Sermon for 5/6/18 John 15:9-17

Very rarely do we receive anything without a catch or strings attached. Sometimes we receive things with strings attached we didn’t even want (“call now and receive a second set of knives absolutely free!”) But there are very few things in life that come without any expectations at all. If you have a child or have children in your life and they are on a kick of being extra nice or sweet, what is our first reaction? “What do you want?” If you’ve ever been in love or if you recall that time when you were falling in love, there might have been an anxiety surrounding actually saying “I love you.” The anxiety of saying it was bad; the uncertainty of having it said in return was almost worse! The expectation is that if you say “I love you” that someone else will say “I love you too.” When you’re newly in love, that’s a challenging barrier to cross. It’s unfortunate that sometimes when we hear someone say “I love you” that we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. As in “I love you… can you loan me $20.” Or “I love you…please let me drive.”

So maybe it is because of that, we have a difficult time with the idea of abiding in Christ’s love. Perhaps we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. Maybe we’re waiting for the catch. We may even resist abiding in Christ’s love because we honestly don’t have anything to give in return. But isn’t that how our relationship with Christ sometimes works? Maybe you’ve never thought of it that way. But it may just be possible that Christ gives us what we need when we need it. All things on God’s time. So when we are invited to abide in Christ, it is most likely because that is exactly what we need.

I’ve talked about the use of “abide” before and what that may mean. But, it essentially means that we are to live or to dwell. Christ invites us to live in his love; to dwell in his love. If we think about this from a practical standpoint, what does living in something usually mean? It means we have safety, security, comfort, peace, and stability. When Christ invites us to abide in his love, we are being offered safety, security, comfort, peace, and stability. The expectation is that we do it. That’s it. We aren’t ask to make a donation. We aren’t ask to only stay for a few minutes. We aren’t asked to convert (x) number of people so that Christ has more people to love. Sometimes, as cruel and strange as this sounds, it really is about us as individuals.

While it is important to be the community of Christ together, it is equally as important to know that you, as an individual, is loved by Christ. Sometimes we need that reminder. We need that safety and security that can only be offered by dwelling and abiding in Christ. We need that reminder that nothing can come between us and the love that Christ has to offer. I preach a lot about being a disciple and what that looks like. It is so important that we follow where Christ has to lead us. It is crucial that for the sake of God’s kingdom we do what we can to spread the word of God to others. Our own faith grows when we share it with others. At the same time, being a disciple is hard, thankless work. We need a soft place to land. What better place is there than in the safety and security of Christ’s love?

We may forget that God is a parent like figure. If you didn’t have a good relationship with your parent or parents, maybe thinking of God like a parent isn’t comforting. Or maybe God serves as the parent you wish you had. But, when I think about what it may mean to abide in the love of Christ, I think about the relationship with a parent. I think about that comfort. I also don’t care how old you are, sometimes you just need the comfort of your mom or dad. If that image doesn’t work for you, maybe imagine how a mother bird gathers her babies under her wings to protect them. Abiding in Christ brings us comfort that nothing Earthly can compare. It is the comfort of knowing you can be you. You don’t have to be someone or something you aren’t. You can let your guard down and be who Christ truly created you to be. Which means that you are going to allow yourself to be loved without feeling guilty about it.

Our human brains have an issue processing grace. We may understand it on a scientific or even theological level. We understand how grace works. We may know (as the good Lutherans we are) that we are saved by grace alone. We are not saved by our works or deeds. We may understand amazing grace or we may be the wretch the song speaks of. But when the rubber hits the road, the biggest thing stopping us from abiding in Christ is ourselves. We don’t think we are worthy of such things. We don’t think we deserve it. And you know what? We aren’t worthy and we don’t deserve it. And that is what makes the love of Christ different from the love we can receive from one another. Christ’s love doesn’t come with a catch. Christ’s love doesn’t come with strings. Christ’s love has no expectations other than we just receive it. This love is so powerful and strong that we may want to fight it, but Christ will win.

We are able to do a lot of things of our own power. We can recharge our batteries with a good night’s rest. We can answer the call of hunger with a great meal. Our thirst can be quenched in a number of ways. We can soothe a lonely spirit with friends or family. But there is nothing that can fulfill our body and spirit’s need of Christ’s love other than abiding in Christ himself. There is no amount of rest, food, liquid or social gatherings that can fill the space that is meant for Christ. We were created by God. So yes, sometimes we just need to return to our creator to be fed and loved. What does that look like from a practical sense?

In order to abide and dwell in Christ and the love Christ has for us there may be a few things worth doing. First, get yourself in the mental head space to fully accept the love of Christ. Maybe you need quiet or even silence. Turn off the phone, television, or whatever. Maybe you enter into a time of prayer. Then, just be. Ask God to fill you with the love of Christ. That’s it. There’s no catch. Maybe prayer time for you is time in the boat, or on a jog, or in the planter, or whatever. Just opening yourself up to receive the love of Christ makes you more aware that it’s been there all along. Don’t fight it. It is all too easy for us to fight Christ’s love because we don’t think we’re worthy or deserving. But it’s easier if we don’t fight it. Lastly, take a posture of thankfulness. Listen to your souls and your spirits, my beloved. Christ may just be calling you to take a break. You cannot save the world. You may not even be able to save yourself. You cannot fill others from a dry well. Come, abide in Christ. Dwell there for a while. Rest and be fed.

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Sermon for 4/1/18 Easter Sunday 2018; Mark 16:1-8

Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!) Did you notice what was missing from our reading today? On today, of all days, when we anticipate seeing the resurrected Jesus, he is nowhere to be found. The tomb is empty. He’s not here because Christ is risen (he is risen indeed, alleluia!) And the women, who throughout the entire Gospel of Mark have been told “don’t tell anyone what they’ve just seen” now are told to go tell everyone what they’ve just seen and they do what? The exact opposite. And then, Mark ends. Just like that. What a weird, jolting, almost uncomfortable ending. Now, we know that eventually the women must have gotten over their fear because, well, we’re here. So, the story of Jesus and the empty tomb must have made its way eventually. Ironic that we come to this place, on this day, to experience Jesus and he does not show himself. Nice April Fools joke, Jesus.

As the women were on their way to the tomb, their biggest worry was who was going to roll away the stone. Despite hearing that Jesus would rise again, they were prepared to continue with their mourning. They were going to anoint the body of Jesus as was custom. But, foolish love greeted them as the stone was already rolled away. And just in case there was any question about what was going on, the man in white confirmed that “he has been raised.” And sure, we can shake our heads at the women’s reactions. But, really, what would you have done? Shock is a perfectly acceptable response to finding out that someone you believed to have been dead has been risen.

This may sound silly to say as this is a story we’ve been hearing for 2000-plus years. But, the resurrection wasn’t the end of the story. Yes, it’s okay to be in shock but just like the women, we cannot stay at the empty tomb. The empty tomb is exactly that, empty. The empty tomb is like this invitation that Jesus leaves us to journey further. In fact, the man that appears in our story today tells the women and us “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” We can’t stand at the empty tomb and gawk because we’ve got work to do. The resurrection wasn’t the end of the story.

We don’t cry out “the tomb was empty” we instead declare that alleluia! Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed, alleluia). Then, with that declaration, we must figure out what that even means for us and the way we engage with the world. Seeing the empty tomb and everything is great today, but what in the world does the resurrection even mean tomorrow, or Thursday, or next week, next month, or even 10 years from now? The man at the tomb didn’t just verify that Jesus was resurrected, but pointed the way to what was next. This whole time Jesus has been preparing us for what it means to be his disciples. And now, all of the preparation, all of the lessons, all of the parables, and he’s back in Galilee. This can only mean one thing: it’s time. It is time for us to move from death into life and declare that the resurrection is real and that death doesn’t have the final word.

It’s time for us to show extravagant, foolish love to the world following the example of Jesus. Jesus is waiting for the women, for Peter, and for us in Galilee. We’ve still got work to do. People didn’t stop being sick because of the crucifixion. People didn’t stop being hungry because Jesus was laid in a tomb. People didn’t stop desiring love just because the stone was rolled away. The resurrection was great. It’s not the end of our story. Part of our call as disciples is to understand and live out what it means in a practical way to declare that alleluia Christ is risen. Why does that even matter? Core to our Christian identity is the belief in the resurrection. But the resurrection wasn’t a one time deal. And it certainly wasn’t the end of the story.

See, the resurrection doesn’t mean anything if we don’t believe it and live like it makes a difference in our daily lives. Resurrection means the promise of new life. And if you believe in a new life, in new chances, and in new opportunities for yourself but not for those around you then do you really believe in the resurrection? Because when we declare “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” (he is risen indeed) we don’t ever add the caveat of “for everyone except you.” In the resurrection, God is making all things new. And this is amazing and life giving news! Because as long as we believe that the resurrection makes a difference and isn’t the end of our story then that means we all get a second chance. We all get a third chance. We all get a fourth chance. And on and on. Ya’ll hearing me out there?

The resurrection also insures that what passed for justice before Jesus’ death will stand no more. The powerful will be humbled. The poor will be made rich and the rich will finally come face to face with the reality that money is not their god. The hungry will be fed. The forgotten will be treated like royalty. The marginalized will be brought into communities and welcomed with open arms. The resurrection turns our world upside down; as well it should. Because as long as we know that Jesus is a man of his word, then we know we have nothing to fear. Not even death. And because we know that the resurrection isn’t the end of our stories, we have absolute and total freedom to operate in this world as the disciples he’s trained us to be.

Might we fail or mess up? Sure! We’re human. But, we’re also still learning every day. We will be humbled by our failures and rely on grace to pick us back up and keep going. We are not disciples because it makes us popular. We are disciples because we can’t help ourselves. That is what Christ has called us to do. We are disciples because we don’t worship an empty tomb, we worship the risen Lord. We are disciples because 2000 years later the world still needs to hear this story because love is in short supply. We are disciples because we have been challenged and changed by this resurrection. We may be like the women, scared and wanting to hide. But Christ is waiting for us. In Galilee. In Clinton. In DeWitt. In Goose Lake. In the areas we travel. In the world. And on this day, we cannot just stand at the empty tomb and wait. Christ has called us back into service in the world. The world needs to hear that Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!)

Sermon for 2/4/18 Mark 1:29-39

Many of you may recall that in my first year or so here, I had a few hospital stays. I was quite sick. Thanks to a super-bug that will not die, I caught something called “clostridium difficile” also known as c-diff. It is basically an overabundance of bad bacteria in your gut and colon. I will spare you all the symptoms, but if someone who is older or who already has a weakened immune system catches c-diff, they could die. It is very common after antibiotic use and among those who have been hospitalized or in a long term care facility. My best guess is that I caught it by doing nursing home and hospital visits. It can live on elevator buttons, bed rails, door knobs, and on and on. And the awesome (sarcastic) news is that plain old hand sanitizer does not kill it. So, I got c-diff not once, not twice, but three times within an 18 month period. And it was awful.

I had an appointment with a specialist in Iowa City (a GI) to see about an operation that could maybe get rid of it. It’s a transplant of sorts. Although again, I will spare you the details. The doctor looked at me, looked at my chart and said “you’re not a good candidate for this.” And I immediately broke down crying. If I wasn’t a good candidate, who was? The other awful thing about c-diff is that immediately I was made to feel like a leper. People coming to visit me had to wear a gown, gloves, and a mask. The nurse had a disposable stethoscope that was kept in my room for only use on me; same with a blood pressure cuff. I was also made to feel incredibly dirty. I got asked multiple times if I washed my hands after using the restroom and on and on. I desperately wanted healing.

When I finally did get better, all I wanted to do was make sure no one else would have to go through what I went through. In many ways, I became a c-diff evangelist. Maybe you can relate to this, but with healing comes power. If you have been healed from anything: the flu, a broken bone, no signs of cancer, and on and on, you know the power that can come from healing. You know the power that can come with feeling like you have your life back. And if you have experienced this kind of healing, you also know that you may see life a little differently.

I think that is what happened with Simon’s mother-in-law. There are so many jokes that a  reader might be tempted to make with this. There are mother-in-law or father-in-law jokes and/or horror stories. On top of that, we are told that upon being healed, Simon’s mother-in-law began to serve Jesus and all of the disciples that were present. Ha-ha. How funny, a woman started serving all the men. Ha-ha. Yeah…nope. Her serving them had nothing to do with her status in life or her gender. Although we are not told so explicitly, it is very likely that Simon’s mother-in-law was widowed. So she is a single woman who, up until now, had been very sick. She had been, according to Jewish law and customs, most likely unclean. Simon’s mother-in-law serving those around her is not the present day equivalent of “get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich, woman.”  Simon’s mother-in-law does not serve because she has to. She serves because the love of God that she has experienced through her healing is too much to keep to herself. She serves because this is what it looks like to be a disciple. Simon’s mother-in-law is a beautiful example of what it looks like to follow Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t heal people just to heal them. It’s not like he’s a traveling magician going from town to town leaving healed people in his midst with no reaction. No. The Gospel of Mark starts with this phrase “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And it ends with Jesus sending out all of his disciples to share the good news. And the good news is that the Kingdom of God is here. It’s not some far off idea. It’s not some concept that will happen “someday.” The Kingdom of God is in the here and now. And we, my beloved, we all have a roll in the Kingdom of God. Simon’s mother-in-law didn’t get up and serve as a way of thanking Jesus. We know better than that. Jesus heals people that have no way of paying him. Jesus walks with people who will only go so far. Jesus paid the price without any expectation of being paid back. Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law as yet more proof that the Kingdom of God is in the here and now and. And her response looks a lot like what Jesus himself does: she serves just as he did.

When you have been a recipient of God’s healing or God’s grace, it’s hard not to want to serve others, or at least tell others what you have experienced. And before you tell me “oh Pastor, I don’t know. I haven’t had that kind of healing or that kind of grace” I am going to tell you to stop right there. Because you have experienced it. Maybe you didn’t know you experienced it, but you did. You experience it all the time when you come to this table, arms outstretched, hands hungering to be filled. You experience it when you either are baptized or remember your own baptism. We get to see God’s grace in action when water and the Holy Spirit come together. And how can we not leave this place and serve others and tell them the good news.

“Disciple” isn’t just a term for 12 guys who served Jesus. We are all disciples. Part of being part of the body of Christ is being a disciple. Our call is to look for stories of the resurrection in everyday living. I don’t mean actual resurrection from the dead, but stories of people getting another chance at life. And then, THEN, when we do hear those stories or experience those stories, we tell others about it as proof of the continuation of the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Is it easy? Not always. We don’t like people’s judgement that comes with proclaiming our discipleship title with pride. We may get nervous we don’t have the right words. We may wonder if what we really saw was a resurrection story or just dumb luck. But none of that mattered to Simon’s mother-in-law and it shouldn’t matter to us. She was healed and she started serving.

We have been healed. And so we start serving. We serve by caring for one another, by caring for the least of these around us, by caring for our world, and what is going on around us. And there are some, I know, who long for healing. Who have been begging God to be healed and nothing comes of it. Christ still heals in death, y’all. And then the promise of the resurrection becomes real for those who have died. In our baptisms and in this meal, we have been healed, if only a little bit. The Kingdom of God is in the here and now and God needs disciples. We have been healed and now it’s our turn to start serving or continue serving. The good news isn’t spread by itself, my beloved. God is calling us and has created us to serve. We live in a hurting and broken world. Now that we have been healed, it is on us to serve as Christ did. It is on us to declare hope for all. It is on us to start serving our neighbor, our friends, and everyone in need. The Kingdom of God is here and now and God’s grace is flowing through us and out of us. We’ve got plenty to share, so let’s get started.

Sermon for 10/1/17 Matthew 21:23-32

I have found that when times are difficult either globally or nationally, there seems to be an uptick in evangelism. It’s not always the most healthy evangelism, but evangelism nonetheless. This usually presents itself in the form of well meaning pictures of flags waving, bald eagles flying, kids with their hands over their hearts, and other types of photo stock images with the words “bring Jesus back into our schools” or “make Christ the cornerstone of your lives.” It can also be presented by well meaning (or maybe not so well meaning) well known evangelical pastors being interviewed on television (they never interview pastors like me) saying things like “now is the time for people to let Jesus into their hearts” and other such things. Part of me agrees. I wonder how this country and world would look if we actually took to heart the things that Jesus spoke about, taught about, and preached about. But, part of me disagrees. We humans are so full of ourselves to think we even have the slightest bit of power that would be able to keep Jesus out of any place.

Today’s reading in Matthew asks some questions directly of Jesus. The authorities are, as usual, trying to set up Jesus to fail. They are already trying to catch him in the act, so to speak, so that they can start to build the case against him. These questions they are asking is what ultimately leads to his crucifixion. And this little game of cat and mouse goes on and on for chapters upon chapters in all of our gospel stories. Jesus always gives the authority just enough to confuse them and just enough to encourage them to come back and ask more questions. So the questions asked of Jesus in today’s readings are “by what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” And really what the chief priests and elders are asking is “Jesus, who are you?” and “by what authority do you preach, teach, and lead?” I want to argue that when the elders and chief priests ask these questions, what they are also asking (its implied) is “so what does that mean for me?”

As Christians, we often claim Jesus when Jesus looks, thinks, speaks, or acts like us. We are comfortable when the messiah does things or says things that can benefit us and/or the people we love. Yet too often we mess this up and get this wrong. We like to decide who is in and who is out and when we start to draw lines in the sand, we often place ourselves on the side of the persecuted instead of the one doing the persecution. Author Anne Lamott says “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” The questions of “who are you” and “by what authority” weren’t just questions that the chief priests and elders asked, they are questions we still should be asking of Jesus and ourselves today.

And as we ask those questions, it naturally leads to another question (or, at least it does in my opinion) of “why does that matter?” When we speak of who Jesus is for us and why we believe what we believe, the question that seems to get us stuck is that “why does it matter?” When we proclaim that Jesus is Lord, what does that mean for us and our lives? For me, to proclaim that Jesus is Lord means trusting in God completely and totally and if I am going to be honest, that is really frightening. If we are going to proclaim that Jesus is Lord then that means nothing else, absolutely nothing else, can serve in that capacity. This means that power, money, time, status, nothing else is Lord. But, oh how often do we make those things our lord. How often do we bow to the pressures of money, power, time, status, and what not? How often are we pledging our allegiance to the things that during Jesus’ time would be considered the empire?

When was the last time you thought about what Jesus means for you? And I don’t mean that in a hypothetical, passing thought kind of way. I mean when you think about the role that Jesus plays in your life, how does that shape every single thing in your life? And are you projecting your own expectations onto Jesus, or are you gladly taking on Jesus’ expectations of you? Those are two very different questions, my beloved. Why or how is your life different because of Jesus? Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace. That grace is a gift and it changes our lives. Yet we do everything in our power to deny that because we don’t think we’re worthy of God’s grace or love. Maybe we are scared to think about who we are and what it means for us to declare that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace.

So maybe what you need to hear today is this, my beloved. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that nothing and no one has ever or will ever be forgotten. This includes you. If you feel abandoned, forgotten, lonely, forsaken, that is simply evil trying its best to whisper unworthiness in your ear. Because God’s grace doesn’t forget anyone. To declare that Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that love is a lavish commodity that never runs out. This means that you can be, will be, and are a recipient of God’s obnoxious love. It doesn’t matter how you feel about yourself, or what society tells you that you should feel about yourself, God loves you, all of you, more than you can ever know. Jesus showed us that love by emptying himself on the cross. When the empire wanted Jesus to prove who he was, he did exactly that by loving the world with no exceptions.

Maybe what you need to hear today, my friends, is that declaring Jesus is Lord and that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s grace means that your suffering has not gone unnoticed. Your times of hardship have not been spent alone. Your darkness has not been without a small amount of light from Christ. Your tears have been counted. Your sleepless nights have been tallied. When it feels like the world has given up on you, Jesus is still there, right by your side, because there is no place that is too dark or too desolate for God.

When we are clear about who Jesus is for us, we can also be clear about who Jesus is for the world. Because if we declare that Jesus is Lord of all, we must mean all. If we declare that Jesus is love, we must mean that all are loved. If we declare that Jesus is forgiveness incarnate, then that forgiveness is for all people. And that kind of love and forgiveness is messy and it isn’t easy and thank God, it’s not up to us. In a time when governments show authority with money, military power, and, God forbid, nuclear power, it is strange and even counter-cultural to proclaim that we love and serve a God whose power comes in the form of a cross. We love and serve a God who instead of stockpiling love and forgiveness, passes it out like candy at a parade. We love and serve a God whose power comes from death and resurrection. So sure, we always need more Jesus in this world. But we need Jesus that denied the empire, not bowed down to it. We need the Jesus that shows preferential treatment to the poor, not the Jesus we’ve created in our minds that favors the rich. We need the Jesus who opens the doors of heaven to tax collectors and prostitutes first before any of us self-proclaimed self-righteous are allowed to enter. Most importantly, we need the Jesus with love for everyone; a love that is wholly unfair and yet, a holy relief.

Sermon for 9/17/17 John 10:22-30

**nb: This was the 125th anniversary of the congregation I pastor**

A lot of you have noticed that I like to keep my fingernails long. I have had long nails for as long as I can remember. One of the things I do to spoil and treat myself is regular manicures. I recently changed the method of manicure and that has caused a lot of my nails to break. Meh. They’ll grow back. But, it wasn’t until I broke one all the way down to the quick did I realize how much I use my hands on a daily basis. I type, hold Ellen’s hand, pet Sasha, unload the dishwasher, open the mail, hold Chris’ hand…the list could go on and on. Then I thought about what some of you might do with your hands on a daily basis: rock babies, help an elderly parent take their medication, feed your animals, drive a load to ADM, quilt, bake, comfort others, and that list could go on and on as well.

And then I thought about what hands have done in this place through God’s people over the last 125 years. There was the literal moving of this church from over by the cemetery to where we sit now. Then the digging to build the narthex was done by so many of your ancestors. Renovations were done by people with the last names of Petersen and Mommsen to name a few. Many of you have brought your babies to this font to be baptized and held in the hands of pastors who now are part of our communion of saints. So many of you have shaken hands as you greet people gathered for your family confirmation, wedding, or funeral. And of course, so many of your hands helped to renovate the house I am proud to call our home. It’s really amazing to think about how the people of God, acting as God’s hands and feet in this world, have made a difference just in this place.

This passage from John is often used on what is known as “good shepherd” Sunday. This comes from the quote from Jesus in 10:27 “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I love that idea. It’s comforting to me, and to you, I hope, to think of Jesus as a shepherd. Jesus, the one who guides us, shelters us, and takes care of us. But, what really inspired my thinking this week was the sentence that followed. “I will give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Part of me wants to say “do you hear the good news in this? Okay great. Sermon over. Amen…” But I won’t.

Over the last 125 years one thing has remained the same: we have always been in God’s grip. God has a hold of us so very tightly and nothing has ever or will ever change that. It has been God’s hand all along hold us, nudging us, maybe even pushing us towards God’s will for us. God’s hands have been in and among us all along. Through times of great joy and in times of great sorrow, God has had us in the palm of God’s hand. Nothing has ever gotten in the way of that. And if you’ve been around these parts long enough, or have had family members that have been here for a while, you might be able to recall a time when you can say clearly and without a doubt “God’s hands were all over that!” And maybe, yes, there are times when you can recall wondering if God had a clue what was happening in this place.

Perhaps part of the good news for us is that feeling God and being held by God is never on us. What I mean is that God holds on to us, not the other way around. It is never us holding onto God. So, often I picture God holding my hand like a tender parent would but other times, I picture God picking me up by the back of my neck like a disobedient kitten. Even in the times of our disbelief, God still has a hold of us. During the times when we wonder if God is even listening, I think that is when God tightens the grip. And when Jesus says that no one will snatch us out of God’s hand what that really means is that not one person and not one thing can ever take us away from God.

Evil forces have a way of finding us, don’t they. Sometimes we call these evil forces “good intentions” and sometimes they are more appropriately called “sin.” We may not trust that God has a hold of us. We intervene in our human ways that ultimately lead to human error. We may think that we know better than God so even though God is pointing us one way, we look and say “this way seems easier, better, or way more fun!” And we stray. God offers us life and protection and love but instead we turn to power, money, and self interests to comfort us. All of those things ultimately let us down. But no matter what, nothing removes us from God’s hand, not even death. Not an actual death or a metaphorical death can remove us from God’s hand. And remember, from death comes a resurrection and new life and whose hand do you think is doing all of that?

There was a time when every Sunday School room in this church was filled with children and there were months when keeping the lights on was in question. God has been with us every single step of the way. It is only by the grace of God that we have been a cornerstone of this community for 125 years and only by the grace of God that we will continue to do ministry in this area for another 125. What has been the same since the doors of this church opened will continue to be the same until Christ comes again: we gather as the people of God, to hear the Word of God, to feast on the body and blood of God, and then we are sent out to be and show Christ to other people in a hurting world. Nothing has changed that and nothing will. What is comforting about church is that some things never change. What is maddening about church is that some things never change. But through it all, God’s hands have been in, among, and around all of us. What gives me hope and joy this day, my beloved, is that God will continue to move in this place. Long after you and I are gone. Long after stories of us are gone. God’s hands will be guiding this place and God’s people to usher in God’s kingdom to this world.

Sermon for 8/27/17 Matthew 16:13-20

I believe I have spoken of my time as a hospital chaplain during the summer of 2008 quite often. I spent the summer at Heartland Hospital in Saint Joseph, Missouri. I was born in St. Joe and the site, while far from Dubuque, was close to my parents. Serving a stint of clinical pastoral education, or CPE is a requirement of the ELCA. The summer is spent more focusing on the chaplain and leader to be than the actual patient. And paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. When the paperwork is done, then you verbally process in the group and usually, at least once, someone will say “and how do you feel about that?” Part of our assignment was to record ourselves preaching in a local context. I was blessed to have the opportunity to do some pulpit supply at a cute Presbyterian church in Oregon, Missouri.

The day came to watch my video and be critiqued by my colleagues. I spent the summer serving with another ELCA Lutheran, Rich; a Methodist woman, Denise; and the craziest Mennonite I’d ever met, Bob. Sitting in that day wasn’t my supervisor, Jackie, but instead the head of the spiritual care department, Sally. Sally was a straight shooter and didn’t mince words. My sermon was finished, everyone had their say. And then Sally looked me straight in the eyes and said “Jealaine? What is your theology? What do you believe about God? Who is God for you?” Now forgive me if you’ve heard me tell this story before. So, with one whole year of theological training under my belt I said “I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God gives God’s love and grace to all people.” And Sally looked me once again and without a single tone of apology said “I think you’re full of crap” (except her word wasn’t ‘crap’). “I’m sorry?!” I replied. She said “I don’t believe you.” Just who does this woman think she is? She doesn’t know anything about me. She continued “I don’t believe you because you don’t believe it. If you don’t believe that God’s love and grace is for you, no one is going to believe it is for them.” That was a Holy Spirit 2×4 moment for me. God hit me over the head hard with that 2×4!

I think of that often when I read this scripture. I think about who I say God is and who Jesus is. And today I want you to be challenged and think about that question for yourself. If and when Jesus were to ask you “who do you say I am” how are you going to respond? Our first inclination may be to respond with “well, as a Lutheran… “ or “I read in the Bible” or even (and maybe even worse yet “Pastor has taught us….” No. No. No. I want to know who you say God is. I don’t want a repeated theology that you have memorized that you only kind of believe or only kind of understand. What do you believe?

Maybe you feel like you don’t have the “right words” to express your faith. You heard what I believe. I still believe that. I spent four years and a lot of money in seminary and that is still the foundation of my faith and who I say Jesus Christ, son of God is for me. I want to emphasize the for me part. Just because that’s my faith statement, doesn’t mean it has to be yours. As I was preparing to go to seminary, my home pastor, Pastor Ernie Barr of Faith Lutheran in Wichita Falls, Texas said to me “if you ever feel overwhelmed or lost, just remember ‘Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.’” Who do you say Jesus is?

See, now is the time, my dearests. Now is the time for us to be bold and daring. Now is the time for us to have a bit of Peter in us. See, there were lots of people surrounding Jesus that day. Anyone could have stepped forward to answer Jesus’ question. But it was Peter who was brave and bold enough to step forward and share his answer. And Peter doesn’t give a five minute explanation of the Trinity. He doesn’t recount what he read in some scholarly journal somewhere. He doesn’t say “well, so and so said…” No. He said simply “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And for Peter, that changes everything. He was bold and daring but also personal. Peter spoke of how he knew Jesus through his encounters with him. Not as some far off, distant, unreachable God. But as Jesus, the very Messiah walking with him day after day.

Who do you say God is? Maybe the ugly truth is this: we don’t want to answer. If we answer that question truthfully with what we believe, it could alter how we see everything else in our lives. See, who we say Jesus is for us individually should and does color the way we see the entire world. And maybe, maybe we don’t want to change our opinions about certain people, places, institutions, or ideas. Once you figure out who Jesus is for you and you’re bold and declare that, then it just may affect the way you operate within your world.

My example of God loving all people through Jesus Christ doesn’t allow me to look at my neighbor, no matter who my neighbor is, and hate them. I may not agree with my neighbor, but I don’t hate them. Because God loves them. Here’s where my faith challenges me: if I believe that God really does love everyone, how does that affect the way I look at white supremacy groups, or Westboro Baptist Church members, or even those on death row? Does God love them too? But Fox News, or CNN, or Time Magazine, or Twitter or whoever tells me so many ways to feel about “those people.” At the end of the day, my faith calls me to look at the world through the lens of the cross and my own faith statement.

Who do you say Jesus is? Are we waiting for the right time to answer that question? Are we waiting to be asked? Are we waiting until our faith is challenged? Are we waiting for a situation that affects us directly? We are in perilous times, my beloved. We cannot wait to declare who Jesus is for us. People’s lives are at stake. The church cannot afford to be silent. Quite honestly, we’ve been silent for too long. We’ve wanted to keep calm, collect all the facts, weigh all of our options, and not rock the boat too much. We worship a man who could calm the waters. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to rock the boat. It’s time to stop being “Lutheran/Minnesota nice” and start being bold.

Being this bold isn’t easy. When you make a declaration of who Jesus is for you, you might receive some push back. Stand firm. This is your theology. That means it doesn’t have to be everyone’s theology. At the same time, if someone says “this is who I say Jesus is” then believe them. Just because their statement may not sound like yours doesn’t mean it is wrong. But, stating who Jesus is for you isn’t enough. You must then start to see the world through that statement and point out injustice or when the world disagrees with your statement. If your statement of faith is one of God’s love for the world, then you can’t be in favor of people protesting with torches and signs while thinking that Colin Kapernick kneeling for the National Anthem is disrespectful. If you say that Jesus is God loving the world, then you can’t be okay with our black brothers and sisters dying in the streets. If your statement of faith is that God loves the world, then you shouldn’t blink an eye when someone identifies themselves as trans, queer, blue, purple, left handed, or depressed or whatever. Because God loves the world is your faith statement, so that’s what that looks like in action. Are you starting to see how this isn’t always easy?

We’re gonna mess it up. Yes, it’s our own faith statement, but we’re still going to mess it up. We may not always see the world through the lenses of what we believe. We may not even believe it for ourselves some day. I still struggle. There are days when my depression demons are loud, really loud, and I don’t believe for one minute that God’s love and grace are for me. And then I remember that we serve a God of second, third, fourth…chances. So, I confess to God for those I have hurt (including myself) and beg another chance. And wouldn’t you know, God has always presented me with another chance to see the world as my faith grows. But while our words are important, our actions and the ways we live our lives is also crucial in pointing to who we believe Jesus is for us. If we love God, and say that we believe God loves us, then our actions will show it. We will show that God loves through our care for the homeless, the hungry, the ignored, the uninsured, the undocumented, the forgotten, the dying, the smelly, sinful, addicted, and the hurting. But none of this can happen until you know what you are going to say when Jesus calls on you and asks “but, who do you say I am” and you answer with boldness and without too much thought because it’s written on your heart. And then your response are your actions in God’s world. Be bold, my beloved. Who do you say Jesus is?

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.