Sermon for 6/18/17 Matthew 9:35-10:8

I absolutely love what I do. There is no doubt in my mind that I am supposed to be a pastor. God created me to do this. I love you, I love this church, I love the people of God. But, at the same time, this is a job. Yes, it’s a calling, but it’s also a job. Like any other job, I have those days where I wonder if I am making any difference. I wonder if I should be going about ministry in another way. I wonder if this thing (my mic) is even on. On those days, when I’m having a not so great day, I go back and read my letter of call. Every person that serves in a called capacity within our church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America receives a letter of call. It is specific to the place that they are serving. So, my letter of call right now, has our church name on it. When and if I ever take a new call, I will get a new letter.

Here is what my letter of call says: “We call you to exercise among us the ministry of Word and Sacrament which God has established and which the Holy Spirit empowers: To preach and teach the Word of God in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions; to administer Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead us in worship; to proclaim the forgiveness of sins; to provide pastoral care; to speak for justice in behalf of the poor and oppressed; to encourage persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel; to impart knowledge of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its wider ministry; to endeavor to increase support given by our congregation to the work of our whole church; to equip us for witness and service; and guide us in proclaiming God’s love through word and deed.”

Phew! That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? There was one short phrase in today’s Gospel that got me thinking about this letter of call. In verse 7, Jesus says to the disciples “as you go, proclaim the good news…” Did you notice some pretty specific verbs in that command? “As you go…” Matthew’s Gospel speaks a lot about evangelism. This is one of those moments. For Jesus, evangelism was an ongoing activity, not a passive hope. Let me repeat that again, our greatest teacher, our Lord and Savior, the man who came to earth and died on a cross for sinners like me and you believed that evangelism was an ongoing activity, not a passive hope. So much of what I am called to do can be traced back to evangelism. This made me wonder what it might look like for all of us, each and every one of us to have a letter of call.

Maybe upon baptism and/or even upon confirmation, you’d be handed a letter similar to mine that laid out what was expected of you as a follower of Jesus Christ. Would your letter lay out what you’ve been doing all along in regards to evangelism or do you think it might push you outside of your boundaries just a little bit? That is what God does, you know? Challenge us. “As you go” into the field, into the grocery store, to the doctor, into the classroom, to the gym, from this place, into the world… “proclaim the good news.” See my beloved brothers and sisters, no matter what we may think, we’re not peddling a unique product here. It’s not like we know something and have something the rest of the world doesn’t. People aren’t going to come out of the woodwork just to come here, to us, to find out about Jesus Christ. We need to spread the good news with our words, our actions, and our feet. Evangelism doesn’t happen when we refuse to move off our duffs.  

I often think that evangelism has a bad name. We think about those people on street corners yelling about the end times coming or yelling terribly jugemental things. Or we might think about those door to door evangelists that want to know if we’ve found Jesus (once again…had no idea he was missing). Of course, there’s also the television evangelists. So I completely understand why when I mention the word “evangelism” people want to coil up in a ball and stay right in their comfy pews. Sometimes people say “evangelism” with about as much enthusiasm as when they say “root canal!” So, if you had a letter of call what might that entail? The wonderful thing about evangelism is that you can tailor it to fit what you do. Here’s a simple example of what that might look like: when someone says “hey! I know you’re a church going person and a believer, my grandma could really use some prayers.” You could respond “of course, let’s pray right now” instead of just saying “sure, I’ll pray for her.”

People don’t learn about Christ by mistake. Your faith was formed and continues to grow from others sharing their faith (this is called “evangelism”). You can share your faith and help others to grow in theirs. Evangelism doesn’t have to be standing on street corners yelling, going door to door, or even on tv; but, it does require movement, it requires action. And I understand that it is difficult, and I understand that it may be uncomfortable, and I understand that you might be labeled one of those “crazy Christians” but friends, this isn’t optional. Evangelism means growth; and if we’re not growing we’re dying.

So…if you had a letter of call…oh wait! You do! All of us have a letter of call. In our baptism we are given a letter of call of sorts. Today, as we baptize Hudson, he will receive his letter of call and believe it or not, his sponsors, Matt and Melissa, will make sure that he continues to remind himself of his letter of call. All of us make promises at baptism for our children or on behalf of ourselves. We promise to live among God’s faithful people, come to the word of God and the holy supper, teach or learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds, and the Ten Commandments, read and study the Bible, nurture our faith life and prayer life, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace. That sounds very similar to my actual letter of call. And again, at the basis of all of those promises is evangelism. The promises made for you or by you in baptism is your letter of call.

Notice as well that your letter of call mentions nothing about being still and waiting for others to come to you so that you may share your faith. In fact, many of the verbs in those promises indicate movement: “live, bring, teach, place, nurture, learn, proclaim and work” are all action words. So, “as you go” live out your faith in your words, actions, and deeds. Remember that no matter where you go, God will go with you and ahead of you to prepare your way. God will give you the words you need. God will prepare those that need to hear. And long after you share your faith story, long after you continue on moving, God will be working through the Holy Spirit so that others will be empowered to go and grow the kingdom. Your path, brothers and sisters, goes from the font, to the table, and out the door. God bless you as you go!

Sermon for 5/28 John 17:1-11

I’m not usually one for eavesdropping. In fact, if I find myself doing it, I immediately internally scold myself and move along. But, have you ever eavesdropped and heard something wonderful? What about eavesdropping and hearing something wonderful about yourself? Who doesn’t like a little ego boost now and again? It can feel really good to hear positive things about yourself. Maybe you’ve overheard your spouse singing your praises to someone over the phone. Or perhaps you’ve heard your kids telling other kids about their awesome parents. Maybe you’ve overheard your boss or coworker. Whatever the case may be, there is something lovely about hearing someone speak positively about you.

In today’s Gospel text, we get the chance to eavesdrop on Jesus. And honestly, we’re not even eavesdropping. We’re not even up to anything sneaky. Jesus is praying. And unlike other Gospels where he goes off somewhere by himself and prays, he instead prays at the dinner table right in front of the disciples. He prays out loud so that the disciples, and us, can hear him. By the way, don’t ever ask Jesus to pray at your dinner party. This prayer actually goes on for around 26 verses or so.  This prayer is part of the farewell discourse in John. We’ve spent almost 3 chapters listening to Jesus say goodbye to his disciples and prepare for his death. Maybe it’s appropriate for Jesus to end his time with them in prayer.

How do you feel when someone prays for you? Not when they say they are going to pray for you, but actually prays for you right then and there on the spot? It can be awkward, can’t it? I mean, I pray for people all the time, it’s part of my job description. But to have someone pray for me is not a feeling I am used to. I trust that you all pray for me on your own time. But to pray for me with me, and with me present is a totally different thing. When someone has prayed for me in my presence, the first thing I feel is guilt. I feel like I don’t deserve such a grand gesture. And I have a hard time being in the moment. My mind starts racing and I have a hard time listening to what the other person is saying. Instead, I’m busy thinking “will they want me to pray for them? What will I say? I feel like this is really personal. Should I be letting this person in like this?” Then, before I know it, the person praying says “amen” and I have no clue what has happened.

And maybe the disciples don’t fully understand what is happening either. After all, the son of God, the savior of the world, the one who would die on a cross to take away all of their sins and ours, is praying for the disciples and us….out loud! On the scale of “big deals” this is huge! Jesus could have prayed for a lot of things, himself included, but instead, he lifts up those whom God gave him: the disciples. Jesus prays for the things that concern him the most. The ideas and concepts that take up the most room in his heart, soul, and mind. He lifts up, verbally, that which is most important to him. And so, as he prays, he prays that we all come to know God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because for Jesus, this isn’t about him. Jesus doesn’t want the focus to be on him, what he has done, or what he is about to endure. Jesus desires for his life to be a light of sorts that shines on God, God’s love and God’s saving and redeeming actions.

Take a moment and think about that. What difference does it make for you personally that Jesus prayed for you? Be selfish for a moment. Don’t think about what difference it made for your family, your co-workers, or even for me. But think about yourself for a moment. Jesus prayed for you. And the amazing thing is (at least for me) is that Jesus didn’t pray for me to repent or leave my sinning ways behind. No, Jesus prayed that I would know God and God’s love through him. For me, that is mind blowing. Next week we will mark Pentecost, a celebration of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church. The church the disciples started and the church we continue to work hard to grow. Because the empty tomb isn’t the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. We have seen and experienced all that God can do through Jesus Christ now it’s our turn to go out into the world sharing these stories, spreading the good news, and reminding people that they are loved. And if we’re going to share that word, perhaps it is best that we are reminded of it ourselves first and foremost.

As Jesus prays for us, he prays for something very interesting. He says “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” And while we may not realize it, this is where this discipleship stuff gets tricky. The first part is pretty humbling: Jesus is praying that God’s protection will be on and over us. Again, pretty amazing. But, the second part of that statement is difficult. Jesus prays that as he and God are of one being, one person, one purpose, that we, their followers, also be one. That means no matter what we call ourselves, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, even just “seeker” that we set those distinctions aside and embrace the only title that matters: beloved children of God. In theory, it sounds easy enough. It’s easy enough until you realize specific denominations got started because those who were supposed to be one couldn’t agree to the point of splintering. You all know that there aren’t denominational sections of heaven, right?

The idea of being one is difficult. It gets even harder when we realize that Jesus is praying for everyone to be one. This means that Jesus is praying for us to be one with those we disagree with, with those who have done us wrong, even for us to be one with those we consider the “other.” Now this idea and this prayer just gets uncomfortable. But remember, Jesus’ main goal with this prayer is that we would all come to know God and the love of God through Jesus. It is impossible for us to know love when we don’t have the ability to look at a sibling in Christ as an ally and not an enemy. So, what do we do? We pray.

We humble ourselves and lay our troubles at the foot of the cross. We admit that what Christ is asking of us is almost impossible if we attempt it by ourselves. So we call on God. We rely on the Holy Spirit. We trust that there is enough of God’s love to go around. We pray for ourselves, our friends, our families, and yes, even our enemies. A strange thing happens when you start to pray for your enemies: the heart starts to soften. It may not happen overnight, but it happens. It is almost impossible to be in a stance of anger and hate when you are on your knees praying. I don’t pretend that this is easy. Jesus knew it wouldn’t be easy. This is why this prayer didn’t have a date, time, or expiration. This is probably a prayer that will continue for quite some time. This kingdom work stuff isn’t for the weak, friends. The work is hard, the pay is terrible, the feedback is usually negative. But, the reward is amazing glory.

I am going to give you a challenge this week. I want you to pray for someone. I want you to pray for someone, out loud, in front of them. Pray that they are reminded of God’s love. Pray that the discord in their lives disappears. Pray that their life in the Lord is strengthened. Pray without expecting prayer in return. Pray like God is listening because God does. Pray like the cross mattered, because it did. Pray like the tomb is just the start of our stories. And then when you are done, come and eat, and pray again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 3/26/17 John 9:1-41

Much like last week, I could preach on this text for a month straight and still not say everything I’d like to. It’s a great story that often gets misinterpreted. People have said this story is about spiritual blindness. People have used this as proof that our children are punished for their parents sins. But here’s the thing: this man didn’t ask to be healed. He didn’t cry out to Jesus in the hopes of regaining his sight. And the other thing is, he was born blind. And he wasn’t born blind just so God could make a point later and have Jesus give the man sight. This text is a great example of “why do bad things happen to good people.” That question is often called a “theodicy” question. Friends, we’ve been trying to answer questions like these since humanity first started walking the earth. And it’s not always “why do bad things happen to good people” it’s questions like “if God was really present in that school then why did that school shooting happen?” Or “if that person is such a faithful Christian, then why did they get cancer?” And as frustrating as it may make us, we just may not know the answer to some questions on this side of heaven.

But, what I do know for sure is that God continues to act and move in the midst of all of these bad things. And we, lucky and blessed as we are, continue to experience grace upon grace. There’s a lot of dialogue in this reading today so you may have missed a crucial sentence and statement. The blind man (whose name we never get) is being spoken about around verses 18-23 or so. We do this often, don’t we? We speak of and about those who are differently abled than us instead of directly to them. The Jews are speaking to his parents and asking them how their son can now see. And I love the parents answer “Ask him; he is of age.” And the Jews press on, calling to the man. First they give glory to God and say “we know that this man is a sinner.”

They said this because they believed that being blind was some kind of punishment for sin; either your own or your parents. And again, I love how this man answers. “I do not know whether he is a sinner” (and that wording is a bit strange since he is speaking of himself). “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And in that moment, this man, the man born blind from birth, gives those around him, most of whom were disbelieving that anything like this could even ever happen, a working definition of grace upon grace. For us, sometimes the way that God works has no explanation. And that is so frustrating, isn’t it? We are such black and white people. We want to know how things work. We want to know how the world operates. We want to know that up is up and down is down and that yes means yes and no means no. God laughs at our desires and instead gives us grace. And when we try and explain grace to someone else we often sound like the blind man. “Look. I dunno what happened. I was this but now I’m this.” I suffered for years and now I’m cured. I was hopeless and now I’m starting to see the world in color. I had just given up and then the phone rang. Whatever it may be. What happens between the “then” and “now” is grace upon grace and sometimes we just can’t explain it.

We don’t hear from Jesus in this reading from verse 7 all the way to verse 35. All the verses in between, everyone around this man was trying to figure out how he was able to see. They were trying to figure out how grace works. So, see! We’ve been doing this for centuries. Trying to figure out how grace works. We also try and figure out how grace affects us and those around us as a way of sizing one another up. “Did he or she get more grace than I did?” Or we get mad at grace. I’ve done that. More than once. I’m not proud. “I can’t believe that person was given grace! Doesn’t God know what kind of person that is??” Yes. And God knows what kind of person you are as well.

But see, grace isn’t measured. Grace isn’t based on anything we’ve done or not done. Grace isn’t earned. Grace certainly cannot be bought. Grace cannot be hoarded. Grace cannot be rejected (although we may try). We cannot stand in the way of grace. And we often cannot explain it. Grace is simply the presence of Jesus. And grace, in the most complicated way, is the presence of Jesus. Grace comes to us in ways that the world probably think are pretty normal: in water and in bread and wine. Grace doesn’t come to us with fireworks, big banners, or much to-do. But instead, it sneaks in and infiltrates our lives to the point that we know we’ve been changed, but we have no idea how. “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And maybe that’s all the testimony we need for God’s grace.

Maybe the only thing we need to testify to as disciples is that we were blind but now we see. We were lonely but now we belong. We were lost but now we are found. Grace relieved our fears. Grace protects us. It serves as a compass, always pointing us to our true north: Jesus Christ. The only thing in this world that can give us life. Jesus and him crucified are the only thing that can save us. Our money can’t save us. Our looks can’t save us. Our business can’t save us. Even any good reputation that we’ve built for ourselves can’t save us. We certainly can’t save ourselves. Only God through Jesus Christ can save us. Grace is wakes us up yelling “sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14b). Because even though you may have a heartbeat. Even though you have a pulse. Even though you have blood flowing through your veins, can you really live without grace?

As hard as this is, part of being a Christian means being okay with saying “I don’t know how it happened, but I know it happened and I know it happened to me.” People will push you for answers. People will question you until they are blue in the face. But that’s okay. Some people don’t understand grace. I don’t understand grace. All I know is that I can’t live without it and that I would be blind without it.   

Sermon for 3/19/17 John 4:5-42

Here’s the problem with this reading today: I could probably preach on this text for the next month and still not be able to say everything that I want to say. This reading today is so rich and full of important details, telling dialogue, and colorful visions of what is going on. Last week we talked about John 3:16, God so loved the world. This week, we get a feeling of what that is going to look like. Jesus is starting to give us a taste of what it means when he says “the world.” What better way to challenge people than by defining the “world” as including a Samaritan woman?

Now, the thing is, this story would have been told orally, not read. And those listening would have known some Bible history and some of the implications of what was going on here. There is enough drama in this story that during the times when this was first heard, there would have been gasps and looks of people stunned in the crowd. This is where our lack of Biblical knowledge is a disadvantage. What we don’t hear in the first few verses of chapter 4 is that Jesus left Judea and headed back to Galilee. And in verse 4 it says “But he had to go through Samaria.” No he didn’t. Geographically going to Samaria didn’t make any sense. It would be like going to Iowa City through Cedar Rapids. It doesn’t make sense geographically. But Jesus needed to go to Samaria to have this encounter with this woman.

Jesus didn’t meet this woman just anywhere. He met her at a well. For us, the reaction may be “so what??” A well was a crucial meeting place in the Old Testament. Listeners would have known this. It’s where Isaac first met Rebekah; Moses’ daughter, Zipporah met her husband at a well. The well was what we now know as match.com. The well equaled relationship. Where have we heard that the Gospel of John is about relationships and abiding? But a relationship for this woman? First things first, she was a Samaritan. At the time, that was the worst kind of person. Samaritans were undesirable in every way. And this was a woman, so she was automatically less than. And to top off her level of undesiring, she had been married 5 times. This means she was either widowed or divorced. And if she was divorced it was because she was barren. This woman at the well (we never get her name, by the way) is a Samaritan, a woman, and someone who has been cast aside more than once.

Then along comes Jesus. And Jesus sees her. This is really important. She was hoping she wouldn’t be seen. She went to the well at noon, the heat of the day. The water collecting had already been done for the day. The well wouldn’t be busy. The woman could go, collect her water, and leave without being harassed or without being reminded that she was, for all purposes, broken and damaged goods. Not only does Jesus see her, he sees her. He asks for a drink of water. This may seem strange to us. Didn’t Jesus bring his own cup? He’s Jesus, couldn’t he get his own water? But instead, he asks this woman for a drink. He is starting to establish a relationship. He is also giving her power. Jesus, a man is giving a woman, a Samaritan woman married 5 times at that, he is giving her power. He is starting to see her as the human being that she is.

What is interesting is that she doesn’t give him a drink and then leave. She continues the conversation. She continues with questions and a bit of a theological discussion. And so the relationship grows. See, conversations are built on relationships. You enter into conversation with the expectation that you will listen and be listened to. There is an unstated trust and at times, even an unspoken vulnerability. And the more the woman and Jesus talk, the more we find out about the both of them. The woman quickly starts to pick up on the fact that this man isn’t any normal wanderer. And Jesus lets on that he knows her on a very intimate level. He knows that she has been married 5 times. For her, that has to be one of the most painful truths of her life. And so the relationship deepens.

Then, then, THEN! Despite the fact that this is a woman, despite the fact that this is a Samaritan woman, despite the fact that this is a Samaritan woman who has been married 5 times (by no fault of her own, by the way), Jesus offers her what she really needs and wants: she wants to be in relationship and she wants to belong. And Jesus offers her a relationship with him and with God and offers to bring her into this community of believers. Jesus knows the ugly truth of her life and still gives her what she needs and desires: to be seen, to belong, and to be loved. And really, isn’t that what all of us want?

We want to be seen for who God created us to be and we also want to be seen as more than our sins, right? We want to show our true selves, without a mask, without pretending, without the charades. We desire to go out into the world, totally vulnerable, naked, exposed, maybe a little scarred up, and say “here I am” and we so desire and long for someone else to say “I’ve been waiting for you!” And for them to say it without hesitation. We want to belong without asterisks. Do you know what I mean? We want to belong without having to pretty ourselves up. We want to belong with our scars. We want to belong even if we’ve been to hell and back and we’ve got the stories to prove it. But instead, we present this photoshopped version of ourselves to one another and continue to present the facade that we’ve got our stuff together.

When the Bible said “God so loved the world” the world looks like a Samaritan woman at the well. The world looks like a tattooed pastor just trying her best (and still screwing it up). The world looks like a mom who is sleep deprived thanks to a teething baby. The world looks like a widowed man who visits his wife’s grave daily. The world looks like the undocumented, the forgotten, the abused, the mistreated, the hungry, the lonely, the poor, the sick, the misfits, and the everyday John and Jane’s. After this encounter, the woman now has a new title, a new job: that of witness. She goes back into the city and tells everyone about Jesus. Her past doesn’t hamper her from being a witness. Her past doesn’t stop Jesus from telling her first who he is. The woman at the well is the first person to hear Jesus claim himself as the “I am.” And the woman at the well doesn’t let her past stop her either.

God desires a relationship with us. God wants to dwell within each and every one of us. We couldn’t keep God away if we tried, and boy how we try. We can stop veiling ourselves any day now. We don’t need to hide who we are from God. Because God already knows who we are. God knows every single part of our lives and loves us the same. God knows how many breaths we have taken and how many we have yet to take and we are still loved and then sent out into the world on a mission to spread God’s love. God loves you, brothers and sisters. God loves you and claims you. May the waters of the well remind you that you have been washed, loved, and claimed. The I AM sees you, knows you, loves you, redeems you, protects you, feeds you, and ultimately, saves you. Even if it’s from yourself.

3/12/17 John 3:1-17 Lent 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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