Sermon for 4/23/16 John 20:19-31

Many of you may know that one of my greatest joys in life is my call as a big sister. I love my brother and sister. They are almost 3 years younger than me. They will turn 36 in May. Yes, they. My brother and sister are twins. Jonathan Anthony came first and one minute later, Jayna Christine made her entrance into the world. Jon constantly reminds Jayna that he is one minute older than her. Even though they will be 36 soon, I still refer to them as “my babies.” I helped to care for them, and in some ways, I still do. Growing up, I often got asked what it was like to have a brother and sister that are twins. I always thought that was a strange question. I didn’t know any other way.

They had some of those strange twin tendencies. They have dreamt the same dream. They have felt one another’s pain. They love telling the story about how (back in high school) they both started singing the same do-wop song at the same time. There are times that I have been jealous of their relationship. They are still close even to this day. I love being a big sister. We are told that Thomas is called the “Twin.” But, we never find out who his twin is. And with a name like “doubting Thomas” one has to wonder if anyone would actually claim Thomas as their twin.

If you’ve ever had a nickname or known someone who has and it is a nickname that they despise, then perhaps you can sympathize with Thomas. As we were debating over the name we would call Ellen, we tried to think of all the things that could rhyme with “Ellen” that kids might call her as a cruel nickname. Bullies are a reality and are mean. I have to believe that more than once, Thomas maybe even begged his friends, the disciples, “you guys. Please don’t call me that. I didn’t ask for anything that you all didn’t ask for. Or wouldn’t ask for.”

It was dark that first day of the week. Word had spread that the tomb was empty. Simon Peter had seen it for himself. The Lord was no longer in the tomb. Jesus came to Mary and Mary had spread the word. The disciples had gathered in the house and they locked themselves in. They apparently didn’t know that walls, doors, barriers, nothing stops Jesus. All of the disciples were there but Thomas. We aren’t told where he was. But, we can assume that word had gotten to him as well that Jesus had been raised. I have to wonder if Thomas wasn’t out in the world looking for the risen Lord. Instead of living in fear, Thomas was wanting to live into life.

When Thomas is finally told that his friends had seen Jesus, he must be befuddled. A man being resurrected is hard to understand; it’s a hard concept to grasp. Thomas wants to believe. He wants to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell that the resurrection is real. He wants to stick his finger into the wounds of Jesus, pull it out bloody, and declare that life and relationships is what Jesus promised us and Jesus always comes through on a promise.

But instead of sympathy, the disciples most likely roll their eyes. Maybe they wondered why their word wasn’t good enough. Maybe they even doubted “sure Thomas. Like Jesus is going to let you do that!” Seven days pass. Thomas doesn’t give up hope. But the disciples, again, behind locked doors (like that’s going to stop Jesus) are greeted by the risen Lord. And, because Jesus knows everything that we need and provides for it, he presents his hands and side to Thomas. For Thomas, his belief was a whole body experience. Sure, he had heard about the risen Lord, but he needed to experience it for himself. Jesus says to him “do no doubt but believe.” And the moniker sticks.

What if, brothers and sisters, what if we are Thomas’ twin? What if we are filled with just as much doubt as our twin, our brother, our fellow disciple, Thomas? Doubt is almost a 4 letter word in the church, isn’t it? We don’t make a lot of room for doubt. God forbid someone find out that our faith isn’t what we pretend it is week after week. We have questions we’re afraid to ask. Traditions we keep doing but have no idea why. Words we keep saying that are hollow. Eating, smelling, tasting, seeing, and hearing the risen Lord, but wondering all the same. But, there’s no way we are going to voice any of that out loud. Because, what if we’re labeled doubters? What if we’re labeled frauds?

Doubt is probably one of the biggest obstacles that keep us from mission. There’s a desire to try new things. There is a desire to change (yes, I said the naughty four-letter word “change”). But doubt sneaks in and we shy away from mission. Yet Jesus says “do not doubt but believe.” Friends, what if we took the power away from doubt? What if we claimed our “twin” status as a source of pride? If we spoke the truth to doubt, we take away its power. We take away doubt’s power and we are able to (like Thomas) declare that Jesus is “my Lord and my God” instead of worshipping doubt.

What would be our version of putting our fingers into Jesus’ hands or side? Sometimes we just need permission to speak our doubts. And the Lord, who meets us where we are, breathes the Holy Spirit into us and encourages our belief. Here are my doubts: I doubt that I am worthy of God’s love. I doubt that my sins have been forgiven. I doubt that I am making a difference. I doubt my abilities in this place. I doubt every week when I prepare to step up here that I am doing what God wants me to do. And yet…I keep doing it. I keep believing. And I don’t believe because I’m some sort of super Christian. I don’t believe because I am a pastor. I don’t believe because I want to encourage all of you. Honestly, I keep believing in Jesus and what God does through Jesus because time and time again, Jesus has shown himself to me.

Doubt serves as a block between us and what God desires for us to be doing in the world. When Christ is at the center of what we do, we cannot fail. We can learn, we can grow, we can figure out what didn’t or doesn’t work, but failure doesn’t happen on God’s watch. Jesus always gives us what we need, when we need it. God has equipped us for mission. Just as Jesus sends the disciples, so we too are sent. We can attempt to put up walls, shut doors, turn off the lights, or whatever we think will keep Jesus away, but it never works. Jesus breaks down barriers, enters into rooms with locked doors and is the light no darkness overcomes. Maybe instead of being filled with doubt, we need to be filled with wonder and awe.

Our twin, Thomas, didn’t need proof. He only wanted what everyone else had: a direct encounter with the risen Christ. He wanted reassurance of his already established relationship with Christ. Thomas desired assurance that the one who had entered into the room, the one who was now sending them out was indeed the resurrected Christ. He desired reassurance that the Jesus he heard was raised was now the one standing in front of him: the one Thomas now sees. My doubt is very real and very big. But, my God is bigger. If it takes me putting my fingers into crucified flesh for me to proclaim Jesus’ love for you and for me then Jesus will gladly offer up his hands to me time and time again. Maybe Thomas is my twin. I don’t doubt the resurrection; I simply want to taste, see, hear, touch, and be in the presence of the resurrected Lord. I don’t doubt the resurrection; I simply want to be reminded of God’s love for me through Jesus Christ. If that makes me a doubter, then so be it.

Advertisements

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.

Sermon for 8/21/16 Luke 13:10-17

“I don’t know that I want to go to the ER,” I said, “there are a lot of people out there worse off than I am.” That is exactly what I said and an email to my doctor earlier this week. I was going on my 72nd hour of having a migraine. I could no longer function like a normal human being functions. I had already been to the emergency room once, but the migraine still persisted. This was the worst migraine I had experienced since giving birth to Ellen. And that also (at the time) put me back in the hospital. I was at a loss and had no idea what to do. The truth is, I was willing to try anything. But I did not like the idea of going back to the ER. I had gone just the day before and had to share a room with someone. That itself was not terrible. The fact that she had to bring her for-year-old daughter who knew only one volume for her speaking (which by the way, was obnoxiously loud) was what I was afraid of happening the second time around. In addition, this migraine caused me to be sensitive to light, sound, and smell. Going for a car ride was actually torture. If you have never had a migraine, I do not actually recommend it. But the doctor called me into her office. The nurse said we can give you something called Toradol for pain and something for the nausea. So, being willing to try anything at that point in time, I let the nurse stick two big needles in each arm. I had only been in pain for about four days. But the relief I received was almost instantaneous. I was never so glad to feel normal again, whatever that means.

The woman in our story today had been bent over and hurting for 18 years. 18 years. Can you imagine? Can you imagine being in pain for 18 years? For some of you, I know that this is not something you have to imagine. Some of you have been in pain for 18 years or longer. Some of you have been fighting one element after another, after another, after another. You seem to have one issue resolved, just to have another one pop right back up. If someone offered you relief, wouldn’t you take it? It wouldn’t matter what the circumstances would be, would you jump at the opportunity to be pain-free?

Maybe you have not been in physical pain for 18 years, but mental pain. Maybe you fight the demons of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues that have you running to dark spaces. Maybe you fear to name your demons because then they become all too real. Maybe you keep to yourself because the shame and stigma associated with people like you is just too much to bear. Maybe you can name off all of your meds on one hand like they were the name of candy. Perhaps you thought about ending your life before God has called you home. Maybe you’ve thought about it more than once. Maybe you thought about it this morning. Maybe those demons are so dark that you dare not tell anyone else for fear of being chastised.

Maybe you are not in physical, or mental pain, but emotional pain. Maybe you are suffering from broken relationships that go longer than 18 years. Maybe you haven’t spoken with someone who you call “family” in over a generation. Maybe you know you have a brother, sister, mom or dad, or other relations that live close by, but never darken your doorstep. Maybe you have broken Friendships that are just too painful to speak of. Maybe you recall having a good friend who did something to betray your trust and that friendship is no longer. 18 years can seem like a short time when you think about denial or betrayal.

Or maybe, dare I say, you are not spiritually well. Maybe you have not been spiritually well in a long time. Perhaps the church made a decision you did not agree with, or a pastor did something that greatly disappointed you, and you have not been the same since. Maybe you decided that one Sunday you would just not come to church. And one Sunday turned into two Sundays, turned into three Sundays, turned into 18 years. And for some reason, God called you to this place this morning.

No matter what our ailments might be, my friends, I daresay, we all are battling something. And I think we may all be able to name something in our lives, that given the chance, we would jump at the opportunity to be healed. So for this woman who has been suffering for 18 years, and for us, it does not matter that Jesus comes to us on the Sabbath day. The leaders of the synagogue want him to obey the law to keep the Sabbath holy. But see Jesus sees the opportunity to do exactly what Jesus does: care for others. He cares not that this opportunity comes on the Sabbath. What if this woman had been suffering for 18 years and one more day would have literally killed her? Our call is the same as Jesus’: when the opportunity comes to heal or be healed, take it. And what does the woman do when she is healed? She immediately rises and begins to praise God. Now, I know it doesn’t say this in English, but in the original Greek text, the praising is in the form of ongoing praise. So this woman didn’t praise God once and walk away, but she praised God and praised God and praised God and praised God and continued on and on.

Those in the synagogue wanted to remind Jesus of the Jewish law. But, Jesus calls them out, asking them if they wouldn’t help one of their animals if it needed it. So we should do with humans. Then Jesus calls this woman a “daughter of Abraham” further shaping and molding the relationship at hand. God, through Jesus Christ, has freed her. In an unlikely place (a synagogue–not a hospital), on an unlikely day (the sabbath), and with an unlikely person (a woman), God makes God’s-self known. So often we want to place limits on what God can do, or the time in which God can do it, or even the people God can act through. What happens when we finally get to that point where we’re willing to do anything?? So is God. What do you need to be freed from today?

Do you need to be freed from frustration? Do you need to be freed from toxic relationships? Do you need to be freed from shame? How about doubt, do you need to be free of that? Do you need to be freed from unrealistic expectations or criticism? Maybe you need to be freed from yourself. Are you the thing that’s holding you back from God? Whatever it is you need freed from, God is here, in this place, at this time, and nothing can stop God. Lay what has you bent over at the foot of the cross and be free. Raise up your hands and eat. Open your mouth and drink. Splash in the waters and be reminded that no one, no thing, no illness, no powers on this earth have any claim to you. The one who claims you and calls you by name, who calls you “my daughter” or “my son” and who calls you “beloved” is waiting for you. God is waiting for you to free you. Freedom, for you. Given, for you. Your expectations, broken, for you. Your wholeness, for you.

 

Sermon for 8/7/16 Luke 12:32-40

“Do not be afraid,” and I stopped right there. Sure, Jesus. Whatever. Maybe you haven’t watched the news lately, God, but there’s plenty to be afraid of. Where do we even start? If you’re voting one way, you’re afraid of Hillary, if you’re voting another, you’re afraid of Donald. Maybe you’re afraid of both. There’s wars, black unarmed Americans dying at a staggering rate, police officers being killed in the line of duty, the zika virus, dirty drinking water in Flint, terrorism in general, hate, xenophobia, and not to mention stories on the news every single night over what I should and should not be eating. There is plenty to fear.

In the time of fear, there is a tendency to hold on to what we know is true, to what we know is pure, to what we know is maybe even permanent. When someone is having an anxiety attack, there is a practice called grounding to help that person feel in control again. Remember that sometimes anxiety is just fear rearing its ugly head. So the practice is that you have the person look around and name 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell, and 1 thing they can taste. The idea is that this might help someone feel in more control. When fear sets in, we want things that seem steadfast. And if we’re going to be honest, there is a lot of fear in our rhetoric these days.

I don’t know how many of you have seen this bumper sticker (“Jesus is coming. Look busy!”) but it always makes me laugh. The idea is that we should be prepared for Jesus’ return by not slacking off, by looking busy, by being busy. As if we aren’t busy we’re going to be doomed to a lifetime of eternal damnation. What if, instead of talking about Jesus’ return as dreadful and a time of judgement, we spoke of it as a time of anticipation, joy, and spoke of readiness in terms of being ready for blessings? And so, as we prepare to be ready, we are told “for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Many preachers may use this text to guilt you into opening up your wallet. That’s not me. I want to take a different look at this verse today. What is it that you hold close to your heart? Most of us, if push came to shove, wouldn’t name the obvious material things. These are the things, that on the outside, look like nothing to someone else. But to us, they mean the world. For me, it’s my Grandmother’s bible, my grandfather’s bible (that he got at his own confirmation and carried through Korea), and a birthday card from my nannie that she signed in her own hand long after she could no longer see. And what you hold close to your heart says a lot about how you describe those possessions. My grandmother’s bible means so much to me because her notes are in it, she took it to Bible study every Sunday. It was the passages she underlined that got her through the death of my grandfather. When I see that Bible, I think of her strength. My grandfather’s Bible means so much to me because he hung onto it from confirmation, through a war, through adulthood. When you open it, you get the smell of must and mold, and I love it. When I see that Bible, I think of my grandfather’s gentleness and commitment to everything he did. That birthday card from my nannie means so much to me because she was at an age when she was having aids and family members do all of her writing for her: checks, letters, other correspondence, etc… She did this because at this time and until her death, she had lost the majority of her sight. But this birthday card she signed herself. I can picture her tracing the outline of the card and placing the pen carefully as she wrote “love, nannie.” This card reminds me of her perseverance in the face of challenges.

These possessions remind me more of my grandparents than anything else, it is a snapshot of all three of them. What is it then, Jesus asks us, that might be your treasure? What might it be that is a snapshot of the kingdom of God for you? What material possession could you point to that would be an outward sign of your faith? Something you received for your confirmation? That picture of Jesus that hung in Grandma’s house until she passed? The Bible that belonged to a trusted neighbor that taught you about faith and Jesus? “What is the one thing that if someone asked you about it, you would be able to give witness to your faith in God, your belief in the work of Jesus, your confidence in the presence of the Spirit?” (Karoline Lewis)

This thing, whatever it is, is a reminder of our own personal interpretation of the kingdom of God. It shapes the way we speak about God, about Jesus, the work of the Spirit, and the coming kingdom. And when it comes down to it, would you be able to put into words what your own personal spiritual vocabulary is? Because here’s the thing, when Jesus comes again (and he will come again) nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter how “good” you were, how many “holy” acts you think you’ve done, how much money you’ve put in the offering plate, not even how many cute little old ladies you helped to cross the street. What matters is this: what do you believe about God and can you articulate that?

The fear, of course, may not be that we can’t do it, but that we’ll get it wrong. We don’t want to articulate our faith because then that opens us up for criticism and critique. What if what I believe about Jesus and God isn’t the same as what my friends, spouse, family, or even pastor believes? What does that say about my faith? What if what I say is wrong? What if what I say isn’t really “Lutheran”? What if what I say is heretical? This is not a test over whether you know your catechism, whether you have memorized the ten commandments, or even if you know books of the bible. But what is it, what are the words that are on your heart, that express your faith? When I was getting ready to head to seminary, my home pastor, Pastor Ernie, said “if all else fails, remember this ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’” That carried me through many rough times in seminary.

In seminary we had to articulate our faith many many times. We had to state, out loud, what it is we believe about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. And then, more than once, we were questioned about that faith. We were questioned, not because we were wrong, but because this is our faith, and the words we use are important. I don’t know about you, brothers and sisters, but I am finding that we are living in an age where words are getting to be more and more important. Every single word we say is weighed with great importance. So when Jesus comes again, the treasure of your faith is all you will have. So, what do you have?

Here is my current working statement of faith. I say current and working because I realize that as I grow older, gain more experiences, and interact with more people, all of those things shape my faith and the way I see God acting in the world. My statement of faith is simple, I think. I believe that God loves all of God’s people with no exception. I believe that God’s grace is for everyone (whether you want it or not) and that the promise and hope of the resurrection is for all people who believe. That’s it. We are called to be disciples; to be witnesses to God’s redeeming work in this world for all people. The way we talk about that matters. God doesn’t expect us to have all the answers. God expects us to be a witness. That’s it (again).

Our faith is a treasure in and of itself. Our heart is in that treasure. We normally talk about Christ coming during Advent, but the truth is we should be prepared at any time. We should be prepared to welcome the King who will expect not to be waited on, but expect, maybe even demand, to wait on us. The master is coming to serve the servants. The way you think about your faith and the way you articulate your faith will directly affect the way you speak of Christ’s return. It will either be (fear) “CHRIST IS COMING!!!” or (joy) “Christ is coming!!”

Sermon for 7/10/16 Luke 10:25-37

I don’t know if you’ve ever done this, but I often wonder what I would have done had I been born during a different time in history. I wonder what I might have done had I been born even in a different country in a different time in history. Would I have been one of the women on the front line, protesting, contacting the powers that be to encourage passage of the 19th Amendment (the one, by the way, that gave women the right to vote). Would I have been the kind of person that would have hidden Jewish people from the Nazi’s in Germany? Would I have been the kind of person sitting on a bridge in Selma? Would I have been the kind of person to sit at a lunch counter that was only meant for “colored people” as a sign of solidarity? Would I have been the kind of person to go to the Stonewall Inn in New York City, the birthplace of the gay rights movement?

And I wonder what the events of our time will be that might make Ellen think the same thing. Or maybe your kids or grandkids will look back on a particular time in history and wonder “would I have been the one?” Often when we read the parable of the “good Samaritan” we want to place ourselves in the shoes of the Samaritan. We think we would have stopped. Certainly, we would have been the ones to stop and help a hurting man on the side of the road. We would have been the ones to find him help. We might even been the one to advocate for men like the one in our gospel story so that this doesn’t happen again in the future. But, more likely, we’re the lawyer asking “who is my neighbor.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I am lost. I am hurting. I know many of you came here today hoping that I would have words of wisdom or words of comfort, and I don’t. I am tired of watching the news and seeing fellow members of the body of Christ being killed. I am tired of the rhetoric that accompanies these shootings. I am tired of the debate that if you believe that black lives matter that you automatically believe that blue lives don’t. I am tired of the assumptions that say if you value African American lives you must not value the lives of law enforcement officers or vice versa.

I am tired of people assuming that just because I don’t own a gun that I must be anti-gun. I want to tell you this: I’m not anti gun. My brother, father, uncles, and brother in law all own guns. I support your right and even your desire to own a gun. I won’t ever own one. Ever. It’s a personal choice. But, I’d fight for your right to own one. However, I don’t understand why any average American citizen needs an assault rifle. We are killing one another. Our neighbor is the African American man shot dead while his 6 year old watched the entire thing take place. Our neighbor is a Dallas police officer just showing up to do his job. Our neighbor is a Muslim woman who just wants to get to her mosque without being harassed. Our neighbor is a lesbian who feels the only sanctuary she can turn to is a bar in Orlando. Our neighbor is documented immigrant who just wants to be able to support his family. Our neighbor is Jesus and lately our neighbor has been covered in the blood of hate, judgement, and unwilling blindness.

We are at a time in our history when we have the opportunity to stand with the other. We have the opportunity to be a Samaritan instead of the lawyer. We have the opportunity to accompany those on the road to Jerusalem. It is easier, much much easier, to pass by, I get that. It is easier, much much easier to say that “it’s not our problem” and in many ways it’s not. We don’t have any members of this church who are people of color. We live in a town where there is, however, a very clear cut distinction from the haves and have-nots. From my perspective, it’s a financial and class distinction, not a race distinction. And we have the chance to tell our children, our grandchildren, maybe even our great grandchildren that when our country was in a time of great civil unrest we made the choice to not ask “who is my neighbor” but to demand that others start to see Jesus in the eyes and skin of everyone around us.

Friends, we have entered a time of great blindness. We refuse to see one another, we refuse to see those we label as “other”, we refuse to see injustice, we refuse to see that anyone or anything but Jesus can help us to see. We have gone blind out of fear. We’re afraid of change that comes with no longer being a majority. We’re afraid of change that has accompanied the mass amounts of political rhetoric these last few months. We’re afraid that the America we’ve always known is no longer the America we will love and we’ve gone blind because of it all and that blindness has caused us to completely miss Jesus.

We’re so busy asking “who is my neighbor” that we’ve missed the fact that our neighbor is lying on the side of the road, dying. We’ve missed the fact that our neighbor is covered in blood that’s not his. We’ve missed the fact that our neighbor is the subject of daily harassment. We’ve missed the fact that our neighbor is feared. We’ve missed it all because we’d rather be safe than risk being hurt or judged and in the meantime, with every life lost, Jesus is killed over and over and over again. Because if we are made in Christ’s image, each time a bullet takes a life, no matter the color of skin, Jesus is crucified all over again. We are going blind and I don’t know that we want to do what it’s going to take to see.

We have to be willing to admit that we are scared, that we are wrong, that we are privileged, that we have certain unspoken rights that others just don’t, and we have to be willing to listen. We have to be willing to listen without correcting the thoughts and feelings of the people who have been hurt. Notice that when the Samaritan stopped he didn’t ask how the man who was left for dead was feeling, what he did to deserve this, why he was there, what he was wearing, what his past criminal history was, any of that. No, he just helped him, no questions asked.

I don’t have easy answers for you. I am just as lost as to what to do as you are. I am scared. But we serve a God who helps the blind to see. We serve a God who doesn’t give up on us. We serve a God who, in times of great darkness, continues to be the light we need. We have a God who loves all lives. We have a God who mourns when we mourn. We have a God who comforts us in sorrow. We have a God who provides us with rest when the world gets to be too much. We have a God who loves us enough to allow us to rest in our comfort but then disturbs us out of comfort saying “go and do likewise.”

 

Sermon for 6/12/16 Galatians 2:15-21

Some of you may be wondering why I took off my shoes. I was reminded this week of Moses getting close to the burning bush. The Lord called to Moses and as Moses started to move towards the bush, the Lord said “Come no closer! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” I’m also going to talk a bit about my feet today (for a reason, by the way, not just because). When I was in Atlanta for continuing education, I slipped away from the conference for about an hour. I called for an Uber ride (which is like a taxi) and went to my appointment. I got settled on the paper covered table after some initial conversation and tried not to be nervous. Malia had made sure I was comfortable and then started in on her work. She dipped the needle into black ink and then touched the needle to my skin. As promised, I did not kick her out of reflex. And so, yes, while I know some of you may not agree with my choices, I did get more tattoos while I was in Atlanta. And they are on my feet. And they have everything to do with today’s reading from Galatians.

On my left foot is tattooed the words “by grace” and on the right foot is tattooed the words “through faith.” I placed them in the order that I did because many times when I start walking from either a seated position or standing still position, I start with my left foot. It is how I desire to walk through life: by grace, through faith. And I fail almost daily. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t keep trying. An interesting verse stood out to me this week as I prayed about this Galatians reading. Verse 16 says “And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” If someone ever asks you what it means to be Lutheran, direct them to the book of Galatians. So much of what we hold to be true, what we believe, what we profess and claim, week after week and day after day can be found in this book.

One of the beliefs that make us different is that we hold fast to the idea that we are justified, we are made right, only by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. We cannot ever be made right or be justified by our works. So, let me break that down for you. You cannot earn your way to heaven. You cannot do anything at all to “get right” with God. We all know someone who feels like they have to get right with God before they can come to church. As if all of us have it all together and we’re going to notice. If you have that person in your life who is waiting to get right with God before they come to church, they ain’t never coming to church. Because none of us, none of us can do anything to get right with God.

This idea that we are justified by faith and not through works is one of the biggest sticking points that Martin Luther had with the Catholic church. Now, as a reminder, our friend, Martin Luther (or as I like to call him, “Marty”) was studying to be a Catholic Monk. He took this call to serve God very seriously. But Marty was also very studious, very serious, and and very faithful. He started to study the ideas and beliefs of the Catholic church and felt a lot of the things he learned didn’t jive with the Bible. And Marty believed firmly in sola scriptura (word alone). So when he found out about things like penance and indulgences he started to get angry. We cannot do anything to make God love us more. We cannot do anything to get in “better” with God. We cannot do anything to reverse the sins we’ve already committed. And for Marty, that included saying additional prayers or making large “donations” to the church.

Yes, it is to us to confess our sins. It is on us to admit to God and to one another where we’ve fallen short. It is on us to to admit when we’ve sinned in thought, word, and deed. By what we’ve done, and by what we’ve left undone. We need to confess when we’ve not loved our neighbors with our whole heart. We must admit that daily we are held captive to sin and cannot in any way, shape, or form, free ourselves. And then, we sit back and realize that the only way we can be freed from our sins is through Jesus Christ and not by anything we can do, might do, should do, would do, or could do.

Another important part of the verse I highlighted today (verse 16) says “and we have come to believe in Christ Jesus” so that we will be justified by our faith in him and not through anything we do. But have we? Have we come to believe that? If this were true, we wouldn’t constantly be wondering what we must do to “get right” with God. If this were true, we might not be so quick to judge the sins of others because we too sin and we know that we are all justified through faith in Christ. If it were true that we have come to believe in Christ Jesus then we would quit carrying around the guilt associated with our sins and stop beating ourselves up for the sins God has already forgiven. Our lack of faith has made us masochists. This is the only reason I can think of that we continue to punish ourselves for our sins that God forgave a long time ago.

I cannot think of a simpler way to put this: you cannot do anything by yourself to free yourself from sin. You also cannot do anything to gain more favor with God. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we go out looking to sin day after day. What it means is that when we do fall into sin and the inevitable guilt sets in, we rest assured that God has forgiven us. God has forgiven us not by anything we have done, but through Jesus Christ and the cross. Friends, stop beating yourselves up for the sins you have committed. Stop beating yourself up for falling short. Stop beating yourself up for not achieving the unrealistic goals you have set for yourself. Stop beating yourself up for feeling like a failure. You are not any of those things.

You are forgiven. You are saved. You have been called and claimed. You have been washed clean. You have been fed. You have been sent into a world that is hungry for a word of forgiveness and your life can be proof of that. You are not a failure. You are not your sins. You will not be defined by the times you fell short. You will be claimed for what you are: child of God, beloved, and set free. Brothers and sisters, you are loved. You are forgiven. Start acting like it.

Sermon for 4/3/16 John 20:19-31

I find it interesting that we get this story after Easter every year. It seems strange that after we’ve declared that Christ is risen, the tomb is empty, death doesn’t have the final word after all, that we get the story of Thomas who is filled with doubt. Let’s not forget just last week, Peter didn’t believe what the women told him so he had to go back to the empty tomb and see for himself that Christ had indeed risen. Jesus had come among the disciples, but Thomas wasn’t there. So, it’s understandable that when his friends tell him that Jesus has returned that he wants proof. A week later, the friends are gathered again when Jesus comes to them once again. And Thomas is present this time. And Jesus, knowing all that he knows, presents Thomas with his hands. Thomas just needed affirmation that his friend really did rise again after the third day just as he said he would.

Maybe that’s why you’ve come back. Maybe you’re here every Sunday (or nearly every Sunday) or maybe you’ve come back after last week because you have trouble believing it too. I love being a Pastor. I love sharing the story of God and God’s love with lots of different people. I want to make sure that everyone who is able to hear or understand will come to comprehend that God’s grace is for them too. But, I have an issue with modern Christianity. We have seemed to do away with making room for doubt. I don’t know when or how this started but it seems that the church is turning into a place where doubt and questions are no longer welcomed.

Now, that’s not necessarily the case in this particular church; I’m just speaking about churches in general. When I talk to people about why they don’t go to church or why they stopped coming to church, the general feeling is guilt and shame. But then when we dig a little deeper, sometimes the people hesitate to come to church is because they have questions, they have doubts, they have some issues and don’t feel that the church is a safe place to bring those doubts. We somehow believe that everyone who walks through the church doors already knows all the answers, is 100% strong in their faith, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the dummy that asks questions and draws attention to myself. But, of all places, church should be a place where you can come with whatever doubts you have and feel welcomed.

The kind of doubts we need to make room for aren’t just the doubts related to faith. Church must be a safe place for all doubts of all kinds. Church needs to be a place where anyone can come with doubts and be welcomed and also be assured that they’re not alone. If there’s anything we should learn from today’s story is that our God is a god that welcomes doubts and will answer not with judgement, but with peace. We serve a God that when we cry “we need proof” God holds out a hand. None of us have it all figured out, so let’s make church a place we can come and sit with our faith and our doubts and be okay with both. Maybe your doubts are faith related. Maybe you struggle to believe that a man really can come back to life after being dead for three days. I get it. Logically, it makes no sense at all. It hasn’t happened since. We’re supposed to just believe this because some book tells us that thousands of years earlier this happened? It’s okay if you doubt. The fact that you’re here is proof enough that you want to know more and that you believe enough to walk through the doors.

Maybe the kind of doubts you have are more to do with everyday life than with faith. Are there doubts at work that you’re struggling with? As many of us draw closer to planting season, it seems as if doubt is a small component of what we do. The irony that my Royals will open their season tonight and I’m talking about doubt isn’t lost on me. This is a team, after all, that many doubted year after year. Some people even think that their World Series win last year was just a fluke. Maybe you’re doubting what life has in store for you as you sit with a new diagnosis. Maybe you’re doubting our economy, our political process, our leadership, our government; with the current state of things, who can blame you? Maybe it’s more personal than that. Are you doubting your marriage?  Are you doubting your physical health? Are you doubting your mental health? Maybe you’re doubting that if anyone knew whatever secret keeps you up at night that you would still be loved. Are you doubting the image you see in the mirror? Are you doubting who God has called you to be? Maybe you or someone you know is even doubting their sexuality. Whatever your doubts may be, please hear me loud and clear: doubts do not make you a “bad” Christian, whatever that is. Doubts make you human.

God did not create us to go through life blindly. One of the places I see God acting most clearly in my own life is when I wrestle with my doubts. I am not removed from having those doubts. I had more doubts about my faith life and my call upon graduating seminary than I did entering. My classmates and I joked that going to seminary is the only place where you can graduate with more questions than answers. Remember, God’s love and faithfulness to you, to us, is not dependent on your faith and your love for God. Thomas wasn’t a horrible disciple for asking for proof that Jesus was risen; he was human! He was simply asking for what any of us would have asked for. And because we serve a loving God, he got the proof he was needing.

Doubts, my brothers and sisters, are what drives our faith. While this may sound strange, doubt makes our faith stronger. Doubt brings us back to the baptismal waters and doubt brings us back to the table over and over again. Doubt is what makes us stand at an empty grave and cry “alleluia!” Doubt is being willing to say “I don’t know what I believe, but for today, I’m here and that’s enough.” Expressing doubt isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, expressing doubt is probably one of the bravest things anyone can do. And maybe all it takes is one person to express doubt for you to finally be able to breathe and say “oh good! Me too!” So, in that light, I want to share some of my doubts with you. I’m not sharing them with you so that you can assure me that they’re not true or whatever, but again, so you’ll know you’re not alone.

I doubt I’m forgiven. I understand that I am. My brain comprehends this fact. My heart struggles with it daily. I struggle and wrestle with my mental health, which you all know. But the doubt creeps in when I wonder how long you all will be able to tolerate it before you give up on me. As most parents know, I doubt my parenting ability on an almost daily basis. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world, but Lord, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. I doubt the future. We’re on the brink of a big change at our house and I have no idea what’s in store and that drives me crazy. I doubt the future of this country. I doubt some of the relationships in my life. And yet… Yet, I come every week, and am fed. I am fed by you. I am fed by you and am fed by you watching you feed one another. I am fed by the bread and wine. I am fed by water and a promise. And, believe it or not, I am fed by doubts. Alleluia, Christ is risen! And it’s okay if you doubt that.