Sermon for 9/9/18 Mark 7:24-37

It seems to never fail that when religious nerds get together (these are my kind of people) and the group is made up of various denominations, the question eventually comes around. The question is “what kind are you?” This always makes me chuckle a bit. What kind of Baptist are you? What kind of Presbyterian are you? What kind of Lutheran are you? Sometimes you can tell how people feel about the denomination by the way they react to your answer. And honestly, I don’t know why it matters in the long run. Sure, we may not always agree with other denominations on things like baptism, communion, and even women clergy. But, I think we can agree on big worldly issues: feeding the hungry, working for justice, and caring for the environment. And I’ve said this before, but I really believe this: I doubt, or maybe more appropriately, I hope that God’s kingdom isn’t divided into denominations. There is no Lutheran heaven, no Methodist heaven, no Roman Catholic heaven. Today, I want to expand the question and idea of “what kind are you” from specific individual denominations and instead focus on just the general umbrella label of “Christian.” So, my beloved, what kind of Christian are you?

I wonder what is your first reaction to that question. What kind of Christian are you? As I was thinking about that this week, I thought of a few responses. What kind of Christian are you? What do you mean? What kind of Christian are you? Ummm…..Lutheran? What kind of Christian are you? Why do you want to know? And of course, doing the thing that our teachers always told us not to do: use a word to define a word. What kind of Christian are you? Well….I’m the Christian kind…you know. I want to pause and give you a moment to answer that question for yourselves. What kind of Christian are you? Now, tuck that answer away in a safe-keeping pocket in your brain.

We have two stories of healing this week. On the surface, that’s probably not surprising. After all, Jesus healed a lot of people. This was kind of his thing. If we just looked at these stories as stories of healing, we’d probably miss a lot. While the healing is important, the conversations and actions that lead up to the healings are almost more important. Everything we need to know about the first healing is told to us in some simple words. Verse 26 “now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” Those gathered listening to this story would immediately hear and know that this woman had three strikes against her. First, she was a woman, which meant she was less than. Additionally, she approaches Jesus without a husband or other male relative, which was a no-no. Second, she was a Gentile, which meant she’s not Jewish. She would have been viewed as impure. Lastly, she was Syrophoenician. She lives outside Israel, not under Jewish law. Then, there’s the reason why she’s approaching Jesus in the first place: her daughter has a demon. This fact also further drives a wedge between her and those gathered around Jesus. This woman was a Christian with nothing else to lose.

Because she has nothing else to lose, the woman does something that was quite rare: she went toe-to-toe with Jesus. She challenged Jesus. But why wouldn’t she? If Jesus had turned her away, denied her request for the healing of her daughter, she probably would have been no worse off. When is the last time you went toe-to-toe with Jesus? When was the last time you wondered and questioned God’s mission in this world? The Syrophoenician woman knew that there would be enough on that table that it would spill over and even those seated underneath the table, even the beggars would get crumbs. Do we truly believe that God’s grace is so great that even those that don’t deserve it receive God’s grace? Do we truly believe that God’s grace is so great that even we receive God’s grace?

I wonder if we would be brave enough to be this kind of Christian. It’s scary to think about challenging God, isn’t it? Our brains and hearts may immediately jump to consequences. Usually these consequences are self-centered. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually pretty natural. When I think about challenging God, I think “if I do that, God won’t love me anymore.” Or I think “if I challenge God, I may not get to heaven.” Sometimes I think “if I challenge God, God will punish me or someone I love for my disobedience.” And I wonder if our faith isn’t actually weakened when we don’t question God. After all, when you start to chalk up every bad thing as “God’s plan” eventually you might snap.

I mean, let’s say you had a relative die of cancer and said “it was God’s plan.” And then your dog died and “it was God’s plan.” Perhaps then your car got stolen and “it was God’s plan.” You went bankrupt, your house burned down, and your spouse left you and it was all “God’s plan.” Wouldn’t you be the slightest bit angry with God? Our God is big enough for us to be angry with God. Our God is loving enough for us to question God. What would happen if we were the kind of Christians this Syrophoenician woman is? What if instead of rolling over and accepting life the way it is, we challenged God? When was the last time you yelled at God? When was the last time you complained to God? Our fear of not being loved is so strong that we often keep our anger to ourselves and it effects our faith. That’s not a relationship with God. God loves us no matter what. God will love us even in the times we are angry with God or challenging God.

I wonder if this world actually needs us to be the kind of Christians that challenge God. I think this world is hungry for Christians who will question Jesus and say “but isn’t there enough for even those under the table?” Prayer changes the world, friends. I really believe that. What if we were the kind of Christians who, in love for our neighbors, cried in anger to God over hunger, war, and poverty? What if we were the kind of Christians, who, in love for our neighbors, yelled at God for injustice, racism, sexism, and classism? What if, we just were the kind of Christians, out of our love for our neighbors and our belief that our God is a God of love, that we were just to frustratingly say “nope. This isn’t fair, God.” But I must caution you. When we challenge God, which we should, God may then turn around and challenge us. There is a reason Jesus had the disciples. And there is a reason God created us. If we challenge God, God will, by grace alone, give us the resources and tools we need to answer the challenge. And even if we don’t, even if we fail in doing God’s work in the world, God still moves and acts. Jesus, despite being challenged, still cured the Syophoenican woman’s daughter. Nothing stops the love of God through Christ Jesus. We aren’t that important or that powerful to stop God’s love. Believe it or not, that is good news. So, my beloved, the next time you are asked “what kind of Christian are you?” will you be brave enough and bold enough to answer “the kind that will dare to go toe-to-toe with God. The kind that will yell at God, get angry with God, and beg of God. The kind that refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. The kind that questions God’s will. The kind whose faith is stronger because of all those things.” What kind of Christian are you?

 

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Sermon for 1996 class reunion (based on John 11)

(Just a note that this sermon was written for the context of my 20 year high school reunion. It was part church service, part memorial service. Out of my graduating class of 339, we have already lost around 20 or so classmates).

 

“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’  Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’  She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” (John 11:17-27, NRSV)

 

My apologies to those of you for whom this may be a strange and disturbing look. Often when I tell people that I am a pastor and they knew me in college or high school, they usually back up. “But JV I knew you back when!” Yes, I’m well aware of that. And we’re not gonna tell anyone about those times.

 

We come together this morning to praise the one who has sustained us for 20 years since the last time we all gathered. We also come to remember and celebrate the lives of those who are not with us. And I am not afraid to speak the truth as you all know, we are all too incredibly young to have lost as many classmates as we have. As we say the names and recall the faces, the reasons are as varied as the people. Some taken too soon because of accidents, some by their own hand and demons, and some by the horrible “C word” cancer.

 

And for every name, there was at least one person in this world for whom that person was their world. It is important for us to remember, while all of the names may not be familiar to us, they were familiar to someone. At holiday or family gatherings there is a hole. At children’s activities or important events, there is a missed absence. In times like this when we think back to fun memories and maybe even the troubles, we notice who among us is missing.

 

It is also natural to feel a bit of guilt. We can easily fall into the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve categories. We also may wonder if there’s something we have the power to control to prevent death. My brothers and sisters, take heart and know that none of the deaths we marked today were your fault. We might wonder had we invited Amy to come with us which she have been in a car accident? Maybe we should have been more purposeful in reaching out to Shawn or Andrea to help them walk as they battled their demons. Or we may lament the fact that cancer took Holly or Shelly and there still is no cure in a country that has the resources to find them. And so, while I will not tell you how to feel, if you are feeling that guilt, that’s fine. But do not stay there. We call to mind the good times, the times filled with joy and light, the times that may get you through your own dark days. Unfortunately, “death” is too familiar a word for so many of us. It has snuck its way into our vernacular more times than we care to admit. Maybe you do not just mourn our classmates, perhaps you have had the unfortunate task of burying a spouse or partner or child. The pain endured is difficult on your best days, crippling on the worst. The good news is however, my brothers and sisters, death is not the final story.  The ending for us is not death. It never has been and it never will be.

 

By the time Jesus had arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. And Lazarus was dead dead. He was all the way dead. Not “oh isn’t that cute he sleeping.” But dead. All of the friends and relatives had already come to visit, the casseroles had already been eaten, flowers would’ve already started to die, and people had most likely already started to go on with their lives. But Martha, in the midst of all of her grief, was not prepared to welcome Jesus into her home without saying something. Martha as well as her sister Mary knew what Jesus was capable of. And sol Martha, in the midst of her grief, most likely through ugly tears, yelled at Jesus. This was not a sweet demure womanly thing to do. But, by this point in time, Martha really did not care. Martha was grieving and, quite frankly, pissed off. She needed to take that anger out on someone. So she did what most of us probably would’ve done. She yelled at Jesus.“Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died”. Now we must understand that Jesus was not a casual visitor to the home. Jesus loved Lazarus. Although we are not told in this reading, Jesus was most likely quite upset that his friend Lazarus had died. After all, like us, Jesus was fully human. This means he had a full range of fully human emotions. That includes all of the emotions that normally a company death. Grief, anger, confusion, denial, everything that Mary and Martha had been experiencing already for four days, was very real to Jesus.

 

As Jesus approaches the home, Martha does not even wait for him to arrive at the door. She runs out to meet him. Most likely already yelling at him as she goes. “Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died!” I wonder how many of us find ourselves questioning ourselves in similar situations. Had I been where ever my friend may not have died. Had I invited them over, faught for more treatments, called them when I was thinking about them, they may not have died. I’m sorry to tell you my friends, but none of us are powerful enough to stop death. None of us had the power or ability to stop death when it came for our classmates.

 

But just like graduation was not the end of our stories, death also is not the end of our stories. The hope of the resurrection is for all of us, friends. I want to make sure you heard me loud and clear, the hope and promise of the resurrection is for all of us. And here is something you may not hear very often especially from people in my profession. It is completely OK if you doubt what I just told you. Make sure you hear me again. As far as your faith life goes, it is appropriate, natural, maybe even a little expected, to have doubt. What is comforting to me even in the times of my own doubt and yes there are some, is that the God I serve keeps promises. And God’s faithfulness to me is stronger than my doubt of His existence.

 

Here is something else I want you to know. God loves you. God loves you more than you ever will know and more than you ever can imagine. It does not matter if you are in church every single Sunday, or the last time you’re in church was 20 years ago. God loves you. And God loves you despite anything you may have done that you continue to beat yourself up over it. God loves you despite the ways you may have fallen short. God loves you even in moments of darkness and uncertainty. And why? Why can this be true? How is this even possible?

 

I know that God loves me because of Jesus. I know God loves me because He saw me and considered me worth dying for. I know God loves me because even in the times of my own darkness and doubt I have come out on the other side, strengthened. I know God loves me because even on the days I cannot even love myself, God looks at me and says “you are amazing!” And God looks at you the same way my brothers and sisters.

 

And do I know any of this for sure? Nope. I don’t know anything for sure when it comes to faith and God. But what I do know is that a life without God, at least for me, is too dark to imagine. In a world where the rhetoric of hate is quite strong dare I say even popular, I need to believe that something is better than this. God has a plan for you and for me. I hope you are able to trust in that, even if you are a type-A personality like me. Trusting God can be so maddening and so rewarding all at the same time. And even if you’re not at that place in your life yet, know that God loves you anyway and still protects you and has plans for you.

 

My brothers and sisters, my friend, my classmates, all of you are part of my story. You are part of one another’s stories. I am honored to have been here with you today to share a small part of our life’s journey together. I will keep all of you in my heart and in my prayers. May God protect you, watch over you, guide you, and love you, until our paths cross again. Which, for the record, cannot be soon enough. May God continue to bless you and may you continue to remember how much not only I love you but God loves you as well. Amen.

Sermon for 9/18/16 Luke 16:1-13

If you thought to yourself “well….that sounds like a confusing story, I don’t quite understand it all, thank goodness Pastor is here to explain it to me” have I got some good news for you! I don’t understand it either. I thought about the various things I could say to you off and on all week long. I knew I didn’t want to talk about money. It’s not because I’m afraid to talk about money. And it certainly isn’t because this text doesn’t talk about money, it does obviously. I didn’t necessarily want to focus solely on money this week because it’s not as easy as saying “worship God, don’t worship your money.” Money is a complex issue and means something different for everyone. Instead what I want to talk about today is self care. Stick with me, I promise it’ll all come together. I also want to talk about self care because I’m horrible with self care.

There are endless magazine articles, books, webinars, etc…on how to have the perfect balance in your life. Maybe it’s the work-home balance, the friends and family balance, whatever 2 forces you want to pit against one another, it’s always about balance. There is a misnomer that indeed, we can have it all! While at the same time we look at others around us, look at how they live their lives, and wonder “how do they do it all?” Really, can we all just agree to give up on the idea that we all have balance in our lives? Can we just give up the facade that we all have our shit together and just be honest with one another? Because the truth is this: the idea of balance exists to make us feel horrible.

There is no way that balance can exist in our lives because the focus of our attention changes day to day, maybe even minute by minute. Think about it like this: if you have 3 buckets that you are trying to fill with water and one springs a leak, are you going to keep trying to fill the other 2 up or are you going to stop and fix the leak? So let’s just stop pretending we have it all together or that balance is a good thing. There are people, tasks, and events in our lives that are just going to get more attention to others, that’s as simple as it is. Can we all just agree that we are going to stop trying to attain the unattainable goal of balance in our lives?

Now, please understand, I’m not advocating for chaos in our lives, but be willing to be flexible to have a little give and take. See, in today’s Gospel, Jesus isn’t chastizing the wealthy, although I can understand how it sounds like that. Instead, Jesus is calling our attentions to our loyalities. Jesus is calling attention, yes, to God, but also to whatever loyalties we have that draw us away from God and turn our attention elsewhere. Jesus is calling our attention to the ways that we spend our time, efforts, energy, and yes, money being creatures that God did NOT create us to be. When we’re not fully living into who God created us to be, we’re not being good to ourselves. And when we’re not being good to ourselves, we’re not being good to God. Let me be clear, being good to yourself, engaging in self care, is not a sacrifice or self serving; it does not make you a martyr. As strange as it sounds, being good to yourself points to the saving work of God and it may even give others hope of salvation.

Stick with me here, and follow closely, okay. When you take time to care for yourself, to feed yourself mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, you are, in an essence, stating that you actually cannot do it all. When you rest or care for yourself, you allow others to see that they don’t need you. People are able to accomplish things without you because they are relying on God (instead of you). I once was asked a very simple question: “why Jesus?” The question basically was “why do you need/want Jesus in your life?” And the best answer I could come up with at the time (and I still believe it) is “because I cannot save myself.” When you take the time to care for yourself, you are a living, breathing example of God’s salvation. If we could save ourselves, we wouldn’t need Jesus, that’s for sure.

Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters. So, we cannot serve God and money. We cannot serve our job and our family. We cannot serve our boss and our hobbies. We cannot serve the desire to sleep and technology. Balance is a fallacy of human desires. When you try to serve anything but God, you will feel empty. And so God calls us to rest; to partipate in self-care. God calls us to sabbath. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with taking a break. Perhaps when we start to feel “off kilter” (so to speak) it’s because we’ve been working so hard to balance everything and that’s impossible. Brothers and sisters, there is only one savior and we are not him. There is only one who gives life, and we’re not him. There is only way to salvation, and it’s not through us.

And here’s the amazing thing, when we finally give in to God’s call to rest, the thing that God does is hospitality and comfort. God feeds us, washes us, clothes us (with mercy), allows us to rest, and ultimately, loves us. Don’t be afraid to say “no” every once in a while. And if someone says “why can’t you….” do whatever it is. Speak about God. Speak to God. Tell others “I’m going to rest. God is calling me to do that and that is what I am going to do because my salvation, and yours, is not up to me.” Will this be easy? Nope. Being busy and trying to balance everything is the American way. Will it be worth it? Totally. Think about the 23rd psalm: “he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.” It’s not “he leads me beside chaos and ball-juggling, he challenges me to keep going….” No. God invites us to a life of calm and rest. Let’s do away with the myth of balance and just serve the one who found that balance meant two arms outstretched and feed crudely balanced and nailed. We can’t save ourselves, friends. Let the scales tip in favor of God.

Sermon for 9/11/16 Luke 15:1-10

It was one of those uncommonly warm days in March. It was sunny, the temperatures were starting to rise, spring was teasing us. Being the optimist I am, I wore sandals that day to allow my toes to get some fresh air. I was in my last semester and returned home after a hard class and was looking forward to relaxing. I removed my sandals at the door (as we always did), answered the call of mother nature, washed my hands, and then collapsed on the couch. I started to wring my hands, which were sore from hours of typing important papers, and that’s when I felt it. My main diamond on my wedding band was no longer there. The entire diamond and setting (brackets and all) had broken off. I had just washed my hands. I pictured it floating, halfway to the Mississippi River by that point. I called out to Chris between hyperventilating. Logically, he assured me that it would be okay and that my diamond would be found. We got up and started looking for it all around. And then, bare feet and all, I stepped on it. I was so relieved. The tears started to flow.

I hope none of you have had to go through this, but I think we can all relate to that stomach churning, rug pulled out from underneath you feeling that comes with losing something priceless. It feels, at times, as if time stops and almost moves in slow motion as the disbelief threatens to envelop us. And so it may be easy for us to understand why our parables today have stood the test of time. The stories of the 1 lost sheep and 1 lost coin may have confused Jesus’ company of listeners. After all, who leaves 99 sheep to go look for 1? Who spends all night sweeping and cleaning the house just to look for one coin? For those of you that farm, would you spend hours on end looking for just 1 lost cow or 1 lost hog? How many of you would spend hours on end searching for a dollar bill? However, how many of you have ever felt lost and you wish, maybe even prayed for someone to “find” you?

Our place in these stories today isn’t as the one who finds things, that’s God’s job. Our place in these parables are the ones who are lost. You certainly don’t have to raise your hands or anything, but I wonder how many of us have felt lost in our faith life. You go through the routine of coming to church, but you’re a little unsure why. Being lost comes with denial, questioning,and doubt. The denial may sound something like self-justification. “I’m not lost, I’m exploring!” You may even insist that you want to be lost. We may deny the existence of God and even if we do acknowledge that there is a God, we might wonder if God even cares about little ol’ us. Denial also allows us to play a victim role. If we play the victim then we never have to take responsibility for anything that happens to us. It’s not my fault that I am separated from God. It’s not my fault that God doesn’t care about me. And denial may also mean denying that you’re lost at all; it’s everyone else that is lost. A crisis of faith can bring forth a lot of denial.

If you haven’t ever been in denial over a faith crisis, perhaps you’ve questioned your faith, or rather, God’s faithfulness to you. We may feel like God has forgotten about us. Does God even hear my prayers anymore? Our mind can play tricks on us and convince us that we’re not even worth finding; why would God look for me? Or we wonder if anyone even notices we’re missing. We are a community of faith, we are created to be in relationship with one another, when someone is missing, we notice. If you have noticed someone missing from worship or other church functions, don’t wait for me to reach out, call them yourself. Wrapped up in this doubt is our core identity. If God doesn’t find me then what does that say about me? Who am I, then? Sometimes that doubt comes from the darkness and depths of sin. Sin is a very real presence in our lives. If you cannot forgive yourselves for your transgressions,  you may wonder how God can. That sin causes us to be lost from God. We drift, further and further, yet never out of reach.

This questioning can also look a lot like guilt. We carry the guilt of broken relationships, sin, failure, and incomplete whatever’s with us at all times. Eventually, we might ask ourselves “how did I get here?” I don’t know if you’ve ever had (what I call) a “mirror” conversation. That moment when you look at yourself and you wonder “what happened to her/him?” There’s a lot of blame that you either place on yourself or others and once again, God feels far away, maybe even non-existent. These times of darkness, of wilderness and wandering, of doubting God and God’s love for you are terrible for our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I hope you’ve never had such a time, but I fear that this “lost-ness” is all too familiar to too many of us.

It is not lost on me that 15 years ago this day, our country experienced one of its greatest tragedies to date. Most of us remember where we were or what we were doing. I was at work at Harrah’s Casino in North Kansas City and the first person I called was my dad. I remember watching the news at night and hearing about the beacons that the firefighters wore. These were alarms that sent out occasional beeps to let rescuers know the location of a downed firefighter. I cannot imagine how eerie it must have been to be at ground zero, hearing all these beacons and nothing else. To know that the life attached to that beacon was gone. Whether you know it or not, you also have a beacon.

There is a story that is often heard about Father Mychal Judge who was a Roman Catholic chaplain for the FDNY. Father Judge rushed down to the World Trade Center that morning upon hearing the news. He stood in the lobby of the North Tower, blessing firefighters, hearing their last confession, and anointing them with holy water or oil. Whether it is true or not, I don’t know. But there are stories that those firefighters that had been anointed were easily spotted in the rubble because the light reflected off the cross that had been placed on their foreheads by Father Judge. I’d like to believe this story is true.

We all have that same beacon: the cross on our forehead. This is what allows God to find us. And when we are found, we also find redemption, peace, affirmation of our worth and identity, peace, and comfort. When we are found, we are fed and washed. When we are fed, we are brought back into community and back into right relationship with God. And here’s the thing: no matter how lost you are, God will find you. You are worth finding. To God, you’re not just another person. To God, you are beloved. Remember that on the third day what was presumed lost was raised again. When we are in a dark place, the light of Christ that shines through us is what allows us to be found.

My friends, if you are feeling a little lost, a little forgotten, a little like you’re wandering with no direction, or like God maybe doesn’t care about you, take heart. You are the one coin. You are the one sheep. You are worth finding. You are God’s, God will find you, claim you, love you, redeem you, and once again declare you as beloved. So peace, my fellow lost ones, peace and comfort in knowing that help in the form of grace and God’s love is coming. To you. To me. To all of us.  

Sermon for 9/4/16 Luke 14:25-33

It’s readings like these when we hear about hating your family, carrying your cross, and giving up all possessions that when I say “the Gospel of the Lord” and you all respond with “thanks be to God” I want to say “really?!?” Do you really mean it when you say “thanks be to God I am being asked to turn from my family, carry my cross, and give up everything I own! This discipleship thing was just made super easy, Jesus! Why didn’t you say that’s what I needed to do in the first place!?” I think a better response for today’s reading would have sounded like this “the Gospel of the Lord” followed by “oooookkkkkaaaayyyyy……..”

I think anytime the Gospel talks about sacrificing things, giving things up, or selling all your stuff we all get a little nervous. We might prepare ourselves for a large heaping spoonful of guilt. Pastor is going to guilt you into opening up your wallet a little larger, loosening those purse strings, and make you feel guilty for owning whatever it is you own that you think I should make you feel guilty for. I’m not going to do that at all. See, this text convicts me as much as it might convict you. I don’t stand up here and preach to you. I stand up here and preach to us. I need to hear these messages as much as I need to deliver them. What this scripture is telling us today is this: being a disciple is hard, probably the hardest thing that you will do. It isn’t for everyone, yet it is demanded of everyone. How will we all rise to the challenge?

Let’s set the scene a little bit. The first sentence tells us a lot right away. There were large crowds following Jesus. They might not have known where they were headed, but Jesus did. Jesus knew he was headed to Jerusalem and that waiting for him there was a trial and ultimately, his death. This was not your average road trip. It was as if Jesus was saying “look, it’s fine and good that you want to follow me and be my disciples, but do you understand what you’ve really gotten yourselves into?” Being a disciple is going to be like swimming upstream. Being a disciple means that the most important priority in your life must be Jesus. Being a disciple means leaving behind all relationships, possessions, and self-identifiers that will call to you, maybe even discourage you from being a disciple. Discipleship is more than just being a responsible, nice, giving human being. This is a complete and total emptying out of self. Part of our call, then, perhaps, is acknowledging that doing what Jesus expects of us is challenging, and, at times, scary.

Following Jesus and claiming the title of “Christian” should actually be a little less popular than it actually is. I know that I tend to only claim the title when it is convenient for me to do so. Show up and help build a habitat house? Yep, count me, the “good Christian” in to help! Visit a known criminal who committed the most heinous crime known to humanity while he or she is serving a life sentence? Uh….I don’t know. Donate items to our food pantry? Totally, the “good Christian” does that! Stop and give a buck or 2 to those people who stand on the corners in Davenport? Ugh….can’t those people get a job? Open the door for an elderly person using a walker? Sure! The “good Christian disciple does that.” Tell someone at Wal-Mart that they have a trail of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe? No way! That’s just funny.

The problem, my brothers and sisters, is that when we were baptized, we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. This means that our identity, which is grounded in the promises of baptism, cannot be removed. All of the baptized members of the body of Christ share in Christ’s cross and his resurrection. The journey of discipleship starts and ends at the waters of baptism and shapes (or at least should shape) how we see the world. In those waters, Christ claimed us which means that despite our greatest temptation to only claim Christ as the center of our world when it is convenient for us, we are always the center of Christ’s world.

Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. It’s not the popular thing to do. It’s countercultural. Some might even say it’s practically un-American. How far are you willing to go to proclaim your allegiance to Christ? Are you willing to sever relationships that make it difficult for you to do so? Are you willing to carry the cross and suffer the criticism that accompanies that? Are you willing to give up some of your material possessions that can easily become the center of your worship instead of God becoming the center of your worship? This is all countercultural because we live in a time when who we know, what we own, who we are, what we do, where we live, all define who we are or at least define how others think of us. When, in reality, the only thing that actually defines us is the cross on our foreheads.

Again, I don’t know about you, but everytime I set out to consciously do a better job of being a disciple, of putting Christ first in my life, of spending “quality time” with God, I fail: repeatedly. I am too quick to judge. I want the world to operate the way I think it should (verses the way that God may think it needs to be). I too often only worry about myself and forget that others have needs as well. I try and shed the image of “Christian” even the image of “Pastor” when it may mean that I’ll be judged and I’ll lose a friend or maybe even opportunities. Even with this sermon I erased sentences I wrote out of fear that they were too harsh and you all wouldn’t respect me any more. How ridiculous is all of that? But, I think we all do it. We all fall to the temptation of being “Christian when convenient.”

Where is the good news in all of this? Well, first off, we don’t serve a “Christ of convenience.” We serve an “all the time Christ.” This means no matter how many times we may fail at our attempts to be disciples, at the root of the call to be disciples is the invitation into an intimate, life-giving relationship with God in Christ. This dedication and obedience to God isn’t just a blind following; it requires dedication, asking and wrestling with hard questions, and the deepening of our faith. But, discipleship also includes salvation. That, my brothers and sisters, is the good news in this challenge to be disciples. God, who claimed us in baptism, will also claim us in death. We should take the call to discipleship seriously. The cost of discipleship is great; it cost Jesus his life. But from that death comes our life and freedom. From the cross poured out forgiveness and mercy. His flesh was torn for love. Those thorns pierced his head and nails pierced his hands, all for you. Our freedom was purchased with the blood of one man. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “The call to discipleship is a gift of grace and that call is inseparable from grace.” (Cost of Discipleship, 55) The call comes with grace and grace comes with a call to discipleship. Thanks be to God that despite our temptation and active participation in being Christians of convenience, that we serve a God that is a God of love and second chances all the time, not just when it’s convenient.

Sermon for 8/28/16 Luke 14:1, 7-14

One of the years that I was a student at Northwest Missouri State University (the finest division 2 college in all the land) I invited a friend home for Thanksgiving break. Angel and I lived on the same floor of our dormitory and she was from the east coast. Thanksgiving break was short and Angel would have just stayed around had she not come home with me. I was nervous for her to come home with me because she is African American and my grandma was, well….raised during a different time. But, Angel and I were close friends, involved in a lot of the same things. We even had cute nicknames for one another: she was Pepper and I was Salt. The nicknames weren’t because what you think. It’s because she’s black and I’m white (oh….that’s what you thought, huh)? We sat down to a wonderful thanksgiving feast and my Nannie says “someone please pass me some more turkey.” And someone asked her “do you want white meat or dark meat?” And she responded (I think without even thinking) “I don’t care. I’m not prejudiced.”

Today’s gospel reading focuses on two themes: hospitality and humility. One of the things that might help you to understand this reading a bit more is to understand weddings during the time of Jesus. As you may know, they lasted for days. The most important person invited (usually it was a government official) sat in the middle of the table. And this person didn’t necessarily sit, but they were lounging. It helped with digestion. Seating at a wedding was a show of status and wealth. The poorer you were or the less status you had, the more likely you were to be sat far far away from the center of the room. Jesus observes that those invited to a dinner assumed the place of honor. Jesus, being Jesus, challenges these ideas. “What if” he says “those of you who normally sit at the head of the table instead sit at the end of the table and save the head for someone who wouldn’t normally have such an honor?” That kind of thinking is what got Jesus a one way ticket to crucifixion.

I think when we hear this gospel, we often put ourselves in the place of the one offering hospitality. We may think of ourselves as the party thrower, the “inviter” instead of the “invitee.” In many ways, it can be helpful to think of ourselves that way on occasion. It’s good to be reminded that hospitality is a form of ministry. It’s important that people feel welcomed. Hospitality is more than opening a door for someone. Hospitality, when it comes down to it, is helping others to fully live into who God created them to be. Let me give you an example or two.

I said at our semi-annual meeting that I feel like we’re inching closer and closer to an interesting time as church. I’m excited but also scared to death (in a good way, if that’s possible). Because of God, and thanks to the Holy Spirit, we are experiencing an influx of new members, visitors, and maybe just curious passer-bys. Whatever the case may be, if you’ve started coming to church here since I became the pastor (and that means you’re “new”) I want to thank you. You make us better. At the same time, we might be coming close to experiencing growing pains. We might be inching closer and closer to that moment where, if you’ve been here for a long period of time, you may think “this growth thing is great, but these new people are coming, they’re sitting in my pew, things are changing, Pastor is changing things, everything is changing and this isn’t my church anymore.” While I can understand, appreciate, and sympathize with you if that’s how you feel, I also feel it’s my duty to remind all of us that this isn’t “our church.” It’s God’s church. This is where the humility part of today’s Gospel comes in.

Hospitality in this place might look like offering your bulletin to someone who doesn’t have one. Offering to either sit with someone you may not recognize or inviting them to sit with you. Explaining how communion is taken. So many times in church we use “church” language that doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside of these doors. If you used the words “intinction or narthex” outside the church, you’d get strange glances. Offer your hymnal (if there’s not one near by). Introduce yourself. I know this is a tricky subject for some of you. I often hear you worry that if you introduce yourself to someone who’s been coming here for a while then embarrassment and maybe even shame might follow. Take the risk. Blame me if you want. Show people to the bathroom, invite them to coffee, and show them the 43 ways to get downstairs. All of these small things may seem insignificant to you. But to someone else, it takes the pressure off worrying about “doing things right” and instead, being able to be fully present in worship. God created us to be in community; help one another to be a part of this community.

But where this text trips us up is that we’re not the “inviters” to any party, to any table, to anything where God is present and the guest of honor; this is especially true in church. This isn’t your church, our church, or my church; it’s God’s church. It’s not your table, our table, or even my table, this is God’s table. And the thing is, we shouldn’t be sitting at the head of this table, we shouldn’t be sitting at the end where we barely get crumbs, heck, we don’t even deserve to be invited to the table. And yet…yet, because of, and only because of God’s grace do we get an invitation. I don’t invite you to this table, you’re not drug to this table by your parents or spouse, you don’t come to this table out of a sense of guilt or duty. You come because God has invited you.

God invites us, despite ourselves, and not because of who we are, but because of whose we are, to a table and a feast unlike any we could ever have. God invites us, despite everything we have done. God invites us, despite what the world may say about us. God invites us, despite what we may say about ourselves. God invites us when everything else says “you’re not worthy.” God invites us even when we have no clue why we were invited. And God invites us over and over and over again because there’s no such thing as too much grace. One of my favorite hymns is “Chief of Sinners Though I Be.” The words are “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed his blood for me, died that I might live on high, lives that I might never die. As the branch is to the vine, I am his, and he is mine.” Chief of sinners. Not “captain” or “sergeant” or anything else. Chief, the biggest one there is. But, God, who knows that because of our sins we are: poor in spirit, crippled by our sins, lame thanks to constant temptations, and blind to the hurting world around us, invites us to a feast. In that moment, it is about you. The body of Christ, hung on a cross, beaten, bruised, mocked, stabbed, and stripped bare: given, for you. The blood of Christ, poured out, spilled, wasted, drained out: shed, for you. In that moment, there’s nothing more humbling, nothing that can knock a full grown man (or woman) to their knees more than “for you.” None of us deserve it. And we sit at the head of the table because that’s where God puts us.

 

Sermon for 8/21/16 Luke 13:10-17

“I don’t know that I want to go to the ER,” I said, “there are a lot of people out there worse off than I am.” That is exactly what I said and an email to my doctor earlier this week. I was going on my 72nd hour of having a migraine. I could no longer function like a normal human being functions. I had already been to the emergency room once, but the migraine still persisted. This was the worst migraine I had experienced since giving birth to Ellen. And that also (at the time) put me back in the hospital. I was at a loss and had no idea what to do. The truth is, I was willing to try anything. But I did not like the idea of going back to the ER. I had gone just the day before and had to share a room with someone. That itself was not terrible. The fact that she had to bring her for-year-old daughter who knew only one volume for her speaking (which by the way, was obnoxiously loud) was what I was afraid of happening the second time around. In addition, this migraine caused me to be sensitive to light, sound, and smell. Going for a car ride was actually torture. If you have never had a migraine, I do not actually recommend it. But the doctor called me into her office. The nurse said we can give you something called Toradol for pain and something for the nausea. So, being willing to try anything at that point in time, I let the nurse stick two big needles in each arm. I had only been in pain for about four days. But the relief I received was almost instantaneous. I was never so glad to feel normal again, whatever that means.

The woman in our story today had been bent over and hurting for 18 years. 18 years. Can you imagine? Can you imagine being in pain for 18 years? For some of you, I know that this is not something you have to imagine. Some of you have been in pain for 18 years or longer. Some of you have been fighting one element after another, after another, after another. You seem to have one issue resolved, just to have another one pop right back up. If someone offered you relief, wouldn’t you take it? It wouldn’t matter what the circumstances would be, would you jump at the opportunity to be pain-free?

Maybe you have not been in physical pain for 18 years, but mental pain. Maybe you fight the demons of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues that have you running to dark spaces. Maybe you fear to name your demons because then they become all too real. Maybe you keep to yourself because the shame and stigma associated with people like you is just too much to bear. Maybe you can name off all of your meds on one hand like they were the name of candy. Perhaps you thought about ending your life before God has called you home. Maybe you’ve thought about it more than once. Maybe you thought about it this morning. Maybe those demons are so dark that you dare not tell anyone else for fear of being chastised.

Maybe you are not in physical, or mental pain, but emotional pain. Maybe you are suffering from broken relationships that go longer than 18 years. Maybe you haven’t spoken with someone who you call “family” in over a generation. Maybe you know you have a brother, sister, mom or dad, or other relations that live close by, but never darken your doorstep. Maybe you have broken Friendships that are just too painful to speak of. Maybe you recall having a good friend who did something to betray your trust and that friendship is no longer. 18 years can seem like a short time when you think about denial or betrayal.

Or maybe, dare I say, you are not spiritually well. Maybe you have not been spiritually well in a long time. Perhaps the church made a decision you did not agree with, or a pastor did something that greatly disappointed you, and you have not been the same since. Maybe you decided that one Sunday you would just not come to church. And one Sunday turned into two Sundays, turned into three Sundays, turned into 18 years. And for some reason, God called you to this place this morning.

No matter what our ailments might be, my friends, I daresay, we all are battling something. And I think we may all be able to name something in our lives, that given the chance, we would jump at the opportunity to be healed. So for this woman who has been suffering for 18 years, and for us, it does not matter that Jesus comes to us on the Sabbath day. The leaders of the synagogue want him to obey the law to keep the Sabbath holy. But see Jesus sees the opportunity to do exactly what Jesus does: care for others. He cares not that this opportunity comes on the Sabbath. What if this woman had been suffering for 18 years and one more day would have literally killed her? Our call is the same as Jesus’: when the opportunity comes to heal or be healed, take it. And what does the woman do when she is healed? She immediately rises and begins to praise God. Now, I know it doesn’t say this in English, but in the original Greek text, the praising is in the form of ongoing praise. So this woman didn’t praise God once and walk away, but she praised God and praised God and praised God and praised God and continued on and on.

Those in the synagogue wanted to remind Jesus of the Jewish law. But, Jesus calls them out, asking them if they wouldn’t help one of their animals if it needed it. So we should do with humans. Then Jesus calls this woman a “daughter of Abraham” further shaping and molding the relationship at hand. God, through Jesus Christ, has freed her. In an unlikely place (a synagogue–not a hospital), on an unlikely day (the sabbath), and with an unlikely person (a woman), God makes God’s-self known. So often we want to place limits on what God can do, or the time in which God can do it, or even the people God can act through. What happens when we finally get to that point where we’re willing to do anything?? So is God. What do you need to be freed from today?

Do you need to be freed from frustration? Do you need to be freed from toxic relationships? Do you need to be freed from shame? How about doubt, do you need to be free of that? Do you need to be freed from unrealistic expectations or criticism? Maybe you need to be freed from yourself. Are you the thing that’s holding you back from God? Whatever it is you need freed from, God is here, in this place, at this time, and nothing can stop God. Lay what has you bent over at the foot of the cross and be free. Raise up your hands and eat. Open your mouth and drink. Splash in the waters and be reminded that no one, no thing, no illness, no powers on this earth have any claim to you. The one who claims you and calls you by name, who calls you “my daughter” or “my son” and who calls you “beloved” is waiting for you. God is waiting for you to free you. Freedom, for you. Given, for you. Your expectations, broken, for you. Your wholeness, for you.