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.

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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.

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.