Sermon for 7/2/17 Amazing Grace

Today we start a month-long sermon series on the history and theological background for some of your favorite hymns and mine. I don’t think there’s a better place to start than Amazing Grace. After all, I’ve said more than once that I am the wretch that the song speaks of. I know for many of you, Amazing Grace ranks up there as one of your favorite hymns as well. It was published in 1779 and written by John Newton. And it was semi-autobiographical in nature so that might start to give you a taste of Newton’s life. His mother died when he was young of tuberculosis. His father worked as a shipping merchant so John’s upbringing was left to a stepmother and boarding schools. He joined his dad at age 11. As he aged, he was employed by several different ships often being asked to leave because of his insubordination and vulgar language. He literally cursed like a sailor.

He was on board the ship, the Greyhound, when a terrible storm struck. This was the start of John’s “come to Jesus” conversion. This wasn’t a simple rainstorm. This was a storm of epic proportions. I doubt Hollywood could even make this stuff up. The wind had taken the sails, ripped wood off the side of the boat, and thrown men overboard. John was responsible for manually working the pumps in the hopes of keeping the ship going. But, he did this for 11 days. Finally, he was just too tired to keep pumping, so he was tied to the helm of the ship and hoped to keep it afloat and on course. I would imagine that an experience like that gives one an opportunity to think about God. The story goes that he even begged for God to have mercy on him and the remaining men on the ship.

Upon landing safely, his conversion to Christianity started. He was comforted by Luke 11:13 “if you then, who are evil, know who to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Still, like so many of us, he began to question if he was even worthy of God’s love. But he slowly started to develop his faith and eventually became a pastor. He often would write a hymn to accompany his Sunday night lectures and sermons. It was in that context that he wrote Amazing Grace. He drew inspiration from King David in 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God; you have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come. You regard me as someone of high rank, O Lord God!” The other thing that is important to remember or know is that John Newton spent part of his time at sea as a slave merchant. Once he became a rector, he spoke out against slavery. One of his congregation members was a member of parliament and instrumental in abolishing slavery, thanks to being influenced by his pastor.

For Christians, for Lutherans, this hymn is more than just a hymn. This is a way of life. After all, one of the hallmarks of our theology is that we live by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8-9 says “for grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” We are saved by grace. We cannot be saved from ourselves by ourselves. If and when someone asks me “why do you need God?” or “why do you need Jesus?” And my answer is always “because I cannot save myself.” Luther said “knowledge of original sin is a necessity. For we cannot know the magnitude of Christ’s grace unless we first recognize our malady” (AP 117:33). This is why we always open our worship time together confessing our sins to God. It is only after we’re aware of our sins that we are ready to accept the grace that God has waiting for us.

So, what makes grace so amazing (other than the fact that it saves us from ourselves)? Once again, we turn to scripture. Romans 5:8-10 “but God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” Did you hear the good news in this scripture, my beloveds? “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Christ didn’t die for us once we got our stuff together, once we prayed so many times, once we gave so much money…instead, Christ died while we still were sinners.

God’s love changes us. That’s probably a given. I hope you hear me say something like that and you think “duh Pastor! Of course God’s love changes us!” But do you believe it? Sin has the tendency to make us blind. We are blind to God’s love, we are blind to God’s mercy, and we are blind to God’s grace. That’s what makes God’s grace so amazing; we can be completely blind, we can be completely unaware and yet God’s grace allows us to see. “Was blind but now I see” is more than just an afterthought. It is a statement and true testament to God’s goodness.

The verses all tell a story. The verses all speak to the ways that God’s grace infiltrates our lives on a minute by minute basis. However, the words we have today weren’t the original words that John Newton wrote. The fifth verse was a later addition. The two verses you may not be familiar with are these: “Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease; I shall possess, within the veil, a life of joy and peace.” And “the earth shall soon dissolve like snow, the sun forbear to shine, but God, who called me here below, will be forever mine.”

Grace teaches us to simultaneously fear God and yet somehow also relieves us from our fears. Grace has a way of showing us the truth of life, the messy stuff the ugly parts of our lives, and still says “but yet….” For me, that’s what grace is all about. It’s as if God is saying to me and to all of us “but yet…” But yet, God still loves you. But yet, God still forgives you. But yet, God still provides for you. But yet, God still feeds you. But yet…and maybe that’s where the idea of grace upon grace comes from. It is more than we ever need and certainly more than we ever deserve.

The last few weeks I’ve talked about being a disciple and the difficulties that life entails. Newton’s words spoke to this as well: “through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” We’ve all been through a lot. We all have stories we could share. We all have instances in our lives that we could look back on and claim “I got through only by the grace of God.” We will continue to survive by grace through faith. We will continue to breath by grace. We will continue to live solely by grace. And, when the time comes, when our journey on this earth is complete, it is by God’s grace alone that we will be welcomed into heaven. It is by God’s grace alone that we will continue to know God’s love after death. And it is because of God’s grace alone that we will continue to praise God, even if we do it for 10,000 years or more.

Sermon for 4/23/16 John 20:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon for 3/26/17 John 9:1-41

Much like last week, I could preach on this text for a month straight and still not say everything I’d like to. It’s a great story that often gets misinterpreted. People have said this story is about spiritual blindness. People have used this as proof that our children are punished for their parents sins. But here’s the thing: this man didn’t ask to be healed. He didn’t cry out to Jesus in the hopes of regaining his sight. And the other thing is, he was born blind. And he wasn’t born blind just so God could make a point later and have Jesus give the man sight. This text is a great example of “why do bad things happen to good people.” That question is often called a “theodicy” question. Friends, we’ve been trying to answer questions like these since humanity first started walking the earth. And it’s not always “why do bad things happen to good people” it’s questions like “if God was really present in that school then why did that school shooting happen?” Or “if that person is such a faithful Christian, then why did they get cancer?” And as frustrating as it may make us, we just may not know the answer to some questions on this side of heaven.

But, what I do know for sure is that God continues to act and move in the midst of all of these bad things. And we, lucky and blessed as we are, continue to experience grace upon grace. There’s a lot of dialogue in this reading today so you may have missed a crucial sentence and statement. The blind man (whose name we never get) is being spoken about around verses 18-23 or so. We do this often, don’t we? We speak of and about those who are differently abled than us instead of directly to them. The Jews are speaking to his parents and asking them how their son can now see. And I love the parents answer “Ask him; he is of age.” And the Jews press on, calling to the man. First they give glory to God and say “we know that this man is a sinner.”

They said this because they believed that being blind was some kind of punishment for sin; either your own or your parents. And again, I love how this man answers. “I do not know whether he is a sinner” (and that wording is a bit strange since he is speaking of himself). “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And in that moment, this man, the man born blind from birth, gives those around him, most of whom were disbelieving that anything like this could even ever happen, a working definition of grace upon grace. For us, sometimes the way that God works has no explanation. And that is so frustrating, isn’t it? We are such black and white people. We want to know how things work. We want to know how the world operates. We want to know that up is up and down is down and that yes means yes and no means no. God laughs at our desires and instead gives us grace. And when we try and explain grace to someone else we often sound like the blind man. “Look. I dunno what happened. I was this but now I’m this.” I suffered for years and now I’m cured. I was hopeless and now I’m starting to see the world in color. I had just given up and then the phone rang. Whatever it may be. What happens between the “then” and “now” is grace upon grace and sometimes we just can’t explain it.

We don’t hear from Jesus in this reading from verse 7 all the way to verse 35. All the verses in between, everyone around this man was trying to figure out how he was able to see. They were trying to figure out how grace works. So, see! We’ve been doing this for centuries. Trying to figure out how grace works. We also try and figure out how grace affects us and those around us as a way of sizing one another up. “Did he or she get more grace than I did?” Or we get mad at grace. I’ve done that. More than once. I’m not proud. “I can’t believe that person was given grace! Doesn’t God know what kind of person that is??” Yes. And God knows what kind of person you are as well.

But see, grace isn’t measured. Grace isn’t based on anything we’ve done or not done. Grace isn’t earned. Grace certainly cannot be bought. Grace cannot be hoarded. Grace cannot be rejected (although we may try). We cannot stand in the way of grace. And we often cannot explain it. Grace is simply the presence of Jesus. And grace, in the most complicated way, is the presence of Jesus. Grace comes to us in ways that the world probably think are pretty normal: in water and in bread and wine. Grace doesn’t come to us with fireworks, big banners, or much to-do. But instead, it sneaks in and infiltrates our lives to the point that we know we’ve been changed, but we have no idea how. “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” And maybe that’s all the testimony we need for God’s grace.

Maybe the only thing we need to testify to as disciples is that we were blind but now we see. We were lonely but now we belong. We were lost but now we are found. Grace relieved our fears. Grace protects us. It serves as a compass, always pointing us to our true north: Jesus Christ. The only thing in this world that can give us life. Jesus and him crucified are the only thing that can save us. Our money can’t save us. Our looks can’t save us. Our business can’t save us. Even any good reputation that we’ve built for ourselves can’t save us. We certainly can’t save ourselves. Only God through Jesus Christ can save us. Grace is wakes us up yelling “sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14b). Because even though you may have a heartbeat. Even though you have a pulse. Even though you have blood flowing through your veins, can you really live without grace?

As hard as this is, part of being a Christian means being okay with saying “I don’t know how it happened, but I know it happened and I know it happened to me.” People will push you for answers. People will question you until they are blue in the face. But that’s okay. Some people don’t understand grace. I don’t understand grace. All I know is that I can’t live without it and that I would be blind without it.   

Sermon for 3/5/17 Matthew 4:1-11, Lent 1

One thing you may not hear me preach about very often is Satan. I’ve thought about this off and on all week and I am not sure why this is. Satan, for me, is known by many names. The devil, evil, temptation, sin, and darkness, among others. I don’t know if I am the only Lutheran to struggle with this or not. I firmly believe that Satan is a very real presence. I firmly believe in the concept of hell. It’s just not something you hear me speak of a lot. I think the reason for this is that I know that Satan longs to have me on his team. I have told you more than once that the person I preach to (first and foremost) is myself. Perhaps I just don’t want the reminder that Satan longs for me.

Today, Jesus comes face to face devil. Jesus is faced with three temptations: bread for his hunger, saving himself from danger, and lastly, all the power in the world. Jesus says no each time, of course. This is predictable Jesus. We know how Jesus is, we know how Jesus interacts with the world, so we know he is going to say no to these temptations. In fact, it would be surprising if he had any other answer besides “no.” It’d be like going to see Titanic and the boat doesn’t sink at the end.

What Satan is offering Jesus is basic: power. Jesus would have the power to turn stones into bread. Jesus would have the power to be protected (by angels, nonetheless). Jesus would have power to rule over all the nations. Power is a very intoxicating feeling. Power is what we all long for. Power is the thing we seem to all chase in one way or another. Now, it doesn’t always Satan coming to us and greeting us face to face. We don’t always get these one on one conversations with the devil and him laying out these offers of temptation. The temptation to give into the hunger for power comes in small and sneaky ways. Temptation usually comes to us in the moments we are least expecting it. Then the devil, dressed in sheep’s clothing, saunters in and dangles a carrot of power in front of our face.

See, power and temptation comes and goes. When we look at our friends and neighbors around us and desire what they have, that’s evil wanting to wiggle into our lives. We want to give into the temptation of power when we quickly engage in judgement of the other. We judge fellow parents for parenting decisions. We judge job choices, clothing choices, car choices, even food choices (you ever sneak a look in someone else’s cart?). This desire to have more power controls our lives whether we know it or not. Often we just want the power to control things in our own lives, fix things in our own lives, and make our own lives better. That hunger for power turns us blind to the world around us. The desire for power and the temptation that constantly surrounds it causes us to navel gaze.

When we are so focused on gaining power for ourselves, we lose sight of those around us that completely lack power and need us to use the power we already have to help them. The hungry need us to use our power to feed. People of color would be more than happy to see us leverage some of our white privilege. Our LGBT brothers and sisters would probably rather have us care about why the suicide rate is so high in their community versus what bathroom they use. We need to use our power to make sure healthcare is something everyone can access. No one should ever have to make the decision between eating and life-sustaining medication. But, advocating for healthcare can even come with the temptation to yield power in discriminatory efforts. We want to fundraise for the healthy mom with 4 kids who got breast cancer; but the life-long heroin user that now has AIDS? Forget it.

Temptation sneaks in sometimes when we least expect it. Small lies that don’t mean anything pepper our days. We excuse sexist and racist jokes. We allow our friends to complain about their children or spouse when they’re not around. Temptation lures us in various ways. Temptation and power are always there, calling our name, offering a “better life” (whatever that may look like for you). It is a very real temptation. Satan is a very real force in our lives. If you’ve ever done battle with Satan, you know that evil is very real. Maybe Satan has tempted you with infidelity. Maybe Satan has tempted you with stealing or cheating. Maybe Satan has even tempted you with death. Satan doesn’t always lurk in dark corners waiting until you have your guard down to strike. Satan is right next to us every single day just encouraging us to give into the temptation of power.

But, Satan screwed up when talking with Jesus. Now, of course Jesus didn’t give into temptation, he’s Jesus. But, one of the first things that Satan did was remind Jesus who he is and whose he is. The devil says to Jesus “if you are the Son of God….” (vv3). Just as a reminder/refresher, this time that Jesus spent in the wilderness comes right after he was baptized by John in the Jordan. And what happened? Upon his baptism, a voice from heaven came saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). Jesus has been called and claimed as God’s beloved son. Along comes the devil and says “if you are the son of God…” And ding ding ding! Jesus remembers who he is.

Friends, we are not Jesus. We all know that denying Satan isn’t as easy as it sounds. But, our identity as beloved children of God has already given us the power the devil tries to offer. And when we do cave (which we will) the freedom we have in and through the love of God will encourage us to face that darkness, name it, claim it, understand it, and then seek forgiveness for thinking anything or anyone but God can offer us life. This isn’t about guilt. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This is about acknowledging that the hunger for power and temptation is all around us. This is about acknowledging that Satan, the devil, and the power of evil is very real. But, this is also about naming and claiming who we are: beloved children of God. This is about using God’s love to deny Satan. This is about using our identity to deny Satan. This is about calling something what it is. That means when Satan offers us power through temptation, we call it evil. And when God showers us with grace and mercy, we call it life. Brothers and sisters, Satan comes for us every single day. And the good news is, so does God.

Sermon for 2/26/17 Matthew 17:1-9; Transfiguration

I think Transfiguration is one of the strangest things to occur in the church year. Truth be told, there are a lot of occasions we mark in the church year that cause Pastors a lot of grief because the question is always “do I have anything new to say about this??” This happens for me (personally) at Transfiguration, Christ the King Sunday, and even (on occasion) Easter and Christmas. What can be said about these texts that will be different? What can be said that will be challenging? What can be said that will encourage all of you to leave this place anxious to serve God and one another? So maybe instead of preaching on what Transfiguration actually is (which, I might do just a bit) I want to talk more about why it matters and why you should care.

This story can be confusing to talk about anyway. It takes place on top of a mountain, which is a big hint to us listeners. This is a mountaintop experience; a high moment, a peak, that “achieved goal” feeling. Peter believes it’s a nice enough place that they should stay for a while. God affirms who Jesus is: God’s son, the beloved. Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to not be afraid after God tells them to listen to Jesus. They head back down the mountain all while Jesus tells them “let’s keep this whole thing between us until after I die and am resurrected, okay?” So, I think it’s pretty clear why that story should matter to your own personal faith life, am I right?

Transfiguration marks the last Sunday before Lent. Of course, Jesus had no idea that thousands of years later that there would be such a thing as the liturgical calendar. And that we would call the upcoming season would be called Lent; that we would mark a 40 day journey to the cross. All Jesus knew is that his life was about to take a very different turn and that he would soon be arrested Transfiguration is one of the best examples of “already but not yet.” What this means is that for us (and for the disciples) we are seeing and hearing about who Jesus is (God has claimed him as God’s son and as the beloved all while Jesus is clothed in glowing white clothes) while also knowing that God’s glory isn’t yet complete through the cross. For Jesus and the disciples something is coming. Something that strikes fear into the hearts of all good Lutherans. Something that makes us uncomfortable and squeamish. That something is change.

As much as we joke about change and how much Lutherans hate change, it happens to all of us. Change can be a good thing, right? That doesn’t mean that change isn’t scary. But, it can usher us from one point in life that is just okay to another arena of life that is better than we ever imagined. Personally, I think about the change that went from being engaged to being married. I think about the change that came from being pregnant to having Ellen. I also have fond memories of the change that came with moving here to become your pastor. All of these events were scary in their own way, but the change was not only welcomed, it was eagerly anticipated. And as much as we sometimes want change, we have to be willing to let go, which means admitting that we’ve been holding on (and maybe, for some, holding on for too long).

Change is also a strange place to be emotionally. We often find ourselves in this weird place of grieving and anticipating all at the same time. The disciples had no idea what was to come (even though Jesus had told them several times by now). Jesus knew. And we know too. If you think about today as the physical movement of the time after Epiphany into Lent, the emotions that fill that space can be unsettling too. We may want to hold on to the comfort that light brings. We know the cross is coming and we know what the cross means for our lives, but that doesn’t mean we want to hurry the process of getting there.

While change may be welcomed, it can also be really painful. Often we know that change needs to happen. Change is going to happen. “A change is gonna come” (Sam Cooke).Change often comes in a moment when we’re not ready (even if we think we are). That’s where our faith steps in. We know that change is going to happen, that it is necessary, but change is still hard to accept. We know we have to move on, but we haven’t settled everything that is in our past. We know that something better could be coming, but we just got comfortable in the place we’re in. No matter how badly we want to stay in the now, change is coming and it is going to happen whether we like it or not.

Those moments on the mountaintop didn’t happen to teach the disciples about who Jesus is and was (although that did happen). Those moments on the mountaintop didn’t happen to inspire the disciples in their ongoing work (although that may have happened as well). But Jesus was transfigured, called and claimed once more, and signaled change. That mountaintop experience signaled that change was going to happen, that it might be difficult, but most importantly, it was needed. There is no need for the crucifixion if Jesus isn’t declared the son of God, right? Which means our salvation doesn’t happen without the transfiguration.

So now instead of understanding what the transfiguration is, maybe we should wrestle with the why. That mountaintop signals a change of Jesus being just a thorn in the side of the Roman empire to being a hunted man. The mountaintop signals going from just talking about capturing and killing Jesus to actual attempts. The mountaintop also signals a change in the disciples. We see Peter go from loyalty to outright denial. The other disciples change from learning to confusion. But throughout all of this change, who and what remains the same? Jesus. Always Jesus.

Jesus was the same person before he went up the mountain and he was the same person as he came down. Jesus didn’t change. Our perception and the disciples perception of Jesus changed. Jesus didn’t change. Jesus has been clear about who he is, what he does and will do, and how he will do it. The disciples just didn’t want to hear it; maybe we don’t either. No matter what happens in our lives, the one consistent constant is Jesus. When we rejoice in change, Jesus is there. When we lament at change, Jesus is there. When we are in a time of transition and change, Jesus is there.

We can tend to navel gaze. We look inward, worry only about ourselves, panic over the not yet, play millions of scenarios in our heads, and often forget a few things. God is already present wherever we’re going. God’s plan is always much better than anything we could ever plan. God through Jesus Christ is present with us not only in times of change but also each and every moment of every day. I’m not telling you not to worry. I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t fear change. I’m not telling you that change shouldn’t make you uncomfortable. I want to remind you that change is always done in the company of Jesus and initiated by God and accompanied by the Holy Spirit. We know who Jesus is, we know what Jesus does and can do, we know how Jesus changes the world. More importantly, we know who we are in Jesus: called and claimed. The cross has already changed us and continues to change us. In the midst of change always comes comfort, love, and reassurance that Jesus is always with us, has never abandoned us, and never will.

Sermon for 2/19/17 Matthew 5:38-48

The worst thing you can tell a perfectionist is to “be perfect.” Trust me, I speak from experience. I am a perfectionist. But, believe it or not, I actually have been working on letting go of some of my perfectionist tendencies. I have been working on a concept my therapist calls “good enough.” Maybe some of you have heard of this before? What that means is that I am trying to be happy with what most people would call perfect and allow myself a little bit of the grace I preach. I feel good about the progress I have been making. And then I read this scripture. Thanks, Jesus. As if being a disciple wasn’t challenging enough, now you want me to be perfect? Awesome! I didn’t think that God created me to have a complex, but perhaps I’m wrong. I don’t mind being a perfectionist. It drives me to work hard.

           This scripture picks up this week exactly where we left off last week. This is the last reading we will get from the Sermon on the Mount. Just as a reminder, Jesus is preaching to the disciples (and us) what I referred to as “discipleship 101.” We are learning what is expected of the disciples, what is expected of us, and ultimately, how to make new disciples. The ultimate goal that we’re working towards in Matthew’s Gospel is Matthew 28:19-20 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The end goal for Jesus isn’t resurrection. The end goal is to prepare the disciples and all of his followers to go to all the ends of the earth telling anyone that will listen through any means possible that they are loved and saved.

           Now, in case you haven’t really heard me the last few weeks, this discipleship stuff isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s not easy. But, being a disciple and living in the community of believers is what makes church different from the country club. Can you imagine belonging to a golf course and one of the rules was “for every game you win, someone else in your party must win also.” Being a disciple is counter-cultural. Being a disciple laughs in the face of the question “what’s in it for me?” Being a disciple leads to death. It’s leads to Jesus’ death on the cross, of course. But it also leads to our own death. In order for the message to be about God and God’s saving actions on the cross through Jesus Christ, we have to get out of the way.

If this wasn’t difficult enough, this week Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Not only love our enemies but pray for those who would persecute us. I don’t like this idea at all. I don’t want to love my enemies and I certainly don’t want to pray for those who are out to get me. But again, being a disciple isn’t easy. Now, it should be said that this scripture isn’t a blank check for our enemies or those who would wish to do us harm. In certain contexts, this scripture has been used to encourage people in abusive relationships to stay in those relationships. That’s not what Jesus meant. Loving someone doesn’t equate to universal tolerance.

See, the love that Jesus is talking about here is “agape” love; God-like love. The word “agape” in the Greek is used to describe the love of God to and for God’s people. This isn’t person to person love. Agape love is centered in the cross. God like love means loving someone enough to tell them the truth. And sometimes the truth is “hey you’re a jerk” or “that’s not acceptable here.” Agape love is love that supports the theology of the cross. This means calling something what it is. Death can be terrible. Suffering is unacceptable. People can be jerks. But, it also means loving one another enough to hold one another accountable and to call them to the carpet. Agape love always leads to the cross where everyone is on equal ground. The difficult part of agape love is that if we’re going to give it or at least point to it, we have to be willing to accept it for ourselves. This means that we live and act like God loves us but we are also open to accepting when people call us to the carpet.

Being a disciple isn’t a one time job. It isn’t something that we can do for a few hours a day (like paperwork) and call it good. This is a life time calling. With that in mind, the idea of being perfect can be overwhelming. But, the original Greek here could be translated as “be persistent.” I like that idea much better. God does not call us as disciples to be perfect, but to be persistent. To persist in working towards ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth. The idea of persistence is to not give up. It’s also something we should work on every day. Being a disciple also takes practice and so we persist in that as well. Being persistent is to live as an example to those around us that God is still working on us too. “Because God persists, we persist” (Mary Brown via Karoline Lewis).

See, we serve a God that is nothing if not persistent. God doesn’t give up on us. God keeps working on us. God keeps molding us, shaping us, feeding us, and providing for us. We don’t mess up once and God crosses us of the “things to worry about list.” No, God is persistent. We have a God of second, third, fourth, infinity chances. God is persistent. I’ve often joked that God is the hide and seek master. We can try and hide from God for whatever reason, but God will find us. And when God finds us, it’s not to punish us, shame us, or make us suffer for whatever shortcomings we’ve had. God finds us because God is persistent and longs to love us. Again, that doesn’t mean we get a blank check to do whatever we like because God will love us. Because God is persistent, God is always working on us.

Now, more than ever, the world is hungry for words of love, mercy, and forgiveness. At the same time, people are afraid to listen for God or listen to God. They are afraid of judgement and wrath. But, God does and will speak through disciples. God speaks through us and to us. We are created to be in community and we are created to care for one another, even when the other is our enemy. God continues to be “Immanuel, God with us.” What difference might it make for you to be the one to tell someone “God doesn’t give up on you because God is persistent”? What difference does it make for you to hear that God hasn’t given up on you because God is persistent. God isn’t done with you yet. God did not create you, wash you, and redeem you only to forget you. God doesn’t feed you only to leave you hungry for more. God didn’t hang on a cross and bleed so that you would question if you are loved. God doesn’t and hasn’t given up on you, brothers and sisters, because God is persistent. And because God is persistent, so we shall be also.

 

Sermon for 2/12/17 Matthew 5:21-37

Is today one of those days you’re really glad you came to church? You’re in your peaceful place. You’re surrounded by familiar faces. You sing the familiar music. And then you hear the reading from Matthew today and I don’t blame you for thinking “wow! I don’t know how glad I am that I am at church today.” It’s too late to escape now. Readings like this can make us squirm. We (okay, maybe I) don’t always like to hear the gospel readings and Jesus’ thoughts on such topics as murder, conflict, adultery, and divorce. We don’t often like hearing about the things of which we have first-hand knowledge. I’m not saying any of you are murderers, of course. But I am guessing all of you know someone who is divorced (maybe as a result of adultery), and all of us have gone through conflict at least once. These are uncomfortable topics. Why does Jesus even bring this stuff up?

We need a bit of a clearer picture of what is going on here. Let’s refresh our memories as to the setting and surroundings of today’s Gospel reading. This is a continuation of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. He is still trying to teach his disciples what it means to follow him. This means they needed to start thinking about what it means for them personally to be a disciple, but also what it means for other people to be disciples as well, and ultimately, what it looks like to be disciples while also being in community. The disciples must have been overwhelmed by everything Jesus was telling them. If you’ve ever been in day one orientation for a new job, I have to wonder if the disciples had that same feeling.

And Jesus isn’t playing around. He brings out what we may often think of as the “heavy hitter” sins. Murder, adultery, divorce, and taking oaths (which is a strange one to bring up with the others). Jesus uses a lot of repetition in this reading. We hear him say “you have heard that it was said….” and then he goes on to talk about a commandment and he says “but I say to you…” Jesus knew that this was no longer going to be a community where everyone thought alike. Not everyone was going to be Jewish. There would be Roman soldiers and gentiles as well. The disciples are starting to get a fuller picture that they will not be disciples by themselves. They are going to be disciples with others in community.

It’s also good for us to remember that the Bible is a living, breathing document. The things we read today are just as relevant for us as they were for those first disciples. Additionally, it’s good for us to remember that God created us to live in community and to be in relationship with one another. And, as strange as it may sound, being in community, living with and for one another as disciples is a little counter cultural to the American way. We have phrases like “look out for number one” or “I’m gonna do what is best for me.” Even in religious circles you may have heard phrases like “I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior” and other language like that. But let us not forget that God has proclaimed to be Immanuel: God with us, not God with me. And what this means is that when you are a disciple (as we all are) we are responsible to one another and for one another.

When was the last time you did something and before you did it you thought “I wonder how this might reflect on my fellow disciples at Elvira Zion?” That thought doesn’t usually enter our mind. At the same time, how often might we have let one representative of a group or organization make up our minds about the entire group? (For example, having a bad experience with one wait person and so you no longer even go to that restaurant.) The face, personality, and actions you choose to show to the world can speak very loudly about who you are. But, it also speaks to the people you keep company with and are affiliated with. What that means is that everything you are, everything you do, everything you don’t do is not only a direct reflection of you, it is a direct reflection on each and every person that sits around you each Sunday. Now, if that doesn’t make you feel the weight of being a disciple, I don’t know what will.

See, God’s law (as it is spoken about in these verses) is a good thing. The law is meant to help us with our boundaries, and ultimately, help us to live a fuller life; the life God has intended for us. So, the commandment says “do not murder” but Jesus says (paraphrasing) “hey! Before it even gets to that point, don’t even have an argument with one another. And if you do, be reconciled to one another before coming to the altar.” This is why we pass the peace. We are making peace with one another before coming before God and receiving the body and blood of forgiveness. The commandment said “do not commit adultery” and Jesus says (again, paraphrasing) “don’t commit adultery, sure. But don’t even look at a woman with lust.” And why? Because living in community means valuing every member of the community. This means we look at one another as whole human beings, and not just sexual conquests. The commandment says “if you get a divorce, you need a certificate of divorce” but Jesus says (paraphrasing yet again) “stop using the law as an excuse to divorce.” And what is really at the heart of this is caring for the least around us. In Jesus’ time, women who were divorced were seen as less desirable. Men could ask for a divorce for any reason they wanted. But, many times, divorce came when a woman was barren and could not provide for a male heir. In Jesus’ time if you were a barren divorced woman, your fate wasn’t good.

What does all of this mean then for those of us who are now currently disciples (that’s all of us, by the way)? Well, the good news, first of all, is that we’re not alone in this. Being a disciple is something that is done in community with others. We can never accomplish ushering in God’s kingdom in the here and now on our own. We need help from one another to lift one another up, encourage one another, and to work with one another. And we’re going to receive a lot of pushback because society has taught us for the longest time that the only person we should watch out for is ourselves. But that isn’t what God had intended for us. Jesus is revisiting these laws as a reminder to all of us to watch out for and care for those on the margins. God’s ultimate command for all of us (besides having no other gods) is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We cannot love our neighbor if we’re only concerned about ourselves.

I know this is hard, friends. On the surface to call ourselves “disciples” seems easy, almost a badge of pride and honor. But, when we start to look at what it actually means for our lives, we realize how difficult it can be. Being a disciple means being aware of what our individual actions say about our corporate community. Being a disciple means that we are aware of, advocate for, and care about those on the margins that are often forgotten by this individualistic society. Being a disciple means being on the side of justice and mercy when those working against us are crying for the hard arm of the law. But, again, we are not alone. We have another another, fellow disciples, to help us in this journey. And we have God; who again, is Immanuel, God with us.