Sermon for 12/31/17 Luke 2:22-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon for 11/26/17 Matthew 25:31-46 Christ the King

I am sure most of you have heard this story, but it deserves to be told again. “An old man was walking on the beach one morning after a storm. In the distance, he could see someone moving like a dancer. As he came closer, he saw that it was a young woman picking up starfish and gently throwing them into the ocean. ‘Young lady, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’ ‘The sun is up, and the tide is going out and if I do not throw them in they will die,’ she said. ‘But young lady, do you not realize that there are many miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possibly make a difference.’ The young woman listened politely, then picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea. ‘It made a difference for that one.’” (adapted from the original by Loren Eiseley)  The temptation of this scripture is to either read it and be quick to pat ourselves on the back or read it and be shamed for all we haven’t done. I am hoping to help us all orient ourselves to an uncomfortable yet soft place somewhere in the middle.

          I feel it’s important to look at this scripture today as part of the whole of Matthew’s gospel. There are bookend verses that I believe we need to remember as we read much, if not all, of Matthew. Matthew 1:21-23 “’She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’” And Matthew 28:18-20 “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” Those two verses frame everything else in Matthew. We are reminded of who Jesus is (Emmanuel, God with us) and what our call is (to make disciples).

          We are living in a time of great divide, my beloved. Am I wrong about this? The gap between left and right, black and white, male and female, gentile and Jew, seems to be getting wider and wider every single day. News pundits make lots of money reporting on stories that has only one simple goal: vilify the other. It doesn’t matter who “the other” is, the most important thing we can do, according to the media, is to prove them wrong, even if they’re right. So, our call as Christians to make disciples and serve all in need is complicated. And I fear that being right has won out over being loved and loving others. I don’t doubt our desire to serve is genuine. But, somewhere along the way, we decided that in order to be worthy of our love and help, those in need had to look a certain way, act a certain way, live a certain way, or even speak a certain language.

          “How can that person be poor? They have an iPhone.” Or “if things are really tight at her house, maybe she should sell that Michael Koors bag she carries.” Maybe you’ve heard “All” (fill in the blank here) are just free-loaders. All welfare babies. All blacks. All Mexicans. All section 8 moms. All whatever… I can’t ever remember reading anything in the Bible that God calls us to serve others, as long as they look poor. Or act poor. Or act sick. Our call is to serve others, end of story. No stipulations. No catches. So for us to dare ask Christ “when was it that we saw you…” means that we just aren’t paying attention. Plain and simple. Because if we believe that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, really is God with us, then that means God is in every face of every human being, no matter their label. We may be too busy looking to serve a king, that the real king is in the face of the peasant.

          And the reason I shared that starfish story is because when Christ calls us to serve the world, it can seem overwhelming. The need is so great. We may look around and not even know how or where to get started. But, we shouldn’t forget that while yes, the world needs saving, we are not the ones to do it. We are not the saviors of the world. We already have one of those in Jesus Christ. But, we can make a difference to one or two in the world. And if you weren’t here on Thanksgiving Eve, I talked about this a bit too. But, to be part of a community, to be seen as human, is the first step in assuring all have a small amount of dignity. The human and the divine in me desires to see the human and the divine in you. And the human and divine in me desires to be seen as well. We have all been in a place where we’ve been the ones providing care. But, we’ve also been the ones in need of care.

          Christ calls us to care for what is known as “the least of these.” We are called to care for those who live on the margins of society, who are forgotten, who have lost all hope. And we are called to do it because if we are all made in the image of the divine, which we are, then we are caring for God when we care for the other. We should start to see one another not as problems to be solved, but as opportunities to serve the divine. This is Christ the King Sunday after all. What might the world look like if we started to ignore the labels and instead paid attention to the person. We’re so busy wondering “when was it that we saw you…” because we’re busy looking for a king. A king wouldn’t have died a gruesome death for all of humanity. Instead of looking for a King, let us look for the divine in everyone. Look past the labels. Look past left, right, black, white, documented, undocumented, married, single, gay, straight, educated, undereducated, whatever…and instead look into the eyes of a fellow human to see the divine. And allow yourself to be vulnerable enough for others to see the divine in you.

          This isn’t easy work. As I said, society is working really hard to pit us against one another. If we all suddenly started getting along, what in the world would the news have to talk about? But remember, we are promised from the very beginning that Jesus will be Emmanuel: God with us. In those moments that we are scared to see the divine in the other or to have the divine in us seen, God is there, with us. And if we’re serious about making disciples, which is what Christ calls us to do, then it starts by seeing everyone as an equal. This scripture evens the playing field. We are all sheep. We are all goats. We all need cared for. We all have done the caring. We all are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and a prisoner. And all of us need a savior. We cannot save ourselves. And we may not be able to serve everyone. But, we certainly can start by serving our neighbors without any expectations of being served in return. And what a relief as well, to be served knowing we don’t owe anyone anything. The price has already been paid by Christ.

          In this meal, we meet the one who is with us, Christ the King. The thing he looks nothing like a king. He looks nothing like royalty. Instead, he looks like the man on the corner with a cardboard sign. He looks like the woman in the WIC office for the third time this week trying to get her benefits figured out. He looks like the undocumented migrant worker, sending 98% of his money back home so his family can have a better life. Christ looks like those falsely accused sitting behind bars waiting on a break. But, he also looks like those sitting behind bars waiting for death. Christ looks like those that have been shamed. Christ looks like those who have been told time and time again “you don’t matter.” All it takes is one person to say “you matter to me. You matter to God, and you matter to me.” In this meal, we are reminded that we all matter. No matter our status here on earth, in God’s kingdom, we matter. In God’s kingdom, we are all royalty.

 

Sermon for Thanksgiving 2017 Luke 17:11-19

A few years ago, my brother Jon was living in Burlington, Vermont. He was new to the area and new to his position at work. As such, he didn’t have any place to go for Thanksgiving nor did he have the time or funds to come home for the holiday. So, Jon found himself out and about just strolling through the quiet streets of Burlington when he stumbled upon an open restaurant. He walked in and was immediately welcomed and shown to a seat. He made friends with his fellow diners and had a fantastic meal complete with all of the fixings. When he was done, he found the woman that he originally met at the door. “how much do I owe you?” He said. “Oh! No one told you” she said? This is a free meal. Jon was immediately taken aback. He said “but I can pay.” He was starting to feel a little guilty. The woman said, “it’s free. This meal is for anyone who doesn’t have any place else to go. Some are homeless, yes. But some are business travelers going from point A to point B.” The dinner was run by volunteers. “This is our family this day. Our community” she said. Jon left full and thankful. What he needed that day, he received. He didn’t want a meal. He didn’t want pity. Whether he knew it or not, he desired to be part of a community. In a way, I think we all desire that. We all want to be part of something.

As Jesus was in his travels, we are told that he goes into the region between Samaria and Galilee. To go between these two regions wasn’t really necessary for the average Joe traveler. It was desolate, mostly forgotten, and not well traveled. I say it wasn’t necessary for the average traveler, but it was necessary for Jesus. In the region, he came across ten lepers. We don’t use the word “leper” any more. But, these are the forgotten of society. These are the people that have been abandoned, forgotten, even disavowed from their families. They didn’t chose to become lepers, that’s for sure. No one would purposefully choose to be shunned. No one purposefully chooses to be shamed, forgotten, abandoned, or have their humanity outright denied. In our current day context to be a leper can look like a variety of things depending on the community.

For our immediate area, to be a leper means to be homeless, maybe have to stay long stretches of time at the Victory Center. It means that you’re hustling to get money for your next hit of meth or cocaine. To be a leper means that you’re doing things to your body you never said you’d do just to make ends meet. To be a leper means that you may have HIV. To be a leper means you hang out under the bridge, waiting for the ladies from the Canticle to bring you a sack lunch. Maybe it means being a transgender teenager on the verge of suicide daily thanks to teasing. To be a leper could just mean you’re an African American male who gets pulled over all too often for “DWB” (that’s driving while black, in case you didn’t know). What a leper desires is the same thing all of us desire: we want to be seen.

Don’t you desire to be seen? And I mean to be seen in a genuine God-like fashion. When was the last time you felt like you were seen? Not “hey! It’s good to see you, I’ve been meaning to ask something of you.” But, a genuine “hey! I see how you’re struggling and I know you’re doing the best you can.” When was the last time the Holy Spirit, God-filled person in you saw the Holy Spirit, God-filled person in me. Or anyone for that matter? When you see those people begging with their cardboard signs on the corners, do you think “those free-loaders need to get a job.” Or do you wonder “what circumstances lead them to that?” And maybe you might give them a buck or two. But, what if, instead of giving them money, or maybe in addition to giving them money, you said “hey. I don’t know what lead you to having to be out here on this corner, holding this sign, and begging for money. But, I know it can’t be easy for you. I appreciate that you’re willing to do whatever it takes for your family. I have a family too and I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t provide for them. Just wanted to let you know that I see you.”

When you’re a leper and society has told you over and over and over again that you mean nothing, that you’re worth nothing, that you contribute nothing, and that you basically are nothing, you may start to wonder why you bother living. All we need is for someone to see us. In the midst of the darkness, in the midst of that void between Samaria and Galilee, in the midst of the nothing that is existing but not totally living, God meets us there. God meets us there through Jesus Christ and says “I see you.” By curing the lepers, Jesus healed them, yes. But more importantly, Jesus made it such that they could be brought back into community. They could be part of something again. He cured them so that they finally could be seen. Before they were cured, they were part of a small community of lepers. But once they were cured, they were able to be reunited with the ones who had the power to love them. The shame and stigma of being a leper had been removed. To be brought back into community means a literal and metaphorical place at the table.

The leper turns back and thanks Jesus for the healing. And while I am sure he’s grateful for the physical healing, he throws himself at Jesus’ feet for more than just that. He has been made whole physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. He has been brought back into community. His dignity has been returned. I am wondering what it would look like for us to recognize and thank Jesus for seeing us just as we are. How can we possibly thank God enough for seeing us as both broken and beautiful? How do we respond to Jesus who continues to make us part of a community. We are part of the community of saints. We are part of those whom Jesus never forgets. But you know what, so is everyone else. The people we wish to forget are first and foremost remembered by Jesus and part of this Holy Spirit community that makes no sense.

A community of believers makes no sense because the only thing we all have in common is Jesus. And maybe, just maybe that’s enough. Maybe we can thank God for bringing us all together despite the differences. No matter what we do, what we look like, who we voted for, how old we are, no matter what, we are first and foremost children of God and part of God’s community. That is worth thanking God. God meets us in the midst of our Samaria/Galilee desert, no matter what that looks like, and brings us back into community. God meets us in the desolate and promises us “you have not been forgotten.” God meets us in the darkness to remind us that God is the light that no darkness can overcome. God meets us where we are and says “eat. Drink. This is my body. This is my blood. And you, you my child are forgiven and set free.” In those holy moments, we are part of a community. Thanks be to God.

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 10/29/17 John 8:31-36 Confirmation

Today is a day that is 500 years in the making. Now, I say that not because Ciera, Emma, and Tristan feel like they participated in confirmation for what probably felt like 500 years. I say that because we finally are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. A then Catholic monk by the name of Martin Luther had diligently studied scripture and observed that what he read and how the church acted seemed to be in contradiction with one another. During Luther’s time, to go against the church was looked at like going against God directly. The church was more than the church. It served as local government, tax collector, sometimes a clothing or food source, and even a place to receive health care. To argue with the church was like arguing with the president, every member of congress, and your doctor all at the same time. And I’ve said this before, but Luther didn’t set out to start the reformation. He was trying to be true to who and what God called him to be. Through his prolific readings of the Bible he thought that what the word of God said was true, no questions asked. “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

As the students prepared to write their faith statements, what was essentially asked of them was for them to answer the question “what do you know to be truth about God?” So I ask you, my beloveds, what do you know to be the truth about God? I feel like I say this all the time, but what these three confirmands did by writing these statements of faith isn’t something that is remotely easy. It’s not something many of us could do. To sit down and literally write about what you know to be true about God is hard. But once you know what you believe to be true, that truth can set you free. Once you know your truth of God you are freed from expectations, freed from disappointment, and freed from the temptation to chase false gods.

And much like what we mark today, it is okay for your truth to be reformed. After all, we are creatures that benefit from experience, education, and our contexts. What you believed about God as a young child may not be what you believe now. God constantly reforms us. What you believe to be true about God doesn’t have to be complex. It doesn’t have to be a novel. It doesn’t even have to be 95 things you believe to be true about God. All it needs to be is the truth. The thing about your truth is it is just that: your truth. So, if I say “I believe that God is a sassy African-American female with rainbow colored hair” can you really point me to a verse in the Bible that would prove me wrong?

Here are some of the truths our students shared with us in their faith statements. “Without God nothing is possible…God’s love is always with me no matter what. … God must have a plan for me.” Another said [God] “will always love me, forgive me, and always be with me … God also helps me remember what is important in life … [God] is good and [God] has the power to help me. … God gives me hope to believe in myself.” This is good stuff, right? Our final faith statement shared what they believe to be true about God by saying “every day God’s love is with me. … I always have God’s love and forgiveness to look forward to. … I feel God’s love … God’s has a different plan than I may have expected … I know God will light the way … The biggest asset in life is God.” These truths for our three confirmands have done something amazing. It has set them free.

I find that many people want to deal in certainty. We enjoy knowing that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We know that come April, the Cubs will start playing baseball again. We know for sure that on Christmas eve we will sing “Silent Night.” There is something comforting about certainty. So to know for certain what you believe is the truth about God can be comforting and it can set you free. As I said before, this truth doesn’t have to be rocket science. I often call it my “elevator speech” or my “tweet speech.” What I believe about God to be true can be said in an elevator ride or 1-2 tweets. I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God promises God’s love to all people. End of story. That is what I believe to be true. And oh my goodness, what I believe to be true about God has reformed over the years. For the longest time, I didn’t believe that God did or could love me. I didn’t know about grace. I thought that God was angry and vengeful and that I would somehow pay dearly for every single sin, no matter how large or small.

But the truth, my truth about God, has led to freedom that only comes from God and comes from believing God to be loving and full of mercy. What will your truth about God do for you? What kind of truths will reform your thinking? What kind of truth might even reform your relationship with God? What kinds of truth will set you free? And even after we come to know the truth about God will we still mess it up? Absolutely! We will continue to put our trust in things and people that are not life giving. We will invest in time that will be wasted. We may even attempt to accomplish our goals and aspirations all by ourselves. And we will fail. Sin is tricky like that.

These young people today are making an affirmation of their faith and their baptismal promises. Their faith may be reformed over the next few years, but they are bold enough to stand in front of all of us today and declare what they know to be the truth about God. And their lives are changed for it. Ciera, Emma, and Tristan, I want to thank you. Thank you for trusting me with your questions and curiosities. Thank you for your amusing snap chat sermon notes. Thank you for being willing to try new things. Thank you for loving yourselves and God enough to go through this process. I pray that the truth you now know and believe about God has set you free.

Sermon for 10/15/17 Matthew 22:1-14

**nb: this is the Sunday when the congregation I serve celebrates its ongoing relationship with the Foods Resource Bank (FRB) **

Foods Resource Bank, or FRB, has a mission statement that reads: “As a Christian response to hunger, FRB links the grassroots energy and commitment of agricultural communities around the world with the capability and desire of smallholder farmers in developing countries to grow lasting solutions to hunger.” I want to focus a bit on the first part of that mission statement: “as a Christian response.” Yes, what FRB does is a humanitarian response. It’s an empathetic response. It’s a caring response. But, what makes FRB different from other hunger programs is that it is couched in Christ. “As a Christian response” should be what we do with so many issues in the world. We respond as Christians first and foremost. The current Bishop of our church, the ELCA, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton often asks what makes us different than the Red Cross. And it’s not that the Red Cross isn’t a great organization, it is. But the church isn’t the Red Cross. And the Red Cross isn’t the church. Bishop Eaton often says that her four emphasis for the ELCA are: “we are church; We are Lutheran; We are church together; We are church for the sake of the world.”

I wonder if we think much about our Christian response to whatever. What is our Christian response to the North Korean nuclear issue? What is our Christian response to the US’ involvement in relations between Israel and Palestine? What is our Christian response to gun control, the death penalty, or kneeling during the National Anthem? What is our Christian response to health care, the working poor, and slum lords? What is our Christian response to systemic racism? Notice that with each of those issues, I asked “what is our Christian response?” I didn’t ask “what is our Republican response?” or “what is our Democratic response?” What is our feminine response, masculine response, white response, generation X response, and on and on and on. Because no matter what else we are, we are first and foremost, God’s.

Our primary identity is a called, claimed, and forgiven child of God. This is our core identity. It’s as if our identity as a Christian is the “basement” or foundation of the rest of our lives. It is our primary identity. But, we often allow it to become our secondary identity or we move that identity to a status that can almost be called “if we get to it.” It isn’t enough to call ourselves “Christian.” See, “Christian” is a verb. It’s awesome that you come to church. I am glad that you are here. But, being a Christian is more than just coming to church. Let me put it to you like this. I belong to the YWCA here in town. I wouldn’t call myself an athlete. I make dinner for my family on a regular basis. I wouldn’t call myself a chef. I can hem up a fallen pant cuff. I wouldn’t call myself a seamstress. I think you can understand where I am going with this. But I am, or at least try to be, a Christian in every aspect of my life.

In today’s Gospel reading (which, yes, is pretty violent…again), an invited guest showed up to a wedding banquet and wasn’t wearing the proper clothing. And because of that, he was thrown out of the party. And it wasn’t a nice, quiet, keep his dignity kind of occasion. The man was bound by his hands and feet and then thrown into the darkness where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Sounds lovely. This isn’t a story about “what not to wear.” My guess is that many of us have had situations where we were not wearing the right thing. We might have been over dressed or under dressed. Ask me sometime about the first time I met Chris’ parents! Anyway, this reading (much like our previous weeks) is a parable. And the banquet that is being spoken of in today’s reading is an analogy for the banquet that is waiting for us in the kingdom of heaven. It is what we talk about during communion when we speak of a “foretaste of the feast to come.” And the thing is this: it requires more of us than just showing up.

We have been chosen by God. As Lutherans, we do not believe that we can work or earn our way into heaven. We do not believe in works righteousness. It might be understandable for some to be confused by this concept. People may say “if we can’t work or earn our way into heaven, then why do we feed the hungry, or clothe the naked, or visit the imprisoned” or whatever. Our response to the issues in the world is a Christian response. And that response is our response to God’s mercy, grace, and love. When we are filled with God’s mercy, grace, and love, we are filled to the point of almost overwhelmingly overfilled. And our response to that is to then go out into the world to share some of that mercy, grace, and love with others. God’s grace isn’t cheap. The cost was the death of Jesus on a cross. It is time for us to realize that calling ourselves “Christian” isn’t good enough. It’s time for us to act like it as well. It’s time to take our call to serve God and serve others seriously.

And the time to bring about the kingdom of Heaven, is now. We, the people of God, and society in general, cannot afford to wait any longer for “other people” to bring about the kingdom of Heaven. I think this is why the host at the wedding banquet was so upset. The ill-dressed guess didn’t understand, or maybe underestimated, that the call to the banquet is immediate and requires action. We shouldn’t be like the wedding guest: complacent, blase, or merely showing up. Instead, let us take our call as Christians seriously. Our Christian response should be so second nature that eventually we stop calling it a “Christian response” and instead we just call it a response. Friends, God is calling us. God has been calling us. We need to be brave and do more than just wear the title “Christian” like it’s a comfortable sweater. We need to proclaim that to be Christian means that we truly believe that God is Immanuel, God with us. And even more importantly, we need to proclaim that God is Immanuel, God with all of us. That, is our Christian response.  

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.