Sermon for 11/18/18 Mark 13:1-8

As many of you know, my mother was a teacher as I was growing up. So, she had her summers free, or as free as teachers normally have (I know you all work hard during the summer). When she wasn’t planning, writing, testing, and on and on, she would prepare to do her favorite thing with us kids: camping. We tent camped all around Missouri. We spent the days fishing, swimming, or doing local touristy stuff and spent the evenings sitting around a fire. We even once learned how to call owls. One thing we knew we could always count on was a comfy and safe place to lay our heads at the end of the night. One summer evening the air was just right for some adventure. The park ranger came around and over his loud speaker was announcing that we were under a “tornado watch/warning.” To this day we still talk about how confused we were. So, we decided to get out of the tent and head to safer shelter. When you’re from the Midwest, you can just feel a storm in your bones and we felt it! Mom was out of the tent, followed by Jon, then it was Jayna’s turn. Now, Jayna has a great fear of storms. As she was trying to get out of the tent, a huge clap of thunder and lightning struck. She practically jumped out of her skin and tried to fall back into the tent. Except she couldn’t. Her hair, a huge chunk of it, was stuck in the tent zipper. Another huge clap of thunder and lightning struck and she practically pulled her hair out herself. We joked that we found hair in the zipper for many camping trips to follow. We made it to the shelter (which was just a bathroom) in time for the tornado to touchdown. Our Chevy Astro van rocked in the wind. When it was all over, the rain guard on our tent was gone along with other odds and ends, but the tent was okay. So much for feeling safe and secure.

However, I find that we humans do this a lot. We put a lot of hope in structures that, with the right forces, can be destroyed. After all, most of us have lived in the Midwest for a good portion of our lives. We know how quickly tornadoes or flood waters can take over what we might have thought was untouchable. Our siblings in California are seeing all too well the destructive power of fire. Those in the paths of hurricanes know the force of water and wind. We don’t necessarily need these reminders of the power of Mother Nature and the realization that nothing is permanent, but it is humbling when we get these reminders. We don’t have to be betrayed by Mother Nature to realize this. So many are betrayed by their bodies. It could be a new cancer diagnosis, a life-long battle with an illness, or maybe the darkness of dementia; our bodies have a way of reminding us that nothing is permanent.

This isn’t a new struggle. We hear the disciples today marveling at the temple structure. What large stones and what large buildings. It’s almost as if you can hear the disciples say “nothing could ever happen to this!” The disciples were putting their faith, giving too much credit to a man-made structure. Jesus quickly let them in on a little secret. Not only will the temple fall, but the world is going to experience apocalyptic like occurrences. I mean, I don’t know that there is a different (or better) way to talk about wars, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes, and famines. Then, Jesus said, this is but the beginning! The beginning! Rough stuff, Jesus. But we’re not all that different from the disciples, you and I. There is something to be said about the power that lies behind bigger, stronger, larger. And when the things around us fail, we turn to confrontational language to describe it. Have you ever noticed that?

When your body starts to betray you, you fight cancer. When an illness has wracked your body for years, you’re in a battle. We go to war against those weeds. When we’ve been hit, we talk about rebuilding bigger and stronger than before. Even when other people betray us, we may be tempted to say they don’t exist to me anymore or the darker they’re dead to me. There is one underlying tie that all of these ideas have in common: power. We want to be more powerful than the forces and situations that surround us. And when we’re reminded that we aren’t (thanks to a storm, illness, or broken relationship) we retaliate and use language of power and domination. This cycle goes on and on.

But the powerful will fall. This goes for buildings, structures, governmental systems, and people. The question is, will we notice? We have a lot of forces of nature and forces of power competing for our attention. Perhaps we’ll be too worried about large bodies of power failing to notice small moments of might: the widow giving her last few coins or a Jewish teacher being crucified. But how in the world can these small acts measure up to the rest of the world’s greatness? We’re so busy admiring false power and fearing false power that we may miss true power. We’re so busy and preoccupied with trying to be better and stronger and bigger that we may miss small acts of love, mercy, and kindness. We should know by now that anything we give power to and any of the powerful structures and forces we admire will fail us. Every time.

Despite our temptation to give space and time to power, Jesus comes for us and to us anyway. Jesus was surrounded by power in all shapes, sizes, and forms, and yet he still offered up his humble body as a sacrifice for me and for you. And the world may not have noticed this powerful testament of love, but we have. That alone should and does make a difference for all of us. There is nothing that God will not do to make sure we are not out of reach of the love that God has for each and every one of us. God is relentless. This love, this is what will be the thing that is stronger, bigger, bolder, better. This is the force that is stronger than nature. This is the antidote to so many of the world’s hurts. The love of God is more powerful than any storm, earthquake, fire, diagnosis, illness, or human relationship. This love is powerful, unforgiving, and comforting. God has not given up on us. Even in the times it may feel like it thanks to whatever powers may be, God will not abandon us. Even in the moments where our admiration may get the best of us and we say “look…what large stones” God, through Jesus Christ, still comes to us, always, in love to free us from ourselves.

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Sermon for 11/4/18 John 11:32-44 All Saints Day

I find it strange that death is something we all have in common and yet we still struggle to find the words to speak about it. If you’ve stood in that receiving line at a visitation for a loved one, you’ve probably heard the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” more than you care to. Yet, when we’re on the other side of that receiving line, we say the same thing. Can you imagine if we had the anger and frustration of Mary and Martha? When people say to us “I’m sorry for your loss” we responded “if Jesus had been here, our brother would not have died.” Our gospel story for today is one of my favorites for a few reasons. It speaks and supports very clearly that we have a God who keeps promises. We also have a savior who is stronger than death. And lastly, this story is so full of the raw human emotions we don’t always get in these stories; even Jesus himself is emotional.

It is challenging for me, even, at times to find the words to express my grief and lament about death as I wish I could. After all, I am someone who has been called to speak the promises of the resurrection life. And I really do believe in the promise of the resurrection. I believe that we all will be raised on the last day. Nonetheless, when I am personally touched by grief and death, I find words difficult. I think of my friend and fellow Pastor, Benjamin Ahles-Iverson who died way to young from cancer earlier this year. I think of my friend and college classmate Brian Hopf who also passed from cancer. And as I come ever closer to being with you all for (almost) 5 years, I think of those that I buried this past year. The longer I am here, the harder it gets. And I have a story for almost every single saint remembered this day. And if I don’t have a story for them, I have a story about their family or the way their legacy has lived on. So even for me, a trained professional, a trained theologian, there are times that death literally and figuratively stinks.

I also think that there are several who have experienced deaths that are not as traditional. Perhaps you changed jobs, lost your job, or retired and now your wrestling with the death of what once was. Maybe you had a child move out and go to college; that brings with it its own sense of loss. Others of you may have ended relationships whether romantic or friendships and with that comes a sense of grief and loss. Or perhaps you are just grieving the loss of civility in our communities. Whatever the situation may be, we seem to be surrounded by death and yes, it stinks. “Lord if you had been here….”

Mary, in her great lament, throws herself at the feet of Jesus, and in all of her grief basically yells at him. “Lord if you had been here.” I think all of us, on some level, can relate to this kind of grief. This is the kind of grief that finally slaps us in the face when we realize we actually cannot stop death. Mary, having nothing but love for her brother, would have done anything to have saved him. She couldn’t. But, her faith made her realize and recognize that Jesus could. But he wasn’t there when Lazarus died. And death came. Death came and settled in and had stayed for 4 days already when Jesus arrived. Mary had already surrendered to the idea that death would have the final say. Now, as Christians we know that’s not true. We know that death is not the end of our story. Yet, we still operate and talk sometimes as if it is the end of our story.

All too often we give death way more power than it deserves. This is not to say that we should ignore death. It is, after all, a fact of life. Death will happen to all of us at some point in time. But, we allow death to suck the air out of our lives. It consumes us in so many ways. I think we all know people who are alive but not really living. The more power we give to death, the more it will take from us. Let me say that again. The more power we give to death, the more it will take from us. Death, in all ways possible, robs us from life and from living. When we give death as much power as we do, we are forced to ask ourselves which God we worship: the God of life, hope, and resurrection, or a god of death, destruction, and the ends of our stories.

When we give death power, it sucks everything out of us, like I said. And sometimes, it even robs us of words. As I said before, words often fail us when death occurs. But one of the ways we continue to be stronger than death is to speak of our loved ones, the saints  that surround us. I have talked to too many people that want their loved ones remembered. Even if we just say their names, that would be enough. As we mark All Saints day today, maybe that’s the best we can hope for. We can hope that people pause for a moment, no matter how brief, and remember how much our dearly departed were loved. How much they are still loved! It doesn’t matter if your loved one has been gone for just a few months, or it’s been years, you still love them. And what a gift it would be for someone else to recognize that as well! Because the truth is this: death is awful and terrible and it stinks (in our story today, it literally stinks). Even if your loved one had been ill for sometime and death, in a weird way, was welcomed, it is still terrible and awful. Someone we love is no longer physically with us and the pain of that loss is very real. At the same time, death is also part of our reality.

We recognize the loss of our loved ones. We will pause and remember them. There also seems to be a fear that somehow, we will forget about those who have passed. But that won’t happen. But it is to us, as Christians, to speak the truth about death. Death is very painful. Death is very real. Death causes great anger, heartache, and suffering. Even when death is the answer to prayer, our hearts break and we weep and mourn. And for Christians, we must also speak another truth about death: it’s not the end. We can’t skip over death, but we have confidence that it is not the end. As I’ve said before, we cannot be Easter people without being Good Friday people as well.

Jesus proved he was stronger than death with three words: “Lazarus, come out.” We prove we are stronger than death every single time we show up here to worship. We prove that we still believe in something stronger than death even when society tells us we shouldn’t. We sing praises to God; words that are stronger than death. We eat the body and blood of Jesus; a meal that is stronger than death. And we proclaim the tomb empty on the third day and shout “alleluias!” to a world that would rather keep us quiet. Death may be part of our reality, my beloved, but it will never be part of our finality. We live in the hope that death never has the final word. For the saints who have gone before us we believe this, and we believe it for ourselves. Even when the words fail us in our grief, God’s actions, which always speak louder than words, will comfort us.

 

Sermon for 10/14/18 Mark 10:17-31

This reading tends to make people a little nervous. I have no idea why. I mean, it only talks about money a little bit. So, I’d like for you all to get out your wallets and checkbooks… nah I’m just kidding. It’s easy to take this reading and turn it into a stewardship lecture. We should give away more of our money. We can’t take it with us. You’ve never seen a Brinks truck following a hearse now have you? So, give it all away now. Rest assured, that is not what this sermon is going to be about. Now, don’t get me wrong. I hope you all are generous. I know you all are generous. I pray that you have made plans for yourself, your family, and your monetary goods upon your death. But, I’m not about to stand up here and lecture you on money today. At the same time, if you have an extra million or something burning a hole in your pocket, let’s talk.

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s a question we all kind of want to ask but we’re afraid of the answer, aren’t we? I mean, I’ll admit, I’m a little curious. But I’m not going to ask. In my heart I know, as a Lutheran, we don’t believe in what is called “works righteousness.” Meaning, we don’t believe that we can do anything to earn our way to eternal life. Eternal life is a gift from God. However, that doesn’t make my heart want to know the answer to that question for myself. Life would be so much easier with some kind of checklist for salvation, wouldn’t it? We do x,y, and z and bam! Eternal life! But I think we all know that it’s not that easy. Life as a Christian isn’t a series of boxes or tasks we can check off and be done with it. It is a lifestyle; a way of being, and acting, and moving in the world.

Jesus tells the man he lacks one thing. Then proceeds to give him the task of selling everything he owns and giving the money to the poor. But, here’s the thing: Jesus tells him he lacks one thing. The man is rich beyond rich. He has everything he could possibly need when it comes to material goods. How in the world could he lack one thing? I think that what he lacks isn’t necessarily a thing, but a trait. As I started to think about this more and more I wondered what the man lacked. What cannot be purchased? What cannot be stockpiled like goods to pull off a shelf? And then it occured to me: the man lacks compassion.

Now, I don’t think that he was a heartless man. I don’t think that he set out purposefully to not have compassion. I wonder if his money turned him compassion blind. We know that he has a great deal of respect for Jesus. We know that he has tried his best to follow Jesus and the commandments. But, remember, sin is whatever keeps us from a full and right relationship with God. Sin takes many forms. And yes, sometimes it is money. But, it can be other things just as easily. Because the man had money, more than he probably knew what to do with, he wasn’t able to fully see the suffering in the world. He wasn’t able to fully relate to those whom Jesus would be ministering to. He wasn’t able to fully live into the idea of having to rely on God alone for all things.

Again, I think the man had a good heart. But having a good heart and being compassionate are not the same things. Jesus knew that the man would only be able to gain what he was lacking by giving up everything that caused him to be blind so to speak. His money served as blinders to the hurting world. I’m guessing it was easy for the man to see a problem in the world and throw money at that problem. However, the problem may not have needed money, but a compassionate, listening, loving, caring person. This revelation has personally made me uncomfortable. I think it makes me uncomfortable because I’ve realized that putting money into a problem is so much easier than being compassionate.

Is that a terrible thing to say? Does thinking that make me a terrible person? At least I am willing to confess that, I suppose. Here’s what I’ve come to realize: when I can throw money at a problem, it allows me to keep my distance. And the fact that we all live in the richest nation in the world allows the majority of us to throw money at problems. Even the poorest person you may know is still infinitely richer than most in the world. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t donate funds and money to whatever causes are close to our hearts. However, money affords us the luxury of not getting to close. We are able to keep those people and their problems at a distance as if whatever they’re going through is contagious. Additionally, we also don’t always have the ability to enter into problems with people and show them compassion. Sometimes money is the best resource.

For instance, Hurricane Michael just hit Florida coast. For us to physically travel down there to help and show our compassion in person may actually be more of a hinderance. Often after natural disasters, people with the heart to be compassionate are told to stay away. In times like this, our money actually does help more than our presence. But there are instances when problems and challenges do need compassion. Additionally, compassion usually goes hand in hand with humility. It can be very humbling to actually know you can’t fix a problem by throwing money at it. What in the world is left when we’re not trying to take care of a problem with money (because we’re trying to do what Jesus asks) and our compassion has us spiritually and emotionally tired. What in the world is left? Jesus. That’s what.

There’s an important detail of this gospel story today that should not be skipped over. When the man told Jesus that he had kept all of the commandments since birth, we are told that Jesus looked at him and loved him. And Jesus loved him before he told the man to sell all of his things. Jesus is modeling that compassion for us to us. What we need most, Jesus has already given to us and will continue to give to us: love and compassion. First and foremost, before anything else, Jesus loves us. Jesus doesn’t give us a handful of cash and expect us to feel better. (I mean, it wouldn’t hurt, but in the long run, that feeling wouldn’t last.) Jesus does exactly what he always does: models for us and showers us with compassion.

Compassion breaks down walls. Money allows us to keep issues, whatever they may be (including people) at an arm’s length. But in order to engage in compassion, we have to become intimate with someone. We have to be willing to look at one another in the eyes, listen to one another, maybe even hold hands in prayer. Compassion is what allows us to truthfully say “I don’t know the answers. I don’t have the answers. But, I love you and I’m here for you.” Even in those moments where we’d rather take the easy way out (that is, forgoing compassion) Jesus still looks at us and loves us. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Follow Jesus. Follow Jesus in every possible way. Walk with the forgotten. Feed the hungry. Work for justice. Basically, be compassionate. Jesus loves you. Love like Jesus.

Sermon for 10/7/18 Mark 10:2-16

I don’t do this very often, but I think I’d like to start this sermon out by inviting all of you to take a good, deep, cleansing breath. And as you breathe in and out, let me assure you that God loves all of you. And at the same time remind you that absolutely nothing comes between you and the love of God. So breathe deep and relax. This sermon is not going to be about marriage or divorce. I invited you to breathe because when the topic of divorce comes up at church, walls are almost immediately constructed. I am going to guess that all of us have been touched by divorce in one way or another. You have either been divorced, had a family member divorce, maybe your parents divorced, or you have a good friend that has gone through a divorce. For many of us, it’s several of those. My sister is divorced, my uncle is divorced, and a good friend of mine from seminary is in the middle of a divorce right now. And sadly, all too often, a place that should be a place of refuge: the church, often becomes a place of judgement. So hear this now, my beloved, if the church, any church, has made you feel unloved, unwelcome, or unworthy simply because your marital status changed, please accept my apologies. Life is hard enough. The church should be a place of love and welcome. And if that was not the case for you, I am so terribly sorry that you were hurt in that way.

No one ever gets married with the intentions of getting divorced. Sometimes it is for the best. And we have to remember that new life comes from death. But, with today’s reading it is especially important to remember that divorce as we know it was nothing like divorce during Jesus’ time. Marriage as we know it was nothing like marriage during Jesus’ time. It might be helpful for us to remember that marriage during Jesus’ time was usually an agreement between families (more than likely the patriarch of the family) with the woman having little to no say in whom she would be married to. It was often a decision of economics and not love. A woman could not divorce her husband. Even in the case of abuse or infidelity, a woman had no power (and most likely, no money) in order to divorce her husband. A man, however, could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever.

In Jesus’ time there was a hierarchy of people. Men, of course, were at the top. At the bottom of the pecking order were divorced women and children. Even widowed women were a bit higher up than divorced women. During Jesus’ time, divorced women were often divorced for one main reason: they were barren. If a woman could not conceive a child she was viewed as broken or damaged goods. Of course, as a woman who had a terrible time conceiving a child, I really hate this explanation and I know I am far from damaged goods. So a divorced woman along with children was the lowest thing you could be in society. Little did society know that Jesus preferred the lowly. Little did they know, Jesus preferred justice for those that are forgotten. Little did they know that Jesus had no use of power and prestige. Little did they know that the women and children were just the kind of people that Jesus preferred.

While the majority of this conversation in today’s reading takes place between a Pharisee and Jesus, the disciples must have been nearby, listening intently. As they and Jesus continue to make their way to Jerusalem, Jesus is always looking for ways and opportunities to teach and show the disciples what he expects of them as disciples. And he continues to encourage them to use their gifts for the benefit of those that society often forgets: the children, the poor, and those with no status. Basically, Jesus encourages them to remember the vulnerable.

But too often the Pharisees and the disciples were too concerned about what the law says. The law is important. It gives us order. I’m not saying that we should completely ignore the law. In fact, knowing and obeying (or at least attempting to obey) the law gives us a greater appreciation of grace. The law enforces our need for grace. The law has had and will always have a place in our society. However, when we live our lives only by the law, we miss out on that grace. When we live our lives only by the law, it is very black and white and we live in a gray world. Jesus knew the law. But his concern is and always was for the least of these in society.

The way that divorce worked in Jesus’ time (and often still does) there are people that are left unfairly treated and disproportionately forgotten and abandoned. That was Jesus’ concern. It is always his concern: those who society would rather cast out, forget about, and leave abandoned. And why? Because society doesn’t want to deal with those that we only view as broken and a problem. But see, that’s Jesus’ specialty. Jesus favors those that society views as broken and a problem. He sees them, really sees them, and desires to bless them. And when Jesus blesses them, he not only verbally gives them a blessing, but actually lays hands on them proving that no one is unreachable.

You don’t have to be divorced or be a child to understand this feeling. Society always has ways of telling us that we should be forgotten. Perhaps it is divorce. But there are other ways society gives the message of “you’re not important.” Sometimes it’s because of our job or income (or maybe lackthereof) and sometimes it’s because of our physical status, abilities, or even our visual beauty. Our modern day Pharisees always find a way of getting the message across that we are untouchable, unloveable, and should be cast out for not living perfect lives. And Jesus doesn’t have any of that. Not then, not now, not ever. God favors the forgotten. God favors those whose powers, abilities, and class have been stripped of them. God favors those that society throws away.

It is important for us to remember, my beloved, that it is exactly when you feel forgotten that Christ remembers and is with you the most. God sent Jesus into the world to upturn the world. Jesus came so that the powerful may be humbled, so that the weak may be made strong, so that the lowly would be lifted up. This has not changed. God’s favor for the weak may not always be evident in this world; it may only be evident in God’s kingdom that is to come. But, Gospel says it will come. And this should either make us very relieved or very worried. The good news today, my beloved, is that if you feel forgotten, abandoned, untouchable, or even like you are damaged goods, you are Christ’s people. You are the people that Christ preferred. God sees you as beautifully and wonderfully made. And all of us have a bit of brokenness in us. In God’s kingdom we will be made whole. In God’s kingdom we will receive the love we so deeply desire and so deeply deserve. Thanks be to God!   

Sermon for 9/16/18 Mark 8:27-38

Many of you know my mom because you’ve talked with her or at least seen her on her many visits up here to see Ellen. What you may not know is that the majority of her career in education was spent as a school counselor. So, of course, when anything went wrong in my life (related to school, that is) mom would often put on her counselor hat and offer up advice. When it came to teasing and bullying (as I fear we all were victims of at some point in time) mom would say “their actions and words say more about them than they do you.” That didn’t always make me feel better, but bless her for trying. I thought about that this week as Jesus’ question “who do you say that I am?” echoed in my head. And I was challenged. Could I answer that for myself? Who do I say that Jesus is? Then the challenge and the scary part is wondering “what does that say about me and my identity?”

I am going to weave a bit today between the Gospel reading and that reading from James. So, if you have a bulletin available, you may want to have that open. Otherwise, I’ll try my best to reference the scripture I’m speaking about. Who do I say that Jesus is? It’s not as easy of a question as you might think initially. If I say “Jesus is my savior” then is he only my savior? What about the rest of you? If I say “Jesus is the source of all grace” but I’m too quick to believe that I actually am not a recipient of that grace, then what? If I say “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life” yet I take life from others with the harsh use of my tongue (like it says in James 3:9) then what? You can understand my dilemma here. Who and what we say Jesus is says a lot about us. And who and what we say Jesus is and our actions and words often don’t mesh very well.

When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, Peter anxiously speaks up “you are the Messiah.” But I wonder if Peter had any idea what that actually meant until Jesus told him. The Messiah (as Peter called him) will undergo trial, suffering, be killed, and rise three days later. And of course Peter tells Jesus he is wrong. What kind of Messiah would let themselves go through that? A Messiah was supposed to be a conqueror, a hero, the one who saves the day. A Messiah certainly isn’t someone who lets themselves be killed. Because we know the end of the story, it may be tempting to roll our eyes once again at Peter and sigh because he just doesn’t get it.

But, let us not be too quick to claim that we “get it” my beloved. After all, I think we would answer “who do you say I am” one way in public and another in private. In public, I may say “Jesus is the savior of the world” but in private I may confess that “Jesus is on my side and I hope he crushes my enemies.” It doesn’t work like that. Remember, if you and God hate the same people then you’ve most likely fashioned God in your image and not the other way around. Jesus tells the disciples of his fate because they are his disciples. And he expects them to follow his lead. Which means, if we fancy ourselves as disciples, we are expected to follow Jesus as well. This does not mean that we are to clothe ourselves in sackcloth and ashes, making martyrs of ourselves. To take up our cross does not mean that we are to suffer like Jesus. Rather, are we willing to suffer the consequences of what it means to follow Jesus?

Are we willing to be ostracized? Are we willing to to associate with people society would rather forget? Are we willing to forget about our own goals, our own mission, our own purpose and instead focus solely on the purpose, mission, and goals of Christ? When we lose our lives for the sake of Christ, we are gaining time to do all the things Christ calls us to do. When we are no longer the most important people in our own lives, we can use our resources so that others may come to know the love of Christ. But who do we say Christ is? The thing is, that reading from James should convict us. When we say who Christ is and at the same time curse those made in the likeness of God, are we really the disciples Christ is calling us to be?

Maybe it’s not so much who we say Christ is, but how we talk about Christ and how we treat Christ. Let’s say that we believe and confess that Jesus is Lord of the oppressed. That’s not wrong, after all. But if we say Jesus is the Lord of the oppressed but then ignore the fact that African American men are incarcerated at a higher rate than any other group in this country then who are we saying Christ really is, moreover, who are we saying we are? Perhaps we confess that Jesus is Lord of the marginalized. Again, this isn’t wrong. But, if we confess that Jesus is Lord of the marginalized but blame an addict when a pimp beats her again, who are saying Christ really is? Who are we saying we are? If we victim shame and victim blame then what do we really think of Christ? If we were all made in God’s image, yet we shame those who are victims, what do we really think of a man who was crucified? My beloved, what we say, what we believe about Christ says more about us than it does about Christ.

But the good news is that God, through Jesus Christ, is faithful. God keeps God’s promises. Even in the times we fail, which we will, God will remain steady. When our words confess one thing but our actions confess another, Jesus still meets us at the table and in the waters. Because we have a God of infinite chances. No one said that discipleship was easy. In fact, being a disciple should be the most frustrating job you have. Christ’s constant call on your life might have you feeling torn or afflicted. Following Christ, taking up your cross, isn’t for the faint of heart. When Christ died on the cross, he died the least heroic death possible. Crucifixion wasn’t meant for heroes or leaders. But, in the cross, we got a new definition of a hero and leader. We are able to see what it looks like when self sacrifice leads to the good of all. The promise of the cross is this: even in our moments of denial, like Peter, Christ does not forget us or abandon us. And on the third day, we were shown that God’s power is stronger than any attempt at power that we may ever have. God’s power is stronger than our best and our worst. We are reminded at the table, in the waters, and at the empty tomb that nothing separates us from God’s love.  

Sermon for 9/9/18 Mark 7:24-37

It seems to never fail that when religious nerds get together (these are my kind of people) and the group is made up of various denominations, the question eventually comes around. The question is “what kind are you?” This always makes me chuckle a bit. What kind of Baptist are you? What kind of Presbyterian are you? What kind of Lutheran are you? Sometimes you can tell how people feel about the denomination by the way they react to your answer. And honestly, I don’t know why it matters in the long run. Sure, we may not always agree with other denominations on things like baptism, communion, and even women clergy. But, I think we can agree on big worldly issues: feeding the hungry, working for justice, and caring for the environment. And I’ve said this before, but I really believe this: I doubt, or maybe more appropriately, I hope that God’s kingdom isn’t divided into denominations. There is no Lutheran heaven, no Methodist heaven, no Roman Catholic heaven. Today, I want to expand the question and idea of “what kind are you” from specific individual denominations and instead focus on just the general umbrella label of “Christian.” So, my beloved, what kind of Christian are you?

I wonder what is your first reaction to that question. What kind of Christian are you? As I was thinking about that this week, I thought of a few responses. What kind of Christian are you? What do you mean? What kind of Christian are you? Ummm…..Lutheran? What kind of Christian are you? Why do you want to know? And of course, doing the thing that our teachers always told us not to do: use a word to define a word. What kind of Christian are you? Well….I’m the Christian kind…you know. I want to pause and give you a moment to answer that question for yourselves. What kind of Christian are you? Now, tuck that answer away in a safe-keeping pocket in your brain.

We have two stories of healing this week. On the surface, that’s probably not surprising. After all, Jesus healed a lot of people. This was kind of his thing. If we just looked at these stories as stories of healing, we’d probably miss a lot. While the healing is important, the conversations and actions that lead up to the healings are almost more important. Everything we need to know about the first healing is told to us in some simple words. Verse 26 “now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” Those gathered listening to this story would immediately hear and know that this woman had three strikes against her. First, she was a woman, which meant she was less than. Additionally, she approaches Jesus without a husband or other male relative, which was a no-no. Second, she was a Gentile, which meant she’s not Jewish. She would have been viewed as impure. Lastly, she was Syrophoenician. She lives outside Israel, not under Jewish law. Then, there’s the reason why she’s approaching Jesus in the first place: her daughter has a demon. This fact also further drives a wedge between her and those gathered around Jesus. This woman was a Christian with nothing else to lose.

Because she has nothing else to lose, the woman does something that was quite rare: she went toe-to-toe with Jesus. She challenged Jesus. But why wouldn’t she? If Jesus had turned her away, denied her request for the healing of her daughter, she probably would have been no worse off. When is the last time you went toe-to-toe with Jesus? When was the last time you wondered and questioned God’s mission in this world? The Syrophoenician woman knew that there would be enough on that table that it would spill over and even those seated underneath the table, even the beggars would get crumbs. Do we truly believe that God’s grace is so great that even those that don’t deserve it receive God’s grace? Do we truly believe that God’s grace is so great that even we receive God’s grace?

I wonder if we would be brave enough to be this kind of Christian. It’s scary to think about challenging God, isn’t it? Our brains and hearts may immediately jump to consequences. Usually these consequences are self-centered. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s actually pretty natural. When I think about challenging God, I think “if I do that, God won’t love me anymore.” Or I think “if I challenge God, I may not get to heaven.” Sometimes I think “if I challenge God, God will punish me or someone I love for my disobedience.” And I wonder if our faith isn’t actually weakened when we don’t question God. After all, when you start to chalk up every bad thing as “God’s plan” eventually you might snap.

I mean, let’s say you had a relative die of cancer and said “it was God’s plan.” And then your dog died and “it was God’s plan.” Perhaps then your car got stolen and “it was God’s plan.” You went bankrupt, your house burned down, and your spouse left you and it was all “God’s plan.” Wouldn’t you be the slightest bit angry with God? Our God is big enough for us to be angry with God. Our God is loving enough for us to question God. What would happen if we were the kind of Christians this Syrophoenician woman is? What if instead of rolling over and accepting life the way it is, we challenged God? When was the last time you yelled at God? When was the last time you complained to God? Our fear of not being loved is so strong that we often keep our anger to ourselves and it effects our faith. That’s not a relationship with God. God loves us no matter what. God will love us even in the times we are angry with God or challenging God.

I wonder if this world actually needs us to be the kind of Christians that challenge God. I think this world is hungry for Christians who will question Jesus and say “but isn’t there enough for even those under the table?” Prayer changes the world, friends. I really believe that. What if we were the kind of Christians who, in love for our neighbors, cried in anger to God over hunger, war, and poverty? What if we were the kind of Christians, who, in love for our neighbors, yelled at God for injustice, racism, sexism, and classism? What if, we just were the kind of Christians, out of our love for our neighbors and our belief that our God is a God of love, that we were just to frustratingly say “nope. This isn’t fair, God.” But I must caution you. When we challenge God, which we should, God may then turn around and challenge us. There is a reason Jesus had the disciples. And there is a reason God created us. If we challenge God, God will, by grace alone, give us the resources and tools we need to answer the challenge. And even if we don’t, even if we fail in doing God’s work in the world, God still moves and acts. Jesus, despite being challenged, still cured the Syophoenican woman’s daughter. Nothing stops the love of God through Christ Jesus. We aren’t that important or that powerful to stop God’s love. Believe it or not, that is good news. So, my beloved, the next time you are asked “what kind of Christian are you?” will you be brave enough and bold enough to answer “the kind that will dare to go toe-to-toe with God. The kind that will yell at God, get angry with God, and beg of God. The kind that refuses to take ‘no’ for an answer. The kind that questions God’s will. The kind whose faith is stronger because of all those things.” What kind of Christian are you?

 

Sermon for 9/2/18 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

I wonder how many of you are of a certain age to answer this question: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” (“The Shadow knows!”) The Shadow was a night time vigilante, fighting for justice, and terrifying criminals. This type of character isn’t a strange concept. Batman operates in a similar way, after all. But, I kept thinking about evil hearts and the Shadow off and on this week as I’ve thought about this scripture from Mark. It’s almost enough for me to want to go back to teaching and preaching about bread. What Jesus is asking the Pharisees, his disciples, the crowd gathered, and us to do in this scripture is have a nice, long, hard look at our own hearts.

The Pharisees weren’t trying to keep the law as a way of earning salvation. In fact, they were attempting to keep the law (that is, the supposed law around hand washing) because they understood the law to be a gift. It provided order. They hoped that following the letter of the law would bring glory to God. However, the Pharisees were so focused on keeping the law and on external faithfulness, that they didn’t make time to examine the darkness of their own hearts. This question of clean versus unclean hands was just a way of dividing the followers of Christ and further fracture the kingdom of God. Of course, that was not the Pharisees intent. It’s probably never our intent either.

The church of this country has undergone several reformations since its founding. And in that time, I am guessing there were heated debates over what people believed to be God’s law. However, the obedience of the law did nothing but put up walls. The question of how we honor God with our hearts must have come up time and time again. But, time and time again, people who, most likely, called themselves “good Christians” defiled God with the thoughts of their hearts and words of their lips. How did slave owners reconcile their actions with what Jesus teaches? How did men justify keeping silent while women protested the right to vote? How did whites sit in church praising God on Sunday and then go spit on blacks Monday afternoon during the civil rights movement? Lest we think we’re immune, how have we, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America reconciled and wrestled with the fact that we are one of the whitest denominations in America and we are responsible for raising and educating in our own Sunday school rooms the murderer of the Charleston 9? How do “good Christians” still protest women preachers when women were some of first at the empty tomb to proclaim the good news? Without women preachers, we would have never known the tomb was empty.

It’s not fun to examine our hearts. It’s not fun to reconcile the thoughts of our inner darkness. But being honest with ourselves and with God is an important step in reconciliation. This is one of the reasons we start our service every single Sunday with confession. But, can you imagine having to confess the darkest parts of your heart out loud? Imagine hearing “let us confess our sins before God and one another” and then hearing your neighbor confess, out loud, every short coming they have had in this past week. Would you listen in or would you focus on your own heart? It would be tempting to listen in, wouldn’t it? I confess to you, my beloved, I’d listen. Because I would rather focus on your sins, then face the darkness of my own. And if I started to confess my sins out loud, wouldn’t you listen in? We’d rather point on a little bit of dirt on the hands of others rather than see the mud that is coating ours.

What might it look like if we took the time to examine our own hearts? Can you imagine if we held ourselves to the standards we hold others to? Could you survive the judgement you yourself place on others? Would your soul survive the tongue lashings you give others? Is it possible that the gossip we spread has the power to crush us? Would our constant desire to have more, be more, demand more, and take at all cost bury us? I cannot speak for you, my beloved, but I would not be able to withstand the judgement I place on others. My soul and spirit would be crushed by my mouth that is too cruel, my heart that is to hard, and my actions that are too selfish. Perhaps that is why I don’t want to examine my heart. I would be forced to my knees, crumbled, broken, destroyed by the truth of my own darkness. What comes out of my heart, what comes out of my mouth, I would finally realize, does nothing but defecate all over the body of Christ. I would be forced to examine my heart and wonder “is this any place for God? Is there any room for God?”

The answer, of course, is yes. We are a fallen and broken humanity. All of us. Whether you want to examine your hearts or not, we are broken. And when things are broken, when things are cracked, then there is room for other things to sneak in. And in the cracks of our hearts, in the brokenness, God fills us up with God’s love. What we see as broken, God looks at as another opportunity to infiltrate with love. What we see as irreparable, God sees as mercy worthy. When we are holding the pieces of our lives in our hands, God gets out the grace duct-tape and makes something even better than we ever could. When we start to encounter the darkness of our hearts, God sheds a light. When we come face to face with the darkness of our sin, God shows us the cross. When all hope is lost, we encounter Jesus and his amazing grace.  When we seem to encounter dead end after dead end, God opens a pathway we didn’t even know existed. When we are knocked to our knees by the hardness of our hearts, we’re in the perfect position to pray for forgiveness. Are you willing to give up the ideas of right and wrong for the idea of loving your neighbor? Are you willing to respect human law but live and die by God’s law? At this table, God offers forgiveness. In these waters, God showers us with mercy. Even when our attempts to cleanse our hearts fail, God remains steadfast. That’s the amazingness of our Lord: love despite all our failings.