Sermon for Thanksgiving 2017 Luke 17:11-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sermon for 10/29/17 John 8:31-36 Confirmation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 9/17/17 John 10:22-30

**nb: This was the 125th anniversary of the congregation I pastor**

A lot of you have noticed that I like to keep my fingernails long. I have had long nails for as long as I can remember. One of the things I do to spoil and treat myself is regular manicures. I recently changed the method of manicure and that has caused a lot of my nails to break. Meh. They’ll grow back. But, it wasn’t until I broke one all the way down to the quick did I realize how much I use my hands on a daily basis. I type, hold Ellen’s hand, pet Sasha, unload the dishwasher, open the mail, hold Chris’ hand…the list could go on and on. Then I thought about what some of you might do with your hands on a daily basis: rock babies, help an elderly parent take their medication, feed your animals, drive a load to ADM, quilt, bake, comfort others, and that list could go on and on as well.

And then I thought about what hands have done in this place through God’s people over the last 125 years. There was the literal moving of this church from over by the cemetery to where we sit now. Then the digging to build the narthex was done by so many of your ancestors. Renovations were done by people with the last names of Petersen and Mommsen to name a few. Many of you have brought your babies to this font to be baptized and held in the hands of pastors who now are part of our communion of saints. So many of you have shaken hands as you greet people gathered for your family confirmation, wedding, or funeral. And of course, so many of your hands helped to renovate the house I am proud to call our home. It’s really amazing to think about how the people of God, acting as God’s hands and feet in this world, have made a difference just in this place.

This passage from John is often used on what is known as “good shepherd” Sunday. This comes from the quote from Jesus in 10:27 “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I love that idea. It’s comforting to me, and to you, I hope, to think of Jesus as a shepherd. Jesus, the one who guides us, shelters us, and takes care of us. But, what really inspired my thinking this week was the sentence that followed. “I will give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Part of me wants to say “do you hear the good news in this? Okay great. Sermon over. Amen…” But I won’t.

Over the last 125 years one thing has remained the same: we have always been in God’s grip. God has a hold of us so very tightly and nothing has ever or will ever change that. It has been God’s hand all along hold us, nudging us, maybe even pushing us towards God’s will for us. God’s hands have been in and among us all along. Through times of great joy and in times of great sorrow, God has had us in the palm of God’s hand. Nothing has ever gotten in the way of that. And if you’ve been around these parts long enough, or have had family members that have been here for a while, you might be able to recall a time when you can say clearly and without a doubt “God’s hands were all over that!” And maybe, yes, there are times when you can recall wondering if God had a clue what was happening in this place.

Perhaps part of the good news for us is that feeling God and being held by God is never on us. What I mean is that God holds on to us, not the other way around. It is never us holding onto God. So, often I picture God holding my hand like a tender parent would but other times, I picture God picking me up by the back of my neck like a disobedient kitten. Even in the times of our disbelief, God still has a hold of us. During the times when we wonder if God is even listening, I think that is when God tightens the grip. And when Jesus says that no one will snatch us out of God’s hand what that really means is that not one person and not one thing can ever take us away from God.

Evil forces have a way of finding us, don’t they. Sometimes we call these evil forces “good intentions” and sometimes they are more appropriately called “sin.” We may not trust that God has a hold of us. We intervene in our human ways that ultimately lead to human error. We may think that we know better than God so even though God is pointing us one way, we look and say “this way seems easier, better, or way more fun!” And we stray. God offers us life and protection and love but instead we turn to power, money, and self interests to comfort us. All of those things ultimately let us down. But no matter what, nothing removes us from God’s hand, not even death. Not an actual death or a metaphorical death can remove us from God’s hand. And remember, from death comes a resurrection and new life and whose hand do you think is doing all of that?

There was a time when every Sunday School room in this church was filled with children and there were months when keeping the lights on was in question. God has been with us every single step of the way. It is only by the grace of God that we have been a cornerstone of this community for 125 years and only by the grace of God that we will continue to do ministry in this area for another 125. What has been the same since the doors of this church opened will continue to be the same until Christ comes again: we gather as the people of God, to hear the Word of God, to feast on the body and blood of God, and then we are sent out to be and show Christ to other people in a hurting world. Nothing has changed that and nothing will. What is comforting about church is that some things never change. What is maddening about church is that some things never change. But through it all, God’s hands have been in, among, and around all of us. What gives me hope and joy this day, my beloved, is that God will continue to move in this place. Long after you and I are gone. Long after stories of us are gone. God’s hands will be guiding this place and God’s people to usher in God’s kingdom to this world.

Sermon for 4/23/16 John 20:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 11/23/16 John 6:25-35 Thanksgiving

Alright, my brothers and sisters. I need to make confession to all of you. I hope that you will still find it in your hearts to love me after I admit what I am about to confess to all of you. I don’t do this lightly, nor do I do this without prayer. But, here it goes. I hate pecan pie. That’s right. The dish some of you are so looking forward to consuming tomorrow will not come anywhere near my lips. I know what you’re thinking “how is this possible, pastor? You seem like such a good person. How can you hate pecan pie when it’s like 99% sugar?” It’s easy. I don’t like pecans. They have always tasted dirty to me. So, I don’t like pecans. Therefor, I don’t like pecan pie. Can you believe I lived in Texas for 3 years without liking pecans? Chris and I even looked at buying a house with a pecan tree. We quickly nixed that idea.

I tried to think of another holiday that revolves around food as much as Thanksgiving does. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of another one. Christmas has food, but also presents (and Jesus). Easter has food (but again, egg hunts and Jesus). Valentine’s day has food, but in the form of chocolate. St. Patrick’s Day has drinks. There isn’t a lot that focuses on food as much as Thanksgiving does. And it’s interesting how many memories we have of family and events that center around food. I am sure a lot of you have that one certain food that it’s not Thanksgiving if it isn’t there. It’s not Thanksgiving without Aunt Mary’s oyster dressing. It’s not Thanksgiving without Uncle Mark’s deep fried turkey. For my family, it wasn’t as much the food as it was the activities surrounding the food. My family likes to gather around noon or so, snack off and on (while having a few drinks and playing games,) we eat around 3, nap, play more games, and then eat again (usually in the form of turkey sandwiches). But for so many families, it all comes back to food.

So it seems appropriate that today’s readings center around bread. As it is often in the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to himself as bread; as the only food that can truly really feed us. During a time when we gather to give thanks, to spend time with family and friends, and yes, to eat, we are reminded that everything we are, everything we have, everything we could ever need, is given to us by the bread of life: Jesus Christ. And Jesus tells the disciples, and us, to work for food that endures for eternal life, not the food that perishes. Just in case you’re already in a turkey hangover of some kind, Jesus isn’t speaking about actual food. We know that eventually all food will perish. But Jesus encourages us to receive the food of eternal life.

The wording that Jesus uses is, as always, crucially important. Jesus starts by telling his disciples “do not work for the food” but that the eternal food will given to them by the son of Man. Maybe there was a bit of confusion but the disciples still come back and ask “What must we do to perform the works of God?” And Jesus answers them “This is the work of God…” The focus keeps coming back to what God is doing through Jesus Christ. We cannot do anything to earn this bread. Just as a reminder, Jesus isn’t speaking about literal bread. He’s not talking about the rolls you have rising at home right now, the Wonder loaf you have in your cabinet, or the bagels you had for breakfast. Jesus is speaking about himself. We cannot do anything to earn Jesus.

Martin Luther was passionate about the Lord’s Supper and what happens at the table. Communion is one of 2 sacraments that we celebrate as the Lutheran church (the other is baptism). A sacrament is a tangible sign of God’s love and grace for us. This means that we receive something we can touch, taste, smell, feel, and hear as a outward sign of God’s love. With communion we receive all of that. Luther said “we go to the sacrament because there we receive a great treasure, through and in which we obtain the forgiveness of sins. Why? Because the words are there, and they impart it to us! For this reason he bids me eat and drink, that it may be mine and do me good as a sure pledge and sign–indeed, as the very gift he has provided for me against my sins, death, and all evils.” (Luther’s Large Catechism; 469:22)

Jesus reminds us this day and everyday that he is the one who sustains us. And Jesus promises that whoever comes to him will never be hungry and never be thirsty. Everything we have to be grateful for comes from this relationship. The people around our table are sustained through Jesus. The food on our table is provided by Jesus. The memories we share are a glimpse of the foretaste of the feast to come that we will have in the kingdom of God. Even when we have empty chairs at our tables because our loved ones are no longer with us, we are reminded of God’s love and the promises of the resurrection given to us in the life of Jesus.

My brothers and sisters, everything we have and everything we are is because of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. When you are invited to this table, come. Come, not because you are guilted into it, not because you’re pressured into it by me or your family, not because it’s just that time. Come because you know that God has given you everything you could possibly need, but it is still a blessing to be reminded that you will continue to be taken care of, provided for, and loved by the bread of life, Jesus Christ.

I also would be remissed if I didn’t take time to thank God for all of you. 3 years ago tomorrow I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament. God prepared me for you and God prepared you for me. I am more in love with all of you than I was 3 years ago. God continues to provide for me and for all of us. I am so thankful you have given me your trust, your hearts, and your hopes, dreams, and fears. The Holy Spirit continues to stir in this place and we continue to feast on the bread of life and trust in that movement.

Sermon for 3/24/16 Maundy Thursday John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

I have been really surprised by one almost universal thing as I sit with families after their loved one dies. I usually ask the same question “how did your loved one show their love?” And more times than not, the answer I get is “we weren’t a real huggy-kissy kind of family….” Or “I think my mom/dad only told me they loved me about twice in my life….” And the underlying idea is that this loved one, your mom, dad, grandma or grandpa or whoever did love you, but they just never said it. More than once I’ve heard grieving families say to me “there is no doubt that he or she loved me.” I am trying to figure out if it was a generational thing or a geographical thing or what. My family and I are very huggy-kissy. It’s also part of our heritage. Italians often greet one another with kisses on the cheek.

I also think about the families that tell me, if I had just one more moment with my loved one, I would tell them how much I love them. For me, no encounter, meeting, or phone call goes by with my friends and family without me telling them how much I love them. I refuse to live with regret. We are told within the first sentence of this reading that not only does Jesus know very clearly what is going to happen to him. It says “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” The crucifixion was not a surprise. Jesus’ death wasn’t a surprise. This didn’t come out of nowhere. He had been telling his disciples for some time that he was a marked man. Granted, they didn’t want to believe him, but Jesus knew. He knew all along. And because he knew he was about to leave this world, he wanted to make sure his disciples knew one thing: how much he loved all of them.

Jesus was known as a man of action. He did more than tell the disciples he loved them, he showed them. While foot washing may seem a little strange to us, it was very common in Jesus’ time. Usually when one would enter into a home (especially for dinner) it was expected that you would wash your hands, face, and feet. But, usually it was the household slave that met you at the door with water and towel. It was also this household slave that would help to wash the feet of visitors. Maybe you can understand why the disciples were a little disturbed that Jesus would then do something that was traditionally meant for a slave. When Jesus finished, he asked the disciples “do you know what I have done to you?” I have to imagine that Jesus was more than just a bit frustrated when the disciples probably just looked at him, befuddled.

Jesus is setting an example, he tells them. Do to others what I have done to you. Jesus is encouraging his disciples, and us, really, to be of service to one another. Servants, slaves, are no greater than their masters and messengers aren’t greater than the ones who sent them. Jesus is reinforcing the idea that anyone can be of service to anyone else. ANYONE. And then, out of all of the things he could have told his disciples, he made sure they understood this act of love by telling them to love one another.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a very controversial idea. After all, we have come to know through our faith that we serve a God of love and that God showed that love through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is love. Jesus is God’s love letter to us. Maybe we’re just used to the idea that Jesus loves us. Maybe what we’re not so used to, however, is the idea that Jesus loves those around us as much as he loves us. Remember, Jesus is preparing for his death. As he is ripped away from his friends and made to carry his own execution tool, the thing he wants everyone around him to remember is that he loves them.

Friends, if you think being a Christian is an easy task, that it just comes to you by nature, then I want you to think very carefully about this commandment that Jesus is giving us. First, let’s focus on the idea that this is indeed a commandment, not a suggestion. We don’t have an option. Maybe you have no problem understanding or accepting the idea that Jesus loves you. But that’s not enough. What Jesus calls us to do is difficult to do because our sin always gets in the way. How easy this commandment would be if Jesus said “accept the love I give to you and then judge if others deserve the same love.” We seem to have this down pretty good. The call to love one another is in complete and total contradiction to almost everything we have heard this election season. Sure, there have been some bright spots, but we have seemed to enter an age in this country where we’ve forgotten this commandment.

I know most of you aren’t Christian because it’s easy. Let us not let the cross be in vain. If you are going to profess that Jesus is your savior, you must also profess that you love your neighbor. Those two things cannot be independent of one another. Being a follower of Jesus means we love people society doesn’t. Being a follower of Jesus means we love people society says we shouldn’t. Being a follower of Jesus means loving people we may disagree with. There’s a great t-shirt I’ve seen floating around the internet. On the front it says “love thy neighbor.” On the back it says “thy homeless neighbor, thy Muslim neighbor, thy Black neighbor, thy White neighbor, thy Jewish neighbor, thy Christian neighbor, thy Atheist neighbor, thy racist neighbor, thy disabled neighbor, thy addicted neighbor, thy gay neighbor, thy abusive neighbor…” I could go on and on but I think you get the point.

See, we can’t claim the cross as our salvation if we don’t claim all of it. That means loving our neighbors and admitting our sin when we can’t. It means being willing to be misunderstood and maybe even chastised. Our reward isn’t going to be felt on this earth. If we’re going to claim the title of “Christian” or “disciples” then it’s clear that we must make our motto one of love. It’s one thing to call yourself a Christian, but it’s another to act it. The challenge has been set before us, brothers and sisters. Love one another. Start with yourself. Then, be willing to have the Holy Spirit open your minds and hearts, and love one another. Love one another not expecting anything in return. Love one another without abandon. Love one another because it’s what Christ commands. Just….damn it! Love one another.

Sermon for 3/13/16 John 12:1-8

When Chris’ grandma Roth died, all of the grandkids gathered at her house hoping to find treasure. Now, everyone had their own version of treasure. Erica wanted these pudding cup things. Chris was hoping to find any signs or memories from his own mother, who is passed. I knew what I wanted. I wanted Grandma’s cast-iron skillets. I knew that she was the kind of woman that had to have at least one. So, I opened the formica cabinets one by one. I was greeted by old plates, dusty cups, outdated canned goods, and finally, three cast-iron skillets. I made sure no one else wanted them and then claimed them for myself. I wanted the cast-iron skillets for a few reasons, but the strongest reason being that I have always wanted one. To be able to get one that was already used and seasoned seemed like a big win for me.

Fast forward almost a year and I got one of the skillets out to make some lovely hamburgers. It was one of those days where it was frigid and too cold to grill. So, inside burgers it was. The burgers were letting off that lovely hamburger smell and I was getting hungry. Chris walked in the door after a long day, not knowing what I was cooking for dinner  and also not knowing how I was cooking. “Hey!” He said. He stopped and breathed in what I thought was the smell of my awesome hamburgers. And instead exhaled and said “I know this sounds weird, but it smells like the farm in here.” And I was reminded once again how powerful the sense of smell really is.

We all have those smells that take us back to certain moments in our lives or remind us of certain people in our lives. Maybe it’s the smell of gasoline, or chocolate chip cookies, or Old Spice, or maybe, like Chris, it’s the smell that an old cast-iron skillet gives off. But, it happens in an instant: scented air fills our nostrils and we are transported. I think that often we don’t give our sense of smell enough credit. But all it takes the slightest whiff and the memories are rushing back in.

Smell is a very powerful part of our Gospel reading today. The disadvantage to this written word is that we can’t see what is happening, we can’t see where everyone is sitting, we can’t watch Martha rush around trying to get dinner served, we can’t watch Mary sneak off to get perfume. The other disadvantage to reading the story is that we can’t smell what is going on in the story. We can’t smell what Martha is cooking. We can’t smell those people that are gathered there. After all, these are people that were spending a lot of time in a dusty, hot place; most likely they had an odor to them. And then there was Lazarus. Let’s not forget that the reason all of these people were gathered is because Mary and Martha were throwing a celebration party because their brother Lazarus had been raised from the dead. Mary and Martha had expressed a concern about his stench before Jesus even raised him from the dead. Lazarus most likely still smelled like death.

All of those smells are filling a small space. Just when the noses of those gathered there are on the brink of overload, a new smell enters the room: nard perfume. The strangeness of this smell is only complicated by the amount (the literal amount and then the cost amount) and the method of use of this perfume. Mary had taken down her hair, which is not something respectable women did in the company of men, put herself in a place of vulnerability, and anointed Jesus’ feet with this perfume. With her hair. When you slow down to think about it, this is a totally odd story.

While it may not seem like it, this act of Mary anointing Jesus is all about love. The smell that filled the room most likely conjured up a few thoughts. But, the strongest thought was probably death. Mary was preparing Jesus for death. Mary is Jesus’ long time friend and she is preparing him for death with an extravagant show of love. And it doesn’t sit well with those gathered, especially Judas. Judas thinks that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Now, let’s not lose sight of Judas’ real purpose here: he was only looking out for himself. He would make it a habit of stealing from the poor. He knew how much that perfume was worth and so he knew how much money could have been in his pocket.

Mary was, in her own way, a prophet. And by anointing Jesus’ feet, she had a clear message: the man being anointed was a man marked for death. And Jesus doesn’t want her to stop. Not because he is enjoying this little weird foot bath, but because Mary is speaking with her actions. She is, once again, reminding everyone gathered that Jesus is destined for a death that everyone would rather avoid. The perfume, which now fills the air with its smell, was expensive. It could have benefited many people. But instead, Mary is preparing something even more expensive, something that will benefit the entire world, something that still benefits us even to this day. God is shown through this extravagant act; God’s mercy is made real in the excess.

Shortly after being anointed, Jesus will gather his disciples one more time and feed them. He will then do as Mary has done and wash their feet and command them to love one another. He will then be arrested and marched off to his death. And as those nails are driven into his hands and feet, the costly perfume made with nard will let off its smell once more; reminding all who are gathered there to be of love and service to one another. The disciples will deny Jesus. They will avoid his gaze. Jesus will cry out on the cross and perhaps the smell of that perfume will fill his nostrils, reminding him that he is not alone after all.

The perfume was poured out for Jesus and he will be poured out for the world. A stench of death will fill the air once more. And with it, freedom from our sins. Jesus’ life was worth much more than an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. And he didn’t hesitate to give it. Mary did what she did out of love. And it reeked. Jesus did what he did out of love. And it reeked. How were we to know that the smell of death would soon be replaced by the smell of an empty tomb and our freedom over sin and death? How were we to know that the smell of death would soon be replaced with the smell of Easter morning; dew, sunshine, and confusion? The smell of blood would soon be the smell of healing. And it all reeks of love.