Sermon for 4/22/18 John 10:11-18

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! My best friend and I have been friends since second grade. So, about since we were 7 or so. That would be about 32 years. I’ve talked about her before. I call her one of my 3am gals. Meaning I could call her at 3am and she’d pick up the phone, no questions asked. Most everyone calls her Kristin except for me and a few others. I get to call her Krissi. One of the things that I appreciate the most about Kristin is that she knows me. She knows my deepest darkest secrets and loves me anyway. Kristin has the ability to see me as I truly am. She doesn’t see me as a Pastor, or a sister, or a daughter, or a wife. She sees me as me. And, I think at the core of all of us we all desire that: to truly be known. To truly be seen.

Sometimes I feel like I say the same thing to you multiple times. But there’s a reason for that. I need to hear it multiple times. Therefore, you get to hear it multiple times. We were created to be in relationship; to be in relationship with one another and to be in relationship with Christ. There is no part of you that Christ does not love. Maybe you haven’t heard me say that before. But, Jesus and thus God, loves every single part of you: mind, body, and soul. If Jesus is the good shepherd, which he says he is, and he wants to care for the sheep, which we are, then Jesus desires to and actually does care for us. It is a nurturing and intimate relationship. The shepherd and the sheep know one another.

We trust in the shepherd, and in a weird way, we trust in the other sheep. Think about this from the standpoint of actual sheep. Sheep prefer to be led from the front. You cannot lead sheep from the back as you do with cattle. So, the sheep follow the shepherd. If a sheep cannot see the shepherd, the follow the sheep in front of them. A community is built. The sheep trust one another and we trust one another as well. Sometimes I think that trust is what makes it hard to enter into a worshipping community like this one. We have built trust with one another and we know one another’s stories. We have that intimacy. When someone new comes into the flock we can be guarded. After all, not everyone knows our history. That has been one of the biggest challenges as your pastor. There are a lot of assumptions. People say “well the reason why we haven’t seen the so and so family at church was because of that fight they had. Remember?” No. That fight happened in 1986 when I was still in the third grade. It takes time to build up trust, I understand that. In seminary, we were taught that it takes almost 7 years before a congregation fully trusts the pastor.

Jesus is the good shepherd. He knows his own and his own know him. And the thing is this: being disciples together is really hard work. I’m not one to pretend it isn’t. If being the church was easy, everyone would do it. But we all know people that, for whatever reason, stay home Sunday after Sunday. We are anything but perfect. So, when you try and put a bunch of imperfect people together, it can get messy. But what makes us different than any other social or civic organization is Jesus. We gather around the one thing that makes us equal and that is Christ. It is difficult work. But, the work is worth it. If you have gone through a time of personal crisis and you have seen the way the church gathers around a fellow sheep, you understand why the work to be disciples together is hard and yet so rewarding.

At the root of the desire to be known as only Christ knows us is a longing for comfort and security. When we are truly known, we can let our guard down, put away our masks, and settle into who God really created us to be. When we are truly known, life feels easy. There isn’t the pressure to perform or the exhaustion that comes with being someone we aren’t. I think too often we assume that we must present Christ with a masked version of ourselves. We think that our true, genuine selves isn’t good enough for Christ. Instead, we have to pretend to be someone or something we most definitely aren’t. Of course, this makes no sense at all. If there is any place we can truly be ourselves, it should be and is at the foot of the cross. If there is any time we can truly be ourselves, it should be and is when we are in the presence of the risen Lord. In the waters of baptism, we are claimed as God’s own, just as we are. In the breaking of the bread, we are fed with the body and blood of Christ, just as we are. Christ offers us security that nothing else in this world can match. But with that comes great expectations.

If Christ offers us security, protection, and comfort but with that is the knowledge that nothing else in this world can do that the same way Christ can. Being a disciple isn’t a one way street. Christ has prepared us to be his hands and feet in the world. The expectation of discipleship is that we feel so filled and grateful for God’s love and protection that we can’t but help ourselves, we must serve our neighbors. Christ doesn’t love us and protect us because he expects anything in return. But, the love of God through Jesus is so powerful that we do it anyway. So this means that the security and comfort we receive from God through Jesus also doesn’t look like anything else that this world can offer.

We are a people who have been ushered from an empty grave into the world declaring that Alleluia! Christ is risen! For us, this means that because our security is found in Christ, we are free to serve others that the world has forgotten about. Because our identity is in Christ, we need not fear the judgement of others. Because the good shepherd keeps us secure, we can enter into the places in the world that others have forgotten and shine the light of Christ. The security we receive from Christ isn’t locked doors and shuddered windows, but instead is open hearts, minds, and ears and we anxiously look to encounter the risen Christ through others in the world. You are known. You are loved. You are genuinely cherished by the risen Christ. There is no part of you that Christ does not love. In that love comes the security and knowledge that the love of Christ has no expiration date. You are safe and secure in the risen Christ. The powers of evil in this world may fight for you, but they will not win. Have no fear, little flock. You are genuinely known and genuinely loved by a God who would and did die for you.

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Sermon for 3/11/18 John 3:14-21; Lent 4

We all have those tasks that allow us to go through the motions. These are the things we do every single day without thinking about them. Sometimes it’s as mundane as making toast. Other times, it’s something where we should be paying attention, but we’re not, like driving. Whatever it is, routine can be a comfort. Going through the motions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And then, something happens. Something throws our world into chaos. Something disrupts this routine and it’s as if we must even be deliberate about telling ourselves to breathe in and breathe out.

           Chaos came into my world on Monday morning. I got news that a dear friend and fellow pastor had died. I met Ben Ahles-Iverson when we were both at seminary although he was a few years ahead of me. We became good friends. I set him up with his wife Mara and I preached at their wedding. He was a fraternity brother to Chris. And, until I knew otherwise, he was fighting cancer. That is, until Sunday night when it all got to be too much and Ben died. The cancer was too much for his body to handle. I forgot to breathe. I thought of his wife. And his daughter. And his family. When I finally gasped, my first emotions were not pretty. I’ve spent most of the week either ignoring God, avoiding God, or being angry with God.

           We all compartmentalize. I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. It’s what allows me to do what I do. But, I can’t keep my friendship part of my brain and my pastor side of my brain compartmentalized this time. Chaos will do that to you. And the last thing that I want to do is stand up here and be fake and pretend to be some thing or someone I’m not. I am grieving deeply, my beloved. I miss my friend already and I want to cry out to God about how unfair this is. And there are few things comforting right now. One of the things that has comforted me over this past week is knowing that most of you have been here before. You’ve been in the midst of a chaos storm. And in the midst of a chaos storm when you literally have to remind yourself to breathe, I know the last thing we really want is to hear that God loves us.

           The age old argument is “if God really loves us then why does death happen? Why does cancer happen? Why do people have to suffer?” I have been with too many of you as you mourn your loved ones. Maybe you didn’t ask these questions out loud. Maybe you kept them to yourself. Maybe you were scared to ask them out loud because what would that say about your faith? Are we doubting God and God’s plans? Does our questioning mean we don’t believe in God? If we question God will God stop loving us? These are all very common questions with which we wrestle when we are thrown into chaos. Fear and shame keep us from voicing them out loud. Instead of lamenting out loud, we keep these doubts to ourselves and instead withdraw further from community and further from God.

           We don’t want to hear the promise of “God so loved the world” because in the midst of chaos, God’s love feels far away. We don’t want to hear “God so loved the world” when our world is taken from us. We don’t want to hear “God so loved the world” when the world is full of hurt, sorrow, and pain. And maybe it’s not that we don’t want to hear it, but we can’t hear it. We can’t hear it because we can’t feel it. This is why it is so important, my beloveds, to continue being disciples together as I’ve talked about so much lately.

           I’m not ready to deal with God. But, I got to feel God’s love through a hug from a friend. I am not ready to be on talking terms with God, but I got to feel God’s love through a phone call from another friend. I can’t hear about God’s love quite yet, but I was able to see God’s love in action as I watched my fellow pastors and classmates console one another on social media. When God feels far away, we need one another to be, as Luther called it “little Christ’s” to one another. Sometimes God’s love looks like a casserole. Sometimes God’s love looks like delivering some coffee and paper goods to someone who is mourning. Sometimes God’s love just looks like two friends sitting with one another, not saying a word but just being there. That is enough of God’s love when God’s love feels far away.

           Scripture makes us the promise of “God so loved the world” and I suppose the good news for all of us is that it doesn’t depend on us. God is going to continue loving you and me no matter what. I doubt God cares much that I’m not real happy with God right now. It’s not because God is uncaring but because nothing can ever stop God from loving me or you. God loved the world into being. God breathed life into every living creature. God wove together every mountain and valley and did so with love. God has guided us for generations with love. Nothing has been able to stop God’s love now and nothing will. I believe in the resurrection promise. I believe that the tomb will be empty on the third day. I believe that what God says is true. I believe it in my head. But, until I can feel it in my heart, I take solace in knowing that nothing can stop God from loving me.

           “God so loved the world” isn’t just a saying. It’s a way of life. It’s a way that we operate. Because if we truly believe that “God so loved the world” then we comfort one another in our grief. We celebrate with one another. We speak promises of accompaniment to one another. “God so loved the world” is why we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and care for the sick. “God so loved the world” is why we get so excited when we baptize because we see proof of that love. “God so loved the world” is why we come to this table with hands outstretched because we get to taste proof of this love and we can’t wait another minute to taste that it’s true. “God so loved the world” is why we wish one another peace. “God so loved the world” doesn’t promise us a life without chaos. “God so loved the world” promises us that chaos, death, and evil never have the final word.

               

 

Sermon for 1/21/18 Mark 1:14-20

It was a blazing hot day in late July as we unpacked our moving truck into what would be our new home in Wichita Falls, Texas. We were newly married, just returned from our honeymoon, and Chris was to start his new job in just a few weeks. One of the first things we wanted to do was find a church. The door to our apartment there on Weeks Park Lane was wide open and we heard a knock at the door. This lovely looking woman with beautifully coiffed hair (as only they can do in Texas) stood at the door. She introduced herself as a neighbor and then immediately invited us to church. “We’d love to have you come visit us at First Baptist.” Chris, jumped in and said “no thanks! We’re Lutheran.” I think she asked if that was even Christian before leaving. Chris and I both thought that had she grabbed a box off the moving truck, we might have thought about it. We kind of chuckle about it now, but I have to admire her commitment to discipleship.

Today’s text is probably familiar as we hear many stories throughout all of the Gospels of Jesus calling the disciples. In today’s story, Jesus calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John. And they all follow Jesus. Not only do they follow Jesus, but they do so immediately. I have to commend them for that. It seems like I can’t even get out of the house without at least an hour’s worth of planning. And it’s easy for me, at least, to admire Simon, Andrew, James, and John. To have that kind of faith; to leave everything immediately; to pick up and follow Jesus without a second thought. And maybe, just maybe, I can be a disciple like that someday. Following Jesus without a second thought, without a concern of worldly things, without hesitation! If only I could be like Simon, Andrew, James, and John.

So here is where I burst your bubble: Simon, Andrew, James, and John were not, by any stretch of the imagination, perfect disciples. This calling that takes place in today’s story is merely the beginning of their journey. They don’t immediately drop their nets and become some sort of super holy sin-fighting gang of super-disciples. Ahead of these four is years and years of learning and experiences. They will fail multiple times. They will have some amazing epiphany like experiences. They will think they’ve got it all figured out only to find out they don’t. Their journey to discipleship will ebb and flow. It will be full of sin and death, love and light, success, and multiple failures. I don’t know about you, but to me, this sounds a little bit like my own journey to becoming a disciple. I read a quote this week and I love it, so I am going to share with you today. Elton Brown says “Becoming a faithful Christian disciples takes both a moment and a lifetime.”

Being a disciple isn’t something you can just do once. Christ calls us daily. Whether we answer or not is another question. The goal of being like Simon, Andrew, James, and John is awesome. But remember, in the moment when Jesus was on the cross, at his most vulnerable and yet most powerful moment, those guys were nowhere to be found. I’m guessing if there was a disciple handbook, showing up at the crucifixion would probably be required. But they missed it. And the truth is, we all mess up when it comes to following Christ. No one is perfect. Do you hear me out there? No one here is a perfect Christian, or a perfect disciple, or a perfect Lutheran, or a perfect whatever. Because here’s the thing: if we were perfect, we wouldn’t need Christ. And God knows, we need Christ daily.

Our “moment” for many of us, was baptism. This was the moment that, through nothing we did on our own, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we were claimed and washed as children of God. Pretty cool, right? We got to see it last week and we will see it again next week. But for many of us, it takes a lifetime of getting the hang of this discipleship stuff. I had a visit not too long ago with a senior member of this congregation. They are over 90 and were lamenting their Christian life. “I just don’t feel like a good Christian, Pastor” they told me. I asked why and they gave me a list of things I’m pretty sure we all do. “Well, I used to do my daily devotional, but I missed a day and then another, and I haven’t picked it up in a few weeks. I don’t pray daily. Sometimes I pray before bed and I fall asleep in the middle of praying.” I assured this person that they were no different than any other Christian and that God knows our hearts and the true intentions of our hearts. Discipleship can take a lifetime. So, if you’re feeling like you’re failing at it, be gentle with yourself.

In baptism, we make promises. And we make promises as a community. This is why baptism should happen within a community of believers. We need one another. Jesus called the disciples in pairs because he knew they would need to be in community and he knew they would need one another. This is why when I lead the Lord’s Prayer at council, we hold hands as we do: as a reminder that when I’m weak, you’re strong and vice versa. We are disciples in community with one another. The promises we make at baptism are made out loud because we need a way to hold one another and ourselves accountable for what God is already calling us to do. See, we don’t believe in decision theology. We don’t believe that we are the ones who decide to follow Jesus, or claim him or whatever. Jesus is already active in our lives. God has been calling us since the day we were born. Our response is discipleship.

The promises we make are simple: live among God’s faithful people, come to the holy supper, teach and learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten commandments, have and give gifts of Scripture (aka the Bible), and to nurture our prayer life. But we can’t do it alone. This is why we need one another. This is why we return to this place week after week: to disciple camp, so to speak. We aren’t perfect Christians. But, Jesus isn’t calling perfect Christians, he’s not calling pensive Christians, he’s calling willing Christians. Disciples who are willing to fail and keep trying. Disciples who sin, but also believe they are saved. Disciples who mess up from time to time and instead of beating themselves up, us it as a way to point to Christ and his redeeming ways. Christ isn’t looking for perfection. Christ is looking for you.

Fishing takes a lifetime to get right. Discipleship is the same way. We’re all still learning. But, thanks be to God, we’re doing it together.

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.

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 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.

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.