Sermon for 8/13/17 Matthew 14:22-33

How many of you have ever heard the phrase don’t ask Jesus to guide your feet if you are not willing to move? So, for the record, Peter asked to get out of the boat. And sure, we could blame Peter for being a lot of things: tired, delusional, maybe hungry, whatever. But the fact is, he asked Jesus to call him out of the boat. Peter! If you are not willing to go with Jesus, don’t ask him to move you. And try as we might to shake are headed Peter, we are often guilty of doing the same thing. “Lord! Please, use me! But, on my own time, under my own circumstances, and when I am good and ready.” If you have ever try to negotiate with God, you know how well it turns out. Normally, it doesn’t turn out the way you wanted to. It turns out the way God wants it to. And, as it turns out, it usually is much better than what we had planned. With apologies to those of you who shudder at salty language, I think my sermon this week can be summed up best by one sentence: get out of the damn boat!

Why do we think that discipleship, evangelism, stewardship, and caring for the other is someone else’s job? We are quick to want our children, grandchildren, family members, and loved ones baptized. We often think it is a ticket out. We think it is a ticket out of hell. That is why you may find some grandparents worried about their grandchildren’s salvation. But I am here to tell you, baptism is not a ticket out, but it is a ticket in. In our baptism, our ticket stamped. It is our ticket in to evangelism, stewardship, and discipleship. Once we are baptized into the community of believers, we are then “in” to work for Christ.

And maybe we don’t realize that that is part of what happens of baptism. After all, most of us were baptized as children. We did not have much of a say as to what we were getting ourselves into. But, generations before us have been baptized and survived working for Christ, generations after us will be baptized and survive working for Christ. I think we can handle it as well.

But often, instead of looking at situations as continuing to validate our ticket in, we put up walls, come up with excuses, and sometimes even blatantly ignore Christ. It is a very dangerous thing to ignore God. I have said before that God is the master of hide and seek. You may try and hide from God, but God will find you. When God calls, we often let self doubt, fear, and the shame and stigma serving Christ get in our way. Forgive me for using a dumb example. But, when people were in trouble in the Superman movies, Superman never looked at them and said “you know, as it turns out, this is more of a job for Spiderman.” No, Superman saw a need, and figured out how to solve the situation.

Now, I understand that none of us are Superman, Wonder Woman, or Spiderman for that matter. We can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. We don’t own an invisible jet. We certainly are not able to swing from building to building with ease. But, what we do have is something even better. We have God calling us, the Holy Spirit on our side, and Christ already leading the way.  And maybe it is difficult for you to hear the good news in this gospel today. But here it is for you, my beloved’s. When we ask God to move us, and we step out of the boat, nothing is on us. God already has a plan, God already has a will and a way. And more importantly God has got us. Did you hear that? Jesus reached out to Peter and held onto Peter. God has got us. We need not be afraid of anything. God has got us. Are you hearing me? When we dare step out and take the risk, God has got us.

I often say that God prepares the called. God does not call the prepared. If God is calling you to something daring, or maybe even just something out of your norm, God will prepare you. God has got you. Or, maybe for those of you that are a little younger, maybe you understand this better: “God’s got yo’ back.”

As I prayed about the national events that have taken place in the last 48 hours, it occurred to me that we may not desire to get out of the boat because the boat is comfortable. The boat is where we are surrounded by people who think, act, talk, and look like us. Sure, we may ask Jesus to move us, but when we realize that Jesus is an undocumented man of color, we may start to question his abilities. Part of my call to serve this church, and not just the church local but the church global, is to name sin when I see it. It’s part of being what Luther called “a theologian of the cross.” What happened in the name of “justice” in Charlottesville, Virginia over the last few days is sin. It is white nationalism. It is domestic terrorism. Death occurred. These are people that want to hide behind their skin and long established positions of power. These are radicals. These people, marching with torches, yelling terribly racist things are the community soccer coaches, mail carriers, grocer, and maybe even worse yet, these are people that sit in church pews every Sunday. These are people who refuse to get out of the boat because the boat is comfortable. The boat is filled with people just like them. The boat is safe. Stepping out of the boat is scary, I totally get that. But the boat of white supremacy has been floating in rivers of blood spilled by our siblings of color for too long. I, for one, no longer refuse to be quiet and complacent. My silence has lead to death. I am getting out of the boat. Not because I want to, but because God has called me to wade into the waters. God has got me. I am going to mess up, and get my words wrong, and my actions may be sloppy. But, I can no longer stay silent. I’d rather sink in the rivers of justice than continue to float in my own little boat of white privilege.

As you may recall, last week I gave five of your fellow congregation members $40 a piece. They trusted in God and got out of the boat. They trusted that God had them and was already working through them to show them where those funds needed to go. I am so excited to hear the stories of how God moved this week I’m on the people of God. Who wants to start?

Maundy Thursday 4/13/17 John 13:1-17, 31b-35

It seems our political discourse of late has caused a fraction in God’s kingdom here on Earth. Voters are now being identified more and more by their religious affiliations. The news often speaks of “evangelicals” versus just “Christians.” And while there are some churches that are wondering where to build their next 10,000 seat capacity sanctuary, or what to call their Saturday night “contemporary-yet also traditional-yet also family centered while being friend towards singles-yet also the spiritual but not religious” service, other churches struggle to keep the doors open. And so often as self-proclaimed Christians allow divisions to become deeper, problems to become impossible obstacles, and continue to gaze inward, I wonder if Christ doesn’t think “y’all, I didn’t die for this!”

In this familiar scene that we hear every Maundy Thursday, Christ lays out for his disciples, and for us, what it means to call ourselves “disciples,” or what it means to call ourselves Christians. It means appreciating (maybe even celebrating) the extraordinary purpose in ordinary things and service to one another. That’s it.

We aren’t told where this dinner gathering happened. I think many of us like to picture it in a church of some kind. But, the truth it, this gathering could have happened in the middle of a field, in the middle of a town square, even in the middle of a bar! Do you know why the location isn’t mentioned? Because it doesn’t matter. Jesus has not yet once allowed location to dictate his ministry–why would he start now? Whenever Jesus saw the opportunity to engage in ministry, he took it. And let us not forget that Christ ministered to the disciples. They needed love and care, too. Just because they were part of Christ’s “inner circle” didn’t make them immune from needing love and forgiveness. Heck, Jesus didn’t even wait for dinner to be over before jumping into service. Verses 2-3 say “and during supper…” Jesus doesn’t wait for a “so-called right time” because the “right time” is right now!

Then, Jesus takes ordinary objects and uses them for extraordinary purposes. The towel he tied around himself wasn’t the nice, plush, high-thread-count, Martha Stewart style towel. This was probably a worn and tattered piece of cloth, well hew, ragged edges, previously used towel. In so many pictures and artwork, we see it as this nice, neat, white towel. When, in reality, it probably looked more like that ratty old college t-shirt you couldn’t bear to throw away and now it’s a dust rag. We are told that he then poured water into a basin. We aren’t told how. Does he go to a well to draw water? Does he take a pitcher off the table? Is it a fancy porcelain pitcher and basin? Who knows, really. But the chances are good that it most likely was a plain clay pitcher and a plain clay bowl. Nothing special. But again, Jesus takes ordinary things and does extraordinary ministry with them.

Of course, he pours water into the bowl. This isn’t the first time that Jesus is going to do amazing things with water. We have the ability to hear that Jesus poured water and conjure up images of baptism. We have the ability to know previous scripture stories that speak of ritual cleansing. And, really, when Jesus is involved, nothing is ordinary. And all the while, the question that gets asked of the disciples, and the question that should stay with us until Easter morning is “do you know what I have done to you?” Why gather, brothers and sisters, why gather to mark these three days if we can’t answer this question. What has Jesus done to us? He has taught us how to love one another. And it looks nothing like we thought. It looks ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

All of Jesus’ actions up to this point were done out of love. Jesus’ actions after this dinner were done in love. All of Jesus’ ministry was about one thing: love. And all along the way, Jesus took ordinary people, ordinary situations, ordinary objects, and used them all for extraordinary purposes: to show his love. We hear in the Corinthians reading, Jesus takes simple items: bread and wine, and turns them into extraordinary love. Jesus takes water and turns it into extraordinary love. Jesus took old tree branches and turned them into extraordinary love in the form of a cross. Jesus took on 3 ordinary nails, piercing his skin all the way through, into extraordinary love. And, on the third day, Jesus turned an ordinary tomb into further proof of extraordinary love. The commandment that he gives to his disciples and us this evening is to love one another as he loved us.

But, hearing of all of Jesus’ extraordinary actions can leave us feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or even a little put out. Loving one another as Jesus loved us? It almost seems impossible. Jesus seemed to go the extra mile all the time. There are days we may not even be willing to go the extra foot. Jesus’ love was amazing. Jesus loved through humble service towards those around him. God was glorified through his actions. What might humble service look like for us? A friendly phone call? A visit to someone no longer able to make it to church? Maybe allowing someone to go ahead of you in the grocery store line. How might the world react if we took ordinary moments and used them for extraordinary ministry? See, Jesus doesn’t care about the size of your wallet, the size of your house, the size of your garage, the size of your behind, even the size of this congregation. Jesus only cares about the size of your heart. Jesus doesn’t care if you call yourself a “Christian” or an “evangelical” or even a Lutheran. What Jesus does care about is if you love other people.

We can’t say we love Jesus while watching Syrian refugees gasp for air. We can’t say we love Jesus while our black brothers and sisters get treated as if their lives mean less. We can’t say we love Jesus while building walls. We can’t say we love Jesus while limiting the health care that the world so desperately needs. We can’t say we love Jesus while advocating for the death penalty. We can’t say we love Jesus while wanting to limit what love looks like and while wanting to limit who does and does not deserve it. Because the truth is, brothers and sisters, no one deserves the love that God has to give us through Jesus Christ. But, the audacious truth is, somehow, someway, a world full of sinners receives it daily.

Don’t get overwhelmed, friends. In a world hungry for love, it can be overwhelming to think about trying to love the entire world. But see, through the power of the Holy Spirit, fed by bread and wine, you are able to take your ordinary love and turn it into extraordinary things. This world is hurting. Even the smallest bit of ordinary love can seem like an extraordinary thing. Soon, we too will gather around this table, hearing the words once again that are so so ordinary, but do you understand what he did for you? The body of Christ given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you. Extraordinary love from an extraordinary Savior.

3/12/17 John 3:1-17 Lent 2

Perhaps you’ve heard me say that the most used word in the Gospel of John is “abide.” In the original Greek text, “meno” can be translated as remain, or stay, but probably is most often translated as abide. What does it mean to abide? Webster says that it means to “bear patiently,” or to “endure without yielding.” It can also mean to “remain stable or in a fixed place” or “continue in a place.” I fear that abide is one of those words that is quickly considered to be old fashioned. The people that care about such statistics have actually noticed that the use of the word “abide” has declined in the last few decades. Why does any of this matter? Because in the Gospel of John, the idea of abide or “meno” is most frequently tied to relationships. God desires for us to abide in relationship not only to God but with one another.

We are even told at the beginning of John that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1: 1,14). From the very start we know that John’s gospel is going to be about a very real God who came to abide in, with, and through us all. And, that this life-giving God loved and continues to love the world. So, if we know that John is all about abiding and relationships, then we can perhaps start to hear this Gospel through that lens. What does it mean to have a relationship with God? What does that look like in 2017 United States?

 I think when we speak about having a relationship with God we tend to start skating on thin ice. The evangelical movement has made sure of that in various ways. Now, I am not about to verbally chastise another church or their religious beliefs from the pulpit. But, I am sure all of us have heard at least once in our lives that we should have a deep and personal relationship with God. That we need to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. That we need to be baptized in what is known as a “believers baptism” so that we can be born again. And while I admire evangelicals (especially how they aren’t afraid to speak to anyone–or so it seems–in order to save a life) there are some out in this world (even those who wouldn’t label themselves as “evangelical” that have started to use the Bible as a weapon.

Because verse 16 is often used as a velvet rope of sorts; a “who’s in and who’s out” in Christianity. Do you believe in God? Great! Eternal life! But if you don’t? Too bad. And really, brothers and sisters, is that the kind of God we want to claim? Is that the kind of God we lean on for hope, healing, and salvation? When we claim that God loves the world, do we have any idea how amazingly wonderful and yet maddening that can be? I am going to turn to the Greek (once again) in these verses. Both verse 16 and 17 use the word “world” several times. The greek here is “kosmos.” The cosmos, as we’re used to learning about it, is every last living, breathing, existing, cellular creature that has ever been and will ever be. Yet, the way we tend to think about the cosmos is either the world around us (as in our family, our town, even our country) or just the places we’re only slightly familiar with.

As a further example, we might say “God loves the World!” when what we really mean is “God loves me, the people around me, the people I like, and the people that I really want God to favor.” We cannot say “God loves the world” and in the same breath express “except you people over there!” Let’s think about scripture for just a moment. God loved a Samaritan woman (someone that society, culture, and rules said shouldn’t be loved). God loved a man so possessed with demons that when he was cured of those demons the demons inhabited pigs that immediately drowned themselves. God loved a man who was blind from birth. God loved Lazarus who had been dead for 4 days; dead to the point that the smell of death and doubt had already set in. God loved Judas so much that he fed him and washed his feet despite knowing that Judas would betray him. God loved a woman that had been hemorrhaging for 12 years. There are so many stories we could talk about that boil down to one concept: God loving the world.

Oh but how badly we want to put limits on that love! When will we learn that God’s love is not a precious commodity the way we think it is. It is a precious commodity in that God’s love is directly tied to our forgiveness of sins and ultimately, our life. But it is not a precious commodity in that it will ever run out. God’s love isn’t like oreo’s: it doesn’t come with a serving size. There is enough of God’s love for the entire cosmos. This means that there is enough love for you for a thousand lifetimes. And if we’re going to declare that God loves the world, then that means that God loves the entire world. God loves the person currently living in fear because of their immigration status. God loves the Jewish communities being victimized all over again with the destruction of their cemeteries. God loves our Muslim brothers and sisters who are vilified and painted as enemies of the state. How strong our own faith might be should we pray 5 times a day. God loves the young black man in a hoodie trying to get home with his skittles and iced-tea. God loves the young girl born as Eddie and is now Elizabeth. God loves the scarred and wounded and the perfectly coiffed and airbrushed.

What difference does it make in your life then that we have a God that not only loves the world, but invites the world into abiding in relationship with God? And that the world includes you? I can’t answer that for you. But, I do know that none of us are above needing saving and/or needing the love of God for daily survival. As I said earlier, this declaration of God’s love should be wonderful and maddening. It’s wonderful news for us who long to be saved. Who wear the badge of “Christian” proudly (but usually only like Nicodemus: at night, under the cover of darkness, when we can’t be seen or discovered). It’s wonderful news to us and for us who love other people (like our family and friends). But, it’s also maddening because we desire to limit God’s love, the influence of God’s love, and the actions of God’s love. We don’t want our enemies to receive this love. The only enemy we have, brothers and sisters, is Satan and our own sin. That’s it.

We want to find exceptions to the rule, don’t we. We pose theological quandaries like “if we say God loves the whole world do we really mean…” and then fill in the blank. And the answer is always “yes.” Even when we want the answer to be “no” the answer is “yes.” When we are born of water and of Spirit we are submitting to God and recognizing that our entire existence is dependent on God. Everything we are. Everything we’ve been and will be is dependent on God. And despite our desire to be dependent on ourselves, society, even pure dumb luck, God gives us everything we need; first and foremost that being love and salvation. This is a promise made not only to you, but every last speck of dirt, every last cell, every molecule in the entire cosmos. And it all starts with relationship and abiding in God.

Sermon for 3/5/17 Matthew 4:1-11, Lent 1

One thing you may not hear me preach about very often is Satan. I’ve thought about this off and on all week and I am not sure why this is. Satan, for me, is known by many names. The devil, evil, temptation, sin, and darkness, among others. I don’t know if I am the only Lutheran to struggle with this or not. I firmly believe that Satan is a very real presence. I firmly believe in the concept of hell. It’s just not something you hear me speak of a lot. I think the reason for this is that I know that Satan longs to have me on his team. I have told you more than once that the person I preach to (first and foremost) is myself. Perhaps I just don’t want the reminder that Satan longs for me.

Today, Jesus comes face to face devil. Jesus is faced with three temptations: bread for his hunger, saving himself from danger, and lastly, all the power in the world. Jesus says no each time, of course. This is predictable Jesus. We know how Jesus is, we know how Jesus interacts with the world, so we know he is going to say no to these temptations. In fact, it would be surprising if he had any other answer besides “no.” It’d be like going to see Titanic and the boat doesn’t sink at the end.

What Satan is offering Jesus is basic: power. Jesus would have the power to turn stones into bread. Jesus would have the power to be protected (by angels, nonetheless). Jesus would have power to rule over all the nations. Power is a very intoxicating feeling. Power is what we all long for. Power is the thing we seem to all chase in one way or another. Now, it doesn’t always Satan coming to us and greeting us face to face. We don’t always get these one on one conversations with the devil and him laying out these offers of temptation. The temptation to give into the hunger for power comes in small and sneaky ways. Temptation usually comes to us in the moments we are least expecting it. Then the devil, dressed in sheep’s clothing, saunters in and dangles a carrot of power in front of our face.

See, power and temptation comes and goes. When we look at our friends and neighbors around us and desire what they have, that’s evil wanting to wiggle into our lives. We want to give into the temptation of power when we quickly engage in judgement of the other. We judge fellow parents for parenting decisions. We judge job choices, clothing choices, car choices, even food choices (you ever sneak a look in someone else’s cart?). This desire to have more power controls our lives whether we know it or not. Often we just want the power to control things in our own lives, fix things in our own lives, and make our own lives better. That hunger for power turns us blind to the world around us. The desire for power and the temptation that constantly surrounds it causes us to navel gaze.

When we are so focused on gaining power for ourselves, we lose sight of those around us that completely lack power and need us to use the power we already have to help them. The hungry need us to use our power to feed. People of color would be more than happy to see us leverage some of our white privilege. Our LGBT brothers and sisters would probably rather have us care about why the suicide rate is so high in their community versus what bathroom they use. We need to use our power to make sure healthcare is something everyone can access. No one should ever have to make the decision between eating and life-sustaining medication. But, advocating for healthcare can even come with the temptation to yield power in discriminatory efforts. We want to fundraise for the healthy mom with 4 kids who got breast cancer; but the life-long heroin user that now has AIDS? Forget it.

Temptation sneaks in sometimes when we least expect it. Small lies that don’t mean anything pepper our days. We excuse sexist and racist jokes. We allow our friends to complain about their children or spouse when they’re not around. Temptation lures us in various ways. Temptation and power are always there, calling our name, offering a “better life” (whatever that may look like for you). It is a very real temptation. Satan is a very real force in our lives. If you’ve ever done battle with Satan, you know that evil is very real. Maybe Satan has tempted you with infidelity. Maybe Satan has tempted you with stealing or cheating. Maybe Satan has even tempted you with death. Satan doesn’t always lurk in dark corners waiting until you have your guard down to strike. Satan is right next to us every single day just encouraging us to give into the temptation of power.

But, Satan screwed up when talking with Jesus. Now, of course Jesus didn’t give into temptation, he’s Jesus. But, one of the first things that Satan did was remind Jesus who he is and whose he is. The devil says to Jesus “if you are the Son of God….” (vv3). Just as a reminder/refresher, this time that Jesus spent in the wilderness comes right after he was baptized by John in the Jordan. And what happened? Upon his baptism, a voice from heaven came saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). Jesus has been called and claimed as God’s beloved son. Along comes the devil and says “if you are the son of God…” And ding ding ding! Jesus remembers who he is.

Friends, we are not Jesus. We all know that denying Satan isn’t as easy as it sounds. But, our identity as beloved children of God has already given us the power the devil tries to offer. And when we do cave (which we will) the freedom we have in and through the love of God will encourage us to face that darkness, name it, claim it, understand it, and then seek forgiveness for thinking anything or anyone but God can offer us life. This isn’t about guilt. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This is about acknowledging that the hunger for power and temptation is all around us. This is about acknowledging that Satan, the devil, and the power of evil is very real. But, this is also about naming and claiming who we are: beloved children of God. This is about using God’s love to deny Satan. This is about using our identity to deny Satan. This is about calling something what it is. That means when Satan offers us power through temptation, we call it evil. And when God showers us with grace and mercy, we call it life. Brothers and sisters, Satan comes for us every single day. And the good news is, so does God.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Today starts our journey to the cross. Today we start the life-giving, slow and methodical, scripture-filled centering traverse towards what ultimately saves us. But, as I’ve thought about it, I wondered why we think about Lenten practices only during the time of Lent. If we take scripture seriously, which we should, then perhaps it might be good to ponder what it would look like to give alms, pray, and fast all year around. I love that this scripture comes today because this actually is the end of the sermon on the mount. This is the same scripture we’ve heard over the last few weeks. Jesus is educating the disciples before they go out into the world serving in his name. Clearly, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples that they only need to engage in alms giving, praying, and fasting for 40 days or so. Jesus never mentioned “do this only until I am raised.” But, that is often what we chose to do.

And why? Why focus on these practices for only 40 days? It’s not like they aren’t life giving. Jesus wants to provide us with life. He provides us with the tools to do that. Give alms, engage in prayer, and fast. However, most of us do this for only the season of Lent, if we do it at all. Once Easter rolls around, we congratulate ourselves on keeping the discipline, engage and overindulge in the things from which we fasted, and go back to our “regular” lives. Instead of these becoming sacred practices, they become something to cross off our to-do list. Even more interesting, Jesus suggests, maybe even commands us, to do all of these things in private.

Doing any of this in private doesn’t seem to be the American way. If we’re going to be honest, we like to be recognized. Any of you that receive any kind of mailings from organizations that thrive from donations know that at least one mailing is dedicated to givers. Sometimes the givers are even noted by really fancy names “gold level giving” or “president’s society” and the like. It is a nice way to say thank you and perhaps guilt/shame others into giving more in the following year. Many times, our giving is rewarded with actual gifts of thanks. “Thank you for your donation! Can we send you a coffee mug you don’t need and will never actually use?”

I’m just as guilty about praying in public as anyone else. If we’re friends on Facebook, you know that I make it a habit to publicly pray for anyone who requests it every single Thursday. Now, I don’t do this to earn praise or even to make myself appear holier than thou. I do it out of love for my neighbor. But, I can understand how from the outside, I could appear to be lifting myself up as better than someone else because I am praying for other people and you aren’t.

But, when we engage in any of these practices in private, something happens. According to scripture, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” When we give alms, pray, and fast without boasting, without a thought of self, and without the desire to earn anything God sees us and will reward us. I don’t know about you all, but a reward from God is better than any coffee mug. Do we have a relationship with God so we can brag to other people? Do we come to church so that others can see that we’re here? Do we pray in the hopes that others will see us doing it and desire to be us? Do we fast because we want others to be jealous of our discipline? I hope you answered “no” to all of these questions. Anything we do we do because we desire to have a private communion with God.

Please don’t misunderstand me, brothers and sisters. There is a time and place to be a disciple. But, being an evangelist is different than giving alms, praying, and fasting. Being an evangelist is a response to God’s love and grace showered upon us. God has been so good to us that we can’t not but tell other people. But we don’t tell other people about God’s love and grace as a way of bragging, right? We don’t do it so we can boast like “you won’t believe what I have and you don’t!” No. We share about how good God is to us because we so badly want everyone to experience this love and grace.

What might it look like, then, to engage in the practices of alms giving, praying, and fasting all year around? Theologian Douglas John Hall says “the very purpose of almsgiving, prayer, and religious observance is to deliver us from the debilitating and exorbitant self-consciousness that dogs our lives. ‘Salvation’ for self-absorbed creatures like us means finally–or at least intermittently!–to lose our precious selves in the other: the other who is the recipient of our alms, the Other who hears our prayers, the others who wonder what our religion really comes to if not just more public promotion and self-display! In most of the days and hours of our lives, we are burdened with the thought of how we are being perceived: What will they think? When faith is true, Jesus affirms, we find ourselves–at least here and there, now and then–graciously liberated from the burden of self, liberated for the other. That is faith’s essence!”

The truest definition of sin is whatever comes between you and God. For me, brothers and sisters, the thing that comes between me and God the most is myself. The idea of being liberated from that is intoxicating, enticing, and incredibly appealing. And God tells me this freedom comes from giving alms, praying, and fasting in private? I’m in. If you need a reminder of our mortality, brothers and sisters, it will soon be smudged on your forehead. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done or not done. It doesn’t matter if we leave millions to charity, pray in the public sphere, or fast from indulgences, we will return to dust. All of us.

In the cross, we are freed from our sin and freed for service to one another. We have been liberated for the other. So, my challenge to you, my dusty friends, is to see Lent as the start of something. Not the start and end 40 days later; but the actual start of something: a deepening of your own faith life. Our relationship with God is very private. The fruits of that relationship are very public. God knows you, sees you, and loves you. God loves “the you you hide.” God knows every single one of the hairs on your head and knows every single one of your flaws. And God loves you still the same. You don’t need to prove that to anyone. In the cross, Jesus died for your sins, yes, but also died so that you wouldn’t need to carry your burden of self anymore. The only person you ever have to worry about impressing already thought you were worth dying for.

Sermon for 1/1/17 Matthew 2:13-23

I don’t know if it was the moon, the tides, or just life, but this past week was challenging. Not good, not bad, just challenging. The week between Christmas and New Year’s I had planned to relax, visit our shut-ins, spend an extra afternoon or so with Chris. But then life happened, as it does. I had one funeral lined up before Jeanne Rogis died. So this past week brought me 2 funerals. One of those funerals was for a baby from Camanche. If I ever have to do that again it will be too soon. Then Jeanne’s funeral. Then a wedding rehearsal on Friday with the wedding last night (which was awesome, by the way) and service this morning. God and I have spent more time together this week than usual. On top of this, I wanted to prepare to leave for vacation, the house is chaotic with the siding and windows work, and I am worried about a dear family member dealing with some heart issues. And if I am going to be honest with all of you, which I totally believe in doing, I am exhausted. I have poured more out of myself than I have put in. I joked earlier that I felt like God was making me earn my vacation.  

Maybe you can understand, then, why the last thing I really wanted to do was to preach on the slaughter of the innocents (at this text from Matthew is often called). I read it over like 27 times trying to make it magically turn into rainbows and unicorns. No such luck. I should know by now that God doesn’t work like that. The more I tried not to think about this reading, the more I thought about it. I didn’t want to talk about the bloodshed, violence, and graphic nature of today’s reading. I especially didn’t want to talk about it because it is still Christmas, after all. Yes, despite what the retail stores are trying to sell you in regards to Valentine’s Day, it is still Christmas. I want to hear more about the infant Jesus. I want to hear about the manger, the animals, Joseph still in disbelief, and Mary a little unsure of her place now after giving birth to a savior. I want to hear about that.

But instead we get this terrible story about Herod killing innocent children. Herod, who was a supposed King of the Jews acted like anything but. For some reason he felt like his legacy, his work, maybe even his title and thrown, were at risk or under attack by an infant Jesus. I’m not an expert in infants, but I’ve never seen one overthrow a kingdom yet. Nonetheless, Herod was frightened. Of course, being a king he wasn’t going to admit that, but he was outright scared. This should start to give us a picture of the power of Jesus. If Herod wanted him dead even as an infant, Jesus’ powers and what he might accomplish in his lifetime we already putting fear into people.

In an act of what can only be called tyrannical rage, Herod demanded that all children under the age of 2 be killed. One has to wonder if our world leaders could be or would be set off so easily. Just let that set in for a moment. Herod felt so threatened by the infant Jesus that he demanded that all children be killed. That’s like setting your entire house on fire in order to cook a casserole. And in a great time of uncertainty, God protected Jesus. While the loss of the innocent lives was overwhelmingly cruel, God provided for and protected the messiah. Maybe then it’s not too much for us to believe that in uncertain circumstances God protects us too.

With the arrival of a new year, many of you might make resolutions or promises for a better 2017. Unfortunately, with the turning of the calendar, the dropping of the ball, and the start of a new day and month, our problems do not automatically disappear. Wouldn’t that be just wonderful if it worked that way? Some of you still struggle with health. Some of you still struggle financially. Some of you still struggle with your family or friends. All of us, in one way or another, struggle. That didn’t go away from 2016 to 2017. For some, the arrival of a new year may actually cue the anxiety to increase. With the election of Mr. Trump what happens to the affordable care act? How will the markets react with his presidency? What laws will a republican congress and senate pass that will affect me?

Maybe the arrival of 2017 causes your anxiety to increase for good reason. Maybe you’re expecting the addition of a little one to your family. Maybe you’re sending your “baby” off to college. Maybe you yourself are thinking about a job switch or even retirement. The life of the church and our future ahead is even a little uncertain (but in good way). We added 30 new members in 2016. What will this year bring? What and who will we need to make room for in our pews, hearts, and Sunday School rooms this next year? Through all these changes, God moves and acts to protect us.

And I understand that in some situations it can feel like God has just outright forgotten you. If you were to be told that God is acting for you and protecting you during a time of great struggle and stress, you have every right to doubt that. It usually isn’t until a time of great peril is over that we realize how and where God was acting and protecting us. And the beauty of this protection and love offered to us from God isn’t something we need to or even have to acknowledge in order to receive it. In the midst of crisis, it’s perfectly okay to doubt that God even knows you’re still alive. God’s faithfulness to us does not depend on our faithfulness to God. (say this again)

God created you. God created me. God created all of us. We are made in God’s image. God loves us and would never let us walk through the fire and abandon us. God protects us and would never go through waters and drown. Even in the times of great struggle, God protects us and is with us. In the times of great triumph, God protects us and is with us. In our every day lives, God protects us and is with us. I’m not advocating that you be happy 100% of the time no matter what. Brothers and sisters, what I am advocating is that you trust God’s presence in your life is very real, even if you can’t feel it. I am asking you to trust that God is protecting you, even if it feels like you are in the middle of a storm. God has not abandoned you yet and God certainly isn’t going to start now.

Sermon for 1996 class reunion (based on John 11)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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