Being “Embodied” with brain health issues

Nightly my routine includes 150mg of Sertraline, also known as Zoloft. I really wish it wasn’t part of my life, but it is. My brain health issues include depression, anxiety, and adult ADD. I take the SSRI along with regular exercise and time with a therapist. Some days are still better than others. I will never be someone without a brain health condition. 8 years ago when I was pregnant with our one and only, my fervent prayer was that these brain health issues would not be genetic. We welcomed our daughter into the world in June 2004. Postpartum depression robbed me of the first 6 months of her life. I was there, but I don’t remember anything. 

I prayed, a lot. I wondered if Mary ever went through PPD. I wondered if Mary cried when (or if) Jesus refused her breast. I wondered if Mary ever laid her hand on Jesus’ back, feeling him breathe. She certainly missed out on those amazing mesh undies they give you in the hospital! I thought a lot about her when I cried over drying out milk ducts and when I put my hand on my daughters back and when I cried over, well… anything. You don’t hear those stories in the Bible. Did Joseph get up with the infant Jesus in the middle of the night? 

Our daughter is now fiercely independent, incredibly smart, and hilarious. So sure, some of it was genetic. But when she starts to have trouble processing things, speaks to herself with such cruel words, and practically works herself into a panic attack, my worries sneak back. I usually pull my beloved girl in close and tell her the things I would want to hear in that moment, the things I long to hear on the days when my depression and anxiety are winning. I am trying to get better  listening to God when She whispers these things to me. “You are beloved. There is nothing wrong with you. You are safe. You are loved. Take a deep breath. You are not a failure. This is a bad moment, not a bad day or even a bad life.” As I cradle our gift from God, I like to picture God, pulling me closer to Her. My girl lays her head on my bosom and I rest assured that for today, God knows what it’s like to parent. I speak grace to my congregation on a regular basis. I speak grace to my daughter daily. Every day, I’m getting better at hearing it myself when Mothering God pulls me close and speaks grace to me until I believe it. 

This post is part of the book launch blog tour for Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God. Embodied includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter, to instigate conversations that lead to support and new perspectives. The book is available this September from Bookshop.org, Amazon, or Cokesbury

Sermon for 3/8/20 Psalm 121

There’s a quote I have hanging in my office on a post-it that says “God saves us when we are at a stage of humbleness, brokenness, and depravity because that is when God reaches us; and not because we have made our way down there, but rather because we are no longer in denial over our condition” (Vitor Westhelle The Scandalous God). I thought of that quote as I read Psalm 121 this week. “I lift my eyes to the hills–from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth” (v1-2). It’s a humbling thing to admit you need help, but I think we’ve all been there a time or two. I mean, I’ve been there probably half a dozen times already this morning. So the psalmist asks a logical question that isn’t unique to Biblical times: where can I get some help? Maybe it’s better worded “where can I look for help?” We then are encouraged to look up. Not to the hills, which can be large and intimidating, depending on the hill. But instead, we look to the Lord who made heaven and earth. 

That should seem a simple enough answer right there, shouldn’t it? Where does my help come from? It comes from the Lord. Great. End of sermon. Sounds good to me. But when do we ever make it that simple? There must be a catch, right? Why must we humans complicate things so much? There’s a word that gets repeated 6 times in these 8 verses. For me, that’s enough to pay attention. Some form of the word keep or keeper is sprinkled throughout. God is our keeper. God keeps us. What does this mean? Well, there is a difference between having something and keeping something. I have a sweater. I keep my dogs. If the sweater gets a hole in it, I’m not going to be too upset about it. If something happens to one of the dogs, that’s another story. I watch over the dogs. I try and protect them. When they hurt, I hurt. When they do funny things, I laugh. It’s relational. 

“Likewise, God does not merely have us. God keeps us. We are God’s beloved, and immeasurably dear to God. We are not merely possessions in the eyes of the Lord, because if we suffer, it hurts God too. Psalm 121 celebrates the fact that the Lord is our keeper” (Fisher, Feasting on the Word, 60). It is relational. God abides in us and we in God. Our help, then, comes from the one who made heaven and earth. Our help comes from the same immortal being that spun the cosmos into creation. Our help comes from the same God that breathed life into every single living thing, that created every living plant, and saw dry lands and made them oceans. Our help comes from the same God that saw this earth and knew it wasn’t complete without one of you and so here you are. Isn’t that just amazing and mind blowing to think about? 

Just in case that’s not enough, the psalmist gives some more examples of how the Lord keeps us. Maybe, for whatever reason, your heart or mind doesn’t want to believe that God can or will help you. After all, we’ve all heard that old adage “God helps those who help themselves.” I’m begging you to forget that. We are told that God who keeps us will not slumber. God doesn’t sleep on the job. God cares for us and for our well being so much that God never takes an eye off of us. I think about when my brother, sister, and I were teenagers and were out on the weekend. We all had a light in the house we were responsible for turning off when we got home. I was responsible for the little lamp in the hallway. It never failed that as soon as I tip-toed in (a few minutes before curfew, of course) and turned out the lamp, I would hear my mom whisper from her bedroom “good night, baby.” See, she may have been laying in her bed, but she wasn’t asleep. 

The Lord will keep us from all evil. Phew. That is a full time job, isn’t it? Like, no wonder God doesn’t slumber or sleep. Now understand, beloved, sin and evil can be two different things. Sin is a direct result of something we ourselves have done. If you forget that, the easiest way to remember is to think about the middle letter of sin and that will tell you who is to blame. But evil is an outside source. When we gather at the font to baptize, we promise to deny the devil and all the forces that defy God. These are forces of evil. God protects us from all evil. “There may be some pain in this journey–and even death–but it will not be meaningless pain or meaningless death, and you will not experience it alone. There will be resistance and there will be danger, but the Lord will be with you” (Feasting of the Word, Burns 61). 

It is so important to remember that, my beloved. Just because God keeps us, protects us, and doesn’t slumber doesn’t mean that our lives will be without pain, suffering, and hardship. We know this isn’t true. I can look out and so many of you and see faithful Christians who have had to suffer in one way or another. God’s claim on us in baptism doesn’t guarantee us an easy life. What we are promised is that we are not alone. Our suffering is made easier because of God and because of the community we have built around the cross through the help of the Holy Spirit. 

The Lord as our keeper may be hard to accept because what it ultimately means is that the Lord loves us. The Lord loves you therefore the Lord keeps you. The Lord keeps you therefore the Lord loves you. These two thoughts are intertwined. God’s love does not, will not, and cannot change, no matter what. Our love for God may wax and wane but God’s love is solid, trustworthy, and abundant. It never changes. It never runs out. God’s love never fails. God’s love is what keeps us. Even as we face the reality of what happens to Jesus on the cross, which is the evilest of all evils, God is and will always be our keeper. 

Sermon for 2/16/20 Matthew 5:21-37

And to think, you could have skipped church today. But no. You’re here. With that scripture. Just sitting out there now. And how in the world will I deal with all of that in 10-12 minutes? Let’s talk about the most obvious piece of the elephant first: divorce. Yeah, we’re just going to dive right in and not waste time. I understand that no one gets married with the intention of getting divorced. But, it happens. I know some of you are divorced. Maybe your parents are divorced. Or, maybe, like me, you have siblings that are divorced. In Jesus’ time, the law was such that marriage was forever and there was no room for things like abuse, neglect, or violence. In Jesus’ time, if a spouse was being beaten on a regular basis, well, that was just too bad. Things have changed, thanks be to God. We read scripture with a different lens. We know that divorce, in some cases, can actually be a healthy and really life giving thing. While it’s painful, I can think of examples where people are actually better friends and parents when they were divorced than when they were married. But I also know that in some circles, scripture can be used to harm and hurt and I doubt that was ever Jesus’ intention. All this to say, if you are divorced or you love someone who is divorced and you or they have been harmed by the church or scripture, I am so sorry. I believe in the freedom that Christ brings and the love that Christ proclaims. 

But what I really want to focus on today is the overarching theme of today’s reading which I believe is reconciliation. Reconciliation is the difficult work that comes after confession and forgiveness. It’s relationship building and rebuilding. It’s community rebuilding, re-identification, and it can be a very slow process. But, in my experience, it’s also worth it. We don’t necessarily talk a lot about reconciliation a lot around here, but that’s not because it’s not important. So I stopped and asked myself that hard question. “Pastor, why don’t you talk about reconciliation more?” After some self reflection (which I didn’t like) and some ignoring of the obvious answer (which I preferred) I confess to you, my beloved, the truth: I don’t talk about it because I’m not all that good at it. 

See, confession I can do. I can lay out my sins like clay pigeons lining up to be shot. I don’t have a problem with that. Years of being raised Catholic, maybe. But, I also try to be self aware. I am still a fan of our confession that proclaims “forgive us our sins known and unknown” because that about covers it all. We know the places where we have messed up and so does God. Now, I will admit that confession isn’t always comfortable. At the same time, it shouldn’t be. When we aren’t living a full life in Christ, it’s not comfortable. Confession to one another isn’t always comfortable. But we are imperfect people serving a perfect God. 

Forgiveness can be easy, at times, because sometimes, it’s not on us, it’s on God. Of course, we must believe, and live, and act like we’ve been forgiven. That’s a whole other sermon for a whole other time. Forgiveness can be tricky when it’s human to human. What I have learned in my brief time here on earth is that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Now, that’s not the same as holding a grudge. But once you touch a hot stove, you learn not to stand so close when it’s on. Forgiveness is an amazing gift we can give one another and that God gives to us. And it’s free. Forgiveness, however, is also something that keeps us from living in right relationship with one another and with God. It’s that grudge holding that the scripture spoke about.  

Once we’ve done the work of confession and accepted or given forgiveness, then comes the reconciliation. Like I said, this can be slow going work. But, in my opinion, it’s what makes being in relationship as members of the body of Christ worth it. Now, I’ll be honest, sometimes reconciliation isn’t really that hard. Sometimes it’s as simple as “we’re good, right?” And the other person agreeing. And then you move on. But reconciliation usually takes time and trust, and if we’re honest, those are two commodities we as humans don’t always like to just give away. Reconciliation also requires vulnerability which usually isn’t an emotion that most people enjoy dealing with. Over and over in today’s reading we hear Jesus say “you have heard it said…but I say to you.” In that quick turn of phrase is grace.

Please understand, that’s not permission to forget this passage, or the difficulties that come with it. But, what Jesus says only Jesus can say because only Jesus is perfect and we would all do well to remember that every once in a while. There is a difference in being right and being righteous. Reconciliation works to put some space between these two. Following every single letter of the law doesn’t make you a perfect Christian; you may be right, but you may be far from righteous. Righteous is really living into who God created us to be. Reconciliation is the effort, the time, the trust, the love it takes from many people to move from being determined and set in being right to gracefully setting up camp in being righteous. Reconciliation is filled with grace. It is filled with life. It is filled with love. Reconciliation is worth it. 

But, my beloved, it’s not enough for me to stand up here and just talk about all of this with no action. If I desire to continue to be your faith leader, it is to me to set the example. So, I humbly confess to you all the ways I have disappointed you, let you down, betrayed your trust, failed your expectations, or just otherwise failed. I may have done this knowingly or unknowingly. I ask your forgiveness the same way I already have asked for forgiveness from God. And when you’re ready, if I have hurt you, I hope you can forgive me and we can be an example of what reconciliation looks like. And if this doesn’t apply to any of you, then we should consider ourselves blessed. But if it does, then please, follow my example. Start your reconciliation journey today. Remove your armor and be brave with me. This is what being disciples looks like. 

Sermon for 2/2/20 Matthew 5:1-12

The challenge of preaching on something like the beatitudes, also known as the Sermon on the Mount is that for many, it is a very familiar text. What can Pastor possibly say about something so familiar? Second, how does a preacher preach on a sermon? I mean think about it. I am given the task of giving a sermon on a sermon; so that’s weird. It’s like giving a book report on a book report. So, every Gospel has a central focus. If you had to boil it down to one or two main points that each Gospel story goes back to you might be able to do it. In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher. Maybe it’s no surprise then that one of the first things he does with his newly called disciples isn’t perform miracles or heal people, but instead he starts to teach them. And for Jesus, these weren’t just words. These were identifiers, so to speak. Jesus had to teach the disciples about what blessings meant in order for them to understand what it meant to be a disciple. 

That all sound fine and good in theory. However, do we know what Jesus was talking about? After all, the word “blessing” seems to be thrown around a lot without much meaning behind it. How different might these beatitudes sound if instead you heard them as this “God’s favor and protection is with those who are poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It sounds a little different to my ears,  maybe yours too. It makes me think about those who are poor in spirit a little differently as well. Maybe we shouldn’t forget that the disciples weren’t just the ones gathered on the mountain plateau. We are all called to be disciples. So, Jesus’ words are just as relevant to us now as they were to the disciples then. What are we to call a blessing, then my beloveds? 

So, first of all, this should never be heard as a to-do list or a guilt list. It is all too easy to hear this reading and think that we’re not holy enough or that we’re not measuring up to some kind of standard that God has for us. This is not the case at all. So forget that kind of thinking right away. After all, no one would actually choose to be poor in spirit; it’s a terrible place to be, I imagine. I think that Jesus is trying to retrain the disciple’s eyes (and ours) to see God at work on earth; to start seeing “on earth as it is in heaven.” I have said this before and I stand by this belief: if the good news (the “gospel”) of Jesus Christ is not good news for the poor and marginalized then it is not good news. (say that again) 

I think it’s also important for Jesus, our teacher, to do more than just tell us that we are blessed. What does it mean to actually feel blessed; to feel favored, remembered, and protected by God? And unlike people who use the word “blessed” when they really mean lucky or (I’m sorry) rich, to be blessed means to move and operate in this world knowing that you are loved and forgiven by God. And while that may not sound radical, it really is. Do I believe that I am blessed? On my good days, yes. But I have a lot of not so good days. I know I am not alone. But here’s the crazy thing. There are people in this world who would dare argue that I am not blessed. I am not loved or forgiven by God. And why? Because I, a female, dare preach in front of you. I, some would say, am going against the word of God. I didn’t realize that being blessed was a decision that anyone else besides God could make. 

But here’s the thing, from the moment God names us and claims us, we are blessed. We have all we need in our identities in God. God does love you and God forgives you. God wraps a blanket of mercy around you and bathes you in grace. When was the last time you really allowed yourself to accept that? When was the last time you allowed yourself to feel that without a fight? When was the last time you allowed yourself to sit long enough for the Holy Spirit to hug you in holy love and not fight it? When was the last time you allowed yourself to be loved without expectation? 

The last time I was asked that question, I cried. I cried out of anger. I cried out of sadness. I cried out of pity. I cried. I cried because I couldn’t remember when I had stopped long enough to allow myself to feel God’s love. I cried because I allowed myself to get too busy. I got angry with myself because I allowed my words to go out to you hollow: full of so much promise but with no intent of fulfilment. Because if I don’t believe it for myself how will you believe it’s true for you. I cried out of pity because I felt sorry for me. I knew I had missed out on something good. But I cried because I knew with God there is always another chance. And another. And another. And another. Because that’s how God works. That’s a blessing. 

So as I prayed about what you, my beloved people might need this day, God reminded me, guided me to teach just as Jesus did. The best thing I think I can do for you this day is to remind you that you are blessed. Just as you are. Because of whose you are. You have been blessed from the moment God knit you together. God claimed you in the waters of baptism and God continues to claim you day after day. God probably has a picture of you on the eternal fridge. We are going to be reminded of our blessings today by affirming our baptisms. I ask you, when was the last time you allowed yourself to be loved? Do it with me today as we turn to page 237 in the hymnal. 

Tristan Toppert–funeral

Kevin, Lisa and family; my beloved people of Elvira Zion, Steamer Nation, friends, I have a confession: I don’t want to be here today. It is only by God’s grace and your prayers that most of us who love Tristan have been sustained this past week. I keep waiting to be woken up. I keep waiting to be told there’s been some mistake. I keep waiting for my tears to stop. And it’s only by God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness that I know we will all be able to walk out of this gym, away from a grave, and know that this is not the end of Tristan’s story. See, this is our Good Friday moment. Death is final. But the three days are coming. The empty tomb is coming. The resurrection is coming. And Jesus, our Lord and Savior, defeated death. Death doesn’t get the final word. Not now, not here. The final word around here, around those who know the truth, is this: love. Love gets the final word. 

This death also isn’t Tristan’s story. We will not let one moment define his life. We refuse to do that. What we will do is share his story. We will share his story and we will share his contagious love for life in the hopes that just one person will know that love and forgiveness can go a long way. Even in death, Tristan was covered in God’s love and forgiveness, just as he was in life. He was claimed in the waters of baptism as a beloved child of God and was claimed once again last Monday. Tristan’s faith was central to who he was. Did you know that? He loved so fiercely because God loved him. For confirmation, I make all the students write a faith statement. This is a challenging task for adults, let alone, an 8th grade student. In his faith statement Tristan wrote this “Matthew 19:26- Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ This is my all-time favorite verse from the bible.  What I believe this quote is saying is that there are actions in life that seem as if ‘it is over,’ but with God ‘it is never over.’ The biggest asset in life is God. He is my father; I am his son.”

Tristan also loved his family. He was the “funcle” the fun uncle. His nephews worshiped him. He adored his brothers. He would do anything to help his grandparents. He would climb flagpoles to hide Easter eggs. Or make Carson do it. This past Christmas was filled with gifts handmade by Tristan and orders placed by many more family members for his future work. His talent was obnoxious. I was always so jealous of that. He would look at what I would normally call a pile of junk and see nothing but potential. Maybe there is something to learn there. When one too many concussions knocked him (literally) out of football, his first love, he found his passion in the building trades program. If it involved wood, welding, or doing anything with his hands, Tristan was in. Or if it involved eating, you could always find Tristan near. 

Tristan was a walking treasure chest of useless knowledge which he was more than happy to share with you at a moments notice whether you liked it or not. He loved a good debate. Not necessarily an argument, but a good debate. Despite any efforts by me or anyone else, he loved the 49ers. He loved football, period. For a while, he thought playing past high school might be his destiny. He enjoyed track and tried cheerleading for a short stint as well. Tristan wanted to give of himself in any way possible. He learned by watching his family give of themselves. He was a disciple in every sense of the word. Tristan had one of the most generous hearts of anyone I knew. He loved deep and he loved hard. He so desired to be loved in return. Tristan really did live his life according to the golden rule. He treated others how he desired to be treated. If you experienced Tristan’s kindness, which I’m sure most of you did, please know you were experiencing was pure, genuine, love. This is the love that God poured into him (obviously, in abundance) and then Tristan chose (CHOSE) not to keep to himself but to make the world a better place. The kindness that you experienced was nothing short of a gift from God. 

That Romans reading we heard says “what then are we to say about these things?” Yes indeed. Because God has heard me say a lot this past week. Some of it hasn’t been suitable for church. See, our God is big enough to handle all of these emotions. What then are we to say about these things? The truth. This sucks. But the reading continues. “If God is for us, who is against us?” And if we’re honest, again, in life it can feel like a lot of things are against us. It can feel like a lot of people are against us. I fear that is what our beloved Tristan felt on Monday. But, God tells us another story. God is for us. God is for you. God is for me. And God was most certainly for Tristan. God is for us. God’s love is the most powerful force imaginable. Scripture says that nothing comes between us and the love that God has for us. 

Do you hear me, my beloved? Nothing comes between you and the love God has for you, not even death. There are no words, no actions, no shortcomings, no sin that will ever get in the way of God loving you. There is nothing you can do or that Tristan ever did that will ever make God say “well….I’m done loving that one.” Because God’s love is patient, and kind, and never ever ends, not even in death. As I said earlier, this death isn’t the final word. How can we possibly live in a world where death has the final word? No. Not today Satan. We’re resurrection people. We’re empty tomb people. We’re third day people. We’re love conquers death people. Because the alternative is too damn dark. We don’t want to live in darkness. We don’t want to live in a world where death and darkness wins. God’s love tells us, promises us, all of us, including Tristan, that we don’t have to. God promises us a kingdom that God prepares for us where forgiveness and mercy reigns. And if we take seriously that prayer that we all know so well, “on earth as it is in heaven” then may it be so, beloved. May we live and act like we are forgiven and are surrounded by mercy and treat one another the same. That is God’s kingdom on earth. 

We will see Tristan again. We will see that mischievous smile, those amazing eyes (full of knowledge), and we will once again be in the presence of his soul so full of love it’s almost overwhelming. I believe this because I believe in a God of the resurrection, and my God has not led me astray yet. I also refuse to believe the lies that the demons in my head tell me and so I want to believe that Tristan has been assured by God that whatever was chasing him was nothing but a lie and he was only running to God’s love and not running from anything. My beloved siblings in Christ, I hope you know this: Tristan so deeply loved God. And God loved Tristan. And God loves you. No matter what you have done or not done, no matter what you may call God, no matter if you set foot in church or not, God created you and thinks you are wonderfully and beautifully made because God doesn’t make junk. I look out and can see the image of God in all of you. Wear it proudly. But if you struggle to believe that. If you battle demons that are too dark to mention or you think you are alone, let me assure you, you are not. There is a number on the back of your bulletin if you want help. 

Finally, Steamer Nation, I want to leave you with this. And I am talking specifically to Steamer Nation. If it is in your power, and it is within your power, never ever allow this gym to be turned into a sanctuary for this purpose again. Do not allow another family to weep and mourn the way I have witnessed this past week. Choose kindness. Choose love. Choose forgiveness. Choose mercy. Choose grace. It’s what Tristan wanted. It’s what God calls us to do.

Sermon for 12/29/19 Matthew 2:13-23

There’s a phrase (or saying) that’s become popular the last few years that I think fits with this reading quite well. The phrase is “well, that escalated quickly.” Sometimes it’s used sarcastically. Sometimes it’s used when the situation didn’t really escalate at all. Sometimes it’s just used when someone is being dramatic. However, with this reading, well, this is a situation that escalated quickly. We were just gathered less than a week ago singing by candlelight about a holy infant so tender and mild. Well, Herod has received news of this boy, this Messiah, the Lord. See, we don’t hear that part of the story today. Herod heard the wise men refer to Jesus as the king of the Jews. His first reaction? He was frightened. And out of his fear he reacted. No one was to be king but him. No one was to rule but him. He wanted to know where Jesus was and it was up to the wise men to tell him. But, when the wise men realized that Herod’s intentions weren’t what they seemed, they did not return to Bethlehem. Herod was furious. To make sure that no one would be king but him, he demanded that every baby boy under the age of 2 be killed. Well, that escalated quickly. 

You don’t hear this story in your kids picture books in the telling of the Christmas story. There is only one Christmas carol I know of that speaks of this passage. You probably won’t find a depiction of this passage on the walls of a nursery anytime soon. It’s violent, it’s disturbing, and it’s another reminder of what happens when any of us fall to the power of sin: we become what we hate, the worst versions of ourselves. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this passage; a lot of relying on dreams. And of course, so much travel. Jesus was born into uncertainty and quickly became a refugee seeking only to be safe from a mad man who wished him dead. Scholars wonder if the slaughter of the innocents (as this passage is often called) actually happened. It is only spoken of in the book of Matthew. Even if Herod didn’t actually demand this horrible atrocity to take place, he had the ability to command and carry out such things. This was a man who “maintained a private security force and built fortresses [in many locations] so that he would never be far from a defensible refuge. He killed descendants of the Hasmoneans so he would have no rival. When he suspected intrigue in his own family, he killed his wife Mariamne and one of his own sons. Before he died he commanded that at his death political prisoners should be killed so that there would be mourning throughout the land” (Feasting on the Word, Culpepper 167). So did he do it? We don’t know. But we do know he was capable of escalating things quickly. 

Herod was good at creating chaos and uncertainty. He wanted his people to question everything and follow only him. This world ruler was not about to stand very long for something new. Herod was invested in keeping the status quo because the status quo benefitted him quite well. And for Herod, the status quo didn’t involve a baby Messiah. In the midst of chaos and confusion, God provided a lot of protection. “God demonstrates God’s providential care in uncertain times” (Feasting on the Word, Thomas 166). Think about it: God sent an angel to Joseph in a dream; the Holy family took a very dangerous trip through the desert (as they fled to Egypt) traveling a lot by night (which was very dangerous) and weren’t hurt or harassed; we don’t hear this today, but the wise men were warned by an angel in a dream not to return to Herod; another angel appeared to Joseph after Herod died letting them know it was safe to return to Israel; finally in one final dream, God redirects the Holy family to Galilee. God provides protection in uncertain times. 

This is where I find the good news in this terrible text. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to find any piece of good news in a reading like this. But, the fact that God provides protection and guidance in uncertain times is good news for me. I don’t know if that sounds like good news for you, my beloved, but it is good news for me. I dare to hope, to dream, to even believe that if God can protect our Lord and Messiah from hurt, harm, danger, evil, and the most horrid people then maybe, just maybe, God can protect me. Just to be clear: faith in God does not, cannot, and will not preclude us from uncertain times, I think we all know that. But hope, for me, comes in knowing that God will protect and provide. God may not protect and provide in the ways we want (or even the ways we expect) but God will provide and protect always in the ways that we need. 

God came into this world through a baby; an inbreaking of love that often sends us out to places that look like “Egypt.” These are places that may seem foreign to us, but will offer us the most protection and the places where God will meet us. Herod desire to slaughter innocent children should make us angry. We cannot become complicit in systems that would allow this to happen again and again. Where might God be sending us to share the news of this baby born to change the world? And if we’re being sent, don’t you know that God will protect us? If we’re being sent, don’t you know that God will provide? Herod honestly wasn’t the most evil person around. He built roads and infrastructure. But Herod was never held accountable. The public, people like you and me, never questioned him. When power goes unquestioned and unchecked, it can quickly turn into sin and evil. But, God provides. God always provides. 

We know sin and evil have no place in this world and they will be defeated. It may not look like we imagine or envision, but they will be defeated; the cross taught us that. The cradle, and this fleeing to Egypt should show us that God’s reign shows up first to the most mundane ordinary places. Not to fortresses and halls of power, but to stalls full of animals and caravans of wise men bringing gifts. God also shows up to the most mundane people: shepherds, wise men, an unwed teenager, Joseph (through his dreams), and maybe, if we’re lucky, people like you and me. Evil does not have to remain a force of power in this world. We trust what God will do through Jesus Christ to defeat evil. We also continue to trust that God will provide for us through mundane means: bread, wine, and water. For now, that’s enough. 

Sermon for 12/15/19 Matthew 11:2-11; Advent 3

When I was at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s churchwide assembly (our annual business meeting) in August, I got a wonderful gift. It is “Hear My Voice: A Prison Prayer Book.” I have found it full of resources for many situations, not just for those in prison or jail. When I found this prayer I wondered if John the Baptist might have related to it. It says “O God, you promised that you are with us wherever we go and that there is no place where we can flee from your presence. I claim that promise right here and now. Help me to feel you with me here in solitary. Help me to know that as long as I am yours, there is no place where I am beyond your reach. Remind me that you will never leave me or forsake me. Give me the strength and courage to face this time and to use the quiet to calm my spirit and focus my attention on your grace and care. I pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.” (107)

I really like that last part of the prayer. “Give me the strength and courage to face this time and to use the quiet to calm my spirit and focus my attention on your grace and care.” We meet our friend, John the Baptist once again this week. But his story is much different this time. He is, as you might have assumed or heard, in prison. Placed there by a very overzealous Herod. I hate to ruin the end of the story for you, but John the Baptist will end up with his head on a platter, literally. He was a threat to the empire, much like Jesus and it cost him. And he wants to know, was it all worth it. He asks a very simple question “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The thing about John’s question is that it’s not one of curiosity, it’s one of desperation. 

Are you the one, Jesus, or are we waiting on someone else? Was what I’ve been through for the sake of spreading your word worth it and for you or is someone else still yet to come and it was all for nothing? In this season of tidings of comfort and joy, I believe that John was looking a little less for joy and more for comfort. He was in prison, after all. John wants to know if Jesus is the real deal. He wants to know if Jesus is the messiah. And, as Jesus is ought to do, he doesn’t give him a straight answer. Because it’s never yes or no with Jesus. Jesus instead tells John that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5). If I were John, I’d be a little frustrated. Because even though these amazing things are happening John is still in prison. He still waits. 

I know that sometimes the holidays can be challenging. They may not always be merry and bright. “Give me the strength and courage to face this time and to use the quiet to calm my spirit and to focus my attention on your grace and care.” We talk a lot about waiting during Advent. And some of that waiting and anticipation can be good; like Christmas morning kind of good. Like grandma’s special cinnamon rolls kind of good. But then there’s the waiting that turns our focus and attention to God’s grace and care. This is the kind of waiting that requires more comfort than joy.What if you’re waiting to see how Christmas feels without a loved one that has passed on in the last year?  What if you’re waiting for a cure for whatever ails you. What if you’re waiting for the return of a deployed family member? What if you’re waiting for someone who is whole in body to become fuller in mind or spirit? What if you’re waiting for someone to die only because you know it will bring peace? Waiting is not always jolly or full of gleeful anticipation. Sometimes our waiting can leave us in metaphorical prisons. 

We know that Jesus was the one that John was waiting for. Jesus, instead of giving him a straight yes or no answer instead sent proof that he was indeed the one. Part of my call, my beloved, is to help you and me, all of us, remember why we show up here week after week. Part of my call is to be like John the Baptist and point to Christ. This is work we do together. When I am weak, you serve as John the Baptist for me, reminding me of my own baptism, pointing out the ways Christ is moving in my life. We do this together because this is discipleship work. I can’t do this alone. So I ask you this week, when can you remember seeing or feeling, knowing deep in your heart, that sinking down into your bones feeling that you encountered the risen Christ? 

When was it that you were brought comfort? Maybe you were also brought joy, but for sure comfort. When did you know the answer to the question John keeps asking “are you the one?” We need those moments, my beloved. And we need to share them with one another. Because I’ll be honest, it’s hard out there. So many of us are stuck in metaphorical prisons and we need someone from the outside that will come and tell us the good news that it is worth it. That Jesus is the real thing. You are all called to be disciples and that means telling your story of when you encountered Jesus and you had no doubts it was him. Maybe it was a still small moment or maybe it was a bright shining star kind of moment. Maybe you’ve had more than one moment. I encourage you to share this with someone, maybe over coffee or the car ride home. 

It’s been a rough few weeks for me. The details of which I’ll spare you. But the challenges of my mental illness get especially tricky this time of year. What you may not know is that people with brain health issues aren’t sad when we’re depressed, we mainly feel nothing. And who showed up to my prison but my beloved Christopher. He whispered the words of my baptismal promise to me that I am loved and that God loves me and that I am worthy. The abyss seemed less looming in that moment. I knew that Jesus is real because Jesus showed up through Chris. What story will you tell to help free someone from their prison? 

Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, has come into the world and crushed the prison walls around us with his love, grace, and saving actions on the cross.  He didn’t save us with sword or stone but with love unending. This is why Jesus matters: because we cannot save ourselves. Why does Jesus matter? Because without him, we would be incapable of loving ourselves, let alone anyone else.  Why does Jesus matter? Because without him, really, nothing else matters.  

Your prison can no longer keep you.  The one for whom we wait is here in bread and wine.  Taste and see for yourself. Taste and see why Jesus matters. Taste and see that Jesus is the one for whom we wait.   

 

Sermon for 12/8/19 Matthew 3:1-12; Advent 2

I have an idea for a fundraiser for church and I think with just the right amount of help we can pull this thing off in time for Christmas. You know how it is popular this time of year to take your kids to the mall and other places to see Santa? Well, we do the same thing but with a few small changes. So, instead of seeing Santa, the kids, all of us really, get to see John the Baptist. Now, if you want to sit on his lap, that’s up to you. And instead of asking “have you been a good girl or boy” like Santa does, John the Baptist will instead ask everyone “have you been bearing fruit worthy of repentance?” And we’ll set up a little coffee shop in the narthex or downstairs or someplace (I haven’t worked all these details out yet) so people have something to do while they wait to talk with John the Baptist. And the coffee shop will be called (wait for it….) “BREWED of vipers!!” Get it? I think this is a no fail idea and people will be flocking from all around Clinton county to see this. 

I understand that once again, having a reading like this during Advent can seem a little strange. You may be ready for the shepherds, angels, nativity, all of the “classic” Christmas story elements. These apocalyptic end-time stories are getting to be a little too much and are cramping our festive nature, Jesus. But darn it if I don’t love a good John the Baptist story. I love John the Baptist. He loves Jesus. He’s often misunderstood. He’s got great fashion sense. The first thing we hear John the Baptist say is “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” To repent means to turn outward; to turn away from ourselves and out to the world. To repent means that we turn from our selfish sinful ways and turn towards God’s life-giving grace. I like the fact that the first thing John tells us to do is repent. Because once we repent the rest of his message, honestly, doesn’t sound that scary. 

Repentance isn’t easy. I speak from experience. For me, it’s an ongoing practice. When I say that repentance is turning away from my old sinful self, that sounds easy. But I know from my daily living and my daily dying that repentance is difficult. Sinning isn’t always something I knowingly do, just like many of you. It happens without even thinking about it. That’s part of what makes repentance so difficult. But what also makes repentance difficult is that I must expose myself as the liar and fraud that I am. Oh sure, I put on a good show up here every single Sunday but I struggle with so many of the same things that you do. I fall to sin daily. To admit it means exposing myself. I’m not perfect. I can’t keep it altogether. I struggle. I don’t always trust that God has got my best interest in mind. If I truly live into what repentance means then you would probably hear me confess these things to you week after week and I’m guessing that would get old after a while. But rest assured, my beloved, the office of pastor does not and will never abstain me from the intoxicating allure of falling into sin. Daily. Thanks be to God for grace and forgiveness. 

But John tells us that Jesus is coming. That alone should compel us to confess our sins. As much as I may have joked about being bad or good, repentance isn’t about our moral worthiness. It certainly isn’t about other people’s opinions of us either. Rather, repentance is about “God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image” (Feasting on the Word, Burgess 46). Now here’s the thing about repentance: once we start to actively engage in repentance, that is, make it our daily practice, God does this amazing thing. “We will remember and affirm that Christ has brought each of us out of bondage and has fundamentally reoriented our life” (ibid). Repentance frees us. 

Repentance frees us because when we are able to turn from ourselves, when we’re able to turn from being inward, to being outward to the world, we are in a position of vulnerability. We are in a position to no longer make ourselves our only focus, but we start to see God in the world and in others. Repentance is what reminds us that our sins ultimately don’t hold power over us. In our repentance, God will remind us that Christ has “brought each of us out of our bondage and … reoriented our life. Our own wanderings in … life will not be without wilderness hesitancy and resistance, yet God promises to keep pointing the way ahead” (ibid). When we start with repentance, John the Baptist’s message sounds more like a promise than a threat. 

All of these end times don’t have to be scary. Repentance isn’t punishment. Rather, it should be a way of life. In the waters of baptism, Christ claims you. You belong to God. Maybe bearing fruits worthy of repentance just looks like remembering that. On my worst days, I am doing really good to remember that I am called and claimed. On my better days, I repent, look for God in my neighbor, listen for how Christ is calling me to serve others, enter into the wilderness, knowing that I will not be alone, and pray that today I can be a little more like John the Baptist, pointing to Christ and the amazing things he is doing in my life and in the world. We may not always get it right. In fact, we won’t. That’s why we need grace. That’s why we need the meal of Christ’s body and blood as a reminder that nothing comes between us and the love of God. Let us not forget that the time between “joy to the world” and “crucify him” escalates very quickly. It would do us good to remember that repentance and remembering our baptismal promises can help the wilderness feel a little less uncharted and dangerous and more like a place where we’ll meet John the Baptist. Someone we can hope to be like: pointing the way to Christ and furthering God’s kingdom here on earth.  

Sermon for 12/1/19 Matthew 24:36-44; Advent 1

Alright my beloved, I have a confession. This confession is well timed since a good portion of my family is with us today and they can verify that my confession is true. So, here goes. Contrary to what you may believe, I actually don’t know everything. Wait a minute, was there anyone who really did believe this (other than me)?? No, I don’t know everything. In so many ways this is a relief and a burden lifted. It’s also an opportunity, believe it or not, to grow in my faith. After all, if I knew everything, I would have no use for God or faith. I most definitely need God and faith, so it’s a blessing that I don’t know everything. Plus, can you imagine how insufferable I would be if I actually did know everything? How annoying. 

Texts like this one for today can cause a preacher to grimace and run towards the nearest alternative readings. After all, the end times isn’t always the easiest thing to preach about. It has become especially difficult thanks to the ever popular “Left Behind” book series. Combine that with the timing of this text, the first Sunday of Advent and it might leave our brains and hearts wanting for a little more. But much like last week with Christ the King, perhaps this is the perfect text to center ourselves for the arrival of the Christ child. I often let you in on my struggles with the preaching texts because I want you to know that it’s okay to struggle with texts. It’s okay to struggle with the Bible. It’s okay to struggle with God. These struggles are not, I repeat, are NOT a sign of your lack of faith. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that people who have “real faith” or “strong faith” (whatever those two things are) don’t question but instead are very clear on their beliefs and convictions. My beloved, many of my seminary classmates and I joke that we may all have Masters of Divinity degree but we hardly feel like we’ve mastered anything. In fact, seminary may be one of the few educational institutions where it’s good to graduate with more questions than answers. 

Our guilt and shame gets the best of us though, doesn’t it? Troubles arise and we shame ourselves. “I shouldn’t feel this way, I’m a Christian” one might say. Or “I’ve prayed daily, why is this happening to me” someone else might say. And suddenly, just like that, our black and white faith is gray and muddled. But I promise you, uncertainty is a condition of even the best biblical faith. Look at the first verse of our reading today. “But about that day and hour no one knows” (Mt 24:36). No one knows when Christ will return. So all of those Chicken Little, doomsday prepper, end times scary people on television may think they know, but scripture tells us, NO ONE KNOWS. It isn’t a relief to know that Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything?

At the same time, while we are not expected to know everything, we are expected to do something. “The Jesus of the verses before us calls persons to a life of work in a spirit of wakefulness. Work in this sense means activity here and now. Biblical faith as Jesus envisions it is not so concerned with otherworldly matters that it neglects this world’s affairs. Matthew’s Jesus has an eye on what is to come and believes something decisive is going to happen in the future, but he keeps attention focused on the present day and the needs of the hour” (Feasting on the Word, Yurs 25). 

What the writer of the gospel wants the community in Matthew as well as our present community to understand is that watching and waiting for the Lord is important. Yes, we should be prepared. Yes, we should be ready. Yes, we should understand that it can happen at any minute. However, this watching and waiting should not come at the expense of debilitating the rest of our lives or our work. In the examples given, people were carrying on with their normal lives, their normal activities, even their normal celebrations when signs of God’s return happened. 

Matthew’s Gospel is all about the community that has heard the story of Jesus and encouraging them to continue the work of Jesus, all while still being aware and prepared. This is why, at the end of Matthew, we get one of my favorite verses to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Continue the work of Jesus. Make sure people know the stories. Make sure everyone knows about this savior of the world who was born in a manger, stood with those on the margins, taught, fed, and hung on a cross so that we may all be saved. Friends, there are still those in this world that don’t know this story in its entirety. For some, we may be the only Gospel, the only Jesus they encounter. What story do our lives tell? 

Our time on this earth is limited; I don’t have to tell you that. It is valuable. The best way for us to prepare for the Lord, to watch and wait is to live our lives in a way that points to Christ. When we have more food than we need, we build bigger tables. When our siblings in Christ are hurting, we find ways of helping them, yes, but also fixing the broken systems they may be a part of. I understand that we may not be literally able to heal people like Jesus or feed 5000 people like Jesus. But seeing people’s humanity like Jesus did goes a long way. Looking another human being in the eye and just acknowledging the divine in them is a small way of preparing for the Lord. Because when the Lord comes, it is our hope that you and I will be seated at a banquet table that has no end. And at that banquet table may be a stranger that looks familiar because you’ve seen their divinity. 

Our time on earth is limited but God’s love is not, God’s mercy is not, and thanks be to God, God’s grace is not. We can continue to prepare the way of the Lord by showing others, even just one other person a small glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth by pointing to Christ. And at the end of the day, we rest assured that we need not know everything. Our works cannot and will not accomplish everything. Hope will come. In the stillness of a silent night the cries of a newborn baby will shatter everything we know about perfection. Hope will come and in the midst of the messy, we find grace. 

 

Sermon for 11/24/19 Luke 22:33-43; Christ the King

This text feels a bit jarring on a day like today. After all, a reading like this, at least for me, sends my mind and heart right back into Holy Week. I know that we have had the trial of Jesus, he has carried his own execution tool to the place of The Skull, and now here we are. We know this story because we’ve heard versions of it time and time again during Holy Week as we prepare our hearts on Palm Sunday or Good Friday. And hearing even the smallest portions of the same readings we hear during Holy Week take me back there time and time again and the feelings and emotions are all the same. There is lament, grief, sadness, anger, and just blah… so to have all of this on a day we call Christ the King feels weird. The only comparison I came up with for my feelings was this: it feels like having a birthday cake (complete with candles) and balloons at a funeral. A king isn’t regarded this way. 

At the same time, perhaps this reading is the perfect thing to prepare our hearts and minds for what is about to happen: Advent. In case you didn’t know, Advent starts next Sunday. As we anticipate the birth of the newborn king, it might be good to know what kind of King we actually are anticipating. Are we anticipating the kind of king that rules with an iron fist? Are we anticipating the kind of king that employs nepotism and lies? Are we anticipating the kind of king that stays in power until forced out or until he dies? Are we anticipating the kind of king that dares not be challenged? We all know the answers to those questions. And the answers to those questions is what got Jesus a state sanctioned execution. 

Instead the kind of king that hung on the cross was one that notices the marginalized. We start the beginning of Luke with Mary declaring that the hungry will be fed and the rich will be sent away empty. So, of course we end Luke with Jesus, the one Mary sang about paying attention to the marginalized: his fellow so-called criminals hanging with him. One was deriding him and the other was rebuking him. It would have been easy to ignore both criminals. But even in his final moments of life, Jesus notices, assures, and loves those that society would rather punish and forget. In that, Christ invites us to be more like him, to be more like a king should be and notice those forgotten or at least aim to see the image of Christ in the most vulnerable. 

What makes Christ the King Sunday so challenging is that is is counter-intuitive to how we live and function in this world. To claim kingship means that we are claiming power, riches, wisdom, strength, honor, even the power of intimidation. I mean, there’s something to be said about all of that. In all honesty, that sounds like part of what might even be called the American dream. Throw in money, property, and health, and you’ve got it made! We would really be living like kings (and queens). Yet we know that the same king we confess was Christ the Lord wasn’t like that at all. What a strange dichotomy. 

This text takes everything we know about what it means to say “Christ is king!” and turns it on its head. Because we know the end of the story: Christ will die, descend into hell, ascend into heaven, and take his place at God’s right hand, but first he must suffer terribly. Not very king-like. Kings don’t suffer. Kings don’t even let themselves been seen with the sniffles. Yet, at the same time, kings don’t associate with the poor. Kings don’t associate with the hungry, the hurting, the forgotten. Kings don’t associate with widows, prostitutes, or even children. But we have a king that not only associates with those people but gives them preferential treatment! 

It is one thing for us to say that Christ is King. But for us to confess it and believe it is completely different than saying it. Because if we’re honest, we say a lot of things we don’t believe. We practice half-truths a lot, sometimes without even thinking about it. “How do I look?” Answer “great.” Always. Not to say that isn’t the truth. But we know if we were honest, and I mean brutally honest, we might end up on the couch. Weekly, whether we know it or not, we confess and profess our faith in the creeds and in the confession that Christ is king. We confess that our faith is in the one that saw the marginalized and is in the marginalized. We confess that the powers of this world are nothing compared to the powers and principalities of God’s kingdom. We confess and believe that the greatest weapon anywhere isn’t water, it isn’t nuclear, it isn’t even money, it’s God’s love and we are told that nothing comes between us and that love. We confess that in a world that wants to constantly divide groups into us and them the kingdom is a place of “we.” When we’re really honest, we’re not playing it safe because Jesus didn’t play it safe. 

Jesus didn’t play it safe and it got him executed, hung. And we confess that this same “criminal” is our king, our Lord and savior. It’s not what this world expects. But it’s exactly what this world needs. Because the world needs someone that will rescue and save us from ourselves. We confess that Christ is king “not because we are weak, but because God is strong, and God is love. We have a confessional faith because the grace of God is sufficient for all. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. We have a confessional faith because God is our refuge and our strength” (Feasting on the Word, Westfield 336). We confess that Christ is king because we are not. 

As we start to prepare for the anticipated arrival of the Christ child, let us remember that when we sing “what child is this” the answer is the same king that would flip tables and heal lepers. When we sing about “the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head” that same sweet head bore a crown of thorns for being a threat to the government. And yes, Mary knew from the beginning the difference this king would make to the forgotten, the lowly, the outcast, and the troubled. She knew that he was then and would always be Emmanuel, God with us.