Sermon for 2/16/20 Matthew 5:21-37

And to think, you could have skipped church today. But no. You’re here. With that scripture. Just sitting out there now. And how in the world will I deal with all of that in 10-12 minutes? Let’s talk about the most obvious piece of the elephant first: divorce. Yeah, we’re just going to dive right in and not waste time. I understand that no one gets married with the intention of getting divorced. But, it happens. I know some of you are divorced. Maybe your parents are divorced. Or, maybe, like me, you have siblings that are divorced. In Jesus’ time, the law was such that marriage was forever and there was no room for things like abuse, neglect, or violence. In Jesus’ time, if a spouse was being beaten on a regular basis, well, that was just too bad. Things have changed, thanks be to God. We read scripture with a different lens. We know that divorce, in some cases, can actually be a healthy and really life giving thing. While it’s painful, I can think of examples where people are actually better friends and parents when they were divorced than when they were married. But I also know that in some circles, scripture can be used to harm and hurt and I doubt that was ever Jesus’ intention. All this to say, if you are divorced or you love someone who is divorced and you or they have been harmed by the church or scripture, I am so sorry. I believe in the freedom that Christ brings and the love that Christ proclaims. 

But what I really want to focus on today is the overarching theme of today’s reading which I believe is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the difficult work that comes after confession and forgiveness. It’s relationship building and rebuilding. It’s community rebuilding, re-identification, and it can be a very slow process. But, in my experience, it’s also worth it. We don’t necessarily talk a lot about reconciliation a lot around here, but that’s not because it’s not important. So I stopped and asked myself that hard question. “Pastor, why don’t you talk about reconciliation more?” After some self reflection (which I didn’t like) and some ignoring of the obvious answer (which I preferred) I confess to you, my beloved, the truth: I don’t talk about it because I’m not all that good at it. 

See, confession I can do. I can lay out my sins like clay pigeons lining up to be shot. I don’t have a problem with that. Years of being raised Catholic, maybe. But, I also try to be self aware. I am still a fan of our confession that proclaims “forgive us our sins known and unknown” because that about covers it all. We know the places where we have messed up and so does God. Now, I will admit that confession isn’t always comfortable. At the same time, it shouldn’t be. When we aren’t living a full life in Christ, it’s not comfortable. Confession to one another isn’t always comfortable. But we are imperfect people serving a perfect God. 

Forgiveness can be easy, at times, because sometimes, it’s not on us, it’s on God. Of course, we must believe, and live, and act like we’ve been forgiven. That’s a whole other sermon for a whole other time. Forgiveness can be tricky when it’s human to human. What I have learned in my brief time here on earth is that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Now, that’s not the same as holding a grudge. But once you touch a hot stove, you learn not to stand so close when it’s on. Forgiveness is an amazing gift we can give one another and that God gives to us. And it’s free. Forgiveness, however, is also something that keeps us from living in right relationship with one another and with God. It’s that grudge holding that the scripture spoke about.  

Once we’ve done the work of confession and accepted or given forgiveness, then comes the reconciliation. Like I said, this can be slow going work. But, in my opinion, it’s what makes being in relationship as members of the body of Christ worth it. Now, I’ll be honest, sometimes reconciliation isn’t really that hard. Sometimes it’s as simple as “we’re good, right?” And the other person agreeing. And then you move on. But reconciliation usually takes time and trust, and if we’re honest, those are two commodities we as humans don’t always like to just give away. Reconciliation also requires vulnerability which usually isn’t an emotion that most people enjoy dealing with. Over and over in today’s reading we hear Jesus say “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” In that quick turn of phrase is grace.

Please understand, that’s not permission to forget this passage, or the difficulties that come with it. But, what Jesus says only Jesus can say because only Jesus is perfect and we would all do well to remember that every once in a while. There is a difference in being right and being righteous. Reconciliation works to put some space between these two. Following every single letter of the law doesn’t make you a perfect Christian; you may be right, but you may be far from righteous. Righteous is really living into who God created us to be. Reconciliation is the effort, the time, the trust, the love it takes from many people to move from being determined and set in being right to gracefully setting up camp in being righteous. Reconciliation is filled with grace. It is filled with life. It is filled with love. Reconciliation is worth it. 

But, my beloved, it’s not enough for me to stand up here and just talk about all of this with no action. If I desire to continue to be your faith leader, it is to me to set the example. So, I humbly confess to you all the ways I have disappointed you, let you down, betrayed your trust, failed your expectations, or just otherwise failed. I may have done this knowingly or unknowingly. I ask your forgiveness the same way I already have asked for forgiveness from God. And when you’re ready, if I have hurt you, I hope you can forgive me and we can be an example of what reconciliation looks like. And if this doesn’t apply to any of you, then we should consider ourselves blessed. But if it does, then please, follow my example. Start your reconciliation journey today. Remove your armor and be brave with me. This is what being disciples looks like. 

Sermon for 12/1/19 Matthew 24:36-44; Advent 1

Alright my beloved, I have a confession. This confession is well timed since a good portion of my family is with us today and they can verify that my confession is true. So, here goes. Contrary to what you may believe, I actually don’t know everything. Wait a minute, was there anyone who really did believe this (other than me)?? No, I don’t know everything. In so many ways this is a relief and a burden lifted. It’s also an opportunity, believe it or not, to grow in my faith. After all, if I knew everything, I would have no use for God or faith. I most definitely need God and faith, so it’s a blessing that I don’t know everything. Plus, can you imagine how insufferable I would be if I actually did know everything? How annoying. 

Texts like this one for today can cause a preacher to grimace and run towards the nearest alternative readings. After all, the end times isn’t always the easiest thing to preach about. It has become especially difficult thanks to the ever popular “Left Behind” book series. Combine that with the timing of this text, the first Sunday of Advent and it might leave our brains and hearts wanting for a little more. But much like last week with Christ the King, perhaps this is the perfect text to center ourselves for the arrival of the Christ child. I often let you in on my struggles with the preaching texts because I want you to know that it’s okay to struggle with texts. It’s okay to struggle with the Bible. It’s okay to struggle with God. These struggles are not, I repeat, are NOT a sign of your lack of faith. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that people who have “real faith” or “strong faith” (whatever those two things are) don’t question but instead are very clear on their beliefs and convictions. My beloved, many of my seminary classmates and I joke that we may all have Masters of Divinity degree but we hardly feel like we’ve mastered anything. In fact, seminary may be one of the few educational institutions where it’s good to graduate with more questions than answers. 

Our guilt and shame gets the best of us though, doesn’t it? Troubles arise and we shame ourselves. “I shouldn’t feel this way, I’m a Christian” one might say. Or “I’ve prayed daily, why is this happening to me” someone else might say. And suddenly, just like that, our black and white faith is gray and muddled. But I promise you, uncertainty is a condition of even the best biblical faith. Look at the first verse of our reading today. “But about that day and hour no one knows” (Mt 24:36). No one knows when Christ will return. So all of those Chicken Little, doomsday prepper, end times scary people on television may think they know, but scripture tells us, NO ONE KNOWS. It isn’t a relief to know that Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything?

At the same time, while we are not expected to know everything, we are expected to do something. “The Jesus of the verses before us calls persons to a life of work in a spirit of wakefulness. Work in this sense means activity here and now. Biblical faith as Jesus envisions it is not so concerned with otherworldly matters that it neglects this world’s affairs. Matthew’s Jesus has an eye on what is to come and believes something decisive is going to happen in the future, but he keeps attention focused on the present day and the needs of the hour” (Feasting on the Word, Yurs 25). 

What the writer of the gospel wants the community in Matthew as well as our present community to understand is that watching and waiting for the Lord is important. Yes, we should be prepared. Yes, we should be ready. Yes, we should understand that it can happen at any minute. However, this watching and waiting should not come at the expense of debilitating the rest of our lives or our work. In the examples given, people were carrying on with their normal lives, their normal activities, even their normal celebrations when signs of God’s return happened. 

Matthew’s Gospel is all about the community that has heard the story of Jesus and encouraging them to continue the work of Jesus, all while still being aware and prepared. This is why, at the end of Matthew, we get one of my favorite verses to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Continue the work of Jesus. Make sure people know the stories. Make sure everyone knows about this savior of the world who was born in a manger, stood with those on the margins, taught, fed, and hung on a cross so that we may all be saved. Friends, there are still those in this world that don’t know this story in its entirety. For some, we may be the only Gospel, the only Jesus they encounter. What story do our lives tell? 

Our time on this earth is limited; I don’t have to tell you that. It is valuable. The best way for us to prepare for the Lord, to watch and wait is to live our lives in a way that points to Christ. When we have more food than we need, we build bigger tables. When our siblings in Christ are hurting, we find ways of helping them, yes, but also fixing the broken systems they may be a part of. I understand that we may not be literally able to heal people like Jesus or feed 5000 people like Jesus. But seeing people’s humanity like Jesus did goes a long way. Looking another human being in the eye and just acknowledging the divine in them is a small way of preparing for the Lord. Because when the Lord comes, it is our hope that you and I will be seated at a banquet table that has no end. And at that banquet table may be a stranger that looks familiar because you’ve seen their divinity. 

Our time on earth is limited but God’s love is not, God’s mercy is not, and thanks be to God, God’s grace is not. We can continue to prepare the way of the Lord by showing others, even just one other person a small glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth by pointing to Christ. And at the end of the day, we rest assured that we need not know everything. Our works cannot and will not accomplish everything. Hope will come. In the stillness of a silent night the cries of a newborn baby will shatter everything we know about perfection. Hope will come and in the midst of the messy, we find grace. 

 

Sermon for 8/18/19 Luke 12:49-56

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 9/2/18 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I wonder how many of you are of a certain age to answer this question: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” (“The Shadow knows!”) The Shadow was a night time vigilante, fighting for justice, and terrifying criminals. This type of character isn’t a strange concept. Batman operates in a similar way, after all. But, I kept thinking about evil hearts and the Shadow off and on this week as I’ve thought about this scripture from Mark. It’s almost enough for me to want to go back to teaching and preaching about bread. What Jesus is asking the Pharisees, his disciples, the crowd gathered, and us to do in this scripture is have a nice, long, hard look at our own hearts.

The Pharisees weren’t trying to keep the law as a way of earning salvation. In fact, they were attempting to keep the law (that is, the supposed law around hand washing) because they understood the law to be a gift. It provided order. They hoped that following the letter of the law would bring glory to God. However, the Pharisees were so focused on keeping the law and on external faithfulness, that they didn’t make time to examine the darkness of their own hearts. This question of clean versus unclean hands was just a way of dividing the followers of Christ and further fracture the kingdom of God. Of course, that was not the Pharisees intent. It’s probably never our intent either.

The church of this country has undergone several reformations since its founding. And in that time, I am guessing there were heated debates over what people believed to be God’s law. However, the obedience of the law did nothing but put up walls. The question of how we honor God with our hearts must have come up time and time again. But, time and time again, people who, most likely, called themselves “good Christians” defiled God with the thoughts of their hearts and words of their lips. How did slave owners reconcile their actions with what Jesus teaches? How did men justify keeping silent while women protested the right to vote? How did whites sit in church praising God on Sunday and then go spit on blacks Monday afternoon during the civil rights movement? Lest we think we’re immune, how have we, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America reconciled and wrestled with the fact that we are one of the whitest denominations in America and we are responsible for raising and educating in our own Sunday school rooms the murderer of the Charleston 9? How do “good Christians” still protest women preachers when women were some of first at the empty tomb to proclaim the good news? Without women preachers, we would have never known the tomb was empty.

It’s not fun to examine our hearts. It’s not fun to reconcile the thoughts of our inner darkness. But being honest with ourselves and with God is an important step in reconciliation. This is one of the reasons we start our service every single Sunday with confession. But, can you imagine having to confess the darkest parts of your heart out loud? Imagine hearing “let us confess our sins before God and one another” and then hearing your neighbor confess, out loud, every short coming they have had in this past week. Would you listen in or would you focus on your own heart? It would be tempting to listen in, wouldn’t it? I confess to you, my beloved, I’d listen. Because I would rather focus on your sins, then face the darkness of my own. And if I started to confess my sins out loud, wouldn’t you listen in? We’d rather point on a little bit of dirt on the hands of others rather than see the mud that is coating ours.

What might it look like if we took the time to examine our own hearts? Can you imagine if we held ourselves to the standards we hold others to? Could you survive the judgement you yourself place on others? Would your soul survive the tongue lashings you give others? Is it possible that the gossip we spread has the power to crush us? Would our constant desire to have more, be more, demand more, and take at all cost bury us? I cannot speak for you, my beloved, but I would not be able to withstand the judgement I place on others. My soul and spirit would be crushed by my mouth that is too cruel, my heart that is to hard, and my actions that are too selfish. Perhaps that is why I don’t want to examine my heart. I would be forced to my knees, crumbled, broken, destroyed by the truth of my own darkness. What comes out of my heart, what comes out of my mouth, I would finally realize, does nothing but defecate all over the body of Christ. I would be forced to examine my heart and wonder “is this any place for God? Is there any room for God?”

The answer, of course, is yes. We are a fallen and broken humanity. All of us. Whether you want to examine your hearts or not, we are broken. And when things are broken, when things are cracked, then there is room for other things to sneak in. And in the cracks of our hearts, in the brokenness, God fills us up with God’s love. What we see as broken, God looks at as another opportunity to infiltrate with love. What we see as irreparable, God sees as mercy worthy. When we are holding the pieces of our lives in our hands, God gets out the grace duct-tape and makes something even better than we ever could. When we start to encounter the darkness of our hearts, God sheds a light. When we come face to face with the darkness of our sin, God shows us the cross. When all hope is lost, we encounter Jesus and his amazing grace.  When we seem to encounter dead end after dead end, God opens a pathway we didn’t even know existed. When we are knocked to our knees by the hardness of our hearts, we’re in the perfect position to pray for forgiveness. Are you willing to give up the ideas of right and wrong for the idea of loving your neighbor? Are you willing to respect human law but live and die by God’s law? At this table, God offers forgiveness. In these waters, God showers us with mercy. Even when our attempts to cleanse our hearts fail, God remains steadfast. That’s the amazingness of our Lord: love despite all our failings.