go.” And, for some reason, for the first time I wondered if Jesus was speaking of more than just a physical unbounding. Those surrounding Lazarus’ tomb now have proof, actual living, stinky, risen proof, that death doesn’t have the final word. Can you imagine? I think Mary and Martha had some idea of what Jesus was capable of, but anyone else standing around that open tomb must have been amazed. Who was this Jesus person that even 4 days of death had no power? So picture it: this was a tomb, a grave, and Lazarus had been laid there 4 days prior. The tomb had been covered by a stone. The community gathered worked together to remove that stone at the request of Jesus. (By the way, if this sounds a little bit like Jesus’ own resurrection, then good, it should. This is a foreshadowing.)

Jesus commands Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out!” And without much fanfare, without trumpets blaring, without angels singing, Lazarus came out of his tomb, very much alive. Lazarus was physically bound. This was common in this community. He had been prepared for death. So, his hands and feet were bound, handicapped, by bands of cloth. His face was also bound. Lazarus was unable to use his feet and hands the way God intended and his was most likely unable to see, speak, and perhaps his hearing was impaired as well. And Jesus says “unbind him.” Death no longer has power over him. Anything that had Lazarus bound is no longer in existence. What is it then, friends, that has you bound?

Are you bound by a mental health condition? I know I talked about my own struggles earlier and how I do my best to not let those define me. But, I’d also be lying if I didn’t tell you that there are days when my depression and anxiety make me feel like I can’t move, can’t talk, can’t see, can’t hear, can’t even breathe. Maybe you are bound by fear. You desire to do something new, something adventurous, something maybe even completely and totally out of the norm for you, but every time you think about getting started, fear steps in. And maybe if fear isn’t stopping you, shame does. What if you fail? What if you’re a huge disappointment to your family, your friends, your colleagues? Perhaps it’s death that has you bound. If you read my newsletter article for April, you know that I talked about death as being a good thing. Yes, it can be painful and scary, but it can also be good. Because, in order for new life to bloom, death needs to happen. But, death is scary. Yet not even death can stop Jesus.  

Once again, the Gospel of John is all about relationships, God’s desire to dwell and abide with us, and for all of us to have life, and have it abundantly. What stands in the way of us declaring, similar to Mary and Martha, about what Jesus can do? In what ways do we need to be unbound so that God, through Jesus Christ, is seen at work in our own lives. Everyone in this story is bound somehow. Lazarus was physically bound. But, he may have been emotionally bound as well. He might have been confused. The disciples were bound by confusion. They might have been bound by loyalty as well as bound by power. Mary and Martha, as much as they spoke to who Jesus was, are also bound. Did you notice that Martha mentioned the number of days her brother had been dead? That is her disbelief, her binding, sneaking in. Lazarus had been dead for 4 days. He was dead dead. All the way dead. He’s most sincerely dead. Would Jesus even be able to do anything after 4 days?? And upon raising Lazarus the first thing he says is “unbind him.”

What are the ways we are bound? Do we even realize it? Do we understand that it is Christ alone who has the power to unbind us? Are we bound by grief? Are we bound by power? Are we bound by self-loathing? Are we bound by jobs we hate? Maybe you are physically bound. Your body has started to betray you. Or maybe you’re bound by your mind as age sets in. Christ alone has the power to unbind us. Whatever is keeping us from living a full life, Christ has the power to undo those chains. Now, here’s the thing: sometimes that freedom doesn’t come on this side of life. What I mean is that if you start to pray for physical ailments to go away and they don’t, it’s not a reflection of your faith or God’s love for you. Sometimes freedom does come in death. But, at the same time, sometimes it’s our own sin that has us bound. Christ can  and does free us from that.

Chris is the only thing that can give us life. Christ moves obstacles (like heavy stones from caves). Christ is the light that we are encouraged to walk in. At the same time, Christ is very human. He cries at the death of his friend. Christ calls us into relationships. Christ longs to be in a relationship with us. He longs to abide and dwell in us. And yes, that even means in the midst of messiness. Because even in the midst of death, and stinch, and obstacles, and anger, and frustration, Christ is there. In those moments, the moments that are messy, Christ is there. In the moments that have us bound, Christ is there. In the moments of darkness, he is the light no darkness can overcome. Jesus has power of life over death and that is the ultimate power. It is that power that gets him arrested.

But, we will see soon enough, that nothing keeps Christ bound. Not grief, not a cross, not nails, not disbelief, not even a sealed tomb will keep Jesus from abiding with those whom he came to save. Do you hear this good news, brothers and sisters? No matter what is binding you, no matter what is stopping you from living the life God has intended for you, no matter what you keep putting between yourself and God, that is no match for the saving action of Christ. Do you understand that if Christ loved Lazarus enough to raise him after 4 days of being dead, Christ will raise you too on the last day? This is a man who descended into hell for you. Not even the depths and fires of hell were enough to stop Christ from loving you. Christ was crucified, died, and was risen for you. So, come out of your tomb! Shake off whatever has you bound. Don’t be afraid to stink up this place with the smell of the death of sin. Nothing. Absolutely nothing in this world will ever stop Christ from loving you. Don’t live your life like death has the final word. It never has and it never will.

Sermon for 3/26/17 John 9:1-41

Much like last week, I could preach on this text for a month straight and still not say everything I’d like to. It’s a great story that often gets misinterpreted. People have said this story is about spiritual blindness. People have used this as proof that our children are punished for their parents sins. But here’s the thing: this man didn’t ask to be healed. He didn’t cry out to Jesus in the hopes of regaining his sight. And the other thing is, he was born blind. And he wasn’t born blind just so God could make a point later and have Jesus give the man sight. This text is a great example of “why do bad things happen to good people.” That question is often called a “theodicy” question. Friends, we’ve been trying to answer questions like these since humanity first started walking the earth. And it’s not always “why do bad things happen to good people” it’s questions like “if God was really present in that school then why did that school shooting happen?” Or “if that person is such a faithful Christian, then why did they get cancer?” And as frustrating as it may make us, we just may not know the answer to some questions on this side of heaven.

But, what I do know for sure is that God continues to act and move in the midst of all of these bad things. And we, lucky and blessed as we are, continue to experience grace upon grace. There’s a lot of dialogue in this reading today so you may have missed a crucial sentence and statement. The blind man (whose name we never get) is being spoken about around verses 18-23 or so. We do this often, don’t we? We speak of and about those who are differently abled than us instead of directly to them. The Jews are speaking to his parents and asking them how their son can now see. And I love the parents answer “Ask him; he is of age.” And the Jews press on, calling to the man. First they give glory to God and say “we know that this man is a sinner.”

They said this because they believed that being blind was some kind of punishment for sin; either your own or your parents. And again, I love how this man answers. “I do not know whether he is a sinner” (and that wording is a bit strange since he is speaking of himself). “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And in that moment, this man, the man born blind from birth, gives those around him, most of whom were disbelieving that anything like this could even ever happen, a working definition of grace upon grace. For us, sometimes the way that God works has no explanation. And that is so frustrating, isn’t it? We are such black and white people. We want to know how things work. We want to know how the world operates. We want to know that up is up and down is down and that yes means yes and no means no. God laughs at our desires and instead gives us grace. And when we try and explain grace to someone else we often sound like the blind man. “Look. I dunno what happened. I was this but now I’m this.” I suffered for years and now I’m cured. I was hopeless and now I’m starting to see the world in color. I had just given up and then the phone rang. Whatever it may be. What happens between the “then” and “now” is grace upon grace and sometimes we just can’t explain it.

We don’t hear from Jesus in this reading from verse 7 all the way to verse 35. All the verses in between, everyone around this man was trying to figure out how he was able to see. They were trying to figure out how grace works. So, see! We’ve been doing this for centuries. Trying to figure out how grace works. We also try and figure out how grace affects us and those around us as a way of sizing one another up. “Did he or she get more grace than I did?” Or we get mad at grace. I’ve done that. More than once. I’m not proud. “I can’t believe that person was given grace! Doesn’t God know what kind of person that is??” Yes. And God knows what kind of person you are as well.

But see, grace isn’t measured. Grace isn’t based on anything we’ve done or not done. Grace isn’t earned. Grace certainly cannot be bought. Grace cannot be hoarded. Grace cannot be rejected (although we may try). We cannot stand in the way of grace. And we often cannot explain it. Grace is simply the presence of Jesus. And grace, in the most complicated way, is the presence of Jesus. Grace comes to us in ways that the world probably think are pretty normal: in water and in bread and wine. Grace doesn’t come to us with fireworks, big banners, or much to-do. But instead, it sneaks in and infiltrates our lives to the point that we know we’ve been changed, but we have no idea how. “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And maybe that’s all the testimony we need for God’s grace.

Maybe the only thing we need to testify to as disciples is that we were blind but now we see. We were lonely but now we belong. We were lost but now we are found. Grace relieved our fears. Grace protects us. It serves as a compass, always pointing us to our true north: Jesus Christ. The only thing in this world that can give us life. Jesus and him crucified are the only thing that can save us. Our money can’t save us. Our looks can’t save us. Our business can’t save us. Even any good reputation that we’ve built for ourselves can’t save us. We certainly can’t save ourselves. Only God through Jesus Christ can save us. Grace is wakes us up yelling “sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14b). Because even though you may have a heartbeat. Even though you have a pulse. Even though you have blood flowing through your veins, can you really live without grace?

As hard as this is, part of being a Christian means being okay with saying “I don’t know how it happened, but I know it happened and I know it happened to me.” People will push you for answers. People will question you until they are blue in the face. But that’s okay. Some people don’t understand grace. I don’t understand grace. All I know is that I can’t live without it and that I would be blind without it.   

Sermon for 3/19/17 John 4:5-42

Here’s the problem with this reading today: I could probably preach on this text for the next month and still not be able to say everything that I want to say. This reading today is so rich and full of important details, telling dialogue, and colorful visions of what is going on. Last week we talked about John 3:16, God so loved the world. This week, we get a feeling of what that is going to look like. Jesus is starting to give us a taste of what it means when he says “the world.” What better way to challenge people than by defining the “world” as including a Samaritan woman?

Now, the thing is, this story would have been told orally, not read. And those listening would have known some Bible history and some of the implications of what was going on here. There is enough drama in this story that during the times when this was first heard, there would have been gasps and looks of people stunned in the crowd. This is where our lack of Biblical knowledge is a disadvantage. What we don’t hear in the first few verses of chapter 4 is that Jesus left Judea and headed back to Galilee. And in verse 4 it says “But he had to go through Samaria.” No he didn’t. Geographically going to Samaria didn’t make any sense. It would be like going to Iowa City through Cedar Rapids. It doesn’t make sense geographically. But Jesus needed to go to Samaria to have this encounter with this woman.

Jesus didn’t meet this woman just anywhere. He met her at a well. For us, the reaction may be “so what??” A well was a crucial meeting place in the Old Testament. Listeners would have known this. It’s where Isaac first met Rebekah; Moses’ daughter, Zipporah met her husband at a well. The well was what we now know as match.com. The well equaled relationship. Where have we heard that the Gospel of John is about relationships and abiding? But a relationship for this woman? First things first, she was a Samaritan. At the time, that was the worst kind of person. Samaritans were undesirable in every way. And this was a woman, so she was automatically less than. And to top off her level of undesiring, she had been married 5 times. This means she was either widowed or divorced. And if she was divorced it was because she was barren. This woman at the well (we never get her name, by the way) is a Samaritan, a woman, and someone who has been cast aside more than once.

Then along comes Jesus. And Jesus sees her. This is really important. She was hoping she wouldn’t be seen. She went to the well at noon, the heat of the day. The water collecting had already been done for the day. The well wouldn’t be busy. The woman could go, collect her water, and leave without being harassed or without being reminded that she was, for all purposes, broken and damaged goods. Not only does Jesus see her, he sees her. He asks for a drink of water. This may seem strange to us. Didn’t Jesus bring his own cup? He’s Jesus, couldn’t he get his own water? But instead, he asks this woman for a drink. He is starting to establish a relationship. He is also giving her power. Jesus, a man is giving a woman, a Samaritan woman married 5 times at that, he is giving her power. He is starting to see her as the human being that she is.

What is interesting is that she doesn’t give him a drink and then leave. She continues the conversation. She continues with questions and a bit of a theological discussion. And so the relationship grows. See, conversations are built on relationships. You enter into conversation with the expectation that you will listen and be listened to. There is an unstated trust and at times, even an unspoken vulnerability. And the more the woman and Jesus talk, the more we find out about the both of them. The woman quickly starts to pick up on the fact that this man isn’t any normal wanderer. And Jesus lets on that he knows her on a very intimate level. He knows that she has been married 5 times. For her, that has to be one of the most painful truths of her life. And so the relationship deepens.

Then, then, THEN! Despite the fact that this is a woman, despite the fact that this is a Samaritan woman, despite the fact that this is a Samaritan woman who has been married 5 times (by no fault of her own, by the way), Jesus offers her what she really needs and wants: she wants to be in relationship and she wants to belong. And Jesus offers her a relationship with him and with God and offers to bring her into this community of believers. Jesus knows the ugly truth of her life and still gives her what she needs and desires: to be seen, to belong, and to be loved. And really, isn’t that what all of us want?

We want to be seen for who God created us to be and we also want to be seen as more than our sins, right? We want to show our true selves, without a mask, without pretending, without the charades. We desire to go out into the world, totally vulnerable, naked, exposed, maybe a little scarred up, and say “here I am” and we so desire and long for someone else to say “I’ve been waiting for you!” And for them to say it without hesitation. We want to belong without asterisks. Do you know what I mean? We want to belong without having to pretty ourselves up. We want to belong with our scars. We want to belong even if we’ve been to hell and back and we’ve got the stories to prove it. But instead, we present this photoshopped version of ourselves to one another and continue to present the facade that we’ve got our stuff together.

When the Bible said “God so loved the world” the world looks like a Samaritan woman at the well. The world looks like a tattooed pastor just trying her best (and still screwing it up). The world looks like a mom who is sleep deprived thanks to a teething baby. The world looks like a widowed man who visits his wife’s grave daily. The world looks like the undocumented, the forgotten, the abused, the mistreated, the hungry, the lonely, the poor, the sick, the misfits, and the everyday John and Jane’s. After this encounter, the woman now has a new title, a new job: that of witness. She goes back into the city and tells everyone about Jesus. Her past doesn’t hamper her from being a witness. Her past doesn’t stop Jesus from telling her first who he is. The woman at the well is the first person to hear Jesus claim himself as the “I am.” And the woman at the well doesn’t let her past stop her either.

God desires a relationship with us. God wants to dwell within each and every one of us. We couldn’t keep God away if we tried, and boy how we try. We can stop veiling ourselves any day now. We don’t need to hide who we are from God. Because God already knows who we are. God knows every single part of our lives and loves us the same. God knows how many breaths we have taken and how many we have yet to take and we are still loved and then sent out into the world on a mission to spread God’s love. God loves you, brothers and sisters. God loves you and claims you. May the waters of the well remind you that you have been washed, loved, and claimed. The I AM sees you, knows you, loves you, redeems you, protects you, feeds you, and ultimately, saves you. Even if it’s from yourself.

3/12/17 John 3:1-17 Lent 2

Perhaps you’ve heard me say that the most used word in the Gospel of John is “abide.” In the original Greek text, “meno” can be translated as remain, or stay, but probably is most often translated as abide. What does it mean to abide? Webster says that it means to “bear patiently,” or to “endure without yielding.” It can also mean to “remain stable or in a fixed place” or “continue in a place.” I fear that abide is one of those words that is quickly considered to be old fashioned. The people that care about such statistics have actually noticed that the use of the word “abide” has declined in the last few decades. Why does any of this matter? Because in the Gospel of John, the idea of abide or “meno” is most frequently tied to relationships. God desires for us to abide in relationship not only to God but with one another.

We are even told at the beginning of John that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1: 1,14). From the very start we know that John’s gospel is going to be about a very real God who came to abide in, with, and through us all. And, that this life-giving God loved and continues to love the world. So, if we know that John is all about abiding and relationships, then we can perhaps start to hear this Gospel through that lens. What does it mean to have a relationship with God? What does that look like in 2017 United States?

 I think when we speak about having a relationship with God we tend to start skating on thin ice. The evangelical movement has made sure of that in various ways. Now, I am not about to verbally chastise another church or their religious beliefs from the pulpit. But, I am sure all of us have heard at least once in our lives that we should have a deep and personal relationship with God. That we need to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. That we need to be baptized in what is known as a “believers baptism” so that we can be born again. And while I admire evangelicals (especially how they aren’t afraid to speak to anyone–or so it seems–in order to save a life) there are some out in this world (even those who wouldn’t label themselves as “evangelical” that have started to use the Bible as a weapon.

Because verse 16 is often used as a velvet rope of sorts; a “who’s in and who’s out” in Christianity. Do you believe in God? Great! Eternal life! But if you don’t? Too bad. And really, brothers and sisters, is that the kind of God we want to claim? Is that the kind of God we lean on for hope, healing, and salvation? When we claim that God loves the world, do we have any idea how amazingly wonderful and yet maddening that can be? I am going to turn to the Greek (once again) in these verses. Both verse 16 and 17 use the word “world” several times. The greek here is “kosmos.” The cosmos, as we’re used to learning about it, is every last living, breathing, existing, cellular creature that has ever been and will ever be. Yet, the way we tend to think about the cosmos is either the world around us (as in our family, our town, even our country) or just the places we’re only slightly familiar with.

As a further example, we might say “God loves the World!” when what we really mean is “God loves me, the people around me, the people I like, and the people that I really want God to favor.” We cannot say “God loves the world” and in the same breath express “except you people over there!” Let’s think about scripture for just a moment. God loved a Samaritan woman (someone that society, culture, and rules said shouldn’t be loved). God loved a man so possessed with demons that when he was cured of those demons the demons inhabited pigs that immediately drowned themselves. God loved a man who was blind from birth. God loved Lazarus who had been dead for 4 days; dead to the point that the smell of death and doubt had already set in. God loved Judas so much that he fed him and washed his feet despite knowing that Judas would betray him. God loved a woman that had been hemorrhaging for 12 years. There are so many stories we could talk about that boil down to one concept: God loving the world.

Oh but how badly we want to put limits on that love! When will we learn that God’s love is not a precious commodity the way we think it is. It is a precious commodity in that God’s love is directly tied to our forgiveness of sins and ultimately, our life. But it is not a precious commodity in that it will ever run out. God’s love isn’t like oreo’s: it doesn’t come with a serving size. There is enough of God’s love for the entire cosmos. This means that there is enough love for you for a thousand lifetimes. And if we’re going to declare that God loves the world, then that means that God loves the entire world. God loves the person currently living in fear because of their immigration status. God loves the Jewish communities being victimized all over again with the destruction of their cemeteries. God loves our Muslim brothers and sisters who are vilified and painted as enemies of the state. How strong our own faith might be should we pray 5 times a day. God loves the young black man in a hoodie trying to get home with his skittles and iced-tea. God loves the young girl born as Eddie and is now Elizabeth. God loves the scarred and wounded and the perfectly coiffed and airbrushed.

What difference does it make in your life then that we have a God that not only loves the world, but invites the world into abiding in relationship with God? And that the world includes you? I can’t answer that for you. But, I do know that none of us are above needing saving and/or needing the love of God for daily survival. As I said earlier, this declaration of God’s love should be wonderful and maddening. It’s wonderful news for us who long to be saved. Who wear the badge of “Christian” proudly (but usually only like Nicodemus: at night, under the cover of darkness, when we can’t be seen or discovered). It’s wonderful news to us and for us who love other people (like our family and friends). But, it’s also maddening because we desire to limit God’s love, the influence of God’s love, and the actions of God’s love. We don’t want our enemies to receive this love. The only enemy we have, brothers and sisters, is Satan and our own sin. That’s it.

We want to find exceptions to the rule, don’t we. We pose theological quandaries like “if we say God loves the whole world do we really mean…” and then fill in the blank. And the answer is always “yes.” Even when we want the answer to be “no” the answer is “yes.” When we are born of water and of Spirit we are submitting to God and recognizing that our entire existence is dependent on God. Everything we are. Everything we’ve been and will be is dependent on God. And despite our desire to be dependent on ourselves, society, even pure dumb luck, God gives us everything we need; first and foremost that being love and salvation. This is a promise made not only to you, but every last speck of dirt, every last cell, every molecule in the entire cosmos. And it all starts with relationship and abiding in God.

Sermon for 3/5/17 Matthew 4:1-11, Lent 1

One thing you may not hear me preach about very often is Satan. I’ve thought about this off and on all week and I am not sure why this is. Satan, for me, is known by many names. The devil, evil, temptation, sin, and darkness, among others. I don’t know if I am the only Lutheran to struggle with this or not. I firmly believe that Satan is a very real presence. I firmly believe in the concept of hell. It’s just not something you hear me speak of a lot. I think the reason for this is that I know that Satan longs to have me on his team. I have told you more than once that the person I preach to (first and foremost) is myself. Perhaps I just don’t want the reminder that Satan longs for me.

Today, Jesus comes face to face devil. Jesus is faced with three temptations: bread for his hunger, saving himself from danger, and lastly, all the power in the world. Jesus says no each time, of course. This is predictable Jesus. We know how Jesus is, we know how Jesus interacts with the world, so we know he is going to say no to these temptations. In fact, it would be surprising if he had any other answer besides “no.” It’d be like going to see Titanic and the boat doesn’t sink at the end.

What Satan is offering Jesus is basic: power. Jesus would have the power to turn stones into bread. Jesus would have the power to be protected (by angels, nonetheless). Jesus would have power to rule over all the nations. Power is a very intoxicating feeling. Power is what we all long for. Power is the thing we seem to all chase in one way or another. Now, it doesn’t always Satan coming to us and greeting us face to face. We don’t always get these one on one conversations with the devil and him laying out these offers of temptation. The temptation to give into the hunger for power comes in small and sneaky ways. Temptation usually comes to us in the moments we are least expecting it. Then the devil, dressed in sheep’s clothing, saunters in and dangles a carrot of power in front of our face.

See, power and temptation comes and goes. When we look at our friends and neighbors around us and desire what they have, that’s evil wanting to wiggle into our lives. We want to give into the temptation of power when we quickly engage in judgement of the other. We judge fellow parents for parenting decisions. We judge job choices, clothing choices, car choices, even food choices (you ever sneak a look in someone else’s cart?). This desire to have more power controls our lives whether we know it or not. Often we just want the power to control things in our own lives, fix things in our own lives, and make our own lives better. That hunger for power turns us blind to the world around us. The desire for power and the temptation that constantly surrounds it causes us to navel gaze.

When we are so focused on gaining power for ourselves, we lose sight of those around us that completely lack power and need us to use the power we already have to help them. The hungry need us to use our power to feed. People of color would be more than happy to see us leverage some of our white privilege. Our LGBT brothers and sisters would probably rather have us care about why the suicide rate is so high in their community versus what bathroom they use. We need to use our power to make sure healthcare is something everyone can access. No one should ever have to make the decision between eating and life-sustaining medication. But, advocating for healthcare can even come with the temptation to yield power in discriminatory efforts. We want to fundraise for the healthy mom with 4 kids who got breast cancer; but the life-long heroin user that now has AIDS? Forget it.

Temptation sneaks in sometimes when we least expect it. Small lies that don’t mean anything pepper our days. We excuse sexist and racist jokes. We allow our friends to complain about their children or spouse when they’re not around. Temptation lures us in various ways. Temptation and power are always there, calling our name, offering a “better life” (whatever that may look like for you). It is a very real temptation. Satan is a very real force in our lives. If you’ve ever done battle with Satan, you know that evil is very real. Maybe Satan has tempted you with infidelity. Maybe Satan has tempted you with stealing or cheating. Maybe Satan has even tempted you with death. Satan doesn’t always lurk in dark corners waiting until you have your guard down to strike. Satan is right next to us every single day just encouraging us to give into the temptation of power.

But, Satan screwed up when talking with Jesus. Now, of course Jesus didn’t give into temptation, he’s Jesus. But, one of the first things that Satan did was remind Jesus who he is and whose he is. The devil says to Jesus “if you are the Son of God….” (vv3). Just as a reminder/refresher, this time that Jesus spent in the wilderness comes right after he was baptized by John in the Jordan. And what happened? Upon his baptism, a voice from heaven came saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). Jesus has been called and claimed as God’s beloved son. Along comes the devil and says “if you are the son of God…” And ding ding ding! Jesus remembers who he is.

Friends, we are not Jesus. We all know that denying Satan isn’t as easy as it sounds. But, our identity as beloved children of God has already given us the power the devil tries to offer. And when we do cave (which we will) the freedom we have in and through the love of God will encourage us to face that darkness, name it, claim it, understand it, and then seek forgiveness for thinking anything or anyone but God can offer us life. This isn’t about guilt. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This is about acknowledging that the hunger for power and temptation is all around us. This is about acknowledging that Satan, the devil, and the power of evil is very real. But, this is also about naming and claiming who we are: beloved children of God. This is about using God’s love to deny Satan. This is about using our identity to deny Satan. This is about calling something what it is. That means when Satan offers us power through temptation, we call it evil. And when God showers us with grace and mercy, we call it life. Brothers and sisters, Satan comes for us every single day. And the good news is, so does God.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today starts our journey to the cross. Today we start the life-giving, slow and methodical, scripture-filled centering traverse towards what ultimately saves us. But, as I’ve thought about it, I wondered why we think about Lenten practices only during the time of Lent. If we take scripture seriously, which we should, then perhaps it might be good to ponder what it would look like to give alms, pray, and fast all year around. I love that this scripture comes today because this actually is the end of the sermon on the mount. This is the same scripture we’ve heard over the last few weeks. Jesus is educating the disciples before they go out into the world serving in his name. Clearly, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples that they only need to engage in alms giving, praying, and fasting for 40 days or so. Jesus never mentioned “do this only until I am raised.” But, that is often what we chose to do.

And why? Why focus on these practices for only 40 days? It’s not like they aren’t life giving. Jesus wants to provide us with life. He provides us with the tools to do that. Give alms, engage in prayer, and fast. However, most of us do this for only the season of Lent, if we do it at all. Once Easter rolls around, we congratulate ourselves on keeping the discipline, engage and overindulge in the things from which we fasted, and go back to our “regular” lives. Instead of these becoming sacred practices, they become something to cross off our to-do list. Even more interesting, Jesus suggests, maybe even commands us, to do all of these things in private.

Doing any of this in private doesn’t seem to be the American way. If we’re going to be honest, we like to be recognized. Any of you that receive any kind of mailings from organizations that thrive from donations know that at least one mailing is dedicated to givers. Sometimes the givers are even noted by really fancy names “gold level giving” or “president’s society” and the like. It is a nice way to say thank you and perhaps guilt/shame others into giving more in the following year. Many times, our giving is rewarded with actual gifts of thanks. “Thank you for your donation! Can we send you a coffee mug you don’t need and will never actually use?”

I’m just as guilty about praying in public as anyone else. If we’re friends on Facebook, you know that I make it a habit to publicly pray for anyone who requests it every single Thursday. Now, I don’t do this to earn praise or even to make myself appear holier than thou. I do it out of love for my neighbor. But, I can understand how from the outside, I could appear to be lifting myself up as better than someone else because I am praying for other people and you aren’t.

But, when we engage in any of these practices in private, something happens. According to scripture, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” When we give alms, pray, and fast without boasting, without a thought of self, and without the desire to earn anything God sees us and will reward us. I don’t know about you all, but a reward from God is better than any coffee mug. Do we have a relationship with God so we can brag to other people? Do we come to church so that others can see that we’re here? Do we pray in the hopes that others will see us doing it and desire to be us? Do we fast because we want others to be jealous of our discipline? I hope you answered “no” to all of these questions. Anything we do we do because we desire to have a private communion with God.

Please don’t misunderstand me, brothers and sisters. There is a time and place to be a disciple. But, being an evangelist is different than giving alms, praying, and fasting. Being an evangelist is a response to God’s love and grace showered upon us. God has been so good to us that we can’t not but tell other people. But we don’t tell other people about God’s love and grace as a way of bragging, right? We don’t do it so we can boast like “you won’t believe what I have and you don’t!” No. We share about how good God is to us because we so badly want everyone to experience this love and grace.

What might it look like, then, to engage in the practices of alms giving, praying, and fasting all year around? Theologian Douglas John Hall says “the very purpose of almsgiving, prayer, and religious observance is to deliver us from the debilitating and exorbitant self-consciousness that dogs our lives. ‘Salvation’ for self-absorbed creatures like us means finally–or at least intermittently!–to lose our precious selves in the other: the other who is the recipient of our alms, the Other who hears our prayers, the others who wonder what our religion really comes to if not just more public promotion and self-display! In most of the days and hours of our lives, we are burdened with the thought of how we are being perceived: What will they think? When faith is true, Jesus affirms, we find ourselves–at least here and there, now and then–graciously liberated from the burden of self, liberated for the other. That is faith’s essence!”

The truest definition of sin is whatever comes between you and God. For me, brothers and sisters, the thing that comes between me and God the most is myself. The idea of being liberated from that is intoxicating, enticing, and incredibly appealing. And God tells me this freedom comes from giving alms, praying, and fasting in private? I’m in. If you need a reminder of our mortality, brothers and sisters, it will soon be smudged on your forehead. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done or not done. It doesn’t matter if we leave millions to charity, pray in the public sphere, or fast from indulgences, we will return to dust. All of us.

In the cross, we are freed from our sin and freed for service to one another. We have been liberated for the other. So, my challenge to you, my dusty friends, is to see Lent as the start of something. Not the start and end 40 days later; but the actual start of something: a deepening of your own faith life. Our relationship with God is very private. The fruits of that relationship are very public. God knows you, sees you, and loves you. God loves “the you you hide.” God knows every single one of the hairs on your head and knows every single one of your flaws. And God loves you still the same. You don’t need to prove that to anyone. In the cross, Jesus died for your sins, yes, but also died so that you wouldn’t need to carry your burden of self anymore. The only person you ever have to worry about impressing already thought you were worth dying for.

Sermon for 2/26/17 Matthew 17:1-9; Transfiguration

I think Transfiguration is one of the strangest things to occur in the church year. Truth be told, there are a lot of occasions we mark in the church year that cause Pastors a lot of grief because the question is always “do I have anything new to say about this??” This happens for me (personally) at Transfiguration, Christ the King Sunday, and even (on occasion) Easter and Christmas. What can be said about these texts that will be different? What can be said that will be challenging? What can be said that will encourage all of you to leave this place anxious to serve God and one another? So maybe instead of preaching on what Transfiguration actually is (which, I might do just a bit) I want to talk more about why it matters and why you should care.

This story can be confusing to talk about anyway. It takes place on top of a mountain, which is a big hint to us listeners. This is a mountaintop experience; a high moment, a peak, that “achieved goal” feeling. Peter believes it’s a nice enough place that they should stay for a while. God affirms who Jesus is: God’s son, the beloved. Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to not be afraid after God tells them to listen to Jesus. They head back down the mountain all while Jesus tells them “let’s keep this whole thing between us until after I die and am resurrected, okay?” So, I think it’s pretty clear why that story should matter to your own personal faith life, am I right?

Transfiguration marks the last Sunday before Lent. Of course, Jesus had no idea that thousands of years later that there would be such a thing as the liturgical calendar. And that we would call the upcoming season would be called Lent; that we would mark a 40 day journey to the cross. All Jesus knew is that his life was about to take a very different turn and that he would soon be arrested Transfiguration is one of the best examples of “already but not yet.” What this means is that for us (and for the disciples) we are seeing and hearing about who Jesus is (God has claimed him as God’s son and as the beloved all while Jesus is clothed in glowing white clothes) while also knowing that God’s glory isn’t yet complete through the cross. For Jesus and the disciples something is coming. Something that strikes fear into the hearts of all good Lutherans. Something that makes us uncomfortable and squeamish. That something is change.

As much as we joke about change and how much Lutherans hate change, it happens to all of us. Change can be a good thing, right? That doesn’t mean that change isn’t scary. But, it can usher us from one point in life that is just okay to another arena of life that is better than we ever imagined. Personally, I think about the change that went from being engaged to being married. I think about the change that came from being pregnant to having Ellen. I also have fond memories of the change that came with moving here to become your pastor. All of these events were scary in their own way, but the change was not only welcomed, it was eagerly anticipated. And as much as we sometimes want change, we have to be willing to let go, which means admitting that we’ve been holding on (and maybe, for some, holding on for too long).

Change is also a strange place to be emotionally. We often find ourselves in this weird place of grieving and anticipating all at the same time. The disciples had no idea what was to come (even though Jesus had told them several times by now). Jesus knew. And we know too. If you think about today as the physical movement of the time after Epiphany into Lent, the emotions that fill that space can be unsettling too. We may want to hold on to the comfort that light brings. We know the cross is coming and we know what the cross means for our lives, but that doesn’t mean we want to hurry the process of getting there.

While change may be welcomed, it can also be really painful. Often we know that change needs to happen. Change is going to happen. “A change is gonna come” (Sam Cooke).Change often comes in a moment when we’re not ready (even if we think we are). That’s where our faith steps in. We know that change is going to happen, that it is necessary, but change is still hard to accept. We know we have to move on, but we haven’t settled everything that is in our past. We know that something better could be coming, but we just got comfortable in the place we’re in. No matter how badly we want to stay in the now, change is coming and it is going to happen whether we like it or not.

Those moments on the mountaintop didn’t happen to teach the disciples about who Jesus is and was (although that did happen). Those moments on the mountaintop didn’t happen to inspire the disciples in their ongoing work (although that may have happened as well). But Jesus was transfigured, called and claimed once more, and signaled change. That mountaintop experience signaled that change was going to happen, that it might be difficult, but most importantly, it was needed. There is no need for the crucifixion if Jesus isn’t declared the son of God, right? Which means our salvation doesn’t happen without the transfiguration.

So now instead of understanding what the transfiguration is, maybe we should wrestle with the why. That mountaintop signals a change of Jesus being just a thorn in the side of the Roman empire to being a hunted man. The mountaintop signals going from just talking about capturing and killing Jesus to actual attempts. The mountaintop also signals a change in the disciples. We see Peter go from loyalty to outright denial. The other disciples change from learning to confusion. But throughout all of this change, who and what remains the same? Jesus. Always Jesus.

Jesus was the same person before he went up the mountain and he was the same person as he came down. Jesus didn’t change. Our perception and the disciples perception of Jesus changed. Jesus didn’t change. Jesus has been clear about who he is, what he does and will do, and how he will do it. The disciples just didn’t want to hear it; maybe we don’t either. No matter what happens in our lives, the one consistent constant is Jesus. When we rejoice in change, Jesus is there. When we lament at change, Jesus is there. When we are in a time of transition and change, Jesus is there.

We can tend to navel gaze. We look inward, worry only about ourselves, panic over the not yet, play millions of scenarios in our heads, and often forget a few things. God is already present wherever we’re going. God’s plan is always much better than anything we could ever plan. God through Jesus Christ is present with us not only in times of change but also each and every moment of every day. I’m not telling you not to worry. I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t fear change. I’m not telling you that change shouldn’t make you uncomfortable. I want to remind you that change is always done in the company of Jesus and initiated by God and accompanied by the Holy Spirit. We know who Jesus is, we know what Jesus does and can do, we know how Jesus changes the world. More importantly, we know who we are in Jesus: called and claimed. The cross has already changed us and continues to change us. In the midst of change always comes comfort, love, and reassurance that Jesus is always with us, has never abandoned us, and never will.