Sermon for 6/24/18 Mark 4:35-41

So I will admit that I struggled and have continued to struggle with scripture this week. Did you know that Pastors do that? Knowing what to say to you week after week isn’t always easy. I pray a lot and listen to the Holy Spirit. But, sometimes like Job, I wrestle with God and with scripture. Many times, it is personal. I know what I need to say, but I don’t want to say it (mainly because I don’t want to hear it). Or I have a lot of people telling me what I should say, but they don’t know you like I know you. Sometimes I even know what I want to say but I just can’t find the right words to say it. Often, it is a combination of all of those things. This week, I wrestled a lot with faith versus fear. I didn’t like that they seemed to be pitted up against one another. Why can I not be faithful and have fear? Just because I am afraid doesn’t mean I’m don’t have faith. Does it?

I was always taught that a healthy amount of fear was good. It’s good to fear a lake you can’t see the bottom of. It’s good to fear going to a new country, new place, or when meeting new friends. I think fear keeps us aware of who we are and whose we are. But, lately, I think that fear is causing us to build walls and keep people away. Thanks to the news, social media, and pretty much everything that surrounds us, we have been drowning in messages of the “other” being dangerous. We are sinking in messages that we need to fear not being loved, not being enough, not measuring up, and being left out or left behind. It doesn’t have to be anything major, either. There’s the fear that our teeth aren’t white enough, our hair thick enough, that we don’t drive the right car, and that we don’t smell the right way. If we let it, fear can control our lives.

The disciples were in a group of boats sailing across the sea of Galilee when a storm blew up out of nowhere. The sea does that on occasion. It is nothing if not unpredictable. It’s easy to forget that this wouldn’t have been strange for the disciples. After all, most of them were fishermen, remember? They knew the power of the sea. But let’s talk about the setting for a moment. It was night. Their boats were more like fishing boats than luxurious cruise liners. A great storm had blown up. The winds were fierce. There would have been tremendous waves that ebbed and flowed. The sailors must have known that they might have to literally abandon ship in order to be saved. This was a serious storm. So when the disciples woke Jesus, it wasn’t a timid, reserved, or even polite “teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” It was probably more of a “TEACHER!! DO YOU NOT CARE THAT WE ARE PERISHING?!?” And, as Jesus has done thus far in the stories that we have heard from Mark’s gospel, he doesn’t follow the rules.

Jesus doesn’t start throwing buckets of water out of the boat. He doesn’t console the disciples. He doesn’t prepare to abandon ship. Instead, he rebuked the wind and demanded peace of the sea. And it happened. The disciples went from “holy mackerel we’re gonna die” to “holy mackerel who is this guy?” in a matter of moments. Jesus didn’t calm the storm as much as he showed dominion over it. This leaves the disciples, and us, perhaps, to struggle not so much with the question of what Jesus is or what he can do to who Jesus is (and what does that mean for us). I also have to wonder if part of the disciples awe was a disbelief that someone with Jesus’ powers would be associated with such a ragtag group of guys. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” And if he is capable of such things, what in the world is he doing with us?

Perhaps Jesus says what he says to the disciples because they had seen proof of his identity several times before. They had seen what he was capable of. This wasn’t his first miracle with the disciples as witnesses. After all, this group of 12 was to be his “insiders.” Perhaps they even thought they fully understood Jesus and who he was. But, fear won over and they forgot everything that they had learned up to this point. The disciples have been front-row witnesses to everything that Jesus had done up to now. If they can’t figure out who Jesus is, what hope do we have?I wonder, then, if the lesson that Jesus is trying to teach us, and the disciples, is to never get too comfortable.

We should never rest to assured on our “Christian” laurels. We may assume we know and/or understand how Jesus would react to a certain situation, but we would most likely find ourselves in the wrong. I think the real fear in our lives should be any confidence we have in answering with vigor “I know what Jesus would do.” Because often our idea of what Jesus would do is colored by our own biases and misconceptions. I also wrestle with this idea: do we fear Jesus because we don’t know what he will do or do we fear Jesus because we think he would do the same as we would do? I don’t know that I have a clear cut answer to that one. As soon as Jesus exercises dominion over the storm, the disciples realized that he wasn’t as much of a what as he was a who. And once again, Jesus reminds us that he is all about relationships.

I’ve come to realize I fear the most when I don’t trust. It’s not as much of a faith issue as it is a trust issue. And the only way we learn to trust is in relationship. And this includes relationships even with things we may not think we can have a relationship with. You might have seen we got a new camper. I am going to learn to trust that camper by spending time with it, learning its noises (and what they mean), finding out all the ins and outs of it. We do the same with one another. We learn to trust one another as we spend time with one another. Trust and faith then slowly go hand in hand. We often say “I have faith in you” when really what we mean is “I trust you.” So I have to wonder if when Jesus asked about the disciples faith if he was really asking them “don’t you trust me?”

Jesus is the model for accompaniment. He has shown the disciples (and us) more than once already that he is going to be by their side and by our side no matter what. Here’s the thing, faith moves us from “what if” to “even if.” Perhaps the good news in all of this is that even if we do have fear, even if our trust is wavering, even if our faith isn’t as strong as perhaps we’d like it to be, Jesus will never leave us. Jesus always has a hold of us. In the greatest storms and in times of dead calm, Jesus will not only be with us, but will also provide for us and care for us. This is the Jesus that is relentless in caring for all of creation, and that includes us. This is the Jesus that may question our faith, but still goes to the cross willingingly. When we gather here every Sunday, we are reminded and remind others that we are loved. When we gather around the table, we are reminded that Jesus loves us. When we gather around the font and are splashed in grace, we are reminded of a relationship that lasts a lifetime and even through death. Jesus, who has the powers to calm even the stormiest of seas, will provide for us always and never leave us abandoned. Christ calls on us to have even the slightest bit of faith to believe it. Let us worship love and life, not fear and mistrust.

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Sermon for 4/15/18 Luke 24:36b-48

Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!) Growing up, we, for a while, had a scare-off happening in the house. There were four of us involved in this. We would hide behind doors, in closets, and on and on and try our best to scare one another. Jon, Jayna (my brother and sister), myself, and my dad all tried to scare one another. My mom sat back and probably just rolled her eyes. This hit a peak one night after we had all sat and watched the movie Cape Fear with Robert DeNiro. My sister hid under my parents bed. And she waited. My dad came home, took off his tie, emptied his pockets, and then sat down to take off his socks and shoes. He took off one shoe and one sock. Then the other. And just when his feet were on the floor, my sister reached out from underneath the bed and grabbed his ankles. I don’t want to make my dad sound weak, but he screamed like a little girl.

In today’s reading, the disciples, we are told, were startled and terrified. They looked as if they had seen a ghost. Then Jesus asks them “why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” This is the first time Jesus had showed himself to all of the disciples since his resurrection. So perhaps the disciples had a right to be afraid. They had not experienced the resurrected Christ for themselves. I think it’s only natural for them to have been afraid. As I said at Easter, I think fear and being startled is a predicted reaction to seeing the deceased now raised. It may be easy for us to shake our heads in disbelief, but we are at an advantage. We know more about Jesus now than the disciples did at that time.

The way that I think about this is that the disciples could have experienced one of two kinds of Jesus in this situation. They could have experienced the “flipping tables” Jesus. The one who gets angry and starts to flip tables. As if he was gonna say “I told you I would be raised on the third day! And you don’t believe me!?!” (flip tables) Or, they could have experienced the Jesus they actually did encounter: the loving, understanding Jesus. The Jesus who understood that despite telling them that he would be raised, that showing them his hands and feet is what it was going to take for them to believe. Jesus was willing to do whatever it was he needed to do so that the disciples would not be afraid.

Fear is such a powerful motivator in our current culture. It keeps us behind locked doors, much like the disciples. Or, it keeps figurative locks on our doors. Fear keeps a lock on our thoughts so that we do not have open minds. Fear keeps a lock on our hearts so that love is not allowed out or in. Fear keeps a lock on our arms so that we are not freed to serve. Fear keeps a lock on our feet so that we are not free to follow Christ. Fear keeps us from living fully into the disciples that God created us to be. Fear keeps us from accepting grace. Fear is the voice inside our heads that constantly teases us with the refrain of “you’re not good enough.” Fear keeps us from full faith.

Because here’s the thing, when we resist the actions that Christ calls us to because of fear then we aren’t worshipping God, we are worshipping fear. We are a people who declare that Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!) And when we declare that, we are declaring that not even death can stop Christ. Christ has defeated death. Christ can defeat our fears. Jesus sees what the disciples need and he meets them where they are. He offers them his hands and feet, and then, after eating, encourages them to keep going. There is nothing to fear. Jesus reminds us of his promises by using scripture. Jesus frees them from their fear and Jesus frees us from our fears.

And here’s the thing: we cannot escape fear. We can, on a basic level, understand that fear has no power over us. We can understand that Christ can triumph over fear. But that doesn’t mean that fear will no longer exist. It’s like when we were trying to one up each other in our scaring, we kept looking behind doors for one another. Our fears can be personal: “Will I keep my job? Will they find a cure? Will the markets go up? Will our yield be what it needs to be?” Our fears can also be communal: “How safe are those nuclear weapons? What will the President tweet today? Will our school be next?” Fear is a joy killer. Part of our job as disciples is that we are witnesses of the resurrection. We are witnesses to the fact that Christ has triumphed over death. We are witnesses that cry out “Alleluia! Christ is risen.” But as long as fear lingers, even behind closed doors, even in the nooks and crannies in our minds, we are not completely secure. Only Christ can save us. Our fears certainly can’t do that.

Jesus did not come to bring us security. He did not come to bring the disciples security. He came to issue the disciples, and us a call. He came to remind us that our call is to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations. All nations, all people, all genders, all races, all places. And there is no way that anyone is going to believe us when we tell them that Christ defeats all enemies, including death, when we ourselves are worshipping fear. Jesus has conquered the ultimate foe: death. Our fears have no basis. Our job now is to challenge our idea of what it means to be secure. For so many of us, being secure means that we need to be in fear. We need to fear the what ifs, the unknown, and sadly, we need to fear our neighbor. But Christ shows us that hope is stronger than fear. Christ shows us that an empty tomb is stronger than a cross. Christ shows us that locked doors cannot keep him out.

Christ has called us to be a witness to his presence among us: in our words, in our deeds, and in our presence in the world. Our faith is stronger than our fear. Fear keeps us at the empty tomb. Faith moves us on, into the world, proclaiming Christ’s love and forgiveness to all people. Fear will keep us in this place, in the protection and security of these four walls. But, faith will allow us to leave this place, fed by Christ, forgiven by Christ, and declaring to all that Alleluia! Christ is Risen! (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!)

Sermon for 2/11/18 Mark 9:2-9 Transfiguration

In my experience, I don’t know that I have found a human emotion that more people try to avoid or that more people dislike as much as fear. I don’t know what it is about fear. Fear actually keeps us safe. But, I think we often run from fear because if people see us afraid, they might then see us as weak. And I also find that fear and pain go hand in hand. Fear and pain are two things that I find people want to avoid. And we often go through several hoops in order to avoid pain and fear. Society tells us that we need to be happy, successful, thin, rich, and on and on. In order to be what society tells us we need to be, we often run from pain and from fear. We look to mask whatever is imperfect with us in order to highlight the “believed” perfect and show that to the world.

Author Glennon Doyle Melton talks about living with fear and living with pain. She says that we often are looking for the easy button of life. Do you all remember the Staples commercial where they push that big red button and say “that was easy!” And for us, she says, we look for the easy button in order to escape or avoid fear or pain. And the easy button can be anything: food, booze, drugs, sex, the internet, gossip, and on and on. But, she proposes that instead of pushing our easy buttons that we need to be better at sitting in our pain and sitting with our fears. We try and outrun it all, but instead, we need to take up residence in pain and fear and see what they have to teach us.

And I mention this as Peter expresses a common human emotion of fear. And instead of expressing his fear (scripture says “they were terrified”) he proposes to Jesus that they just need to stay on that mountain. Peter even says let’s not only stay here, let’s live here. On this mountaintop. He was afraid and didn’t know what else to say. Instead of facing his fear, Peter wants an easy button. And the easy button, so to speak, comes in the form of God and God’s declaration. God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” What? That’s an easy button? Yes. Follow me here.

Fear is part of our lives. Pain is part of our lives. We cannot avoid it. We may try. But there is no human made “easy button.” The only easy button in our lives is the cross. And in order to fully experience the cross we must fully experience fear and pain. On this day, Transfiguration, my proposal beloveds, is that we allow ourselves to be transformed and transfigured by pain and fear. What do pain and fear have to teach us? Jesus wasn’t one to run from pain and fear. He could have stayed on the top of that mountain. But instead, he came down the mountain into a valley where he would be met, eventually, but the people who would arrest and crucify him.

And I know what you may be thinking “of course Jesus didn’t run from pain and fear….he’s Jesus.” Right. I get it. But part of our call to be disciples as I’ve been talking about week after week is to not only point to Jesus but follow him as well. It’s easy for us to talk about Jesus. It might even be easy to point to Jesus and the ways that he moves and acts throughout this world. But to literally follow Jesus is scary. Our fear takes hold and gets the best of us and then we go looking for those man-made easy buttons.

Jesus goes to places we don’t like to even think about going. Jesus goes to disease infested, war torn, s-hole countries (as President Trump would say) that we’d rather not think exist. But he goes there because the promise that God has made to all of humanity is that we will not be abandoned by God. And so God sends us Jesus. If Jesus descended into hell, you can bet that going places that other people would rather forget probably seems like a cakewalk. And I’m not proposing that we need to all pack our bags and go on a mission trip. I mean that following Jesus is something that can start small. Anytime you may find yourself thinking or expressing the feeling of “I can’t go there” or “I can’t talk to them because it would just break my heart” then that is exactly where you need to be. Because that is exactly where Jesus is. We may want to avoid pain and fear but that is exactly where Christ normally hangs out.

When God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” God is telling us that EVERYTHING that Jesus has told us and will tell us about his life, death, and resurrection is true. And if that is true, my beloveds, then the pain and fear we may feel not only is real, but we’re not alone. And the pain and fear we go through will vanish in death thanks to God’s saving action on the cross. Beautiful Miss Shelby is going to get baptized today. And in baptism we never promise a life without pain and fear. Of course, we don’t want that for her. But it will happen. But in baptism we are promised a life where Jesus is going to be with us every single step of the way. No matter what.

I hope that Shelby will learn and I pray that all of us can learn that instead of reaching for the “easy button,” instead of being tempted to do whatever it is we need to do to escape pain and fear, that we instead remember that in our pain and in our fear is where Christ tends to be. In our pain and in our fear is usually where we learn the most. In our pain and in our fear is where we find out who we are and whose we are. We too often are like Peter: desiring to be comfortable, set up shop, and avoid not only pain and fear, but those dark valleys. But if we somehow are able to avoid those, are we really living the life that God intended for us? We don’t go searching out fear and pain, but it is out there.

For some reason, we may also think that in order to be people of God that coming to church means coming “cleaned up.” When we come to God’s house we certainly cannot be filled with pain and fear. People don’t like to see that. We must come neat, put together, and with the appearance that all is fine and good. But if we believe that Christ truly is present in this place, and I really hope we believe that, then why would we not come as we are even if that means coming full of pain and fear? If Christ is going to meet us here, Christ will meet us in our pain and in our fear even if no one else does. Many of us work really hard to present masks of ourselves to the world, pretending to be perfect. But I am sure that Christ would prefer us to be present over perfect. Christ would prefer us to be flawed over fake.

Shelby’s transfiguration starts today. She will be transfigured into a child of God. And for you, my dearests, be reminded that your transfiguration started long ago at these waters as well. God met you here and continues to walk with you. It is okay to fear. It is okay to have pain. Our God is a God who suffered on a cross. There’s no pain that compares to that. That suffering erases ours. If you’re looking for an easy button, you’ll find it in the cross.

Sermon for 10/2/16 2 Timothy 1:1-14

OK, before we get started, I want to give you a little heads up. We will be participating in some congregational participating in the sermon today. I know that might make some of you uncomfortable, so that is why I want to give you a heads up. Of course, you don’t have to, but it would be awesome if you considered participating. So let’s get started, shall we?

Find someone close to you that is not related to you to share in conversation. This may mean that you will have to get up and move around. Here’s the question I want you to discuss: “who in your life was a faith former?” What I mean by that is who is the person responsible in your life for helping to form your faith? Maybe it was someone who brought you to church. Maybe it was a pastor. Maybe it was a grandparent who make sure you got to Sunday school every week. So find someone close to you that is not related to discuss who that person in your life was and maybe who that person in your life is today.

OK, now that we’ve shared that question, Let’s move on. Here’s the next question I want you to discuss with one another. “Who do you hope to pass your faith onto?” Maybe it is your children, grandchildren, friends, or just other church members. Who would you love to have say in 20 or 30 or even 50 years from now that you were that person for them.

Y’all may return to your seats now. So I want to hear from you as much or as little as you would like to share. Who in your life helped to form your faith? Anyone like to share? And who do you want to pass your faith on to?

I want to introduce you to five of my faith formers. As most of you know I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. But, I did not have a great relationship with my spirituality or, I thought, with God growing up. But here are some people who are important to me in my faith life.

This is a picture of me and my Nannie. As you can see, she was ill in this picture. But, I treasure it anyway. My Nannie was a woman of great faith. She was often found praying the rosary. One of my favorite memories will be bringing her communion when she was in the hospital. She knew that even though I was not a priest, she wanted it anyway. She survived the death of my grandfather, which left her to raise six children on her own.

This is a picture of me at my ordination. The woman on the end is Althea Milton. Althea is what we would call a church pillar. She is still a very active member of my home congregation of Faith in Wichita Falls. Although she is aging, her faith has not wavered. When I told her that I was going to seminary she practically jumped up and down. She supported us in many ways throughout our seminary journey. I recently found out that she just bought a new Christ candle for our home church. She wanted to make sure the light of Christ continues to shine long after she is gone.

This picture is two more of my faith formers. This is Sandy and Stephanie. They have been married for well, forever. And they have been very supportive of our journey as well. They prayed for us, supported us, and showed me what it means to be church outside the four walls of the church.

This last picture, of course you recognize this guy. This is my Christopher. Most of you know him I am assuming. It is Chris’s fault that I started going to a Lutheran Church. Going to church was a very important part of his family’s life. It still is. Chris introduced me to the church, and help me fall in love all over again. He probably doesn’t know that he is one of my faith formers, but he is.

Why is any of this discussion important? Because in Paul’s letter to Timothy, he references Timothy’s grandmother Lois and his mother, Eunice. Paul points to the faith that those ladies had as an example for Timothy. And I’m wondering if we’ve lost a little bit of that. We are, after all, a church within the EVANGELICAL Lutheran Church in America. And that “E” word can scare us a little bit. I had a seminary professor joke that Lutherans would say “Pastor, around here we don’t praise the Lord until page 47.” But we all had or have those people in our lives that taught us about faith. People will not learn about faith from just picking up the Bible, or just coming to church, or (heaven forbid) just watching television. People learn about faith by observing others around them and learning from them.

We’re a little scared to be evangelical. We can be a little timid to step out and say “why don’t you come to church with me?” Or “have you prayed about this?” Maybe something even as daring as “have you been baptized? Would you like to be?” I think we have this misconception that being evangelical is just all about raising our hands, singing praise songs, and praying “Father, we just….” over and over. When really, the Greek root of the word “evangelist” means a good message, or good news. And really, is there anyone in this world who couldn’t do with a little good news now and then?

But we let our fear get in the way. The lure and intoxication of status, reputation, and maybe even self preservation often gets in our way of being evangelists. We don’t want people to think the wrong thing of us. We can become a little too like Peter in the courtyard as he prepares to deny Jesus three times before the cock crows. But someone, somewhere, at some time risked a lot to talk to you about faith. Someone, somewhere, at some time put everything that was important to them on the line and said “hey, I want you to know more about Jesus.” And if they didn’t say it, they showed it through their actions. This faith is passed on from generation to generation. 2 Timothy tells us that Jesus has “join[ed] with [us] in [our] suffering, saved us, called us” and this calling is a holy calling.

And how in the world can we do this? Where does the strength to do this come from? Again, scripture says “not…our works, but according to his own purpose and grace.” God gives us what we need when we need it to do what we need to do. The consequences are high, brothers and sisters. Think about the people in your life that have no faith, no belief, no knowledge even of God. What in the world does the afterlife hold for them? So, be brave. Be daring. Be bold. “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.” Amen  

Sermon for 1996 class reunion (based on John 11)

(Just a note that this sermon was written for the context of my 20 year high school reunion. It was part church service, part memorial service. Out of my graduating class of 339, we have already lost around 20 or so classmates).

 

“When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’  Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’  She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” (John 11:17-27, NRSV)

 

My apologies to those of you for whom this may be a strange and disturbing look. Often when I tell people that I am a pastor and they knew me in college or high school, they usually back up. “But JV I knew you back when!” Yes, I’m well aware of that. And we’re not gonna tell anyone about those times.

 

We come together this morning to praise the one who has sustained us for 20 years since the last time we all gathered. We also come to remember and celebrate the lives of those who are not with us. And I am not afraid to speak the truth as you all know, we are all too incredibly young to have lost as many classmates as we have. As we say the names and recall the faces, the reasons are as varied as the people. Some taken too soon because of accidents, some by their own hand and demons, and some by the horrible “C word” cancer.

 

And for every name, there was at least one person in this world for whom that person was their world. It is important for us to remember, while all of the names may not be familiar to us, they were familiar to someone. At holiday or family gatherings there is a hole. At children’s activities or important events, there is a missed absence. In times like this when we think back to fun memories and maybe even the troubles, we notice who among us is missing.

 

It is also natural to feel a bit of guilt. We can easily fall into the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve categories. We also may wonder if there’s something we have the power to control to prevent death. My brothers and sisters, take heart and know that none of the deaths we marked today were your fault. We might wonder had we invited Amy to come with us which she have been in a car accident? Maybe we should have been more purposeful in reaching out to Shawn or Andrea to help them walk as they battled their demons. Or we may lament the fact that cancer took Holly or Shelly and there still is no cure in a country that has the resources to find them. And so, while I will not tell you how to feel, if you are feeling that guilt, that’s fine. But do not stay there. We call to mind the good times, the times filled with joy and light, the times that may get you through your own dark days. Unfortunately, “death” is too familiar a word for so many of us. It has snuck its way into our vernacular more times than we care to admit. Maybe you do not just mourn our classmates, perhaps you have had the unfortunate task of burying a spouse or partner or child. The pain endured is difficult on your best days, crippling on the worst. The good news is however, my brothers and sisters, death is not the final story.  The ending for us is not death. It never has been and it never will be.

 

By the time Jesus had arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already been dead for four days. And Lazarus was dead dead. He was all the way dead. Not “oh isn’t that cute he sleeping.” But dead. All of the friends and relatives had already come to visit, the casseroles had already been eaten, flowers would’ve already started to die, and people had most likely already started to go on with their lives. But Martha, in the midst of all of her grief, was not prepared to welcome Jesus into her home without saying something. Martha as well as her sister Mary knew what Jesus was capable of. And sol Martha, in the midst of her grief, most likely through ugly tears, yelled at Jesus. This was not a sweet demure womanly thing to do. But, by this point in time, Martha really did not care. Martha was grieving and, quite frankly, pissed off. She needed to take that anger out on someone. So she did what most of us probably would’ve done. She yelled at Jesus.“Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died”. Now we must understand that Jesus was not a casual visitor to the home. Jesus loved Lazarus. Although we are not told in this reading, Jesus was most likely quite upset that his friend Lazarus had died. After all, like us, Jesus was fully human. This means he had a full range of fully human emotions. That includes all of the emotions that normally a company death. Grief, anger, confusion, denial, everything that Mary and Martha had been experiencing already for four days, was very real to Jesus.

 

As Jesus approaches the home, Martha does not even wait for him to arrive at the door. She runs out to meet him. Most likely already yelling at him as she goes. “Lord, had you been here, my brother would not have died!” I wonder how many of us find ourselves questioning ourselves in similar situations. Had I been where ever my friend may not have died. Had I invited them over, faught for more treatments, called them when I was thinking about them, they may not have died. I’m sorry to tell you my friends, but none of us are powerful enough to stop death. None of us had the power or ability to stop death when it came for our classmates.

 

But just like graduation was not the end of our stories, death also is not the end of our stories. The hope of the resurrection is for all of us, friends. I want to make sure you heard me loud and clear, the hope and promise of the resurrection is for all of us. And here is something you may not hear very often especially from people in my profession. It is completely OK if you doubt what I just told you. Make sure you hear me again. As far as your faith life goes, it is appropriate, natural, maybe even a little expected, to have doubt. What is comforting to me even in the times of my own doubt and yes there are some, is that the God I serve keeps promises. And God’s faithfulness to me is stronger than my doubt of His existence.

 

Here is something else I want you to know. God loves you. God loves you more than you ever will know and more than you ever can imagine. It does not matter if you are in church every single Sunday, or the last time you’re in church was 20 years ago. God loves you. And God loves you despite anything you may have done that you continue to beat yourself up over it. God loves you despite the ways you may have fallen short. God loves you even in moments of darkness and uncertainty. And why? Why can this be true? How is this even possible?

 

I know that God loves me because of Jesus. I know God loves me because He saw me and considered me worth dying for. I know God loves me because even in the times of my own darkness and doubt I have come out on the other side, strengthened. I know God loves me because even on the days I cannot even love myself, God looks at me and says “you are amazing!” And God looks at you the same way my brothers and sisters.

 

And do I know any of this for sure? Nope. I don’t know anything for sure when it comes to faith and God. But what I do know is that a life without God, at least for me, is too dark to imagine. In a world where the rhetoric of hate is quite strong dare I say even popular, I need to believe that something is better than this. God has a plan for you and for me. I hope you are able to trust in that, even if you are a type-A personality like me. Trusting God can be so maddening and so rewarding all at the same time. And even if you’re not at that place in your life yet, know that God loves you anyway and still protects you and has plans for you.

 

My brothers and sisters, my friend, my classmates, all of you are part of my story. You are part of one another’s stories. I am honored to have been here with you today to share a small part of our life’s journey together. I will keep all of you in my heart and in my prayers. May God protect you, watch over you, guide you, and love you, until our paths cross again. Which, for the record, cannot be soon enough. May God continue to bless you and may you continue to remember how much not only I love you but God loves you as well. Amen.

Sermon for 9/11/16 Luke 15:1-10

It was one of those uncommonly warm days in March. It was sunny, the temperatures were starting to rise, spring was teasing us. Being the optimist I am, I wore sandals that day to allow my toes to get some fresh air. I was in my last semester and returned home after a hard class and was looking forward to relaxing. I removed my sandals at the door (as we always did), answered the call of mother nature, washed my hands, and then collapsed on the couch. I started to wring my hands, which were sore from hours of typing important papers, and that’s when I felt it. My main diamond on my wedding band was no longer there. The entire diamond and setting (brackets and all) had broken off. I had just washed my hands. I pictured it floating, halfway to the Mississippi River by that point. I called out to Chris between hyperventilating. Logically, he assured me that it would be okay and that my diamond would be found. We got up and started looking for it all around. And then, bare feet and all, I stepped on it. I was so relieved. The tears started to flow.

I hope none of you have had to go through this, but I think we can all relate to that stomach churning, rug pulled out from underneath you feeling that comes with losing something priceless. It feels, at times, as if time stops and almost moves in slow motion as the disbelief threatens to envelop us. And so it may be easy for us to understand why our parables today have stood the test of time. The stories of the 1 lost sheep and 1 lost coin may have confused Jesus’ company of listeners. After all, who leaves 99 sheep to go look for 1? Who spends all night sweeping and cleaning the house just to look for one coin? For those of you that farm, would you spend hours on end looking for just 1 lost cow or 1 lost hog? How many of you would spend hours on end searching for a dollar bill? However, how many of you have ever felt lost and you wish, maybe even prayed for someone to “find” you?

Our place in these stories today isn’t as the one who finds things, that’s God’s job. Our place in these parables are the ones who are lost. You certainly don’t have to raise your hands or anything, but I wonder how many of us have felt lost in our faith life. You go through the routine of coming to church, but you’re a little unsure why. Being lost comes with denial, questioning,and doubt. The denial may sound something like self-justification. “I’m not lost, I’m exploring!” You may even insist that you want to be lost. We may deny the existence of God and even if we do acknowledge that there is a God, we might wonder if God even cares about little ol’ us. Denial also allows us to play a victim role. If we play the victim then we never have to take responsibility for anything that happens to us. It’s not my fault that I am separated from God. It’s not my fault that God doesn’t care about me. And denial may also mean denying that you’re lost at all; it’s everyone else that is lost. A crisis of faith can bring forth a lot of denial.

If you haven’t ever been in denial over a faith crisis, perhaps you’ve questioned your faith, or rather, God’s faithfulness to you. We may feel like God has forgotten about us. Does God even hear my prayers anymore? Our mind can play tricks on us and convince us that we’re not even worth finding; why would God look for me? Or we wonder if anyone even notices we’re missing. We are a community of faith, we are created to be in relationship with one another, when someone is missing, we notice. If you have noticed someone missing from worship or other church functions, don’t wait for me to reach out, call them yourself. Wrapped up in this doubt is our core identity. If God doesn’t find me then what does that say about me? Who am I, then? Sometimes that doubt comes from the darkness and depths of sin. Sin is a very real presence in our lives. If you cannot forgive yourselves for your transgressions,  you may wonder how God can. That sin causes us to be lost from God. We drift, further and further, yet never out of reach.

This questioning can also look a lot like guilt. We carry the guilt of broken relationships, sin, failure, and incomplete whatever’s with us at all times. Eventually, we might ask ourselves “how did I get here?” I don’t know if you’ve ever had (what I call) a “mirror” conversation. That moment when you look at yourself and you wonder “what happened to her/him?” There’s a lot of blame that you either place on yourself or others and once again, God feels far away, maybe even non-existent. These times of darkness, of wilderness and wandering, of doubting God and God’s love for you are terrible for our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. I hope you’ve never had such a time, but I fear that this “lost-ness” is all too familiar to too many of us.

It is not lost on me that 15 years ago this day, our country experienced one of its greatest tragedies to date. Most of us remember where we were or what we were doing. I was at work at Harrah’s Casino in North Kansas City and the first person I called was my dad. I remember watching the news at night and hearing about the beacons that the firefighters wore. These were alarms that sent out occasional beeps to let rescuers know the location of a downed firefighter. I cannot imagine how eerie it must have been to be at ground zero, hearing all these beacons and nothing else. To know that the life attached to that beacon was gone. Whether you know it or not, you also have a beacon.

There is a story that is often heard about Father Mychal Judge who was a Roman Catholic chaplain for the FDNY. Father Judge rushed down to the World Trade Center that morning upon hearing the news. He stood in the lobby of the North Tower, blessing firefighters, hearing their last confession, and anointing them with holy water or oil. Whether it is true or not, I don’t know. But there are stories that those firefighters that had been anointed were easily spotted in the rubble because the light reflected off the cross that had been placed on their foreheads by Father Judge. I’d like to believe this story is true.

We all have that same beacon: the cross on our forehead. This is what allows God to find us. And when we are found, we also find redemption, peace, affirmation of our worth and identity, peace, and comfort. When we are found, we are fed and washed. When we are fed, we are brought back into community and back into right relationship with God. And here’s the thing: no matter how lost you are, God will find you. You are worth finding. To God, you’re not just another person. To God, you are beloved. Remember that on the third day what was presumed lost was raised again. When we are in a dark place, the light of Christ that shines through us is what allows us to be found.

My friends, if you are feeling a little lost, a little forgotten, a little like you’re wandering with no direction, or like God maybe doesn’t care about you, take heart. You are the one coin. You are the one sheep. You are worth finding. You are God’s, God will find you, claim you, love you, redeem you, and once again declare you as beloved. So peace, my fellow lost ones, peace and comfort in knowing that help in the form of grace and God’s love is coming. To you. To me. To all of us.  

Sermon for 9/4/16 Luke 14:25-33

It’s readings like these when we hear about hating your family, carrying your cross, and giving up all possessions that when I say “the Gospel of the Lord” and you all respond with “thanks be to God” I want to say “really?!?” Do you really mean it when you say “thanks be to God I am being asked to turn from my family, carry my cross, and give up everything I own! This discipleship thing was just made super easy, Jesus! Why didn’t you say that’s what I needed to do in the first place!?” I think a better response for today’s reading would have sounded like this “the Gospel of the Lord” followed by “oooookkkkkaaaayyyyy……..”

I think anytime the Gospel talks about sacrificing things, giving things up, or selling all your stuff we all get a little nervous. We might prepare ourselves for a large heaping spoonful of guilt. Pastor is going to guilt you into opening up your wallet a little larger, loosening those purse strings, and make you feel guilty for owning whatever it is you own that you think I should make you feel guilty for. I’m not going to do that at all. See, this text convicts me as much as it might convict you. I don’t stand up here and preach to you. I stand up here and preach to us. I need to hear these messages as much as I need to deliver them. What this scripture is telling us today is this: being a disciple is hard, probably the hardest thing that you will do. It isn’t for everyone, yet it is demanded of everyone. How will we all rise to the challenge?

Let’s set the scene a little bit. The first sentence tells us a lot right away. There were large crowds following Jesus. They might not have known where they were headed, but Jesus did. Jesus knew he was headed to Jerusalem and that waiting for him there was a trial and ultimately, his death. This was not your average road trip. It was as if Jesus was saying “look, it’s fine and good that you want to follow me and be my disciples, but do you understand what you’ve really gotten yourselves into?” Being a disciple is going to be like swimming upstream. Being a disciple means that the most important priority in your life must be Jesus. Being a disciple means leaving behind all relationships, possessions, and self-identifiers that will call to you, maybe even discourage you from being a disciple. Discipleship is more than just being a responsible, nice, giving human being. This is a complete and total emptying out of self. Part of our call, then, perhaps, is acknowledging that doing what Jesus expects of us is challenging, and, at times, scary.

Following Jesus and claiming the title of “Christian” should actually be a little less popular than it actually is. I know that I tend to only claim the title when it is convenient for me to do so. Show up and help build a habitat house? Yep, count me, the “good Christian” in to help! Visit a known criminal who committed the most heinous crime known to humanity while he or she is serving a life sentence? Uh….I don’t know. Donate items to our food pantry? Totally, the “good Christian” does that! Stop and give a buck or 2 to those people who stand on the corners in Davenport? Ugh….can’t those people get a job? Open the door for an elderly person using a walker? Sure! The “good Christian disciple does that.” Tell someone at Wal-Mart that they have a trail of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of their shoe? No way! That’s just funny.

The problem, my brothers and sisters, is that when we were baptized, we were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. This means that our identity, which is grounded in the promises of baptism, cannot be removed. All of the baptized members of the body of Christ share in Christ’s cross and his resurrection. The journey of discipleship starts and ends at the waters of baptism and shapes (or at least should shape) how we see the world. In those waters, Christ claimed us which means that despite our greatest temptation to only claim Christ as the center of our world when it is convenient for us, we are always the center of Christ’s world.

Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. It’s not the popular thing to do. It’s countercultural. Some might even say it’s practically un-American. How far are you willing to go to proclaim your allegiance to Christ? Are you willing to sever relationships that make it difficult for you to do so? Are you willing to carry the cross and suffer the criticism that accompanies that? Are you willing to give up some of your material possessions that can easily become the center of your worship instead of God becoming the center of your worship? This is all countercultural because we live in a time when who we know, what we own, who we are, what we do, where we live, all define who we are or at least define how others think of us. When, in reality, the only thing that actually defines us is the cross on our foreheads.

Again, I don’t know about you, but everytime I set out to consciously do a better job of being a disciple, of putting Christ first in my life, of spending “quality time” with God, I fail: repeatedly. I am too quick to judge. I want the world to operate the way I think it should (verses the way that God may think it needs to be). I too often only worry about myself and forget that others have needs as well. I try and shed the image of “Christian” even the image of “Pastor” when it may mean that I’ll be judged and I’ll lose a friend or maybe even opportunities. Even with this sermon I erased sentences I wrote out of fear that they were too harsh and you all wouldn’t respect me any more. How ridiculous is all of that? But, I think we all do it. We all fall to the temptation of being “Christian when convenient.”

Where is the good news in all of this? Well, first off, we don’t serve a “Christ of convenience.” We serve an “all the time Christ.” This means no matter how many times we may fail at our attempts to be disciples, at the root of the call to be disciples is the invitation into an intimate, life-giving relationship with God in Christ. This dedication and obedience to God isn’t just a blind following; it requires dedication, asking and wrestling with hard questions, and the deepening of our faith. But, discipleship also includes salvation. That, my brothers and sisters, is the good news in this challenge to be disciples. God, who claimed us in baptism, will also claim us in death. We should take the call to discipleship seriously. The cost of discipleship is great; it cost Jesus his life. But from that death comes our life and freedom. From the cross poured out forgiveness and mercy. His flesh was torn for love. Those thorns pierced his head and nails pierced his hands, all for you. Our freedom was purchased with the blood of one man. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “The call to discipleship is a gift of grace and that call is inseparable from grace.” (Cost of Discipleship, 55) The call comes with grace and grace comes with a call to discipleship. Thanks be to God that despite our temptation and active participation in being Christians of convenience, that we serve a God that is a God of love and second chances all the time, not just when it’s convenient.