Sermon for 7/8/17 Mark 6:1-13

**NB: the sermon is shorter this week as those of us who attended the ELCA Youth Gathering shared about our experiences. For a full recap, check out our Facebook page: Elvira Zion Lutheran Church. **

 

Last week, 31,000 Lutherans gathered in Houston for the ELCA Youth Gathering under the theme of “This Changes Everything.” The guiding verse for the Gathering was Ephesians 2:8 “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” I assumed that the “this” in “This Changes Everything” was grace. And while that’s not wrong, we also learned that God’s hope, God’s love, God’s grace, and, of course, Jesus changes everything. We heard stories from people that had been changed by God’s hope, grace, and love. We heard of people learning about Jesus and it changed their lives. We were swept away by the infectious music that praised Jesus. And all of us, in one way or another, were changed.

In Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus sends the disciples out to villages to teach. He also gave them “authority over the unclean spirits.” He sent them out very specifically and with specific instructions. They went out in pairs and took nothing with them except a staff, the shoes on their feet, and maybe a tunic (but not two). They were to heal, teach, preach, feed. Basically, they were to be the eyes, hands, and mouth of Jesus. However, the disciples were told that if they did not receive a welcome, to shake the dust off their feet and go on their way. And we may think that is rude, but it is possible that we have all turned away Christ on occasion. Maybe it’s been in the ignoring of the immigration crisis at our borders, thinking poorly of the single parent using a food assistance program, or, sadly, we often ignore Christ when he comes through the voice of our youth.

“What can you possibly know” we say “you’re still so young and have so much to learn.” And we ignore Christ. The dust settles long before we realize our mistakes. So today, my beloved, you will hear from four of your youth. These four were Jesus to me while we were in Houston. I learned with them and from them and I am better because of them and Kristi. And our stories are not just limited to today. What we experienced in Houston will go with us for the rest of our lives. And sometimes our stories will be welcomed. We’ll be offered a seat at the table, something to eat, and space to tell how we encounter Jesus. And other times, we will be shooed away and will have to shake the dust off our feet. That won’t detour us. When Jesus changes you, as he has for the 6 of us, and, I hope, all of you, you will go to any lengths to share the good news that God’s love, hope, and grace, and most importantly, God’s son, Jesus, does, in fact, change everything.

Advertisements

Sermon for 6/10/18 Mark 3:20-35

Content warning: this sermon speaks of brain health (or mental health) along with self harm and suicide. Proceed with caution as needed.

 

I know that I talk a lot about brain health, or mental health, as some of you may call it. And it may get old for some of you. Maybe you get tired of hearing me talk about it. Maybe you’d rather talk about something a little more uplifting. I understand that. But there are a few reasons I talk about brain health so much. I think I’ve probably said this before. My hope in being open and honest about my own brain health issues is that if you or a loved one struggle with these brain health issues that you will feel less alone. I also talk about brain health issues because they are not something to be ashamed of. Stigma may tell us that we should be quiet, but I don’t listen very well. I call it brain health because it is a health issue: something that should be addressed just like any other issues in the body. And, I think another reason why I don’t shy away from talking about brain health issues is because Christ calls us to be a light in the darkness. Maybe I hope that I can be even just a small light. In case you didn’t know, I suffer from depression and anxiety as well as adult ADHD. I take zoloft, adderall, and engage in weekly therapy. I am one of thousands who have stories like mine.

Two celebrities died this week. Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Maybe you don’t know those names. Maybe you didn’t know them before this week and hearing them on the news. Kate Spade was a Kansas City girl, just like me. She started a handbag empire. Having a Kate Spade bag was a status symbol for a while. She branched out from bags to wallets, glasses cases, then to actual glasses, perfume, and on and on. Like I said, she had an empire. Anthony Bourdain was a well known chef. He had a great show called “Parts Unknown.” He could be gruff but he was honest. He also showed his viewers that there was something very holy about sitting down with someone, even in a very modest hut, and sharing a meal. Both of these very talented members of God’s creation completed suicide this week. Them and thousands of others we didn’t hear about. And in the days following, there was the expected outcry, shock, and sharing of hotline help numbers. There was also a lot of really really bad theology and really horrible hurtful theology.

And it hurts my heart and my spirit when things are said of people with brain health issues that tie these issues to their faith. “Well, if only your faith was stronger” some people say. Or “maybe if you just prayed more.” The worst is when people declare that those who complete suicide are automatically in hell. To that I say, Romans 8:38-39 “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Bible speaks nothing of suicide and hell. The blaspheming of the Holy Spirit isn’t suicide. Some of you may have been taught that growing up. Scripture today says “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” But blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is this: doubting the divinity of God or Jesus Christ. Doubting that God is God. When we deny that Jesus’ work of healing and “releasing of captivity” is of God and from God  that is the unforgivable sin (Saliers 118). So hear me loud and clear right now, my beloved: if you have a friend or family member that has completed suicide, the promise of a place in God’s kingdom is just as real for them as it is for you or me. The hope that we will see them again is just as real as seeing those we lost to cancer or old age. The resurrection promise is real for them. Being face to face with Jesus or even learning at his feet is a very real possibility.

The scribes claim that Jesus is of Satan; that he himself is Satan. They are doubting Jesus’ actions in the world and during his ministry thus far. Jesus answers as only he can: in parables. This probably did nothing but confuse and anger the scribes. Jesus riddles them with this “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” But Jesus was talking about truly doing battle with Satan himself. Jesus had already done that. He had already spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan and it didn’t work. Jesus called Satan on his bluff. Because here’s what happened: Satan found out he had no power over Jesus. Jesus tied up the so-called “strong man” when rebuking and denying Satan. And in that, freed us. Jesus was stronger and greater than John the Baptist (remember, John just pointed to the one greater than him, which was Jesus). Jesus is stronger than Satan as well. And the good news in this, my beloved, is that Jesus is stronger than any demon you are fighting.

At the core of this story is Jesus’ win for the kingdom of God. When Jesus is stronger than Satan, and he always is, captives are freed. And we, my beloved, we are those captives. It doesn’t matter if you are captive to brain health issues, your body betraying you, broken relationships, or an old friend of self doubt, Jesus is stronger than all of those. And what may feel like binding will be loosed by Jesus himself. Jesus’ love is stronger than evil. Jesus’ love is stronger than the evil that may attempt to keep us hostage, yes. But, Jesus’ love is also stronger than the evil we may attempt to project onto others. Because when God made humankind, when God made man and woman, they were made in God’s image. Any attempt we may make to demonize another human being will be rejected by Jesus and has no place in God’s kingdom.

We cannot and will not be called siblings of Christ if we are not doing the will of God. Jesus himself says “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” So, what is the will of God? For me, it basically goes back to the greatest commandment. We shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and we should love our neighbors as ourselves. This means we love our neighbors when they are perfect and when they are imperfect. We love our neighbors when they are happy and laughing and we love our neighbors when they are barely keeping it altogether. We love our neighbors when they lead the cries of social justice and when they can’t even find their way out of a paper bag. And most importantly, when love our neighbors when they find the courage to say “I’m not okay.” Jesus came so that we may have life and have it abundantly. Jesus came so that any demons and captors, internally or externally, may be removed.

It would be a mistake for me to end this sermon without saying this: if you have struggled with suicidal ideation, and you have been scared to even speak of it at church for fear of judgement, let me assure you that you are loved. You are loved by me, and you are loved by God. We need you on this side of the ground. I don’t have all the answers, but I am always here to listen and tell you that your demons are liars and Christ is stronger than them. You’re not alone.

Sermon for 2/18/18 Mark 1:9-15 Lent 1

Jesus spending 40 days in the wilderness isn’t exactly an unfamiliar story to many. You may have heard variations of it over the years. But it is in Mark’s telling of the Gospel that we get today that has the least amount of details. Here’s what we know: Jesus had been baptized and immediately driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Here’s what you need to know about the wilderness. This isn’t wilderness like Denali National Park or someplace in the Colorado Rockies. This is wilderness like a desert. Like the area between Lincoln, Nebraska and the Colorado border (if you’ve made that drive). The wilderness in this story is stark, barren, full of uncertainty, and temptations. We don’t get a lot of details in this story. We know Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days, he was tempted by Satan, he was with wild beasts, and angels waited on him. That’s it. That’s all we know. We don’t know the ways that Jesus handled Satan. We can assume he did handle Satan because we hear more of the Gospel story.

But, often when we are in the wilderness, we may not know how to handle it. We may not know what to do or say. When Satan tempts us in the wilderness, we may cave to those temptations. And the wilderness looks like a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And when you’re in the midst of your own wilderness, directions seem few and far between. Christ has called me this moment and this time to speak truth. I am called to speak truth even if it isn’t popular and even if my voice shakes. My beloved, we are in a time of wilderness. And Satan has taken on the form of the powers in this country refusing to do anything about gun control.

Before you turn off your ears, I am begging you to hear me. I am not anti-gun. I know many of you in these pews own guns. I fully support your right to do that. I have made the decision that I will never own one. But, that doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t. I am not anti-gun. However, it is time for us to get serious about how someone can own a gun and who can own a gun. How many of our children must die before we get serious about this? We will be in a wilderness until we repent. We will be in the wilderness until we can turn our hearts from worshipping guns to worshipping God.

We don’t know how Jesus handled the wilderness in Mark’s Gospel. But we know that Satan was nothing to be messed with. After all, when Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus when Jesus spoke of his own death, Jesus looked at his disciple and said “get behind me Satan!” (Mk 8:33) The trouble with not knowing the details of how Jesus handled the wilderness is that we are left to our own devices to fill in the blanks. And the temptation may be to give ourselves more credit and abilities when it comes to fighting Satan or the wilderness. We now find ourselves in the wilderness. We’ve been in this wilderness since April 20, 1999 when we first heard of a place called “Columbine High School.” And it seems no matter what we do, nothing changes and we stay in the wilderness.

We certainly aren’t Jesus, we know that. But, and I don’t know about you, I know I don’t want to stay in the wilderness for the rest of my life. Jesus didn’t even stay in the wilderness. The wilderness is not a life-giving place. Part of what can help us start to escape the wilderness is what we talk about a lot during Lent: repentance. But, repentance cannot happen without confession. We can’t hurry this process. Sometimes confession is less about us speaking of the ways we failed and more about listening to the ways we failed through the words from other people. Confession is about being honest. Confession is about exposing our failures not only to other people but to God as well.

Too often when tragedies like this happen, we talk around one another. We talk over one another. But we rarely engage in conversation with one another. Instead of having difficult conversations, we just hop online and try to one up one another with articles, statistics, and engage in “I’m right, let me tell you why you’re wrong” conversations. And instead of throwing our hands up in the air, what might it look like for us, for the church to model hard conversations? We can model these conversations because Jesus in the midst of these conversations promising that relationship built on accompaniment. What would it look like to have a cup of coffee with one another and talk about those difficult topics and find the places where we can agree. Talking together and trying to find a solution has to be much more productive than “thoughts and prayers.”

What might change if we engaged in these conversations looking to learn from one another rather than prove one another wrong? I want to hear your story, what you’re passionate about, and why you believe what you believe. And, in exchange, I want you to hear my story, what I’m passionate about, and why I believe what I believe. And then, together, we can confess the ways we have failed to see one another as full and amazing creations of God. And together we can repent from our previous ways and work towards finding common ground centered in Christ. We don’t have to stay in the wilderness. Christ is our key out of the wilderness. Worship centered on Christ, living surrounded and centered on Christ, and conversations centered on Christ are our keys. Thoughts and prayers will not help us escape the wilderness. Looking Satan and all of his lies right in the eyes and repenting, turning to Christ is the only thing that can help us escape.

We may think we can’t change anything. The government seems so big and we are just but one person. But we have something that seems to be forgotten about at times: we’ve got Jesus. Jesus’ baptism shows us things can change. Jesus’ temptation shows us things can change. Jesus’ ministry shows us things can change. And most importantly, the resurrection shows us that things can and do change. If we truly believe that God’s kingdom is also God’s kin-dom, then yes, things can change. Thoughts and prayers are fantastic. Prayer and action is what we’re called to as disciples. Yes, these acts of violence are terrible and seem almost too big to take on. Let’s show that big problem our big God. Satan will tempt us not to leave the wilderness. Well, get behind me, Satan. I’m ready to answer the call God has on my life, the call God has had on all our lives since baptism. Let’s start these hard conversations here and now. Conversations are much easier to have than prayer vigils. It starts today.

Sermon for 2/11/18 Mark 9:2-9 Transfiguration

In my experience, I don’t know that I have found a human emotion that more people try to avoid or that more people dislike as much as fear. I don’t know what it is about fear. Fear actually keeps us safe. But, I think we often run from fear because if people see us afraid, they might then see us as weak. And I also find that fear and pain go hand in hand. Fear and pain are two things that I find people want to avoid. And we often go through several hoops in order to avoid pain and fear. Society tells us that we need to be happy, successful, thin, rich, and on and on. In order to be what society tells us we need to be, we often run from pain and from fear. We look to mask whatever is imperfect with us in order to highlight the “believed” perfect and show that to the world.

Author Glennon Doyle Melton talks about living with fear and living with pain. She says that we often are looking for the easy button of life. Do you all remember the Staples commercial where they push that big red button and say “that was easy!” And for us, she says, we look for the easy button in order to escape or avoid fear or pain. And the easy button can be anything: food, booze, drugs, sex, the internet, gossip, and on and on. But, she proposes that instead of pushing our easy buttons that we need to be better at sitting in our pain and sitting with our fears. We try and outrun it all, but instead, we need to take up residence in pain and fear and see what they have to teach us.

And I mention this as Peter expresses a common human emotion of fear. And instead of expressing his fear (scripture says “they were terrified”) he proposes to Jesus that they just need to stay on that mountain. Peter even says let’s not only stay here, let’s live here. On this mountaintop. He was afraid and didn’t know what else to say. Instead of facing his fear, Peter wants an easy button. And the easy button, so to speak, comes in the form of God and God’s declaration. God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” What? That’s an easy button? Yes. Follow me here.

Fear is part of our lives. Pain is part of our lives. We cannot avoid it. We may try. But there is no human made “easy button.” The only easy button in our lives is the cross. And in order to fully experience the cross we must fully experience fear and pain. On this day, Transfiguration, my proposal beloveds, is that we allow ourselves to be transformed and transfigured by pain and fear. What do pain and fear have to teach us? Jesus wasn’t one to run from pain and fear. He could have stayed on the top of that mountain. But instead, he came down the mountain into a valley where he would be met, eventually, but the people who would arrest and crucify him.

And I know what you may be thinking “of course Jesus didn’t run from pain and fear….he’s Jesus.” Right. I get it. But part of our call to be disciples as I’ve been talking about week after week is to not only point to Jesus but follow him as well. It’s easy for us to talk about Jesus. It might even be easy to point to Jesus and the ways that he moves and acts throughout this world. But to literally follow Jesus is scary. Our fear takes hold and gets the best of us and then we go looking for those man-made easy buttons.

Jesus goes to places we don’t like to even think about going. Jesus goes to disease infested, war torn, s-hole countries (as President Trump would say) that we’d rather not think exist. But he goes there because the promise that God has made to all of humanity is that we will not be abandoned by God. And so God sends us Jesus. If Jesus descended into hell, you can bet that going places that other people would rather forget probably seems like a cakewalk. And I’m not proposing that we need to all pack our bags and go on a mission trip. I mean that following Jesus is something that can start small. Anytime you may find yourself thinking or expressing the feeling of “I can’t go there” or “I can’t talk to them because it would just break my heart” then that is exactly where you need to be. Because that is exactly where Jesus is. We may want to avoid pain and fear but that is exactly where Christ normally hangs out.

When God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” God is telling us that EVERYTHING that Jesus has told us and will tell us about his life, death, and resurrection is true. And if that is true, my beloveds, then the pain and fear we may feel not only is real, but we’re not alone. And the pain and fear we go through will vanish in death thanks to God’s saving action on the cross. Beautiful Miss Shelby is going to get baptized today. And in baptism we never promise a life without pain and fear. Of course, we don’t want that for her. But it will happen. But in baptism we are promised a life where Jesus is going to be with us every single step of the way. No matter what.

I hope that Shelby will learn and I pray that all of us can learn that instead of reaching for the “easy button,” instead of being tempted to do whatever it is we need to do to escape pain and fear, that we instead remember that in our pain and in our fear is where Christ tends to be. In our pain and in our fear is usually where we learn the most. In our pain and in our fear is where we find out who we are and whose we are. We too often are like Peter: desiring to be comfortable, set up shop, and avoid not only pain and fear, but those dark valleys. But if we somehow are able to avoid those, are we really living the life that God intended for us? We don’t go searching out fear and pain, but it is out there.

For some reason, we may also think that in order to be people of God that coming to church means coming “cleaned up.” When we come to God’s house we certainly cannot be filled with pain and fear. People don’t like to see that. We must come neat, put together, and with the appearance that all is fine and good. But if we believe that Christ truly is present in this place, and I really hope we believe that, then why would we not come as we are even if that means coming full of pain and fear? If Christ is going to meet us here, Christ will meet us in our pain and in our fear even if no one else does. Many of us work really hard to present masks of ourselves to the world, pretending to be perfect. But I am sure that Christ would prefer us to be present over perfect. Christ would prefer us to be flawed over fake.

Shelby’s transfiguration starts today. She will be transfigured into a child of God. And for you, my dearests, be reminded that your transfiguration started long ago at these waters as well. God met you here and continues to walk with you. It is okay to fear. It is okay to have pain. Our God is a God who suffered on a cross. There’s no pain that compares to that. That suffering erases ours. If you’re looking for an easy button, you’ll find it in the cross.

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.

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.