Sermon for 10/8/17 Matthew 21:33-46

I’ve thought a lot about fences this week. Weird, I know. I keep thinking about the Robert Frost poem, “Mending Wall.” In it, he wrote “good fences make good neighbors.” I’ve also been thinking about borders and walls, all types of barriers we construct or that are constructed for us. This week has brought us some horrific violence once again. Much like the news reporters, I get so tired of addressing issues like this from the pulpit. And sure, it’d be easy to say “then don’t do it, Pastor.” Well, the fact is, the kingdom of God has been disrupted and hurt. I cannot simply ignore real, tangible pain in the world. For me, that would be like ignoring Christ himself. And it is during times like this that we may be tempted to build fences, either real or metaphorical, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We build fences out of fear, love, knowledge, anger, distrust, and reality among many other things.

So why all this talk about fences? Well, our gospel of course. Among many other things, the gospel story mentions a fence. And here’s the thing. When Jesus tells parables, he’s very specific and the details are for a reason, a purpose. Why did it matter that the vineyard had a fence around it? Why did Jesus include this really important detail? Maybe those hearing this parable wouldn’t have thought anything of it at the time. Maybe to have a fence during Jesus’ time was code for something else. But, as always, there was a method to Jesus’ madness. So let’s talk a little more about this, shall we?

I know many of you have fences on your property. Please hear me from the beginning here, I am not saying that actual fences are a bad thing. Many of you have fences for practical purposes: they keep your livestock where they belong. Without fences there might be more car versus cow accidents. Or maybe you have a fence to keep the critters out of your garden. Perhaps you have a fence to keep the dogs or kids in the yard where you can see them. Or maybe you’re lucky enough to have a pool and you need to have a fence for safety reasons. With the cost of a fence these days, the decision to put one up isn’t one that is willy-nilly. People usually think hard about it and do research before just putting up a fence. I know that a fence is also rarely maintenance free.

But, we also put up metaphorical fences and walls in our lives. We may not realize that is what we are doing because it often gets done in the name of safety and protection. These types of fences are more to keep people out than to keep things in. Maybe this looks like avoiding a certain area of town after dark. Maybe this looks like crossing the street when you see someone on the same sidewalk in the distance that you don’t like the looks of. Maybe this looks like double checking to make sure you still have your wallet or purse when you’re in the company of certain people. These are all metaphorical fences and when we do things like this in the name of safety and protection, the message that we send to other children of God is “I’m safe and okay… you however, need to be judged and vetted before I let you in.”

And the vineyard owner in today’s parable had a fence for whatever reason. But, in the end, the vineyard owner lost some of his slaves because they were murdered. He lost his own son to murder. In addition to that, he lost profit. He originally sent the slaves to collect some of the produce. This was very customary for that time. But the tenants weren’t having any of it. The vineyard owner had lost everything that was possible to lose. A fence didn’t make the difference. All the time and money to keep his investment safe did no good. Much like previous parables, we may want to see ourselves in the role of the landowner, or the slaves, maybe even the landowner’s son. We certainly don’t see ourselves like the tenants.

If we dive a little deeper into this parable, we may discover that this is more allegorical than a parable. The landowner is God. The slaves are the prophets. The landowner’s son is Jesus. The tenants is the established government. The vineyard is the kingdom of God. God trusts us to tend to the kingdom of God. And with the best intentions in our hearts, we build fences. We build fences by just flat out not being church. We build fences when we question someone’s ability to serve God based on gender alone (I get this a lot because I’m female). We build fences when we deny the validity of relationships because they are between two people of the same gender. We build fences when we give each other the “up and down” observing what one another is wearing. We build fences when we turn people away from this table for whatever reason. We build fences in the name of kingdom-keeping when really building fences destroys the kingdom of God.

I mean, if there is any place that should be without barriers, it would be the kingdom of God. We know, or at least I hope we know, that we serve a God who is all about breaking down barriers. And we build them up anyway. What do we think we’re protecting when we build walls in the kingdom of God? Who do we think we’re protecting? Do we really think that we know the kingdom better than God and so we build walls? How self centered are we? Our sin causes us to build walls and barriers in the name of safety, trust, and protection. But here’s the thing. The kingdom of God is open to all. Who are we protecting? God doesn’t need protecting. Which leads me to believe that the only people we’re protecting is ourselves. And when we start to build walls and barriers in the name of religion, we can quickly diminish from religion into cult.

I understand that the world is a scary place. 59 souls are no longer with us after that was confirmed once again this past week in Vegas. It’s tempting, and almost too easy to hold your loved ones close, lock the doors, build walls, keep to yourselves, all in the name of safety, protection, and privacy. But what ultimately keeps us safe is God. Sometimes the people we need protection from is ourselves; only God can do that. When we need the walls around our hearts broken so that we are able to fully experience the love and joy of this world, only God can do that. When we need the courage to break down the barriers that stop us from loving our neighbors and serving the world around us, only God can do that. And when we get weary from breaking down the barriers in this world that God has called us to break down and we need rest, only God can provide that.

Do “good fences make good neighbors?” Maybe. But, I’ve never been able to call on a fence for a cup of sugar or to watch my dog or water my flowers. God designed us to live and be in community. The more we fence ourselves in, the more we rob ourselves of those opportunities. There is a lot of evil in the world. That evil tempts us daily to block out everyone else, even those who wish to love us and help us. And yes, it’s smart to be on guard and be aware. But don’t do it at the cost of making yourself an island. We are called to be keepers of the kingdom, not build a fence around it. What I am proposing this day is what God has called us to do all along: take the risk of opening yourself up to love. Take the risk of loving someone else. Get to know other children of God. Break down walls of suspicion and build bridges of hope instead. Destroy walls of injustice, and help build systems of equality instead. Defeat fences made out of the “isms” of life and build life lines of love instead. This isn’t necessarily hard work, we just keep putting up walls. God will tear those down and show us our next steps.

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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 9/10/17 Matthew 18:15-20

I tried everything I could to come up with something to say this week. I thought about different stories from my life I could share. I read articles. I read blog posts. I listened to podcasts. I tried praying about this text. But, as my own self-imposed deadline drew closer and closer, I realized I had nothing. I wasn’t surprised by this, quite honestly. It’s been a week. This isn’t an excuse, it’s my reality. I think it’s important that you see me as human. What I mean by that is that I am not some kind of like rock-star super-species that can handle everything that life throws at me. I hurt. I cry. I experience joy and pain; laughter and sorrow; ups and downs, just like the rest of you. Sometimes I turn to God and lean on God so heavily that I think God might just tip over. Sometimes I ignore God altogether and then get angry with God. God can handle that, trust me. This was a week where a lot was poured out of me and not a lot went back in. We took care of Evelyn Mohr’s funeral on Thursday and then I had a double funeral yesterday of Cathy and Bill Winchester. In addition to that, we put our eldest dog, Bailey to sleep on Tuesday. All of this on top of the normal every day stresses of life. Like I said, it’s been a week.

And sometimes I have weeks like this and I put on my “happy worship” face and come here, lead worship, give you the body and blood of Christ, declare forgiveness of your sins, sing and rejoice, and then go home and collapse, still feeling bleh. In seminary we called that “fake it til’ you make it.” I imagine some of you do it to. Maybe you’re not having a great day, week, month, or even a great year. And yet, you show up here, week after week, faking it the whole time, waiting for something to happen. And what are we waiting for? I think at the root of all people, we desire genuine relationships, right? I hope all of you have a sweatpants friend. That’s what I call it. This is your friend that you can show up to their house in sweatpants, no make up, hair a mess, and they’re going to welcome you in, no questions asked because they look exactly the same.

We should have more sweatpants relationships in the church. But instead, we spend time and money prettying ourselves up to come to a place where we declare to love and worship a God who knows us, the real us, and yet we present the covered up us. We present the “us” that has everything together. We present the “us” that is “great! How are you?” We present the “us” that has perfect children, a perfect marriage, perfect teeth, clothes, hair, and an offering to boot! And what do we do as soon as we leave this place? We go home, take off our costumes, and get into sweatpants! So today, I am showing up. I am showing up, just as I am and with no apologies. This is how God made me. God loves me when I am dressed like this or if I am in sweatpants. But, most importantly, I wanted to show up. And I thank you today for showing up. I am sure many of you had other things you could be doing right now, including sleep if you wanted. But you showed up.

I showed up because of the promise given to us in verse 20 today “for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” So I came today to be with you because I knew that when we gathered, Jesus would be here. And Jesus is here. Not because of anything I have said or done, but because we are the people of God gathered AS the people of God. Therefore, Jesus is here. Sometimes, we just need that reminder. We show up, just as we are, broken sinners, yet at the same time, real people, with real problems, with no real solutions. The only solution that seems to make any sense whatsoever is to come together as the people of God and remind one another that Jesus is here, in our midst, in our presence.

And Jesus didn’t show up because we look good, or because we’ve got it all figured out, or because it’s 9:00am on a Sunday. Jesus showed up because that’s what he does. We serve a God who promises to show up through Jesus Christ and God will never let us down. Sometimes as Christians, I think we think that we can’t show up until we have all the answers. We don’t want to show up and not know what to say, what to do, or how to do whatever it is we’re supposed to do when we show up. I think that’s why when we do gather as the body of Christ during times of sorrow, we often just stick with the “script.” The script is “I’m very sorry to hear about your loss” and we bring a pan of bars or something. Then we offer this: “call me if you need anything.” And in times of crisis, we know we need stuff, we just don’t know what it is and at the same time, we’ll be damned if we’re going to ask for it.

What we need, my beloved, is to just show up. Show up even though we don’t know what to say, do, ask, or act. Show up. Because when we show up as people of God on behalf of the body of Christ, Christ is already there in the midst of that. It doesn’t matter if we show up in a church or in a bar. When we show up for one another, Christ is there. And what that looks like from a practical standpoint is this: showing up and making, creating, and holding space for others to experience Christ. We don’t have to have the answers, don’t you see? Christ is already here or wherever among us. So instead of showing up all shiny and pretty and promising that things will get better, what if we showed up as our real selves and said “I dunno. But I know Christ is here.” I think what God desires is for us to be real, to be genuine, and to show up. Can we trust that God is amazing enough to give us what we need when we need it when we show up to just show up? Or are we going to sit back and wait until the right time because we don’t know what to say or do and really the message that we are sending is “I don’t trust you, God.”

Can we just admit that the world has enough shiny fake people in it? Aren’t you tired of putting on an act? Don’t you get tired of pretending that everything is okay? Shouldn’t church be the one place that you can show up without apology and people are just glad you showed up? If we desire to be a place of welcome, which I think we do, then let’s be genuine about that. There’s a huge difference in “well…I guess you showed up” (while looking someone up and down) and “at least you showed up!” Now, please don’t get all up in arms with me thinking that I am suggesting that we become the sweatpants church. I don’t care what you wear, I am just glad you are here. The world needs more places where people feel comfortable and welcomed, just as they are, knowing that they will be listened to and loved. And we don’t have to have all the answers or resources. We just show up. And we keep showing up over and over and over again because we know that when 2 or 3 people are gathered in God’s name, God is already there in the midst of them, creating something holy. And God knows what the world needs more than anything right now is more places where people can just show up and be and experience the holy. Maybe this is our call, beloveds. Our call is to show up, point to Christ, and create space to experience holy hospitality. Thanks for showing up today. I’m glad I did.

Sermon for 4/30/17 Luke 24:13-35

It never fails that when the weather is nice, I will get a text sometime between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. It comes from Heather, my therapist, and it usually only says two words “we walking?” Sometimes I beat her to it and let her know if we are walking or not. Heather’s office isn’t that far from the dike, and so, we take the opportunity to walk and talk. This was originally her idea, which didn’t surprise me. She’s really into fitness and is the kind of person that runs for fun. She gave me a warning “there are people who will see us together. They might know what you do. They might know what I do.” She was basically giving me a heads up that our therapy session would be outside, open to the world, and whomever we might run into. She never tells anyone she is my therapist (out of respect for me) but I don’t keep secrets. There are times when our walk is a nice brisk pace and we can manage to get 2-2 ½ miles in during the session. There have been a few times when my own self revelation has made it necessary for us to stop walking. But we always start off the same way: in front of her office, laces tied, and her saying “so…what’s up?” And away we go.

I thought about our walks as I read this walk to Emmaus story this week. And I have come to realize that it’s not the distance of the walk, it’s not the terrain that matters, it’s not necessarily even the conversation, but sometimes your walking companion makes all the difference. The disciples had been walking along the road; it was around a 7 mile journey. I am sure that in many ways, it felt longer. These two had become friends. And now, they lamented the death of their friend Jesus as they walked along the way. I doubt this was a record-breaking pace they were setting. And sure, while they might have been walking a normal pace (whatever that is) they were most likely weighed down by grief, disbelief, and maybe even disappointment.

These are two people who (literally) sat at Jesus’ feet and now, when he comes walking along the road with them, they don’t even recognize him. Usually if someone joins your conversation, you know them. The conversation that follows is fascinating. “What are you talking about” nosy Jesus wants to know. And Cleopas says (paraphrasing) “Have you been living under a rock? Don’t you know the things that have happened?” And Jesus’ response is so loving, so tender, and so amazing that we just might miss it. “What things” he asks? This is Jesus’ version of “so…what’s up?” Jesus is creating space for mourning, for anger, for grief, for misbelief, for all of the emotions that go along with death. More importantly, Jesus is listening.

It’s important for us to remember that Easter Sunday does not erase, undo, or reverse Good Friday. That needs to be repeated: Easter Sunday does not erase, undo, or reverse Good Friday. Jesus died a very real death. It was a very real, very painful death, filled with suffering and agony. Death happened. Jesus wasn’t playing dead, he wasn’t faking it, he wasn’t just “asleep,” he was all the way dead. His friends and followers witnessed this. They witnessed him carrying his own torture device. They witnessed as his executors drove nails into his hands. They witnessed it all. I cannot even begin to imagine that kind of pain. When Jesus asks “what things” he gives room for the disciples to express all of the pain that accompanied them and continues to dwell in them as they mourn their friend.

If you have a friend that offers you space, you know what a gift this is. We so often want to fix, not listen. We want to offer solutions without fully understanding the problem. And sometimes, we are tempted to join our friend in their situation. What I mean is that when a friend is complaining, even about something mundane (like bills or laundry) we tend to agree. We support our friends, right? But is it always for their good? We join in the lamentations “I totally understand, I also have 9 loads of laundry waiting for me.” Or maybe “I know! Visa called me like 4 times last week. I sent them straight to voicemail.” And maybe what our friends need, maybe what we need every once in awhile is not to be fixed, not to be offered solutions, not even to be given solidarity. What we need is the space to voice our heart, no matter how wonderful or how painful that will be.

And yes, while Jesus does offer this space, he follows the space with a bit of a lecture. However, at the end of the lecture, he gathers his friends for a meal. He takes bread, breaks it, blesses it, and feeds his friends. It is in that feeding that the disciples recognize their fellow traveler for who he really is: the risen Christ. And if you go back and read the passage again, did Jesus say anything while he was doing this? No. He was leaving space for silence, for contemplation, for pain, for suffering, for mourning, and for discovery. Jesus feeds the disciples, just like before his death, and by doing so, he brings them back into community.

In this feeding, they are reminded of his love, his care, and his mercy. They are also reminded of their new identities as disciples (instead of fishermen). They are also reminded that Jesus has always and will always provide for them. And this is all done without Jesus saying a word. How comfortable are you in the silence?  How often do you leave room for silence? Are you quick to fill silence with noise because it makes you nervous? Maybe you don’t like silence because it makes you uncomfortable. But friends, as I have said before, if we are talking, we miss listening to God. Because it is in our silence that God moves, acts, and speaks.

Brothers and sisters, we are surrounded by a lot of noise. Some of it is helpful noise, but a lot of it really is just noise. What happens when we start to rid our world of noise? Turn off the radio, mute the commercials, resist the urge to interrupt; something happens. We really start to listen. We start to enter into deeper relationships with one another. We start to see one another as a fellow travelers on the road: fed by Christ. Offer one another space. It will feel a little weird at first, maybe even a bit unnatural. But it will become easier the more you practice. Offer space. And in that space, make room for the Holy. Make room for all possible emotions. Make room for God.  We don’t intentionally NOT listen to one another, it’s just habit. But maybe we don’t listen to one another as a protection for our emotions. We are surrounded by people we have the ability to love and who have the ability to love us. And that happens in the silence.