Sermon for 4/7/19 John 12:1-8

**nb: part of this sermon was visual. The congregation saw pictures of things that cost around $54,000. This included farm equipment, a boat, 5th wheel camper, jewelry, shoes, and a handbag. **

This is a gospel story about extravagant love. It’s hard for us to understand how much the perfume that Mary rubbed on Jesus’ feet was actually worth. After all, we don’t use denarii anymore. So, to say that she used 300 denarii doesn’t actually mean that much to us. So how about this? Mary rubbed approximately $54,000 on Jesus’ feet. That was extravagant love. Now, I don’t know about you, but even to say $54,000 doesn’t necessarily mean I understand it. I  don’t know what $54,000 looks like. So, I thought I would help us to understand this extravagant love. Let’s take a look at what I found you could get for around $54,000.

Now that we’ve seen examples of that, maybe we have a better idea of how extravagant and obnoxious (in the best way) this act of love really was. We don’t know how much of a sacrifice this was for Mary, financially. After all, we’re never told that Mary is poor. I think we often assume that the followers and disciples of Jesus were poor. And while that may have been the case for some, we aren’t told about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ financial situation. How did Mary manage to get such expensive perfume? We don’t know. But what we do know is that it was about a year’s worth of wages poured on Jesus feet in an act of anointing and love.

Jesus doesn’t say much during this very intricate and very intimate ritual. We don’t hear from him until he tries to quiet Judas. Mary didn’t say anything. Jesus didn’t say anything. But they both knew what was going on. Her actions spoke very loudly. Mary doesn’t talk about how much she loves Jesus. She doesn’t talk about how she is preparing him for death. Mary doesn’t talk about the significance of using pure nard, which, traditionally was used to prepare bodies in ritual cleansing after death. The fact that this nard probably came from India to Palestine made it even more valuable. Mary doesn’t know that in a few days following her washing Jesus’ feet with this perfume, Jesus will show his love to his disciples by kneeling and washing their feet. This was not a thank you gift to Jesus for raising Lazarus. But none of that was said. It was all action. Isn’t that how love is or at least should be?

How might you have reacted? After all, to receive a gift worth $54,000 isn’t something most of us have experienced. Can you even wrap your mind around that idea? And what if the person giving you this gift did it out of love and with no intentions of getting anything in return? I don’t know about you, but I certainly couldn’t have been as calm and quiet about a gift like that as Jesus was. But then again, that is what makes Jesus Jesus. I don’t know that a lot of us know what to do with that kind of abundance. At the beginning of the gospel of John, we are told that Jesus has come so that we may experience “grace upon grace” (1.16). An abundance of grace. An abundance of love. So much so that it may make us uncomfortable. So much so that we may not know how to react. So much love and grace that we may actually be rendered speechless. Jesus loves us in a way that cannot be reciprocated. It’s just not possible. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love Jesus and Jesus’ world and Jesus’ people. But Jesus loves us in such a way and with such an abundance that we can never love Jesus in the same way.

What happens in these short few little verses is actually quite huge. Mary is preparing Jesus for his death. That is an abundant sign of love. Mary recognizes the humanity of Jesus and recognizes his inherent need for love. It isn’t very often that people are able to see Jesus as the human he really is. Jesus is so often in his role as the divine that we can forget that he is human and has actual human needs. And one of those needs is love. We all need it. It is so powerful when we receive it without having to ask for it. It’s so powerful when we receive it without any expectations. Mary isn’t just loving Jesus for who he is but for who he will become. Mary is loving Jesus into his future. Mary is loving him towards his death.

Jesus knows what he has to do. He is turning his heart, mind, and physical body towards Jerusalem. He will enter the week with the waving of palms and then quickly tried and executed. But, it was Mary’s extravagant love that allowed Jesus to show extravagant love to us. Whether you know it or not, we have all been recipients of someone loving us into the next stage of our lives. This is what Mary did for Jesus. In her love, Mary was basically telling Jesus “yes you can do this. You can go to Jerusalem. And I love you.” But remember, none of that was said, it was all felt through action. Mary loved Jesus into his future. And there has been someone in your life who has loved you into yours. There is someone who has loved you $54,000 worth, or maybe even more.

We have all had a Mary in our lives. That person who loves us beyond what we can imagine. That person who loves us in such a way that the “what’s next” seems a bit more manageable. Maybe it was a parent, a spouse, or partner. Maybe it was a teacher. Maybe it was a friend. But I have no doubt that we have all had that person who has empowered us to believe that we are worthy of love and made us feel love. This is just a small taste of how Jesus loves us. Jesus always loves us into the “what’s next.” We may not know it’s Jesus. But it is. Sometimes, Jesus sends familiar people to love us into the “what’s next.” And when someone loves us into our “what’s next” we are actually empowered to be who God created us to be. Again, when someone comes alongside us to love us into the next part of our lives, it is more than just lip service.

Mary didn’t tell Jesus she loved him, she showed him. There is something really powerful about being shown love. Much like I said last week, when someone shows you love in a physical, healthy way, you are recognized. And there is power in recognition. There is power in being seen. There is power in gaining confidence to move boldly into our futures knowing that we are loved. Who is loving you into your “what’s next”? Are you loving someone into their “what’s next”? Jesus is always loving us into our next thing. Even when we don’t recognize it, Jesus is loving us with more than just lip service. Everything we have in our lives is proof of Jesus loving us into the disciples he knows we can be.

Jesus took all the love given to him by Mary and all of his other disciples with him as he went into Jerusalem. And in his final breaths, in his death on the cross, in his blood poured out, Jesus took that love and gave it back to us. The blood poured out was loved poured out. Jesus has been loving us into our what’s next since his death. And in the empty tomb he showed us once again that we are loved. Because the empty tomb couldn’t hold all of that love. Love ushered Jesus into the resurrection. And, some day, may it be the same for us. You are loved, my beloveds. You are loved with love greater than $54,000. You are loved beyond what you can even imagine. You are loved into your “what’s next” which means you are loved into the person God created you to be. That is some powerful love! Thanks be to God!

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Sermon for 3/31/19 Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

If you were to open your bible to this passage, you would see, like all chapters and stories in the bible, this one has a title. Most of you know that this story is often referred to as the story of the prodigal son. Did you know, however, that the bible wasn’t originally constructed with those story titles. When Jesus told parables it’s not like he said “let me tell you the one about the prodigal son” and then proceeded with this story. The titles were added hundreds of years later. That made me wonder, then, what you might call this story. Because the titles can taint our interpretation of scripture. What if this story, instead, was called “the parable of the jealous brother” or “the lament of the responsible older child”? What if this story was called “a father’s embrace” or “a dad throws an undeserved party”? But really, what might be the most challenging is what if this story was called “God’s abundant obnoxious undeserved grace is showered on all people”? How might these titles color the ways in which we read this story?

I have no doubt that all of us could be any one of the three main characters in this story. We have all been the responsible older son or sibling. We have all been the father welcoming a lost child home with open arms. We have all been the son that squandered everything and filled with fear returned home with his hat in his hand. And who knows? Maybe depending on the day, you have been all three. Of course, we could also be the grumbling scribes and pharisees heard towards the very beginning of our reading. Grumbling about the way Jesus does things and how we may not really be on board with his ideas and his ministry.

If we were to read all of chapter 15, we would see that this story isn’t unique in the idea of the lost being found. In verses 4-7 we hear of a shepherd going out to find his one lost sheep. Looking for one sheep out of 100 doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, until you are the lost sheep. Then, we hear about a woman who finds her lost silver coin and is so elated that she calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice. There is amazing healing that can be had in repentance and in the power of being found. I think that there is healing power in being found because what that means is that you have been recognized. You have been seen. You have been deemed to have value and worth. You are worthy of celebrating. And if we’re really honest with ourselves, sometimes we need to be reminded of that.

At my last check up with my bariatric team at Iowa City, I was prepared for the worst. The scale hasn’t been moving as much as I would like. I’ve had a lot of victories that don’t show on the scale. But, I knew that my weight loss since my last appointment wasn’t great. I prepared myself mentally for the shame, lecture, and questioning that would come with my appointment. I had my defenses up. And I should have known better. What I got instead was support, suggestions, a follow up appointment, and most importantly, grace. Sometimes I forget that while I talk about grace a lot, I need to bask in the moments that I receive it. That was one of those moments and I am so grateful. That was a healing moment for me.

This is more than just a nice story or a parable that should give us reason to pause and think. What is happening here is that God, through Jesus Christ is talking about what the crux of Jesus’ ministry is, has been, and will continue to be. Jesus will find the lost, redeemed the forgotten, and celebrate the redeemed. This means all of us, my beloved. After all, Jesus didn’t care that there was a celebration for a lost sheep, a lost coin, or a lost human. All called for a celebration of unbridled joy. And when it’s us on the receiving end of this celebration, this unbridled joy, this abundance of grace, it feels amazing. It feels redemptive. It feels like we’ve been found. Because we have.

But, if we’re going to be honest, it can also feel incredibly unfair. I think it’s important that we speak to that fact. God’s love and grace and mercy are amazingly healing and redemptive but they are also incredibly unfair because God’s love and grace and mercy are given to those that, honestly, don’t deserve them. The other 99 sheep didn’t wander away. The other 9 coins stayed put. The older son stayed behind and worked his back end off. And now there’s a celebration? It feels like a slap in the face. In fact, it feels worse than that. Because it feels like I’m not valued. I’m not important. I’m not worthy and let’s be honest, that’s a pretty crappy place to be. The idea of God’s grace for all sounds amazing in theory. But, when we watch how it plays out in day to day life it can feel unfair.

The brother doesn’t want to go to the big “welcome home celebration.” After all, the other brother gets to wear the good clothes, the expensive jewelry, and eat a calf the older brother probably worked really hard to fatten up. So excuse him if a party of redemption doesn’t sound like a good time. This is all too often our thinking whether we realize it or not. We want a party, for sure. We want to be celebrated. We want to be lavished with extravagant gifts. But, we also want to be in charge of the guest list. Once again, we find ourselves in the sinful position of wanting to control God’s grace: who gets it, how much they get, and whether or not they are worthy.

God’s grace isn’t fair. People we don’t like are going to receive grace and amounts we think are a little too much. There are going to be redemption parties thrown that we want to ignore and protest. But, the redemption of one means the redemption of all. If God is not going to let one sheep stay lost, one coin stay lost, or one human stay lost, you can rest assured that God is not going to allow you to stay lost. As I said earlier, there is healing power in being found because that means you have been recognized. And I don’t know about you, my beloved, but I wouldn’t mind being recognized.

Like all of you, I am so many things to so many people that sometimes I lose my identity. I am grateful for those moments when God reminds me who I am. I am grateful for those moments when God reminds me that I have value and worth. I am grateful for those moments when God reminds me that I am worth finding! And maybe you need that reminder too. So hear me now, my dearests. You have value and worth. You are worth the biggest party, with the best clothes and the best food! Your value is greater than all the diamonds and rubies in the world. You have value because of who you are, which is child of God. You are worth finding. And no matter how lost you may feel sometimes, maybe even today, you will be found. God will find you and come running towards you with great abandon ready to embrace what once was lost.

God’s grace isn’t fair. But this is good news for us. This is good news because we certainly don’t deserve it. But, we get a lavish, redemptive, grace-filled party anyway. No matter what our sins make us think or believe, we will never EVER be lost from God or God’s love. I need you to hear that again because there are so many powerful forces in this world that don’t want you or me or anyone else to receiving healing redemption. There will never EVER be a time that we are lost from God or God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

 

Sermon for 3/17/19 Luke 13:31-35

I want to share a brief story with you that I have actually written about before. So, if it sounds familiar, that’s why. A few years ago I was in Atlanta for continuing education. I had stayed way past my bedtime at a local watering hole catching up with friends. By the time I made it to the MARTA (the mass transit of Atlanta) it was late. I could immediately tell that the population that rode the MARTA at that time of night was quite different from those I had ridden with earlier in the day. It was clear these were blue-collar employees. They were dressed in chefs coats, hospital uniforms, hotel staff garb and the like. I also was keenly aware of something else: I was one of the only people at my MARTA stop that was not a person of color. It was as if my pasty white skin suddenly had the ability to glow. I looked around for anyone else that was white and had no luck. And maybe there were others, but with my tunnel vision, I saw nothing. I put my headphones on but didn’t turn on my music. I wanted the perception that I was listening to something and not bothered by the world around me. At the same time, I wanted to hear if something was going on around me (hence, no music). I moved the backpack I was carrying a little closer to me. I sat as far back against a wall as I could on the train. And then, I finally realized everything I had done to “protect” myself in the name of fear.

I had never really come face to face with my own racism until that point. I stupidly thought that having a heart for social justice and being a tad bit liberal that I wasn’t racist. I was wrong. To some extent, I still am racist. I am not blatantly racist, of course. But, I am blind to the ways that I am allowed to move about in this world because of my skin color. In fact, most of the time, if I am aware of ways that the world seems against me, it is because of my gender. I hardly ever think about the ways that I benefit from being white. Please understand, my beloved, this is not going to be a message where I expect you to apologize for something you had no control over: your skin color. But, what I may do is challenge the ways we all (and that includes me) benefit from that. If you’ve never thought about the ways that you benefit from skin color that alone is privilege.

Jesus says “how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” It’s a risk, as a Pastor, to make sweeping broad statements and take a stand on an issue. We run the risk of losing members, or even worse, losing a job. So we weigh things carefully. But, I didn’t have to think very long or very hard before deciding to make this profession: white supremacy is a sin and it is responsible for killing entirely too many of God’s people. It wasn’t just the tragedy that occurred in New Zealand that sparked my stance. This is something I have believed for some time. That phrase that Jesus utters to the people of Jerusalem is one of lament and sadness.

Can you hear it in his voice? “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus desires to protect us. It’s a beautiful sentiment. Jesus desires to offer us a safe place, shelter, and love. And yet, the people of Jerusalem resist. We resist. And it’s more than resistance, it’s the idea that we were not willing. Meaning, there was no room for negotiation. Why would the people of Jerusalem, or us, or anyone for that matter refuse to be sheltered, loved, and protected by Jesus? I fear it’s the same reason we want to skip right past Good Friday. It’s the same reason we don’t want to gather around the foot of the cross.

Under Jesus’ care, at the foot of the cross, in those dark moments of Good Friday, if we’re honest, we’ll come to discover one amazing, wonderful, and yet disturbing truth: we are all one and we are all equal. And again, if we’re being honest, there are times when we may observe the world around us and desire to be anything but equal. In some ways, that’s good, right? I mean, do we desire to be equal with those from history that have done the most damage? Do we desire to be equal to those even from our own personal history that have caused us the most damage and heartache? But, there are those, who like us, are just trying their best to get by. They’re just trying to work their daily job, provide for themselves or their families, and make time for a little worship and fun.

Upon first glance, we may desire to be equal to people like that. But, there is evil in society. It’s the same evil that caused me to be so paranoid that evening in Atlanta. It’s the evil that says “no matter what, if it doesn’t look like you, dress like you, worship like you, love like you, or operate in this world as you do then it is evil and should be destroyed.” And I understand that you may not think that way. Heck, I pray you don’t think that way. I pray the majority of the human race doesn’t think that way. But there are those in our society that are a cancer. They are evil. Luther insisted a thing be called what it is. Human beings who desire to destroy others simply for skin color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical abilities are evil and will not, cannot be tolerated. Hate is not a Christian value and most certainly should not be a human value.

We fight being gathered under the care of Jesus because then we are admitting that we are all equal, that we are all in need of love, and that we all are in need of care. But hate gets in the way. Jesus wouldn’t stand for it and neither will I. I hope you won’t either. I hope when you leave here and watch the news or observe the world your heart will be open and broken. Our hearts should be broken because the world God made is broken. Hate is not the desire of God. God does not desire for anyone to be stuck in the sin of supremacy. God does not desire for anyone to be stuck in sin period.

What makes God so astounding and so amazing is that, through Jesus Christ, we have a God that continuously seeks us out. We have a God that desires to pull us out of our sin to redeem us. And God will keep trying until we either give into that love or we come face to face with God to answer for our words and actions. But the cross is not a “get out of jail free” card. The cross demands more of us. The promises made in the waters of baptism demand more of us. The love of God demands more of us. The command (and demand) is that we cannot stay settled in our own personal peace if there is lack of peace anywhere in the world God created. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. When our neighbors are in pain, whether it is 5 miles or 5000 miles away, we should hurt too. The first step is confessing our own sins. And again. And again. And learning. When we know better, we do better. And making changes that benefit the kingdom of God. You are allowed to change your mind,  you know. You no longer have to hold fast to the same beliefs you had 50 years ago or even 5 minutes ago.

Jesus desires for us all to be gathered under his loving, watchful, caring eye. This can only happen when we start to move and interact with the world as one. It starts at the foot of the cross and ends at the empty tomb. The days between is where we’re stuck. Don’t let the cross be in vain.

Sermon for 3/3/19 Luke 9:28-36 (37-43) Transfiguration

Let’s be honest. There are just some scriptures that we as preachers don’t know what to do with. I think I mentioned something similar last week. And when it comes to our own faith and the scriptures that sustain us, I highly doubt that most of us would reflect back and say that it is this reading today, often referred to as the transfiguration, that sustains and supports our life as Christians. When people ask us “why do you believe in Jesus?” I don’t think we quote this scripture from Luke. (Side note though: if you haven’t thought about why you believe in Jesus, perhaps that might be a good Lenten discipline for you to take on. Think about and pray for 40 days about why you believe in Jesus). Just in case you think you’re alone with not quoting this scripture, or heck, even understanding it, rest assured you’re not alone! After all, even Peter, who was often recognized as Jesus’ most loyal disciple, didn’t understand what was going on. It even says in verse 33 that Peter suggests they stay on the mountaintop “not knowing what he (Jesus) said.”

It’s easiest to understand the Transfiguration (as if that’s possible) by remembering a few things that shape this reading. Jesus, up to this point, has been showing the disciples and us who he is, how his ministry will be, and what he expects of us as disciples if we choose to follow him. That is what epiphany is/was all about. A few weeks back even, Jesus asked Peter “but who do you say that I am?” And it is Peter (of all people) who responds that Jesus is the Messiah. But, what that means isn’t always clear to Peter (or us for that matter). Jesus knows what it means to be the messiah. It means that he will have to undergo suffering, torture, and death, only to conquer that death and rise on the third day.

So often when we think of the cross, our go to answer is that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us from our sins. While this isn’t wrong, this also isn’t the whole story. What Jesus gives us is healing, our own resurrections, and ultimately, freedom. Jesus is God’s love letter to the world. Jesus is the only one who comes again and again, without limitations, without exceptions, and without expectations, to rescue God’s people (and that includes us). Peter has said, outright, what and who Jesus is. Yet it is Peter who wants to keep him from doing it. And Jesus continues to show who he is and what he does (despite Peter, despite all of us) by once again showing his healing powers in this strange story from versus 37-43.

Here is what is so wonderful about God (as if you needed more convincing): God, through a transfigured Jesus Christ, comes to us, is present with us here and now, in ways we may understand (or not), despite the fact that we, like the disciples, may not be fully awake to the promises of God. So many of the ways we experience Jesus would never happen if Jesus would have stayed on that mountain top like Peter suggested. In the transfiguration, Jesus literally transforms. He was glowing (literally) and was surrounded by Moses and Elijah. He also transforms from the Jesus we’ve gotten to know to the Jesus who will turn his face towards Jerusalem and ultimately, towards his death.

But the disciples weren’t fully awake. It’s easy for us to miss the ways that Jesus transforms in front of us as well as transforms us. It’s easy for us to miss the ways that God, through Jesus Christ is present and continues to be present in transforming, transfiguring ways to us and for us. Here are some examples (even some we may take for granted). When we gather each and every week, Jesus is here and transforming this community. When we gather around the table and the font, Jesus is transforming us. When we gather after worship for coffee and sit around tables, yes, Jesus is transforming us there too. Just because it doesn’t take place within our worship space doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t still there, working and transforming us. When we pray for one another, that’s transforming. When the ladies gather to make blankets and assemble kits, that’s transforming. When Diane gathers supplies, packs up the backpacks, and Teri picks them up, that’s transforming. The time, patience, and (sometimes) literal man hours that went into the basement project, the new bathroom, and soon the new carpet in the narthex is transforming. I hope I don’t have to tell you how transforming the second Tuesday of the month is around here. That’s when Rich and Nancy open their hearts and the food pantry and literally change lives through Jesus Christ.

Even in our weariness, God is transforming us and this place. Maybe despite our weariness, even. And yes, my beloveds, even when our sin gets the best of us, Jesus is transforming us and transforming the entire body of Christ. For generations, God, through Jesus Christ has come over and over to heal us, rescue us, feed us, teach us, and love us. That love is what constantly ushers us through our own transfiguration, our own transformation from death by sin to a life fully lived in the mercy, love, and forgiveness in and of Christ. Perhaps this message isn’t sinking in quite the way I want it to.

We serve a God that is a God of new life. Alleluia? Alleluia! We serve a God that is a God of second chances. Alleluia? Alleluia! We serve a God that has the power to overcome and defeat death. Alleluia? Alleluia! And that new life, those second chances, that power that overcomes death, it all happens right here. In this place. At little Elvira Zion Lutheran Church at 2207 380th Avenue in Clinton, Iowa. It happens here. Alleluia? Alleluia! Every church in the nation, heck, even in the world, should be called Transfiguration Lutheran Church (or whatever denomination). Because if we don’t believe that God is transforming us every single Sunday and every single day, how will we ever believe that God has the power to transform the entire world and does it? I hope you leave this place today different than when you arrived. You have been transformed. You have been fed by fellowship, singing, readings, hopefully this preaching, soon the meal, and on and on. You are a transfigured person. You are loved by a God that cannot be restrained, even by death. You are showered, coated, bathed in mercy and grace by a God that will consistently seek you out, even in, and especially in, those moments when you are weary. Soon enough, we will look to the cross, and there will hang the messiah. Hanging and killed for the sins of the world and to guarantee our freedom. But, we know that’s not the end of the story. Even God has the ability to transform death in a tomb to emptiness and good news. If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is. Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

Sermon for 2/24/19 Luke 6:27-38

Do you mean it? I mean seriously, do you mean it? Did you really just hear everything I read, everything that Jesus had to say and then respond “thanks be to God?” Really? Thanks be to God? If you really meant it, then, by all means, please come up here and preach for me. Because my first reaction to a reading like that is “the Gospel of the Lord” and me responding “nah. I don’t like it.” Now before you clutch your pearls and think “Pastor! You can’t talk like that! That’s the bible.” Yes I can. God invites us to wrestle with scripture. Scripture should make us joyous, and should make us think, and should make us uncomfortable. There are stories in our bibles that might make your skin crawl. If you don’t believe me, go home, open your bible to Judges, and read the story of Jael driving a tent stake through a man’s head, killing him instantly. There’s a story we don’t hear on an average Sunday. Thanks be to God?? Let’s be honest with ourselves friends, sometimes scripture is hard. Sometimes scripture is uncomfortable. And sometimes, we just may not like it.

What Jesus is proposing in this continued sermon on the plain is almost impossible. He once again is preaching. This is a continuation of last week’s readings when we heard the beatitudes. If there’s anything that Jesus does well, it’s not sugar coating things. We never hear Jesus say “well, if it’s okay with you” or “if you aren’t too busy” or even “if it will make you feel good.” Jesus is a pretty black and white kind of guy. The first sentence alone is enough to make me want to check out. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Nope. I’m out. If this what it means to be a Christian, I’m not sure I want to participate any more. I want to pause here really quick to make sure that while the bible talks about abuse, it is never okay. If you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship, either mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, or otherwise, God does not desire for you to stay in that relationship. Additionally, if you need resources for yourself or someone you love, I am here to help.  

I think what makes this reading so incredibly difficult is that the idea of forgiveness is incredibly powerful and, at the same time, runs contradictory to everything we may feel or desire. Forgiveness, especially for those who wish to do us harm, curse us, abuse us, or takes from us (maybe, or especially) without asking, can feel impossible. Remember that we are still in the season of epiphany. God is still revealing to us, to the disciples, to all people who God is and will continue to be through Jesus Christ. This is a God who has come to turn the world upside down. This God, who became flesh, has come into our lives, and has changed the way we respond to other people. Or, at least it should.

The challenge, of course, comes from what our natural inclinations may be to what God is calling us to. I mean, if we’re honest, our natural instinct is to go blow for blow and cutting words to cutting words. But, how do we live our lives responding with grace and kindness instead of reacting with words or actions that may answer hurt with more hurt. And again, if we’re being honest, we may not always want to respond with grace and kindness. I mean, if you can think of (or picture) the person in your life that has caused you the most heartache and pain, do you really desire to respond to him or her with grace and kindness? Yet that is what God challenges us to do. I’ve read and heard more than once that hurt people hurt people, or that hurting people hurt people. Sometimes those hurts can only be healed by grace.

I know I talk about grace a lot. But when you have experienced the life changing power of grace, you can’t help yourself. God’s grace literally changed my life. Once I learned about God’s grace, my entire relationship with God changed. Here’s a strange thing about grace: I hate that you may have needed to experience it, but at the same time, I am so grateful if you have experienced the life-changing power of God’s grace. Grace is just unmerited love, forgiveness, and mercy. And maybe you have felt it from God. But, more likely, you have experienced grace in relationship with someone else. Even though that grace may have come from another human being, let us not kid ourselves, my beloved. Grace can only be accomplished with and through God. We can’t experience grace without God and really, isn’t that a great place to be?

When I say that grace has the power to change lives, I’m not over exaggerating. It really does. Grace transformed me and my life in such a way that my heart was healed and I felt redeemed. Grace is what called me into ministry. How have you experienced grace? Once you are able to recognize grace in your own life, you are then able to recognize the ways it changes your life and leaves you completely vulnerable. Believe it or not, this vulnerability is a good thing. You may not hear that idea very often. Society wants us to believe that being vulnerable is bad. Vulnerability and shame all too often go hand in hand. But, what if being vulnerable just meant leaving our hearts and minds open to what God can and will do?

When grace leaves us vulnerable, which it often does, then the Holy Spirit is allowed into our lives in such a way that we see and feel a new way of living and loving through Jesus Christ. What Jesus demands of us as disciples is a complete and total change; a repentance and leaving behind of our old selves and instead invites us into holy and wholly living. This holy/wholly living isn’t always neat and tidy. There will be times when we feel rejected. There will be times when we might wonder if this discipleship is all it is cracked up to be. And those times, my beloved, are when we must rely on God. The great reward that Jesus speaks of isn’t material items. We will not gain cars, wealth, or fame from following Christ. But what we will gain and what our reward will be is a better version of ourselves.

None of this happens by chance. We may do our best to live a Christian life daily but we will always fall short because of sin. The temptations of this life are far too great for us to resist. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and give to everyone who asks of you, there may be times that sin seems almost appealing. The life that Christ calls us to isn’t easy. But the life we are reformed into through that journey of discipleship and following Jesus has a great reward of a better self and a better, greater, deeper love for the world God made. None of this is possible, of course, without grace. Grace is stronger than our sin. Grace is stronger than even our best intentions. Grace is stronger than our hard work. Grace is stronger than our resistance. Which means, even in the moments when we resist God’s grace, it is changing and transforming us for the better. The path is difficult. Let’s not kid ourselves. It can feel lonely, and at times, insurmountable. But, the path is lit by grace. And it is a path that rewards us in ways that are almost unimaginable. Thanks be to God!  

Sermon for 2/10/19 Luke 5:1-11

I want to talk briefly this morning about what I believe is a universal experience. I am going to call it the Murphy’s Law of stuff. This is what happens (and I think we’ve all been there which is why I think this is a universal experience): something isn’t working the way it should be or the way you want it to. My guess is, the majority of the time it’s something electronic. Let’s say it’s the remote to your television. You’ve tried flipping the batteries around. You’ve tried actual new batteries. You’ve tried hitting it on your hand, which then you decided to use the table instead. Nothing is working. Finally, someone else asks “what in the world are you doing?” You explain that something that should be working isn’t. And doesn’t it figure that the other person walks over, grabs the remote, and it automatically starts working like it should? Oh my goodness! That’s so annoying.

Simon had that happen to him in this reading from today. Jesus has once again been followed by a crowd of people and he escapes them, or creates a little space, by going out onto Simon’s boat. He encourages Simon to let his nets down again. Now, Simon was probably a master fisherman. He was most likely in the middle of cleaning his tools, wrapping up his net, frustrated over the lack of fish which meant the lack of income. And he tells Jesus (quite respectfully, I might add. He did call him “Master”) that they had already been fishing all night long and didn’t catch a thing. “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” And they caught so many fish that they needed helping pulling in the haul and the nets started to break. In that moment where Simon witnesses the miraculous goodness of God’s mercy, grace, love, and provision, he answers the call that God has placed on his life. He transforms from Simon the fisherman to Simon the disciple. He got out of the boat.

Call has consequences. Following Jesus has a price. When Simon got out of the boat to follow Christ, he was literally leaving everything behind that he had always known. He was leaving behind an identity that he thought he was for an identity he was being called to (but knew nothing about). He had just witnessed what Jesus was capable of, and it’s as if Simon couldn’t wait another minute to be a part of it. And without hesitation, he got out of the boat. I don’t know about you, but I highly doubt that I could have done what Simon did. But, Jesus has called Simon into a new life. He has almost transformed Simon right in front of us, a resurrection of sorts, and Simon cannot not be a disciple. Simon will now be an active participant in God’s ministry with Jesus and for Jesus. He leaves behind his livelihood, his income, and perhaps he leaves behind what is easy. Sure, on this particular day, fishing wasn’t the best (or maybe even easy). But Simon knew he could come back tomorrow or maybe try another watering hole and probably catch some fish. There might have been peace in that routine. But Simon has been changed and there’s no going back.

Once we witness the life-changing ways of Jesus, are we ever the same? We shouldn’t be the same. We should be so astonished by what we witness Jesus doing in our lives that we can’t help ourselves and we too get out of our own boats. Now, of course, I’m not talking about physical boats here, no pontoons or fishing boats. I am talking about getting out of whatever comfortable spot we reside in and wading into unchartered, unclear, rocky, shaky waters to follow and serve the one who calls us, the one who is always making us new, the one who redeems us day after day. This is an act of obedience so astonishing that it may make our loved ones around us wonder what has gotten into us. Because, again, once we witness the life-changing ways of Jesus, we aren’t the same. We can’t be the same. We know too much! Once we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the life changing ways of Jesus, we have a new definition of love. We have a new definition of grace. We have a new definition of mercy. We have a new definition of life! And we are so filled with the Holy Spirit and the promise of accompaniment and abundance that we practically leap out of our boats and run to follow Jesus, right? Or not.

Following Jesus and answering his call is risky. From a practical standpoint, it makes no sense whatsoever. It’s not like we all have the luxury of dropping everything to answer God’s call. I mean, there are bills to be paid. But to leave everything and follow Jesus is at the heart of discipleship. And Jesus calls all of us to be disciples. And it can be scary, and unknown, and risky, and so incredibly worth it. God calls us out of our life of comfort because for so many of us, being comfortable has quickly morphed into being complacent. We don’t dare get out of our boat or even rock the boat because we’ve got it good. It’s unfortunate that there are problems in the world or that people are suffering. But, it doesn’t directly affect me and so we mind our own business. But my beloved, if we think God is just going to call us once and then give up, we’re sorely mistaken. God is constantly calling us, challenging us, maybe even daring us to get out of our places of comfort, get out of our places of complacency, and enter into the places of Christ.

When we don’t answer God’s call, we declare that we aren’t interested in worshipping God, we’re only invested in our own interests; we’d rather worship ourselves. We should know by now that that kind of life isn’t a life at all. It’s merely an existence. And again, I don’t know about you. But, I don’t want to just exist, I want to really live. And discipleship is a life that is unpredictable and yet rewarding at the same time. We don’t do it alone, that’s for sure. God has a plan for our lives. Whether we get out of our comfort places or not, eventually God will steer us in the direction we need to go. When we see what God through Jesus Christ can do, we are changed. The cost of discipleship is great; it involves putting God in Jesus Christ at the center of our lives even if that involves changes in our lives. But we do this not because we are forced to do this. We do this because, like Simon, we have experienced grace upon grace. We put God at the center of our lives and follow because, like Simon, we can’t go back to what we once knew. We do this because we can’t do anything else.

Sermon for 2/3/19 Luke 4:21-30

Believe it or not, Jesus didn’t come to be liked. Not one verse in the bible has Jesus saying “I came so that all of you may like me, so that I may be popular, and so that I may have a lot of friends.” Even his closest friends, the disciples, abandoned him during his hour of need. Jesus didn’t necessarily set out to alienate people. His intentions never were to make people feel alone, unloved, or abandoned. But, Jesus came to be a holy disruptor. When Jesus starts his holy disrupting, it doesn’t win him any friends. In fact, the people of his hometown, who originally spoke well of him and most likely had a lot of pride for the hometown boy, so badly don’t want to hear what he has to say that they attempt to throw him off a cliff.

Today’s reading is a continuation from last week. Jesus has gone to the synagogue, read from Isaiah and proclaimed God’s favor for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. On the surface, that sounds really nice. But, we know that Jesus is more than just lip service. And quickly privilege and grace are going to collide and it’s not going to be pretty. The townspeople surround Jesus and want, desire, even demand his favor. They tell him “do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” The townspeople in Nazareth want the healing, they want the liberation, they want the release of the captives, they want it all. And Jesus’ response isn’t an overjoyed response to their demands. Jesus doesn’t give them what they want. He, instead, starts to be the holy disruptor that he is.

Jesus calls the people of Nazareth to pay attention to the people who are of special concern to God. And the people of Nazareth probably respond “isn’t that us?” Of course God loves us. That’s not the point. There is a difference between God loving us and God showing concern for the least of those around us. But, the problem is this: we seem to think it’s an either/or situation. God certainly can’t love us AND show special concern to those we don’t desire to love. But, Jesus, being the holy disruptor tells us “of course God can!” It might be helpful for us to know why what Jesus said was so disruptive.

Jesus spoke of widow at Zarephath in Sidon and also spoke of a leper that got clean, Naaman the Syrian. “The widow was obedient and faithful to God, willing to give the last of what she had in order for her household to receive a blessing from God (1 Kgs. 17:1-16). She endued the severe famine in the land and did not allow the apparent lack of resources to interfere with her relationship with Elijah. Naaman, who was initially resistant to Elisha’s prophetic instructions, eventually immersed himself seven times in the Jordan and was healed of his leprosy (2 Kgs. 5:1-14). … Both of these examples represented the extreme ‘other’ to those in the synagogue crowd, and they served to drive home the point that the good news Jesus proclaimed was intended for Jew and Gentile alike.” (Byron, 311/312 “Feasting on the Word”)

The gospel is offensive. Jesus wasn’t executed by the state because he was a bad guy. He was executed because he was a direct threat to power. The people who had privilege believed they alone were to receive Jesus’ favor and thus God’s favor. What the people of Nazareth wanted, really, was a false prophet. They wanted someone who would show them and only them God’s favor. And that’s not how Jesus or God operates. And before we’re too quick to shake our heads in disbelief at the people of Nazareth, let’s be honest with ourselves. We too desire the same thing. We want God’s favor for us. We want God’s provisions for us. We want God’s grace for us. And again, if we’re honest, we don’t want to share. Enter Jesus. Jesus and his good news. Jesus and his good news for all people. And his good news is so offensive we want to throw him off a cliff. Jesus and his good news that’s so offensive we hang him on a cross to die.

God’s grace doesn’t care about privilege. God’s grace is showered on those who need it the most. And the people who need God’s favor and grace the most are the people that we in society would rather forget. Jesus is rejected several times throughout Luke. People even reject the idea that the tomb is empty. He is used to rejection. That won’t stop him from spreading what he knows to be good news and what to us may sound more like a load of hooey. Maybe we can start to understand how offensive Jesus was and is if we put this scripture into terms and ideas that we can relate to a bit better. It would be as if Jesus came into our midst and said “the money you collect every week for your food pantry is fantastic. Now, I’m going to use that money and instead feed immigrants at the border. I’m going to make sure they have the healthcare they need and the representation in the courts to keep them safe.” Or what if Jesus said “this week’s offering will be used to operate a suicide hotline for folx who identify as transgender.” I’m gonna push you one more time. Jesus, seeing the pain and hurt in the world, enters into our sanctuary and says “the money you’ve been saving up for some special project? Instead I will use it to lobby for safer gun control so that no child has to fear going to school. “ Now maybe you can start to understand why people wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff.

Jesus didn’t come to make us feel good. Yes, Jesus loves us. Jesus loves you and me. But his love doesn’t stop there. And that is what makes Jesus so offensive. Jesus’ love is for those we’d rather forget or even throw off a cliff ourselves. The Gospel is offensive and should anger you, my beloved. But, it should anger you into action. Because this world isn’t how God intended. The top 3% of the world (or whatever) control the world because of wealth. We are one of the richest nations in the world and we still have people in Flint, Michigan without clean drinking water. We are one of the richest nations in the world yet someone who works a minimum wage job for 40 hours a week still needs government assistance to make it. We don’t have broken people we have broken systems. And Jesus came to abolish broken systems and heal broken people.

Being a believer is hard. If you haven’t questioned your faith lately or what God is up to in this world, maybe you should take a closer look. What Jesus is asking of us is so difficult. Because when the good news doesn’t sound like good news for us, we may wonder what kind of God we serve. But the good news isn’t good news unless it’s good news for the poor, and the infirmed, and the lowly, and the blind, and the forgotten. So when holy disruptions meet marginalized grace recipients, then, and only then, do we all hear the good news of God’s love for the world.