Sermon for 12/31/17 Luke 2:22-40

Ever since the tragedy of 9/11 the phrase “if you see something, say something” is more common than ever. The idea is that if you see something suspicious, then you should say something to someone in authority. We may hesitate to do this because what if we’re wrong? What if that man over there was just trying to adjust his pants, not smuggle a bomb onto a plane? There are now signs that hang basically anywhere there is public transportation that say “if you see something, say something.” And I am wondering what it might look like to approach that same philosophy when it comes to evangelism.

Our Gospel story today comes from early in Jesus’ life. It is 40 days after his birth or so. According to Jewish custom, that is when the parents would bring their sons to the temple. Keep that in mind. Jesus is still an infant. He is helpless and relying on Mary and Joseph for everything. He is not yet the miracle-performing, walking-on-water messiah we come to know. And we come to meet Simeon and Anna. In current day, we might call Simeon and Anna “pillars of the church.” They are wise, devout, very spiritual, and to be honest, old. In fact, Simeon was waiting to die. He wasn’t anxious to die; nothing like that. But, the Holy Spirit had told him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  

Then, we hear, “guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple.” Guided by the Spirit. Which means, Simeon couldn’t necessarily see it, but he for sure felt it and maybe heard the Spirit. And what’s even more miraculous is that he listened! But, that could be a whole other sermon for another time! We don’t know how much time actually passes between Simeon coming into the temple and Mary and Joseph bringing their son into the temple, but when the Christ child arrives, Simeon starts operating under the guise of “if you see something, say something.”

For some, what happens may seem weird. Simeon took the Christ child into his arms. Some parents may read this and think “they just handed their baby over? Just like that?” Yes. This was a community of believers. I see some of you do it now. Many times, you hand your children over to a parent or grandparent, but it wouldn’t be weird to hand your baby over to just another member. And the main reason Simeon wanted to hold the Christ child is because he knew. He knew he had finally come face to face with the Messiah. And he also knew he had to say something. He requests to depart in peace. Simeon had finally seen the salvation of the world in Jesus. Simeon had (literally) seen the light; the light of the world! Simeon is one of the first people in Luke to attest to who Jesus is. Additionally, Simeon is one of the first to speak of what will happen to Jesus. In fact, he tells Mary “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” I can think of no greater pain than watching a child die, which is exactly what Jesus did. As painful as it must have been for Simeon to say something, he was in a holy place and must have felt that there were no other options. Sometimes seeing something and saying something leads to hard truths.

Anna also follows the idea of “see something, say something.” This was dangerous for her. She’s a widow, she’s older, and she’s female. During this time, she would have been seen as basically useless to society. But that didn’t stop her from being an evangelist or from being a disciple. She praised God and spoke about the child to anyone who was looking to redeem Jerusalem. Now, was she listened to? I don’t know. But that didn’t stop her. These are two people who have experienced great darkness. Simeon was old. Some experts date him to at least 100. For that time, living that long would have been nothing short of a miracle. He most likely experienced all the trials and tribulations that had come with aging. And, he was ready to transition from this world into the next. As mentioned, Anna was widowed, she was older, 84, and her entire life consisted of praying and fasting. She probably also experienced the highs and lows that come with aging. It is very possible that these two knew great sorrow. They knew great darkness. They knew great heartache. It is only because of those experiences that they can know great joy. It is only from those experiences that they know the warmth and hope of the true light.

And are they saying something because they themselves need to say it or are they saying it because they feel other people need to hear it? Yes. Sometimes being an evangelist, or a disciple, which is what God calls all of us to be, means that you sometimes speak things that even you need to hear. I often say that I preach first and foremost to myself. I say things out loud that I need to hear. It is possible then, that if I see something in you and I say something to you, then I need you to do the same for me. I know I’ve often said that I think we Lutherans shy away from using the word “evangelical” to describe us. The media would have us believe that word only describes a certain kind of Christian with a certain set of beliefs. When, in reality, we are all called to be evangelicals. We are called to share the good news of God’s saving action through Jesus Christ. When we see God acting in this world we should say something.

Christmas isn’t over yet. Maybe you’ve already put away the tree, or the nativity, or perhaps even returned some gifts. But, the good news is still here with us. God, through Jesus Christ, became fully human. This is good news. And when you see someone that needs that good news, you should say something. Maybe that will be someone in need of a prayer, a helping hand, a nice smile, or maybe it will be something more challenging like the hard truth. Part of being disciples is to care for one another. Sometimes that means directing one another back onto the road that Jesus already has planned and laid out for us. I guess you could call that tough love. It’s not too late to give someone the gift of saying something. The easiest (yet maybe most challenging thing) you can say to someone is “Jesus loves you.” It’s easy because those three words aren’t hard to pronounce. They’re usually not hard to say. But, it can be challenging because in order to say them you must believe it for yourself. Part of being an evangelical is that you have to believe your own message.

Simeon knew that the Christ child that came into the temple was the one he had been waiting for. He had a message and he wasn’t going to let anyone or any thing get in his way. He had Holy Spirit confidence behind him. He believed it. The same goes for us. God has prepared us for such a time as this. And as we go into the new calendar year, I cannot think of a better mantra that we can have as Christians than “if you see something, say something.” So, my beloved, when you see a hurting world, say something. When you see injustice, say something. When you see baptismal promises being lived out, say something! When you see someone needing love, say something. When you see God acting in and around your daily life, say something. When you see something, say something. Believe it. Declare it. Rejoice in it. See it. And say it.

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Sermon for 12/10/17 Mark 1:1-8, Advent 2

One of the drawbacks of being a Pastor is that my brain never seems to turn off. I am always thinking theologically about something. Even at the movies. The credits will roll and Chris will turn to me and ask my opinion. All too often I bring my God-lenses into it and critique the film. “There was some great baptismal imagery” I’ll say or “I liked how that one scene really spoke about hope and resurrection.” And he usually doesn’t see it just like I don’t usually pay attention to the soundtrack. It was the same for me on vacation. So there I was, lounging on my beach bed (which, by the way, I think more stories should start that way) and I watched the staff of the resort where we were staying prepare for a wedding to take place that evening. Because this was a beach wedding, there were a lot of steps involved. The staff assembled a canopy, laid down some flooring, brought down chairs, covered the chairs, decorated with flowers, and on and on. Around 5:00 that night when my best friend and I decided that we should probably move we got off our beach to see the wedding party gathered. They ooohed- and ahhed of course. But I wondered if any of them had any idea what had gone into preparing the beach for this momentous occasion.

I think we have the tendency to take for granted the people in our lives and in general who prepare. We all do our fair share of preparing, that’s for sure. But there are things that are prepared for us that we may not even think about. And it’s not that we’re trying to be selfish. But, thing get done and we don’t even think about how they get done, who does them, the time and effort that goes into doing it or whatever. We just walk in and take advantage of other things being prepared. A silly example: if you were to use the restroom at church today you may have taken advantage of the fact that there were clean stalls, toilet paper, paper towels, and soap. But did you think about how they got that way? The pews where you are sitting are fairly clean. How did they get that way? The bulletin and all the words magically appear on the screen week after week after week. How does that happen?  

At the same time, many of us are the preparers. We are the ones who prepare and other people benefit. If you are the person who does the laundry in your house, you know what I mean. There is no such thing as a laundry fairy. We prepare meals. We prepare the bills for the mail. We prepare the kids for school. And on and on. Sometimes all of this preparing can be tiring. So it’s interesting that our Gospel reading today starts with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ” and then goes on to say “‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’” As if I didn’t have enough going on in my life, I now have to prepare the way of the Lord?! And really…how do I go about that? If only I could, like, learn from someone else.

Ah….enter John the Baptist. John the Baptist is probably one of the most unlikely of characters to teach us how to prepare the way of the Lord. He was a mountain man, of sorts. He had that rugged, unwashed look about him. He ate wild honey and locusts. He wore camel hair…in the desert. People didn’t always know what to think about John the Baptist. But, of all people, the most unlikely of people, John teaches all of us how to prepare the way of the Lord. It says “He proclaimed” now I want to pause right there. He “proclaimed” not, he said, or he cried, or even he suggested; he proclaimed. He announced officially, “‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.’” Whoa! John had been baptizing the people of Judea. People were confessing their sins to him. John wasn’t a fly-by-night no body. Someone more powerful than him is coming. John continues “‘I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” Whoa!

If I heard J-Bap say this, I would wonder “what does this mean? Who is this man he speaks of? A baptism of the Holy Spirit?!? Sign me up!” John the Baptist is the world’s greatest hype-man. Do you all know what a hype man is? In rap and hip-hop music, a hype-man is a back up rapper or singer that often will interject a word or a phrase that will call attention to the main rapper or singer. The goal is to keep the attention on the main act. What John the Baptist does in his role as a hype man is to prepare the way of the Lord. And the way he does that is by continually pointing to Jesus and the way Jesus is acting and interacting with this world. And one of the things I love about John the Baptist is that he kind of leaves out a lot of the details you and I would normally desire. When is this going to happen? Where is this going to happen? What should I wear? Nope. None of that. All we know is that it is going to happen so we prepare.

We prepare the same way John the Baptist does: by pointing to Christ and what Christ is doing in the world. And the difficult thing can be that Christ is often in the places and with the people that are unpopular, unglamorous, and maybe even controversial. This week, Christ was with the Palestinians crying out for justice as our government declared that Jerusalem is the  capital of Israel. Christ was and continues to be with victim after victim of sexual assault at the hands of those using such actions in the name of power. Christ was with social workers and counselors, and others listening to those trying to now negotiate the tax plan passed by DC earlier this week. Christ isn’t always in the places we might typically expect him to be. But, Christ has never been where we expect him to be. After all, he was brought into this world by a young teenager who gave birth on a dirty barn floor. From the moment of his first breath, we knew Jesus wouldn’t ever be any place typical.

And as much as we want to prepare the way of the Lord, our best attempts will be mired in sin. Our worst attempts will be mired in sin and most likely self serving. All too often we want to prepare the way of the Lord and we’d love it if that way of the Lord passed right by us so that we benefit directly. But, the God we serve is a God of the marginalized. When Jesus returns, it will be to the least of us, and I hate to tell you friends, we’re nowhere near the least of these. Most of us live a very privileged life. But, we point the way anyway. We prepare. And, in addition, we look and listen to others who are preparing the way. And at the end of the day, no matter how much or how little preparing we do, God will come anyway. God comes to us, fully human to love us as only a parent can; and also fully divine, forgiving us as only God can. Yes, it is good for us to prepare the way of the Lord. But no preparing is going to lay adequate ground work for Jesus. Because here’s the thing: no matter how much we prepare, God doesn’t care. I don’t mean that to be flippant. God isn’t waiting for us. Dare we think God is waiting on us to return? How dare we!

Jesus is coming. We prepare the way, we work with others to prepare the way, we point to others who are preparing the way, and we continue to point to Jesus. Always, beloved. We always point to the cross. No amount of preparing can surpass what the cross has already done. Prepare the way of the Lord, knowing fully that no amount of preparing can ever really prepare us to come face to face with our salvation.

Sermon for 11/19/17 Matthew 25:14-30

From the book of Marvel, the Spider-man chapter: “with great power comes great responsibility.” That’s right. I just quoted Spider-man. Also, from the book of Vinnie (my dad) “there’s nothing I hate more than to see good talent wasted.” (This is usually said while watching sports or listening to a sports report.) Let’s jump right in because there is a lot to cover with today’s text. It’s probably best if we start by talking about what a talent is at least in the context of Matthew’s gospel today. A talent, in this context, isn’t about things we’re good at. It’s not talking about your ability to play ball, quilt, cook, or a sense of humor. A talent is a coin. But this isn’t about our skills or money. The talents are about our callings. It’s about being put into positions where we can use our power to be influential. Fear often keeps us from using our talent. This parable aims to help us, even empower us, to use our resources for the sake of the gospel. At the same time, we can’t afford (pardon the pun) to waste any time. We don’t know when Jesus will be returning. We cannot wait another minute before sharing the good news.

Talents are usually something we have from birth or because of birth. It could be another word for vocation. What are the things God created  you to do or be? Once you figure that out, then comes the difficult task of figuring out how to use that talent to share the gospel, further the kingdom of God, and general praise of God. Here’s the other thing: some of your talents may be something you have no control over. We may call this privilege. Men, you didn’t ask to be born male. But, here you are. And you have privilege. None of us asked to be born white. But, here we are. And that comes with privilege. Sometimes we may have power because of someone else or because of someone else’s perception of us. What I mean is this: if you have a good reputation to your family name, it is most likely thanks to years of hard work. You may use that to your advantage every once in awhile. As far as perceptions, the best way I can think about how I use this is with my title. When I feel like I may not be listened to or taken seriously, I often introduce myself as Pastor Jealaine Marple. Emphasis on the “Pastor.” Yep…I call up the powers of the office.

But, the point is we all have talents, privilege, and resources that have been given to us by God for the glory of God. God gives us these talents, just like the slave owner gives actual talents to his slaves. Just one actual talent (coin) was worth 20 years of work. So to receive 5 talents was the equivalent of receiving payment for 100  years worth of work. The servants who received 5 and 2 talents grew their talents. They grew their investments. Meanwhile, God gave the last servant 1 talent and he buried it. He had his reasons, sure, but the point is, he didn’t grow it at all. The book of Esther, which I’m sure so many of you are familiar with has this great verse that I call on often. “Who knows? Perhaps you have been born for such a time as this.”

Have you ever thought about God’s purpose for your life? I think we all struggle with that from time to time. Sometimes it’s a midlife crisis. Sometimes it’s just deciding where to go to college. God does have a mission for your life. You identity, your calling starts at baptism. From that moment on, your task it to make sure people come to know God not through anything you do, but for the ways that God moves through you. Let’s think about this in more practical purposes.

From our very first moments, God creates us to be creatures who love and who are loved in return. Part of our task while we are on this earth for no matter how long we’re on this earth is to love. So, picture God giving you, literally handing you a big heaping cup full of love. Most of you know what a measuring cup looks like. You can go out and share this love and maybe even double it, triple it, or let it multiply numerous times. Or, you can keep that love to yourself…just in case. Because, what if God runs out of love. What if God decides to hand out more love, at least you’ve got a little bit to add to it. Are you mentally picturing this now? Maybe you can start to understand then, why the slave owner, or in this case, God, was upset with the slave for burying the talent. The slaves had the opportunity to further the kingdom of God and one chose not to. What has God called you to do but you have either denied the opportunity or ignored it?

See my beloved, instead of looking at the world and the way it is wondering “what can I do” we can look at the world and boldly declare “why not me?” But all too often, we do nothing. We do nothing to save face. We do nothing to save friends. We do nothing to save money. We do nothing out of fear. We have been given great power, whether we realize it or not, and yet, we bury our powers, our talents and hope that no one will notice that we’re not doing what God has called us to do. The power of sin is so strong that we would rather be liked, be loved and adored even, over furthering the kingdom of God. In our baptismal promises, we enter into a covenant to “proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” But, we like to pick and choose who we share our Jesus with, who we serve, and who we think deserves justice and peace. We cannot afford to be on the wrong side of this my brothers and sisters, because the wrong side of this is literal hell.

The good news is that we aren’t in this alone. We can help one another. Furthering God’s kingdom here on earth isn’t something we must do all by ourselves. This is why we come to church. We need the reminder that this difficult work isn’t something we do solo. And even though our temptation may be to stay quiet, God reminds us that he indeed is “Immanuel: God with us.” God is God with us from the waters of baptism to our very last breath. God is God with us when we are striving to bring in the reality of “on earth as it is in heaven” and in the times when we are tempted to bury our talents. You have been created for such a time as this. And with great power comes great responsibility.

Sermon for 10/22/17 Matthew 22:15-22

I think we’ve all had those moments where we know we are either stuck between a rock and a hard place or we know we’ve been had or found out. When my brother, Jon, was in high school, he snuck out of the house while grounded. His girlfriend (who was older than him) had been drinking and needed a way home. Jon knew how to get out of the house without being detected. He went and retrieved his girlfriend, safely delivered her back to her house and got back into bed, all while thinking he had gotten away with it. The next day my father woke my brother by yelling that he knew he had snuck out of the house. Jon, trying to not be in more trouble, over and over again said “no I didn’t!” My dad said “Jon. I know you are lying, I’m not going to tell you how, but I know.” And Jon got grounded for like 2 more weeks and lost driving privileges I think.

For the longest time, Jon had no idea how my dad knew he had snuck out that evening. It’s only been in the last 10 years or so that the truth had come to light. The night that Jon snuck out to go get Mel, his girlfriend, it was raining. It hadn’t rained that day but we had a small rainstorm creep up on us that night. Jon returned home, after taking all the precautions to not be caught, he had forgotten one important detail: when he turned off the car, the windshield wipers were halfway up. Dad took one look at the windshield and knew something was up. Jon had been caught, he had been had. I think in one way or another, we’ve all been there.

Jesus wasn’t trying to sneak out of his house in today’s Gospel. He was doing simple Jesus things: teaching in the temple. And up come two groups who were strange bedfellows: the Pharisees and the Herodians. These groups working together make about as much sense working together as Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer working together. But they had one thing in common: they wanted Jesus dead. They wanted to get enough evidence to get Jesus arrested. They are in the temple (so, in the church) when they approach Jesus and ask him if it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not. Jesus, being amazing, knows what is going on and knows that they are trying to trap him. What the question comes down to is essentially this: Jesus do you believe we should be loyal to God or loyal to the government? No matter what way Jesus answers, he gets himself into trouble. Unless, that is, he answers like as only Jesus can, in riddle like responses.

Jesus asked them to show him the coin they used for paying taxes. Now, they were in the temple, which means they should have traded in all of their denarii for scheckles. But, they pull out the coin to show Jesus the head of the emperor on the coin. Jesus responds “give therefor to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus managed to answer the question without getting himself into trouble. Jesus is really good at this. And as much as we would like to think that this was a problem for Jesus’ time only, we find ourselves in this same predicament quite a bit, whether we know it or not.

The government isn’t trying to catch us, so to speak, but we can be found struggling to distinguish between our loyalties to the government and our loyalties to God. And much like Jesus’ time, it isn’t cut and dry. We can’t not pay taxes (as much as we would like). We do have to obey the law. Trust me on this, if you tell the police officer that you only obey God instead of the speed limit, you are still getting a ticket. But in other ways it gets messy. Last week I talked about claiming “Christian” as a verb. Being a Christian isn’t something we do just for one day a week for one hour a week. It should be something that consumes us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In practical ways, what does being torn between our government and God look like? How about this one: kneeling for the National Anthem. (I’m not messing around this week). Now, I am not going to get into the “why” of people kneeling. But, believe me, it has nothing to do with a flag or disrespecting those who served. But, and what I’m about to say may strike you as controversial or it might even make you mad, our allegiance first and foremost is to God, not a flag or a country. This is why Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t stand for the pledge. They refuse to pledge allegiance to anything but God. It might even be said that kneeling for the National Anthem isn’t disrespectful to God, but standing is.

Being a Christian may make it hard to know how to feel when our government participates in capital punishment or war. What about when the taxes we pay to our government go to support issues that we either support or disagree with, such as Planned Parenthood? We want to receive our mail (something our taxes pay for) but we’d rather not see our taxes go to fund sexual offender rehabilitation, because those guys shouldn’t be allowed out of prison in the first place, right?? How do we navigate the waters when our loyalties to God and government disagree? We often get stuck. And we don’t get stuck between God and government necessarily, but we get stuck between God and society. We might decide to yield to what God is calling us to do, but we fear it would cause judgement from our peers, co-workers, or family. And so, we go along with the crowd. Being Christian, standing for what you believe in can cost a lot. It cost Collin Kapernick his job. Remember my beloved, any time we put something, anything, between us and God it is considered sin, no matter how “good” we may think it is.

The good news in all of this is that God and God’s loyalty never wavers. God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy will always and does always surpass and trump even our best intentions. Even when we enter into situations that call us to act boldly and we do anything but, God’s mercy is bigger than that. When our loyalty lies anywhere but with God, God still loves us and gives us multiple chances to get it right. See, because the cross on which Jesus died for you and for me frees us from governmental expectations while simultaneously calling us to have great expectations of our government and ourselves. This means that as Christians if we observe, know, see, etc…our government acting in a way that is counter to Christ and what Christ would have us do, we have an baptismal obligation to do something about it. This means we have to become public theologians and public Christians. When we call our representatives, we declare, “as a Christian I must beseech you to fight for a health care program, or housing, or laws, etc…that are the most beneficial for the least in our society.” Because you know what, that is what Christ would do. Christ wants us to advocate for the least among us, the most vulnerable, the forgotten and downtrodden. And it’s not always easy, and it’s not always popular, and surprise surprise, it’s not always as cut and dry as party lines.

Next time you’re feeling stuck between God and government and you start wondering what is God’s and what is Uncle Sam’s, remember that everything we have and everything we are belongs to God. And it is God, and God alone that can save us. The government, with all of the money, resources, and power on earth, as wonderful as it may be, can never and will never save us. We may live under the rule of law, but we are saved by a king; and not the kind with a crown, the kind with a cross.

Sermon for 10/8/17 Matthew 21:33-46

I’ve thought a lot about fences this week. Weird, I know. I keep thinking about the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall.” In it, he wrote “good fences make good neighbors.” I’ve also been thinking about borders and walls, all types of barriers we construct or that are constructed for us. This week has brought us some horrific violence once again. Much like the news reporters, I get so tired of addressing issues like this from the pulpit. And sure, it’d be easy to say “then don’t do it, Pastor.” Well, the fact is, the kingdom of God has been disrupted and hurt. I cannot simply ignore real, tangible pain in the world. For me, that would be like ignoring Christ himself. And it is during times like this that we may be tempted to build fences, either real or metaphorical, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We build fences out of fear, love, knowledge, anger, distrust, and reality among many other things.

So why all this talk about fences? Well, our gospel of course. Among many other things, the gospel story mentions a fence. And here’s the thing. When Jesus tells parables, he’s very specific and the details are for a reason, a purpose. Why did it matter that the vineyard had a fence around it? Why did Jesus include this really important detail? Maybe those hearing this parable wouldn’t have thought anything of it at the time. Maybe to have a fence during Jesus’ time was code for something else. But, as always, there was a method to Jesus’ madness. So let’s talk a little more about this, shall we?

I know many of you have fences on your property. Please hear me from the beginning here, I am not saying that actual fences are a bad thing. Many of you have fences for practical purposes: they keep your livestock where they belong. Without fences there might be more car versus cow accidents. Or maybe you have a fence to keep the critters out of your garden. Perhaps you have a fence to keep the dogs or kids in the yard where you can see them. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a pool and you need to have a fence for safety reasons. With the cost of a fence these days, the decision to put one up isn’t one that is willy-nilly. People usually think hard about it and do research before just putting up a fence. I know that a fence is also rarely maintenance free.

But, we also put up metaphorical fences and walls in our lives. We may not realize that is what we are doing because it often gets done in the name of safety and protection. These types of fences are more to keep people out than to keep things in. Maybe this looks like avoiding a certain area of town after dark. Maybe this looks like crossing the street when you see someone on the same sidewalk in the distance that you don’t like the looks of. Maybe this looks like double checking to make sure you still have your wallet or purse when you’re in the company of certain people. These are all metaphorical fences and when we do things like this in the name of safety and protection, the message that we send to other children of God is “I’m safe and okay… you however, need to be judged and vetted before I let you in.”

And the vineyard owner in today’s parable had a fence for whatever reason. But, in the end, the vineyard owner lost some of his slaves because they were murdered. He lost his own son to murder. In addition to that, he lost profit. He originally sent the slaves to collect some of the produce. This was very customary for that time. But the tenants weren’t having any of it. The vineyard owner had lost everything that was possible to lose. A fence didn’t make the difference. All the time and money to keep his investment safe did no good. Much like previous parables, we may want to see ourselves in the role of the landowner, or the slaves, maybe even the landowner’s son. We certainly don’t see ourselves like the tenants.

If we dive a little deeper into this parable, we may discover that this is more allegorical than a parable. The landowner is God. The slaves are the prophets. The landowner’s son is Jesus. The tenants is the established government. The vineyard is the kingdom of God. God trusts us to tend to the kingdom of God. And with the best intentions in our hearts, we build fences. We build fences by just flat out not being church. We build fences when we question someone’s ability to serve God based on gender alone (I get this a lot because I’m female). We build fences when we deny the validity of relationships because they are between two people of the same gender. We build fences when we give each other the “up and down” observing what one another is wearing. We build fences when we turn people away from this table for whatever reason. We build fences in the name of kingdom-keeping when really building fences destroys the kingdom of God.

I mean, if there is any place that should be without barriers, it would be the kingdom of God. We know, or at least I hope we know, that we serve a God who is all about breaking down barriers. And we build them up anyway. What do we think we’re protecting when we build walls in the kingdom of God? Who do we think we’re protecting? Do we really think that we know the kingdom better than God and so we build walls? How self centered are we? Our sin causes us to build walls and barriers in the name of safety, trust, and protection. But here’s the thing. The kingdom of God is open to all. Who are we protecting? God doesn’t need protecting. Which leads me to believe that the only people we’re protecting is ourselves. And when we start to build walls and barriers in the name of religion, we can quickly diminish from religion into cult.

I understand that the world is a scary place. 59 souls are no longer with us after that was confirmed once again this past week in Vegas. It’s tempting, and almost too easy to hold your loved ones close, lock the doors, build walls, keep to yourselves, all in the name of safety, protection, and privacy. But what ultimately keeps us safe is God. Sometimes the people we need protection from is ourselves; only God can do that. When we need the walls around our hearts broken so that we are able to fully experience the love and joy of this world, only God can do that. When we need the courage to break down the barriers that stop us from loving our neighbors and serving the world around us, only God can do that. And when we get weary from breaking down the barriers in this world that God has called us to break down and we need rest, only God can provide that.

Do “good fences make good neighbors?” Maybe. But, I’ve never been able to call on a fence for a cup of sugar or to watch my dog or water my flowers. God designed us to live and be in community. The more we fence ourselves in, the more we rob ourselves of those opportunities. There is a lot of evil in the world. That evil tempts us daily to block out everyone else, even those who wish to love us and help us. And yes, it’s smart to be on guard and be aware. But don’t do it at the cost of making yourself an island. We are called to be keepers of the kingdom, not build a fence around it. What I am proposing this day is what God has called us to do all along: take the risk of opening yourself up to love. Take the risk of loving someone else. Get to know other children of God. Break down walls of suspicion and build bridges of hope instead. Destroy walls of injustice, and help build systems of equality instead. Defeat fences made out of the “isms” of life and build life lines of love instead. This isn’t necessarily hard work, we just keep putting up walls. God will tear those down and show us our next steps.

Sermon for 10/1/17 Matthew 21:23-32

I have found that when times are difficult either globally or nationally, there seems to be an uptick in evangelism. It’s not always the most healthy evangelism, but evangelism nonetheless. This usually presents itself in the form of well meaning pictures of flags waving, bald eagles flying, kids with their hands over their hearts, and other types of photo stock images with the words “bring Jesus back into our schools” or “make Christ the cornerstone of your lives.” It can also be presented by well meaning (or maybe not so well meaning) well known evangelical pastors being interviewed on television (they never interview pastors like me) saying things like “now is the time for people to let Jesus into their hearts” and other such things. Part of me agrees. I wonder how this country and world would look if we actually took to heart the things that Jesus spoke about, taught about, and preached about. But, part of me disagrees. We humans are so full of ourselves to think we even have the slightest bit of power that would be able to keep Jesus out of any place.

Today’s reading in Matthew asks some questions directly of Jesus. The authorities are, as usual, trying to set up Jesus to fail. They are already trying to catch him in the act, so to speak, so that they can start to build the case against him. These questions they are asking is what ultimately leads to his crucifixion. And this little game of cat and mouse goes on and on for chapters upon chapters in all of our gospel stories. Jesus always gives the authority just enough to confuse them and just enough to encourage them to come back and ask more questions. So the questions asked of Jesus in today’s readings are “by what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” And really what the chief priests and elders are asking is “Jesus, who are you?” and “by what authority do you preach, teach, and lead?” I want to argue that when the elders and chief priests ask these questions, what they are also asking (its implied) is “so what does that mean for me?”

As Christians, we often claim Jesus when Jesus looks, thinks, speaks, or acts like us. We are comfortable when the messiah does things or says things that can benefit us and/or the people we love. Yet too often we mess this up and get this wrong. We like to decide who is in and who is out and when we start to draw lines in the sand, we often place ourselves on the side of the persecuted instead of the one doing the persecution. Author Anne Lamott says “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” The questions of “who are you” and “by what authority” weren’t just questions that the chief priests and elders asked, they are questions we still should be asking of Jesus and ourselves today.

And as we ask those questions, it naturally leads to another question (or, at least it does in my opinion) of “why does that matter?” When we speak of who Jesus is for us and why we believe what we believe, the question that seems to get us stuck is that “why does it matter?” When we proclaim that Jesus is Lord, what does that mean for us and our lives? For me, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord means trusting in God completely and totally and if I am going to be honest, that is really frightening. If we are going to proclaim that Jesus is Lord then that means nothing else, absolutely nothing else, can serve in that capacity. This means that power, money, time, status, nothing else is Lord. But, oh how often do we make those things our lord. How often do we bow to the pressures of money, power, time, status, and what not? How often are we pledging our allegiance to the things that during Jesus’ time would be considered the empire?

When was the last time you thought about what Jesus means for you? And I don’t mean that in a hypothetical, passing thought kind of way. I mean when you think about the role that Jesus plays in your life, how does that shape every single thing in your life? And are you projecting your own expectations onto Jesus, or are you gladly taking on Jesus’ expectations of you? Those are two very different questions, my beloved. Why or how is your life different because of Jesus? Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace. That grace is a gift and it changes our lives. Yet we do everything in our power to deny that because we don’t think we’re worthy of God’s grace or love. Maybe we are scared to think about who we are and what it means for us to declare that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace.

So maybe what you need to hear today is this, my beloved. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that nothing and no one has ever or will ever be forgotten. This includes you. If you feel abandoned, forgotten, lonely, forsaken, that is simply evil trying its best to whisper unworthiness in your ear. Because God’s grace doesn’t forget anyone. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that love is a lavish commodity that never runs out. This means that you can be, will be, and are a recipient of God’s obnoxious love. It doesn’t matter how you feel about yourself, or what society tells you that you should feel about yourself, God loves you, all of you, more than you can ever know. Jesus showed us that love by emptying himself on the cross. When the empire wanted Jesus to prove who he was, he did exactly that by loving the world with no exceptions.

Maybe what you need to hear today, my friends, is that declaring Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that your suffering has not gone unnoticed. Your times of hardship have not been spent alone. Your darkness has not been without a small amount of light from Christ. Your tears have been counted. Your sleepless nights have been tallied. When it feels like the world has given up on you, Jesus is still there, right by your side, because there is no place that is too dark or too desolate for God.

When we are clear about who Jesus is for us, we can also be clear about who Jesus is for the world. Because if we declare that Jesus is Lord of all, we must mean all. If we declare that Jesus is love, we must mean that all are loved. If we declare that Jesus is forgiveness incarnate, then that forgiveness is for all people. And that kind of love and forgiveness is messy and it isn’t easy and thank God, it’s not up to us. In a time when governments show authority with money, military power, and, God forbid, nuclear power, it is strange and even counter-cultural to proclaim that we love and serve a God whose power comes in the form of a cross. We love and serve a God who instead of stockpiling love and forgiveness, passes it out like candy at a parade. We love and serve a God whose power comes from death and resurrection. So sure, we always need more Jesus in this world. But we need Jesus that denied the empire, not bowed down to it. We need the Jesus that shows preferential treatment to the poor, not the Jesus we’ve created in our minds that favors the rich. We need the Jesus who opens the doors of heaven to tax collectors and prostitutes first before any of us self-proclaimed self-righteous are allowed to enter. Most importantly, we need the Jesus with love for everyone; a love that is wholly unfair and yet, a holy relief.

Sermon for 9/10/17 Matthew 18:15-20

I tried everything I could to come up with something to say this week. I thought about different stories from my life I could share. I read articles. I read blog posts. I listened to podcasts. I tried praying about this text. But, as my own self-imposed deadline drew closer and closer, I realized I had nothing. I wasn’t surprised by this, quite honestly. It’s been a week. This isn’t an excuse, it’s my reality. I think it’s important that you see me as human. What I mean by that is that I am not some kind of like rock-star super-species that can handle everything that life throws at me. I hurt. I cry. I experience joy and pain; laughter and sorrow; ups and downs, just like the rest of you. Sometimes I turn to God and lean on God so heavily that I think God might just tip over. Sometimes I ignore God altogether and then get angry with God. God can handle that, trust me. This was a week where a lot was poured out of me and not a lot went back in. We took care of Evelyn Mohr’s funeral on Thursday and then I had a double funeral yesterday of Cathy and Bill Winchester. In addition to that, we put our eldest dog, Bailey to sleep on Tuesday. All of this on top of the normal every day stresses of life. Like I said, it’s been a week.

And sometimes I have weeks like this and I put on my “happy worship” face and come here, lead worship, give you the body and blood of Christ, declare forgiveness of your sins, sing and rejoice, and then go home and collapse, still feeling bleh. In seminary we called that “fake it til’ you make it.” I imagine some of you do it to. Maybe you’re not having a great day, week, month, or even a great year. And yet, you show up here, week after week, faking it the whole time, waiting for something to happen. And what are we waiting for? I think at the root of all people, we desire genuine relationships, right? I hope all of you have a sweatpants friend. That’s what I call it. This is your friend that you can show up to their house in sweatpants, no make up, hair a mess, and they’re going to welcome you in, no questions asked because they look exactly the same.

We should have more sweatpants relationships in the church. But instead, we spend time and money prettying ourselves up to come to a place where we declare to love and worship a God who knows us, the real us, and yet we present the covered up us. We present the “us” that has everything together. We present the “us” that is “great! How are you?” We present the “us” that has perfect children, a perfect marriage, perfect teeth, clothes, hair, and an offering to boot! And what do we do as soon as we leave this place? We go home, take off our costumes, and get into sweatpants! So today, I am showing up. I am showing up, just as I am and with no apologies. This is how God made me. God loves me when I am dressed like this or if I am in sweatpants. But, most importantly, I wanted to show up. And I thank you today for showing up. I am sure many of you had other things you could be doing right now, including sleep if you wanted. But you showed up.

I showed up because of the promise given to us in verse 20 today “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” So I came today to be with you because I knew that when we gathered, Jesus would be here. And Jesus is here. Not because of anything I have said or done, but because we are the people of God gathered AS the people of God. Therefore, Jesus is here. Sometimes, we just need that reminder. We show up, just as we are, broken sinners, yet at the same time, real people, with real problems, with no real solutions. The only solution that seems to make any sense whatsoever is to come together as the people of God and remind one another that Jesus is here, in our midst, in our presence.

And Jesus didn’t show up because we look good, or because we’ve got it all figured out, or because it’s 9:00am on a Sunday. Jesus showed up because that’s what he does. We serve a God who promises to show up through Jesus Christ and God will never let us down. Sometimes as Christians, I think we think that we can’t show up until we have all the answers. We don’t want to show up and not know what to say, what to do, or how to do whatever it is we’re supposed to do when we show up. I think that’s why when we do gather as the body of Christ during times of sorrow, we often just stick with the “script.” The script is “I’m very sorry to hear about your loss” and we bring a pan of bars or something. Then we offer this: “call me if you need anything.” And in times of crisis, we know we need stuff, we just don’t know what it is and at the same time, we’ll be damned if we’re going to ask for it.

What we need, my beloved, is to just show up. Show up even though we don’t know what to say, do, ask, or act. Show up. Because when we show up as people of God on behalf of the body of Christ, Christ is already there in the midst of that. It doesn’t matter if we show up in a church or in a bar. When we show up for one another, Christ is there. And what that looks like from a practical standpoint is this: showing up and making, creating, and holding space for others to experience Christ. We don’t have to have the answers, don’t you see? Christ is already here or wherever among us. So instead of showing up all shiny and pretty and promising that things will get better, what if we showed up as our real selves and said “I dunno. But I know Christ is here.” I think what God desires is for us to be real, to be genuine, and to show up. Can we trust that God is amazing enough to give us what we need when we need it when we show up to just show up? Or are we going to sit back and wait until the right time because we don’t know what to say or do and really the message that we are sending is “I don’t trust you, God.”

Can we just admit that the world has enough shiny fake people in it? Aren’t you tired of putting on an act? Don’t you get tired of pretending that everything is okay? Shouldn’t church be the one place that you can show up without apology and people are just glad you showed up? If we desire to be a place of welcome, which I think we do, then let’s be genuine about that. There’s a huge difference in “well…I guess you showed up” (while looking someone up and down) and “at least you showed up!” Now, please don’t get all up in arms with me thinking that I am suggesting that we become the sweatpants church. I don’t care what you wear, I am just glad you are here. The world needs more places where people feel comfortable and welcomed, just as they are, knowing that they will be listened to and loved. And we don’t have to have all the answers or resources. We just show up. And we keep showing up over and over and over again because we know that when 2 or 3 people are gathered in God’s name, God is already there in the midst of them, creating something holy. And God knows what the world needs more than anything right now is more places where people can just show up and be and experience the holy. Maybe this is our call, beloveds. Our call is to show up, point to Christ, and create space to experience holy hospitality. Thanks for showing up today. I’m glad I did.